January 7, 1978… The Nelson Murders, Rockford, IL

EDIT:   This post is my most viewed post.  I’d like to know who is searching for this, and why (my guess is that it’s more “kids” who remember the Nelsons).  Please leave a comment.  🙂

January 7, 1978…. it was a clear, cold winter Saturday when my grandmother (and grandfather) walked into our house and asked me if it was my figure skating coach whose 6 children had been murdered, and found earlier that morning.  I froze.  I was just 14 years old (by a couple of months), and had no frame of reference to figure out how to wrap my head around what she had just asked.  It couldn’t be true, could it?  Ann’s kids had to be OK.  I knew  her oldest daughter, Jennifer, who was 13 years old. We saw each other at the skating rink on occasion.  We knew each other well enough to know where we knew each other from- and if we’d been thrown together with strangers we would have stuck together… so we weren’t close friends by any means. But I knew her.  I didn’t know her other siblings.  But I knew Ann. I adored Ann.

Ann Nelson had been my skating coach for a few years on and off, and more recently had become my coach for private lessons.  She was compassionate (something I didn’t feel much from my own mom, though as the years went by I learned so much more about how much she DID love me- in the only ways she knew how). Ann took the time out of her evenings to call me when I was babysitting to see if I was OK.  She stayed behind from a coaching and rink staff party when I fell and hit my head pretty hard during the Spring Ice Show rehearsals in 1977.  My folks were out of the country and I wouldn’t give anybody the phone number of the grandparents I was staying with (grandma would have freaked if she knew I got hurt on her watch- same grandma who broke ‘the news’ to me), so she made sure I was doing well enough to go home when  it was time for me to be picked up. She’d already called for any available physicians that happened to be at the rink that night to come and see me in the back room where they’d carried me (I’d been knocked out cold), and there was one there- so I’d been seen by a doctor. She also was a role model.  I adored her, and looked up to just about anything she did. She had been an alternate in ice dance on one of the mid-late 1960s  US skating teams.  I still have a photo of her and myself on my dresser from 1978.

After my head reattached to my body when my grandmother asked me if the kids who were murdered were my coach’s kids, I went into my bedroom and turned on the local radio station.  That’s all that was on.  It was true. Ann’s kids were all dead, and her husband, Simon Peter Nelson, had bludgeoned them with a rubber mallet and hunting knife.  Over and over, I heard about Jennifer-13, Simon-11, Andrew-8, Matthew-7, Rosie-5, and David-3  being dead.  At first nobody knew anything about Ann, or they weren’t talking about it, so I had no idea what had happened to  her.  I was terrified she was also dead.  Being only 14, I hadn’t had a lot of experience with losing anybody I cared about, and really didn’t know how to handle it all.  But I couldn’t stop crying.

The next morning was a Sunday, so the newspaper would be a bigger edition, and my best chance of finding out what information was available.  I found out that Ann had been in Milwaukee, WI after telling Simon Peter Nelson that she wanted a divorce. Evidently, he snapped and killed all of the children, and the family dog- a dachshund named Pretzel.  He then drove to the hotel where Ann was staying, and threatened to kill her, but told her about the kids. At some point, Ann called the police and told them that her husband had told her he’d killed all six of their kids, and they needed to get over to their home.  Reports that were going around  said that in order to identify some of the boys, they needed the footprints taken at their births to confirm who was who, they were so mangled from what their father had done…. what their f a t h e r  had done.  The idea that a parent could do such a thing was unthinkable. This was the late 70s. There was no 24/7 news coverage of family atrocities.  These things just weren’t heard of unless they made national news- and those situations were rare, and not in MY city. To people I knew.

I’ve thought about Ann so many times over the years.  I’ve wondered if she’s ever had some sort of peace to continue any quality of life. I’ve wondered if she did end up getting married, as it had been said months after the murders, around the rink.  I had taken lessons from her throughout the time up to and somewhat beyond the trial and conviction.  She had seemed like herself, but I can’t imagine the agony and heartache she must have felt.  The rink had to be sort of a bittersweet place; she was in a familiar place with people who cared about her, but her daughter- a promising ice dance skater- wasn’t there.  Jennifer’s ice dance partner was there, and seeing him had to be hard.  Yet, maybe the familiarity and kids who didn’t ask questions (or some of the younger ones didn’t really understand what had happened) were of some comfort.

It was during this time that I was being ‘groomed’ for ice dance.  My mom told me years later  that Ann had called her and explained that I could be on a national competition circuit path, but it would involve a lot more skating time, much more expensive skates, and that a parent be available to travel with me. Things were different back then.  Now, the coach is considered to be the acceptable adult to accompany the kid.  Back then, it had to be a parent or relative…and my folks both worked, so that wasn’t possible.  It broke my heart to not be able to spend more time skating, but it was what it was, and I survived …but I’ve never stopped wondering how Ann is doing. Where she is. If she’s been as OK as someone could be who had survived the extermination of  her kids.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been able to understand the magnitude of what happened much better, and really don’t comprehend such a loss.

When I was 14, I’d already been exposed to the kidnapping and murder of an adolescent boy in our city. About a year earlier… Joey Didier was on his paper route when he was abducted, and later found dead at a Boy Scout camp about 25 miles away- he was found while I was staying with my grandparents who lived relatively close to the camp. I remember it being dark when the news told of his body being discovered, and being out in the country  near that camp.  Then the Nelson Murders (as they came to be called) happened.  In my adolescent brain, that meant that adults either snatched kids and killed them, or that parents can get mad and kill their kids.  It left a huge impression on me as well as most of the kids in Rockford, IL.   Around here, it’s one of those ‘where were you when?’ events to those in the skating community, or who were of the same ages as those who whose lives were stolen.

My folks didn’t really seem to understand why I was so upset- but I think it was more that nobody knew how to deal with that sort of thing.   It’s just  not in the Parenting 101 Manual- ‘How to Help Your Kid Deal With Parental Murders’ isn’t in the index.  I’d heard of murders among adults- but never anything where a parent wiped out the whole family of kids.  It was scary, as well as incredibly confusing.  Add to that the loss of my coach, when she eventually moved away after the trial (understandably), and I was upset for several years, though I learned to shut up about it.  But it never went away.  I still remember it every year, 34 years later.  Since moving back here, and having access to online petitions, I sign all  protest petitions that I know about when Simon Peter Nelson comes up for parole.  The city still reports those parole dates on the evening news.

I don’t know if Ann Nelson (or what she changed her name to, though it was rumored that she became ‘Elizabeth Johnson’, marrying the man she’d been divorcing Simon Peter for) is still alive. She’d be about 72 years old now, as she was 38 at the time of the murders and trial.  It’s very possible she’s still out there.  Unless her heart physically broke.  I’ve always wanted to tell her how much of a positive influence she’d been when I was younger, and how much I appreciated the time she spent with me, helping me out when I got hurt, and also  being encouraging when I was going through adolescent ‘stuff’.  I wanted to let her know that I’d thought about her, and prayed for whatever sort of healing one can get to in that sort of incomprehensible loss.  I wanted to let her know that the lousy, hurtful things that were said about her (like why did she leave the kids with ‘him’- as if she had any remote inkling that he was capable of such devastation) weren’t representative of everybody, or even most people.  Mostly, I’d want to let her know how indescribably sorry I was she had to go through that horror, and reach out to her- now that I’m an adult.

It’s been 35 years tomorrow.  I still remember how I found out as if it were yesterday.  I still have the newspaper articles somewhere, and that beloved photo on my dresser.   I don’t know how to ‘put this away’ for good- or if that’s even possible.  I do know that I wish the best for Ann,  wherever she is, and whatever her name is now…and that those lovely eternal kids have been able to rest in peace.

For those doing the searches about this, please leave a comment … I’d like to know where all of the searches are from, and what the connection and/or interest is.  I have more searches for the murders and Ann than any other blog topic I’ve written about.

Update:   Simon Peter Nelson died on June 18, 2017, awaiting the decision on his 19th parole request.   He died in St. John’s Hospital in Springfield, IL, having been moved there  5 days before his death.  The initial cause was “natural causes”.   I cried when I found out.   He caused SO much collateral damage when he CHOSE to kill his own children.  Every kid old enough to understand what had happened was afraid that mad parents kill kids.  I’ve thought of Ann so many times, and have had the photo of her and myself on my dresser for 39 years (and have no intention of moving it).   My prayers are with her tonight.   As they have been many nights over the decades.   I hope this gives her some type of ‘release’.  ❤ 

UPDATE:   I recently found out that Ann passed away from ovarian cancer in 2014.  She was still married to the same man- so for about 36 years, she was with someone she loved, from all info I have received.   I’m glad she was able to have some stability after such a horrifically chaotic event in 1978.   May she RIP.  ❤