Ellie Nesler: A controversial case from Tuolumne County, California. Ellie Nesler was either an avenging angel or a dangerous vigilante. You decide.
Maryann Castorena: Jose thought that he’d found the love of his life in Maryann. What he’d really found was a gold-digger, a love-cheat, a cold-hearted killer.
Iva Kroeger: A truly repulsive individual, Kroeger made her living duping others out of their possessions. And when duping didn’t work, she resorted to murder.
Sarah Vercauteren: Heroin can lead its users down some dark corridors. In Sarah’s case it led her to matricide, the brutal murder of her own mother.
Sabah Khan: It’s sister against sister over the affections of a man who was hardly worth the trouble. One of them won’t survive.
Gaile Owens: Her husband was dead, beaten to a pulp inside their home. Could Gaile Owens – devout Christian and committed philanthropist – really be responsible?
Irene Maslin: Her neighbors called her a female Charlie Manson. The murder she and her followers committed was certainly worthy of that unflattering title.
Andrea Claire: A beautiful but emotionally damaged hooker marries one of her johns, a disabled man thirty years her senior with a taste for S & M. It doesn’t end well.
Deadly Women Volume 15
To some, she is a hero, to others a stone-cold assassin. Either way, no one can dispute that Ellie Nesler was a killer. Her act of violence was committed in public, inside a crowded courtroom in Tuolumne County, California, on an April morning in 1993. At the receiving end of her bullets was 35-year-old Daniel Mark Driver, a counselor at a Christian summer camp, who was on trial for sodomizing Nesler’s seven-year-old son, Willie. Yet, the story is bigger than that. At its height, it would spark intense public debate over a justice system that sometimes allows dangerous criminals to walk unchecked among us. It would elicit diverse opinions on a citizen’s right to act where the law has failed.
Ellie Nesler was the oldest of three daughters, born to a coal miner and his wife in August 1952. She grew up in the hill country around Jamestown where her family eked out a living and where Ellie showed an independent streak from a young age. By her mid-teens, she was earning her own money, driving tractors for local farmers, digging irrigation ditches, and even doing auto repairs. She married young as well, although the union soon broke down. Then Bill Nesler arrived and swept her off her feet.
Bill earned his living mainly as a crop duster, although he dabbled in prospecting and had dreams of striking it rich. That dream would take the family to the West African country of Liberia, where there was a gold rush underway during the eighties. By then, they already had their son, Willie, born in 1982. They’d add a daughter, Rebecca, while living in Africa. Soon after, a civil war broke out and Ellie decided to return home with the children, while Bill stayed behind to continue mining.
Back in Tuolumne County, times were tough for Ellie and the children. Sure, she had the support of her family and of her local church, but with no income and two young mouths to feed, it was no picnic. The family survived on welfare checks and on the meager amounts Ellie was able to earn from low-paying jobs like chopping wood and washing dishes. Despite these difficulties, Ellie was a devoted (some would say overprotective) mother. She seldom let her kids out of her sight. There was a good reason for her paranoia. Ellie had been molested by a family friend as a child. She feared that the same might happen to her children.
By the summer of 1988, the now six-year-old Willie was feeling stifled by his mother’s overbearing presence. His latest bone of contention was Ellie’s refusal to let him attend their church’s annual campout. Willie pleaded with her to let him go but Ellie was adamant that he would not. It took the intervention of her sister Jan to change Ellie’s mind. “He’ll be with people that we know and trust,” Jan argued. “What’s the worst that can happen at a Christian camp?”
And so, Ellie relented and in doing so changed her life and the life of her child forever. Willie returned from the three-week event a changed boy. Whereas he’d once been a happy, outgoing child, he was now sullen, morose, tearful, prone to fits of temper. Ellie begged him to tell her what was bothering him, but Willie refused, angrily telling her to leave him alone. Eventually, Ellie backed off. She hoped that it was just growing pains, a phase that would soon pass. It didn’t.
It would be nine months before Willie spoke to anyone about the thing that was bothering him. His confidant was his Aunt Jan, who drew him aside during a sleepover with his cousins and gently pressed him on the issue. Eventually, tears welled up in Willie’s eyes and he said that he would tell but only if Jan promised to keep his secret. Jan said that she would. “It was that Danny,” a tearful Willie told her. “He did nasty things to me.”
The man who Willie Nesler was accusing was 35-year-old Daniel Mark Driver, an active and trusted member of the church. Driver was seldom seen without a Bible in his hand. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the scriptures and often inserted biblical quotes into his conversations. He also seemed to have a way with children and was particularly attentive to boys who did not have a father figure in their lives – boys like Willie Nesler.
What the church didn’t know, but perhaps should have, was that Driver was a lowlife with a sordid past. In 1984, he’d been at the center of a much-publicized child molestation case in San Jose, a case involving assaults on several young boys. With overwhelming evidence against him, Driver had entered a guilty plea and thrown himself on the mercy of the court. He was looking at hard time. But then the good members of his San Jose congregation stepped in and deluged the judge with letters, vouching for the good character of the accused. As a result, Driver was given probation rather than jail time. Soon after, he returned to his mother’s home in Tuolumne County. There, he used his standing in the community and church as cover, while he continued molesting children. One of the boys who fell into his clutches was Willie Nesler.
The sexual abuse of Willie Nesler started at the summer camp. Driver had been showing the boy a lot of attention which Willie, deprived of his father, lapped up. Then, one day, Driver lured him away from his companions on the pretense of showing him some frogs. Out of sight and earshot, he subdued and raped the boy, thereafter threatening to kill him and his family if he told anyone. He used this same threat to continue molesting the child even after the camp was over.
Jan had promised to keep Willie’s secret, but this was a promise she would have to break. She immediately went to her sister and shared the terrible news. Ellie was devastated when Jan told her what had happened, filled with rage at the man who had hurt her baby, equally angry with herself for failing to protect him. She immediately took Willie to the sheriff’s office to report the crime. A warrant was issued but Driver had already skipped town. He would remain on the run for three years, during which Willie lived in constant terror that he would show up one day to make good on his threat of murdering his family. Unsurprisingly, the boy’s behavior deteriorated during this time. His academic performance suffered, and he was constantly in trouble for fighting. He attended three different schools in as many years. Even from afar, Driver was still terrorizing him.
And then, in 1992, there was finally a break. Daniel Driver was caught shoplifting in Palo Alto, California, and subsequently returned to Tuolumne County to face child molestation charges. Five children had been assaulted and all were due to testify against the pedophile. Willie Nesler, now eleven years old, was particularly terrified of facing his abuser. He was also ashamed of what he’d have to admit in a public courtroom. He was physically sick at the prospect, actually throwing up as he sat outside the court, waiting his turn on the stand. His mother urged him to be brave, telling him that his testimony would stop Driver from hurting other kids like him.
But Willie would never have to take the stand, would never have to face the man who had destroyed his life. His mother would see to that. As Driver sat at the defense table, Ellie Nesler walked up behind him, reached into her waistband, and drew a gun. Raising it, she calmly pulled the trigger, firing six shots at the back of Driver’s head. All but one of the bullets found their mark, triggering pandemonium in the courtroom as spectators screamed and scrambled for the exits. Meanwhile, Driver slumped to the floor, his life rapidly slipping away. Then deputies entered the courtroom with weapons raised and Ellie calmly dropped her gun, raised her arms, and surrendered.
The shooting made Ellie Nesler a hero in the eyes of many Tuolumne County residents. As Ellie was charged with first-degree murder, public collections and fundraising efforts were already springing up, gathering thousands of dollars for her defense. “Free Ellie Nesler” bumpers stickers started to appear, along with others that read, “Good Shooting, Ellie!” Gifts, cards, and flowers arrived from around the country. A Sacramento bondsman put up $500,000 to get Ellie released on bail.
But not everyone was on board with the adulation. Many spoke out against vigilantism and Ellie tarnished her image by making controversial statements to the media, once referring to herself as the “next best thing to God.” It was also revealed that she’d been hopped up on methamphetamine at the time of the shooting. Later, the media would discover that she had a record. She’d served time in a juvenile facility at age 18, on a charge of auto theft. This time, she was looking at a far harsher sentence.
The gun that Ellie had used to kill Daniel Driver belonged to her sister Jan. She’d taken it from Jan’s purse that very morning, without the latter knowing. That pointed to a decision made on the spur-of-the-moment but then Ellie foolishly admitted to state prosecutors that she had been thinking of killing Driver for two years. That made it premeditated. At trial, Ellie’s lawyers cited temporary insanity, an argument that the jury was happy to accept. Ellie Nesler was acquitted of murder but convicted of voluntary manslaughter. She was sentenced to ten years in prison, later reduced on appeal. She’d end up serving less than four years.
But this would not be Ellie Nesler’s last run-in with the law. In 2002, she was caught in possession of 10,000 pseudoephedrine tablets. These are commonly used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. It appeared that Ellie was in the process of setting up a meth lab and that earned her six years at the Central California Women’s facility in Chowchilla. She was released in 2006 having served just over half that time. Ellie Nesler died two years later on December 26, 2008, of breast cancer. She was 56 years old.
The Ellie Nesler story has another tragic by-product. Willie Nesler, the little boy in whose name she committed a public assassination, would go on to become a murderer himself. Raised by his Aunt Jan while his mother was serving her prison sentence, Willie never regained his youthful innocence. Beginning at age 14, he was in and out of juvenile detention on a litany of offenses. He would continue that inglorious record as an adult. Over one five-year period, he was arrested no fewer than 18 times, on charges ranging from robbery to assault to drug possession. In 2005, he committed the ultimate offense when he beat a disabled man to death in a petty dispute over missing tools.
Willie was sentenced to 25 years to life. He was incarcerated at High Desert State Prison when he received word of his mother’s death. He was denied permission to attend her funeral.