The Urge to Kill

updated 04/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/19/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

AFTER YEARS OF WAITING FOR JUSTICE to take its course, it apparently took only a glance to nudge Ellie Nesler over the line between pent-up anger and murderous fury. Entering a makeshift courtroom in a community hall in Jamestown, Calif., on April 2, Nesler, 40, spotted Daniel Driver, 35, the man accused of sexually molesting her son, now 11. The prospect of testifying in the four-year-old case had taken its toll on the boy, who, just moments earlier, had vomited during a court recess. Now, as the youngster was preparing to take the stand, Nesler looked over at Driver and thought she saw him smirk in return. Abruptly Nesler turned on her heel and left the courtroom. Moments later she returned and strode up behind Driver. Pulling out a .25 caliber semiautomatic pistol, which she had apparently tucked into her pants pocket, she allegedly opened fire at point-blank range, hitting him five times in the back of the head and neck.

Nesler immediately dropped the weapon. In a flash, two sheriff's deputies converged with guns drawn, prompting Nesler's sister, Jan Martinez, who had been sitting nearby, to throw herself on top of Nesler. "If it wasn't for me, Ellie would have taken a bullet," said Martinez later. "I saw the cops' eyes."

As many Jamestown residents see it, that would have been the real tragedy. All around the small mining town (pop. 2,000) 100 miles from San Francisco, Nesler, who was charged with murder and ordered held on $500,000 bail, was almost universally applauded for meting mil a kind of frontier justice. "If anything, she done us all a favor," said Doug Powers, a 23-year-old gold miner, sipping a Budweiser in the Rawhide Saloon. "That's one less we've got to support behind bars. And nobody else's kids will have to worry about him." As for the question of due process, the prevailing sentiment seemed to be that Driver, whose indictment had cited alleged incidents of molestation dating back to 1986, had eluded justice long enough. "If someone did something like that to my kids and it took seven years to get him to court," says Val Isaman, 55, a neighbor of Nesler's, "I think I would do what she did."

Outrage toward Driver isn't difficult to fathom. In July 1986 he had started dating Lynn Jahncke, now 42, a divorced mother of two. From the start, Driver seemed to have a special affection for one of Jahncke's sons, now 11. "He bought me a zillion toys," says the boy. "I thought it was probably because he was trying to get close to my mom." Driver, who worked at a nearby coed church camp, was also popular with the child's friends. "They'd play football with him," recalls the 11-year-old, "and they'd always fight to sit in his lap."

Jahncke was bothered by that close physical contact and asked her son whether anyone had ever touched his "private parts." He said no, but a few months later, in 1987, Lynn says she walked in on Driver as he was fondling the boy. She immediately called a friend in the local district attorney's office, who ran a check on Driver's car. It turned out that Driver had served five months in prison after being convicted in 1983 for felony child molestation in Santa Clara County. For roughly two years, police investigators slowly built their case against Driver, interviewing parents and children, including the Neslers, who had also come forward on their own. Eventually, in 1989, authorities charged Driver with molesting four boys. Meanwhile their suspect had dropped from sight after apparently getting wind of the investigation. It was not until late last year that Driver was apprehended back in Santa Clara County. That her former boyfriend nearly escaped punishment altogether still angers Jahncke, whose only regret is that she had stepped out of the courtroom just before Nesler opened fire. "If she had told me she was going to shoot him, I would have stayed," says Jahncke. "I wanted to do it myself."

Over the years, Nesler, like other parents involved in the Driver case, had apparently remained quiet about the ordeal. Few people in town even knew that charges had been filed against Driver, and even fewer could imagine Nesler as somebody's killer. Separated from her husband, with two children, she worked at odd jobs in the Jamestown area and lived in a mobile home in Sonora. As news of the shooting spread through the community, residents rallied to Nesler's side. Collection jars for her legal defense appeared in stores and businesses, and by early last week a Sacramento bail bondsman had posted Nesler's bail. Meanwhile local residents Michael Sonnenfelt and his brother Daniel Robert printed nearly 200 bumper stickers reading Free Ellie Nesler, which they gave away or sold to raise money for Nesler.

Exactly what caused Nesler to snap? Her sister believes it may have been nothing more than Driver's expression. "She wouldn't have done it if he didn't have that cocky look," Jan Martinez told one reporter. "It was that smirk that said, 'Hah, I got you.' " According to one friend, Driver had threatened to kill Nesler if her son cooperated with authorities, an intimidation tactic that only added to her fears. There was also speculation that Nesler was desperate to spare her son—who according to an official involved in the case had been subjected to the most serious abuse by Driver—the agony of having to testify in public. Nesler herself offered the simplest, but perhaps most telling, hint of her motive. At a brief arraignment hearing last week, she turned, looked at her son and silently mouthed a single sentence: "I love you."

BILL HEWITT
LAIRD HARRISON and ELIZABETH BRACK in Jamesstown

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