How Far Would You Go to Protect Your Child?
The Oprah Winfrey Show, October 18, 2010
As a parent, your natural instinct is to protect your child—no matter what it takes. When Ellie Nesler found out her 6-year-old son Willy was allegedly being molested, she turned to the police for help. Years later, she took matters into her own hands.
In this July 13, 1993, file photo, Ellie Nesler is seen in Sonora, Calif. Nesler, who sparked a national debate about vigilantism after killing her son's accused molester in a courtroom in 1993, has died of cancer. A spokeswoman for the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento says Nesler died there Friday, Dec. 26, 2008. The 56-year-old had battled breast cancer since 1994. (AP Photo/George Nikitin)
Willy alleges that Daniel Driver, a man with a criminal past, molested and raped him at a California church camp. For a year, Willy says he hid his secret because he was afraid for his life, as well as the lives of his mother and little sister, Rebecca. "He said he'd kill us all if I told anybody," Willy says. "Finally, I told my aunt. It hurt me too much, and if I didn't tell her, he was going to hurt me more."
Willy was not alone—four other boys came forward and said they were also sexually abused by Daniel.
For years, the boys waited to testify at trial, and during that time, Ellie says Daniel stalked her son. Then, at the courthouse, she says he looked Willy up and down and smirked, which caused Willy to vomit. "He had a real cocky attitude. He knew he was going to slip through the system," Ellie says. "I snapped."
What happened next made this one of the biggest news stories of the '90s. Inside the courtroom, Ellie grabbed her sister Jan's gun, which she carried for protection, and shot Daniel five times in the head, killing him.
In 1993, Ellie was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, and a judge sentenced her to 10 years in prison. Two years later, in March 1995, she spoke out on The Oprah Show from prison.
Willy says he doesn't regret telling his mother about the molestation, but it's bittersweet. "In a way, I'm glad I did because now he can't hurt any more kids, and I don't have to worry about him hurting me," Willy says. "On the other hand, I lost my mom."
It has been difficult for Ellie's daughter, Rebecca, to see her big brother in so much pain. "A long time ago, my mom told me that my brother was in so much pain that he was going to kill himself, and that hurt me a lot," Rebecca says. "Everybody else loves me, but my mom and my brother love me most."
Though Ellie was sentenced to 10 years in prison, Willy believes his mother shouldn't be punished. "Because I think he deserved it, I mean, going out and hurting kids like that," Willy says. "I wasn't the only one."
Ellie has regrets, but she says she couldn't bear to see how Willy's molestation affected his spirit. "My son was afraid, and now he's not afraid," Ellie says. "He's a normal little boy, and he can play. So I am sorry that I killed someone and that I'm not with my children, but on the other hand, I wish the judicial system would have taken care of it. I wish I didn't have to."
Since Ellie says Willy was abused worse than the other boys, his testimony would have come last at the trial. But, Ellie says Willy was so nervous, he didn't want to take the stand. "I said, 'Willy, you have to do it,'" Ellie says. "And he said, 'Mom, I can't.'"
Willy says he didn't want to face Daniel and relive the horrible memories. "I thought he was going to hurt me again when I went in [to the courtroom]," Willy says. "It brought back so many memories looking at him like that, and it just scared me."
Ellie says she pulled the trigger to stop this accused molester from hurting other children and to prevent Willy from having to testify in front of other people. "I didn't want other people to know what happened to Willy," Ellie says. "I didn't think he should have to face this man, face-to-face. They were traumatizing my child. These children should not have to face the man that molested them."
Murdering Daniel, however, was not Ellie's plan all along, she says. "I had no intention of doing it until my son was the last and couldn't testify, and he was vomiting in a garbage bag," she says.
It was then that Ellie looked at her sister Jan and said, "I'm going to go get a gun, and I'm going to kill him."
It was break time in the courtroom, and Daniel was sitting with his attorney and a bailiff when she walked up to him. "I looked him in the eyes, and I put six bullets—five of them hitting him in the head and one hit the wall—and all of them were fatal shots," Ellie says. "Everything was slow motion. He was dead."
Being in jail and separated from her children, who have been sent to live with relatives, aren't the only hardships in Ellie's life. Two months before her sentencing, Ellie found out she has inflammatory breast cancer, a rare form of cancer.
The doctors were unable to remove her breast because the cancer had already spread to her lymph nodes and throughout her body. "At this time, with inflammatory breast cancer, there's a 50 percent chance that I'll ever see five years," Ellie says. "I've made it a year now."
For a while, Ellie tried to keep the diagnosis a secret. "I was living in denial, and I didn't want my children to know anything about the cancer, but we're very close," she says. Doctors expect Ellie's cancer to return within the next year, and she's promised Willy not to lie to him about the news.
"We'll have six months to a year to prepare if I am going to die," she says. "I won't just up and die on him...Rebecca too."
Like many people across the country, Oprah says she doesn't think Ellie should have gone to prison. "We all know it is wrong to kill people in this country, and I'm certainly not advocating that anybody should, but I think that it is just one of the greatest miscarriages of justice that you are behind bars right now," she says. "Something is very wrong. Aren't you angry about that?"
Crying, Ellie says she's both angry and hurt. "There's a lot of mixed emotion because here I'm in prison, and you have to be tough," she says. "Part of me doesn't feel so tough anymore. I'm angry that the judicial system didn't do something to protect my children."
Even though she says she wants to fall apart, Ellie tries to be strong for her children and give them time to grieve and heal. "I watch my son and he's having a real hard time," she says. "He won't cry. He's 13, and I'm really proud of him. He's been really brave in the beginning. I took a [gun] out of his hand a year and a half ago. He wanted to kill himself. He didn't want anyone to know what happened. Now, the whole world knows, and Willy's brave enough to stand up."
From How Far Would You Go to Protect Your Child? - Oprah.com
It gets worse.
The Nesler Family's Tragic Past
The Oprah Winfrey Show, October 18, 2010
When he was just 6 years old, Willy Nesler says he was raped and sexually molested. From that time on, his life was forever changed. Find out how the tragedies unfolded for Willy and his mother, Ellie.
Summer 1988 – Six-year-old Willy Nesler attends church camp and is allegedly molested and sodomized by camp employee Daniel Driver. Willy keeps his molestation a secret for a year before he telling an aunt.
April 1993 – During a break at Daniel's preliminary hearing for allegedly molesting Willy and four other boys, Willy's mother, Ellie, shoots Daniel five times in the head. Ellie is charged with voluntary manslaughter.
October 1993 – Ellie is diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. The judge postpones her sentencing so Ellie could have surgery and treatment.
January 1994 – Ellie is sentenced to 10 years in prison.
March 1995 – Ellie and her children, Willy and Rebecca, are guests on The Oprah Winfrey Show's How Far Would You Go to Protect Your Child? Oprah interviews Ellie via satellite while the children are in-studio in Chicago.
October 1997 – After serving nearly four years, Ellie strikes a plea bargain and is released from prison.
October 2001 – Ellie gives .06 grams of methamphetamine to an informant. Five days later, she buys 10,000 tablets from him and is arrested.
July 2002 – Ellie pleads guilty to drug charges and is sentenced to six years in prison.
June 2004 – Willy is now 23 years old and has a juvenile record. David Davis, a man who lives on his property, calls the police on Willy for allegedly stealing some tools. Willy punches David in front of three deputies, and pleads guilty to misdemeanor battery. He receives 60 days in jail but serves less than one month.
July 2004 – Less than an hour after being released from jail, Willy returns home and stomps on David's head. David never regains consciousness and dies the next day.June 2006 – Ellie is released from a woman's facility near Chowchilla, California.
June 2005 –Willy is charged with first-degree murder. He's serving 28 years to life and will be eligible for parole in 2031.
December 2008 – At 56 years old, Ellie dies from breast cancer.
October 2010 – Rebecca returns to The Oprah Show to talk about how Willy's molestation affected her family. She visits Willy in jail for the first time in two years with NBC chief legal analyst Dan Abrams.
From Nesler Family Timeline - Oprah.com