It was about 2:45 p.m. on May 6, when a Humboldt County Sheriff's deputy and a sergeant arrived at a residence on Shelter Cove's Kelly Road, where 55-year-old William Lloyd Nelson was living. Several weeks earlier, Nelson's girlfriend of 15 years, and the mother of his son, filed a request for a domestic violence restraining order from the Humboldt County Superior Court, alleging that Nelson had threatened her life, coming to her door with a loaded Glock pistol in one hand and an ax in the other. She alleged that Nelson knocked holes in her walls with the ax and "waved the gun around" while threatening her. The court set the matter for a hearing and granted the temporary restraining order, as well as an accompanying "move-out" order that required Nelson to immediately vacate the residence, which was owned by his girlfriend and her father.
Court records indicate deputies initially attempted to serve Nelson with the order on April 27 but were unable to find him. They returned on May 6 and, according to Sheriff Mike Downey, spoke with Nelson. Downey declined to discuss the exchange in detail, but said the situation escalated and culminated with Nelson opening fire on the officers with a handgun, shooting one in the chest before retreating into the home. Downey said the officers returned fire as they attempted to flee to safety. A bullet-proof vest likely saved the injured deputy's life, Downey said, adding that he was shot at "close proximity."
Nelson was arrested early the next morning.
Downey said he's not sure exactly what the sergeant and deputy sent to serve the restraining order knew about Nelson, his past or even the allegations the led to the temporary order. But Downey conceded that Nelson has a bit of a reputation in the Southern Humboldt area, saying he remembered Nelson from his time as a resident deputy down there and that "at that time, he had displayed some issues that would raise your awareness."
Probation reports from Nelson's prior convictions, unsealed after he was charged May 9 with the attempted murder of a police officer, show a string of contacts between Nelson and local law enforcement dating back to 2006. They paint a picture of a man with a propensity for stock piling weapons and disregarding the terms of his probation, and they raise a host of questions.
According to his probation reports, Nelson was born Oct. 20, 1958 to Bill Nelson and Helen Adelle Radar, and learned as an adult that "he was actually the product of his father's extramarital affair with his secretary, and his parents adopted him." Nelson's parents split when he was 8 or 9, and his father was murdered about four years later. Within about a year of his father's death, according to the report, Nelson was sent by his junior high school to participate in a wilderness program run by psychiatrists. He participated in the program for a couple of years and then moved out on his own. At 18, he hitchhiked north to Washington, where he "entered the Gospel Outreach Christian Commune," according to the report, and stayed there for a couple of years. He's spent much of the rest of his life bouncing between the Southern Humboldt area and Oregon, working as a house painter and a tree planter, and growing and selling marijuana to make "$1,500 here and there."
In August of 2006, Nelson was pulled over for speeding on U.S. Highway 101 and found to be drunk. He became combative, according to the report, and pushed an officer before being handcuffed and placed in a patrol car, at which point he "proceeded to smash the window of the vehicle." A search of Nelson's car found a pair of semi-automatic pistols, a shotgun, a number of loaded magazines and night vision binoculars. Charged with drunk driving, felony vandalism and resisting arrest, Nelson ultimately pleaded guilty to a single count of misdemeanor drunk driving, commonly known as a "wet and reckless," and was placed on three year's summary probation.
In June of the following year, prosecutors filed a complaint alleging Nelson assaulted a man with a firearm. According to the Sheriff's Office report from the incident, Nelson was driving down Shelter Cove Road when he came across Lukas Mullins, who had been in a car accident. Mullins reportedly attempted to flag Nelson down as he approached, but fled when he saw it was Nelson driving the car, telling deputies that Nelson had a reputation for being "crazy." Nelson allegedly fired three gunshots at Mullins as he ran away, hitting him once in the bottom of his foot. Nelson told officers he'd only fired his gun once into the ground, and only after Mullins tried to stab him in the neck. The case went to trial but the jury hung, after which Nelson pleaded no contest to a single count of negligently discharging a firearm. He was sentenced to time served and three year's summary probation.
In July of the following year, prosecutors filed a complaint alleging Nelson had used an assault rifle to shoot up a cell phone tower neighboring his Shelter Cove home. According to the probation officer's report, Nelson was allegedly upset that the new tower was obstructing his view and shot it up — stray bullets hitting a State Parks Building, a portable toilet and some equipment on site — causing more than $100,000 in damage. The report turned up some other troubling details, as well.
"Some Shelter Cove residents referred to him as 'Wild Bill' and it was known when the defendant became angry with people he would show up at their residences and shoot 'stuff,'" the report states. A couple of residents told the officer, according to the report, that they'd recently gotten into an argument with Nelson about their having put up a telephone pole bordering his property. After the argument, they reported that they came home one day to find someone had broken into their home, "smeared decomposing fish on the wall; shot their cat with a .22 caliber bullet; and flooded the inside of the house with an outdoor hose."
When officers served a search warrant on Nelson's home in the cell tower vandalism case, they reported finding two loaded pistols, multiple magazines, a high-powered rifle and a host of ammunition, all of which violated court orders and terms of Nelson's probation in prior cases. While searching the residence, officers also reported speaking with Nelson's girlfriend, who reported that she was afraid of him. When police picked up Nelson a short time later they found he had a key to a storage facility. When they searched it later that day they reported finding a pair of assault rifles, numerous high-capacity magazines, a host of assault rifle parts and "thousands of rounds of rifle, pistol and shotgun ammunition."
Nelson ultimately pleaded guilty in March 2010 to felony vandalism, discharging a firearm at an unoccupied vehicle, negligent discharge of a firearm and being a felon in possession of a firearm under a deal stipulating he get a suspended sentence of three years, eight months in state prison and a grant of probation, meaning he would stay out of prison if he complied with probation and followed the law. If he reoffended or violated probation, he could be sent to prison for the full sentence.
The probation officer notes Nelson had an "arsenal of disconcerting proportion" and noted his concern that during interviews Nelson was dismissive of his "unfavorable reputation," his history of convictions and concerns about the extent of his arsenal. Considering the nature of the offense and Nelson's "anti-authority" views, he was not "the most desirable candidate for community supervision," the officer concludes.
With a three-year, eight-month prison sentence hanging over his head, Nelson had some incentive to stay out of trouble but, nonetheless, quickly wound up back on law enforcement's radar. Just seven months after entering into the plea deal, the Sheriff's Office served a search warrant on a large marijuana grow operation in the Dutyville area and found Nelson fleeing. Nelson's ID card was located at the scene, along with a pair of Glock handguns, a police scanner and more than 200 pounds of marijuana. Despite initially facing charges of possession of marijuana for sale, being a felon in possession of a firearm and maintaining a place for the purpose of manufacturing a controlled substance, Nelson pleaded guilty Nov. 18, 2010 to felony marijuana cultivation. His eight-month prison sentence was suspended, and he was again sentenced to three year's probation on March 15, 2011.
It's unclear to what extent the Humboldt County Probation Department has been monitoring Nelson, or if it was informed of the allegations his long-time girlfriend made in her request for a temporary restraining order. However, the girlfriend notes in her application that she filed a report with the Sheriff's Office about Nelson in 2013, and talked to the district attorney's office in 2012 and 2013, including to report that Nelson stole a handgun from her safe.
The serving of eviction notices and vacate orders can become emotionally charged, Downey said, adding that his office has changed policy — as have most agencies throughout the state — to require that two officers be present, "for the safety of the officers and the individual." Downey said he believes his department and officers did everything right in this case, but said the incident is still under review to see if "we need to build in some additional safeguards."