Unsettling picture of street father emerges
- Jim Redden
- Portland Tribune - News
Alleged leader in killing violated prison rules at least 50 times
The alleged leader of a local street 'family' accused of savagely killing 22-year-old Jessica Kate Williams has a history of dabbling in Satanism and was punished for participating in white supremacist gangs and banned medieval role-playing games while in prison.
James Daniel Nelson, 28, was repeatedly disciplined for attacking guards and inmates while serving time in various state prisons, where he also developed an interest in pagan religions.
Law enforcement authorities believe that Nelson was the unofficial 'father' of a local gang of homeless teens and adolescents who are charged in connection with the assault, torture and killing of Williams, whose body was found May 23.
A source familiar with the case referred to Nelson as a Charles Manson figure who exerted tremendous control over the other family members. Among other things, he allegedly led them in military-style drills, making them stand at attention before him.
'It was more like a cult,' the source said.
Williams, who had the mental capacity of a 12-year-old, first became friends with members of the family several months ago. Court records allege that Nelson ordered the family to punish her for violating one of their unwritten rules.
Nelson is scheduled to go to trial on assault, coercion and kidnapping charges later this month. He has pleaded not guilty. The trial could be delayed, however, because a grand jury is continuing to review evidence in the case and could issue additional charges against him.
According to the source, prosecutors hope to indict Nelson on a charge of aggravated murder, a capital crime. If that happens, the start of the trial could be delayed for months or even years.
Nelson's attorney, Kelly Michael Doyle, had no comment because he is still reviewing evidence in the case.
The Williams killing is eerily similar to one that Nelson was convicted of committing slightly more than a decade ago. As a teenage runaway from Sacramento, Calif., he was convicted of fatally stabbing another homeless juvenile at the direction of an older street family leader.
According to police records from the earlier killing obtained by the Portland Tribune, Nelson first came to town in the early 1990s. He repeatedly told other street kids that he was the 'son of Satan' and could channel evil spirits.
Police said that, according to another street youth interviewed, Nelson would close his eyes, lower his voice and claim to be possessed by a demon.
According to police records, Nelson was arrested and pleaded guilty to the 1992 murder of 15-year-old Leon Michael Stanton. After the slaying, the records say, Nelson told an associate that he was 'collecting souls' for Satan.
Dozens of infractions
Nelson served around 9 1/2 years in various state prisons before being released in March of this year.
According to corrections records, Nelson was disciplined at least 50 times for violating institutional rules between Jan. 28, 1994, and Sept. 4, 2001. He only stopped getting into trouble after being transferred to the Oregon State Penitentiary and serving 28 days in its maximum security segregation unit for the September 2001 violation.
Many of the infractions are relatively minor, such as insulting prison visitors and possessing forbidden materials, including pornography.
Some of the violations were more serious.
For example, according to the records, Nelson beat another inmate on July 23, 1994. The victim did not fight back, and guards had to physically pull Nelson off him. As he was being restrained, Nelson repeatedly struck one of the guards in the head. He was punished by being placed in segregation for 166 days and fined $200.
On Oct. 27, 1994, Nelson tried to strike a guard who came to search his cell, according to the records. Nelson was punished with 120 days in isolation and a $200 fine.
Nelson attacked another inmate on Oct. 19, 1995. According to the records, this inmate did not fight back. Nelson served 49 days in segregation and was fined $49 for this incident.
He attacked another inmate on June 16, 1996, and guards had to physically restrain him, the records say. This time, Nelson served 180 days in segregation and was fined $200.
The records indicate that some of Nelson's violations stem from his involvement in white supremacist gangs. After the July 1994 fight, Nelson told prison officials that he belonged to a 'white power' gang and attacked the other inmate because he was a 'race traitor.'
One month later, Nelson was disciplined and segregated for 28 days in jail for hurling obscenities at a guard he also called a 'Jew,' according to corrections records.
Nelson also developed an obsession with Dungeons & Dragons, a role-playing game that is prohibited in the prison system. According to the records, Nelson lost seven days of privileges after a guard caught him with an unauthorized version of the game on March 19, 1994. He was caught with game materials almost exactly six years later and lost 14 days of privileges.
Took part in rituals
Nelson developed an interest in pagan religions while in prison. Corrections records indicate that he attended a number of pagan rituals while staying at the pre-release Santiam Correctional Institution in Salem early this year.
Federal law requires states to offer a range of religious services to inmates. The Oregon correctional system allows volunteers to conduct pagan rituals within the system. The state classifies all of them as Wicca, a term that usually refers to a female-oriented version of ancient northern European, pre-Christian faiths.
Portlander Roy Lakey is one of the volunteers. He describes himself as a Druid and owns Moonshadow, a pagan supply store at 3352 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd.
Lakey remembers that Nelson attended a winter solstice ritual that he conducted at the Santiam prison earlier this year.
'He was very quiet and only asked a few questions. I can't even remember what they were,' he said.
Lakey was shocked to learn of Nelson's alleged involvement in Williams' slaying.
'That goes against everything we teach. We respect all life,' Lakey said.
By the time Nelson was released from prison in March, he was going by the name 'Thantos,' a version of the name of the Greek god of death.
Nelson moved to Portland after his release. The state placed him in a downtown homeless shelter and required him to check in weekly. He complied with the requirement but also began hanging out with homeless teens and adolescents.
According to court records, within a few weeks, Nelson had formed a street family. It included about a dozen men and women ranging from 16 to 20 years old. Williams considered them her friends.
The family established a camp in the gloomy shadows under the Southwest Front Avenue overpass at Arthur Street. Court records say it was there that Nelson allegedly ordered his followers to punish Williams for telling lies about them.
According to court records, after the female members assaulted Williams, Nelson directed three followers Ñ Carl Richard Alsup, 17, Danielle Marie Cox, 18, and James Aaron Stewart, 18 Ñ to lead her away. They allegedly walked Williams through Gov. Tom McCall Waterfront Park and over the Steel Bridge, where they stabbed her and burned her body with lighter fluid. Her remains were found on the morning of May 23.
Police said they were able to break the case after several members confessed to their roles in it and described the events leading up to the killing. Nelson and most of the others were arrested and charged in June with a variety of crimes related to the attack and killing. Alsup remains at large.