Street killing sets off grisly echoes
- Jim Redden
- Portland Tribune - News
One suspect in slaying of Gladstone woman is linked to 'family' that ordered three deaths in 1992
The alleged leader of a Portland street kids 'family' that is charged with killing a 22-year-old woman last month is a convicted murderer whose street name is Thantos, a variation on Thanatos, the Greek god of death.
Eleven years ago, James Daniel Nelson was a 16-year-old Sacramento, Calif., runaway who called himself 'Highlander,' a name used in a series of fantasy films about an ancient race of humans called the Immortals, who can only be killed by their own kind.
As part of a complicated conspiracy among a family of Portland street kids and homeless adults, Nelson stabbed a 15-year-old runaway to death under the west end of the Marquam Bridge.
After serving more than 10 years for the teenager's murder, Nelson returned to Portland and became leader of the Thantos street family. It is suspected of killing one of its members Ñ Jessica Kate Williams, a developmentally disabled Gladstone woman whose brutalized body was found under the east end of the Steel Bridge on May 23.
Norm Frink, senior Multnomah County deputy district attorney, is struck by the common features of both killings.
'The similarities are remarkable,' said Frink, who helped prosecute the earlier family members for their crimes, which included two murders in addition to the one committed by Nelson.
According to court records, after the 27-year-old Nelson was released from prison March 24, he began hanging out with Portland street kids Ñ first at the Peace Camp across the street from City Hall and then at a camp under the west end of the Marquam Bridge. That was roughly the same area where he stabbed and killed 15-year-old Leon Michael Stanton 11 years ago.
Court records say Nelson became the leader of the informal street family at the Marquam Bridge. One law enforcement official familiar with the case said his previous murder and prison sentence gave him credibility among the younger family members.
Last week the district attorney's office charged 12 members of the street family with a variety of crimes related to Williams' death. Three teens have been charged with aggravated murder, and 10 other people Ñ including Nelson Ñ have been charged with assault, kidnapping and coercion.
According to an arrest warrant affidavit released in the case, one of the young women arrested on the kidnapping and assault charges told police officers that Williams 'had angered the family by spreading lies to family members and that the family, under the direction of Nelson, was going to punish her.'
According to the affidavit, family members attacked Williams under the west end of the Marquam Bridge. Williams was then led across the Willamette River on the Steel Bridge, where she was stabbed to death and set on fire with lighter fluid, the affidavit said.
Plots and punishments
Nelson was not the leader of the family that committed the 1992 murders, according to court records and published accounts at the time. The leader was Grant Charboneau, 20, a Portlander who lived with his mother but hung around Portland street kids.
Charboneau's best friend was Gregory Paul Wilson, a 30-year-old transient who went by the street name 'Whisper' because of his raspy voice.
Charboneau and Wilson impressed the younger street youths by pretending to be undercover military operatives. Charboneau called himself 'X.O.,' for executive officer, while Wilson referred to himself as 'C.O.,' for commanding officer.
Most of the followers lived in a homeless camp along the west bank of the Willamette River under the Marquam Bridge, just a couple of hundred yards south of the RiverPlace development.
Charboneau's estranged father, Hal Charboneau, was a double amputee who owned a house in St. Johns. In early 1992, Grant Charboneau persuaded two of his followers to kill his father so that he could inherit the house.
The two family members broke into the house on May 1, 1992. Public records say two runaways from Vancouver, Wash. Ñ Stanton and Joel Michael Seaquist, 16 Ñ stabbed the senior Charboneau to death and stole his rare coin collection. Portland police began investigating the killing as a botched robbery.
Grant Charboneau moved into the house approximately one month after the killing. He began letting family members visit or stay there, including Stanton and Michelle Woodall, 19, an Arizona runaway who went by the name Misty Largo.
By late July, Charboneau heard that Woodall was telling other street kids that he and Wilson were not soldiers. Angered by the betrayal, he ordered family members to take her by force from the Marquam Bridge camp and brought to the house. She was bound to a wheelchair, tortured and finally strangled on July 26 by several family members, including Wilson, Marvin Al-Tai-Juan Smith, 24, and Angela Marie Kincaid, 16.
At Charboneau's direction, Wilson mutilated Woodall's corpse and stuffed it into a culvert off Northwest St. Helens Road.
Worried that Stanton would reveal the two murders, Charboneau ordered him killed. Nelson and Michael L. Tinnin, 19, tracked him down at the Marquam Bridge camp and attacked him on July 28.
According to court records, after the attack Nelson pulled a knife on Stanton, and said, 'Tell them Highlander sent you,' then stabbed Stanton to death. Stanton's body was taken to the Rivergate industrial area in North Portland, where it was buried in a shallow grave.
Word of the murders spread quickly among Portland's street kids, some of whom began worrying that they would be next. A group of them walked into Central Precinct in early August and told police what they knew.
Homicide detectives quickly located the bodies of Woodall and Stanton, and police arrested seven people for the crimes. They were charged with offenses ranging from murder to witness tampering.
Charboneau, Wilson, Nelson and several others were convicted of murder and other crimes related to the killings.
According to public records, Nelson was sentenced to only 10 years in prison for his murder conviction because he provided evidence against some of the other defendants.
Out of prison, into Portland
Nelson moved back to Portland after his release from prison. According to probation officials, he stayed in transitional housing for a few weeks but failed to find work and began living in local homeless shelters.
Probation officers say it is not unusual for paroled criminals to be homeless. They say Nelson fully complied with the terms of his probation, including checking in weekly with his parole officer.
'We had no reason to believe there were any problems,' said parole supervisor Steve Liday.
But it wasn't long before he returned to the streets, court records say.
Although Williams primarily lived with her Gladstone family, she was considered a member of the Thantos family because she hung out with the family when she stayed downtown.
Last month, in a development that mirrors the earlier murders of Woodall and Stanton, the family turned on Williams because members believed she had violated their unwritten rules, the affidavit said.
Portland police spokesman Brian Schmautz said the investigation of the Williams death led police into the underground world of Portland street families Ñ a world that at least in some ways has not changed much over the past decade.
Many homeless youths and adults still go by such mystical-sounding street names as 'Death Knight' and 'Shadow Cat.' And they still punish and even kill their members for breaking their unwritten rules, according to authorities.
Last week the city's district attorney's office charged 12 members of the family with kidnapping, assaulting and murdering Williams.
Charged with murder are: Carl Richard Alsup, 17; Danielle Marie Cox, 18; and Jimmy Aaron Stewart, 18.
The others, all charged with assault, kidnapping and coercion, are: Nelson; Cassie Jean Hale, 20; Cordell Dennison, 19, Heidi Lee Keller, 20; Sarah La'dona Caster, 17; Steven Scott Pearce, 20; Joshua Ryan Brown-Lenon, 18; Crystal Ann Grace, 19; and Crystal Elliot, 16.
All but Alsup have been arrested and arraigned. Law enforcement officials searched for Alsup along the Oregon coast over the weekend but had not captured him by press time.
Frink thinks that all the alleged participants in the killing have been identified. He said a Multnomah County grand jury will continue hearing evidence in the case this week before issuing formal indictments.