It’s dark in the slumbering home, and he creeps from room to room.
“This is my house.”
His dark outline appears in a bedroom doorway, but the sleeping eyes inside don’t see him. He hesitates there, savoring the moment — taking a deep breath, releasing it slowly, quietly. Now poised, he sets in motion what he’s come to do.
June 10, 1912 — During an overkill, blitz-style attack in Villisca, Iowa, an unknown assailant axes six children and two adults to death as they slept in their beds.
How long would that have taken? There’s little evidence that anyone woke up before the killer reached their bed, and neighbors never heard a thing.
He steps from the bedroom and into the hallway.
“It has begun.”
His heart is pounding and his chest is heaving, He’s clutching the weapon in his fist. It seems to bristle with electricity. He’s under its control now.
Even his shadow seems different now. The moon knows. It’s no longer the likeness of a man silhouetted in the moonlight. No, this shadow is stretching grotesquely down the hallway now, advancing for the next bedroom before he’s even taken a step. It beckons him, and a madman advances.
“There’s no turning back now.”
November 13, 1974 — Ronald “Butch” Defeo shoots his mother, father and four siblings to death in their beds with a rifle during what was estimated to be a 15-minute rampage in Amityville, New York.
Again, there was no evidence that anyone had awakened, and neighbors heard nothing.
Both cases have resulted in numerous books and movies, and the homes where both tragedies occurred are widely rumored to be haunted.
Tonight, I’d like to take you a little closer to home — my home — where half-a-block away, a man brutally murdered his six children and the family’s dachshund in the night.
And no one heard a thing.
The following is the true story of a mass murder from which a neighborhood has never fully recovered. Neighbors only whisper about it, if they can bring themselves to speak of it at all. The fortieth anniversary of the unspeakable passed quietly.
It’s a charming little piece of tree-lined heaven, seemingly exempt from the crime plaguing other neighborhoods not-so-far away.
Churchill’s Grove is a place where the American Dream still lives. A place where neighbors still talk and watch out for one another. A place where you might meet the neighbor for a beer in the driveway after mowing the lawn, and talk about how good the Cubs are looking this year. It’s a place to raise kids — to build a life.
There are two things for which the rest of the city descents on Churchill’s Grove every year: the neighborhood garage sale and Halloween.
But every Halloween, parents lead their children past one house on Camp Avenue. Other kids dare one another to ring the doorbell, hoping to catch a closer look at where it really happened.
January 9, 1978 — This Anytown-USA neighborhood in Rockford, Illinois, woke on a Saturday morning, unsuspecting of the horror that would be revealed, unfolding throughout the day.
The city was still trying to recover from the murder of 15-year-old newspaper carrier Joey Didier less than three years earlier. But surely nothing that bad could happen again.
Rockford Police officer Steve Pirages was directed by a dispatcher to perform a welfare check at a home on snow-blanketed Camp Avenue.
Being met with no response at the front door, Pirages circled the house, looking for anything out of the ordinary. Unable to find an unlocked door or signs of trouble, there wasn’t much else he could do but leave.
That was until a second — this time urgent — call came from a Milwaukee to the Rockford Police. Ann Nelson, who lived with her husband and six children in the Camp Avenue home, advised that she believed her husband, Simon Peter Nelson, may have harmed the kids.
With the situation now escalated, young Pirages and fellow officers would gain access to the house through a window at 7:30 AM. Immediately, Pirages reported, there was a sense that something was terribly wrong.
He told the Rockford Register Star: “There’s a different feel in homes where murders happen. …You just kind of smelled death. …It was really eerie.”
Walking from room to room upstairs, Pirages would discover the bodies of six children bludgeoned beyond recognition and stabbed repeatedly.
On the second floor, Roseann and Jennifer, ages five and 12, were found in their bed with Pretzel, the family dog, dead beside them with a slashed throat.
Ascending to the third floor, police found the four boys — Simon, 10, Andrew, 9, Matthew, 7, and three-year-old David. One of the boys’ bodies was discovered partially out of bed. Did this indicate one them had awakened during their father’s terrible spree, or could the throes of death itself account for this? Either way, given the overkill nature of the slayings, it’s difficult to fathom how anyone could have remained asleep while this was going on.
Pirages went on to say: “Their heads had been smashed and their throats slit. …What he did to those kids was unspeakable.”
It seems the second call from Milwaukee to Rockford Police came after Ann’s husband, Simon Peter Nelson, had gained entry to her Milwaukee motel room, and proceeded to assault her. He likely would have beaten her to death if Milwaukee police hadn’t intervened.
It was during this attack that “Pete” Nelson, as he was known by neighbors, had told his wife, Ann, that he’d killed their children. She’d hoped it was only a bluff, but her worst nightmare was soon realized.
The small parcel of property back in Rockford was roped off with police tape, and officers swarmed the scene. Curious neighbors of the tight-nit community, still sipping their coffee, wandered out into the street, asking one another what had happened. No one seemed to know, and the officers guarding the perimeter remained tight-lipped, silently bearing the horrible burden of knowing what had occurred inside — protecting this quaint neighborhood’s innocence for one last futile moment.
Then there was the arrival of vehicles from the coroner’s office, producing multiple stretchers that were wheeled into the house. Out of earshot, a police chaplain whispered with the family’s own pastor. Now neighbors were speechless, fingers crossed, praying that somehow everything was still going to be OK.
That was until the first little body, wrapped in a blanket, was removed from the house. Gasps and sobs filled the air once the unspeakable was confirmed. Despite the winter chill, Churchill’s Grove residents stood vigil in the street as five more blanketed stretchers were eventually removed from the scene.
Footprints taken just after the births of the children were required to identify some of them.
Forty-six-year-old Simon Peter Nelson, already in Milwaukee Police custody for battering his wife, now faced charges of killing his six children with a hunting knife and a rubber mallet.
According to multiple reports, the marriage of Pete and Ann, a local figure skating instructor, had been on the rocks for some time. Pete had been out of work, and had been letting himself go. Determined to turn things around, though, Pete accepted a job offer from his friend of seven years, Michael Weldon.
On the Friday preceding discovery of the bodies, Weldon reportedly talked with Pete on the phone until around 11:30 p.m. Weldon said he heard what sounded like children playing in the background during their 30-minute talk, indicating that Pete had not yet carried out his awful task.
But Weldon learned that Ann had allegedly laid down some ground rules recently — Pete would have to stop drinking, lose weight, and get rid of his beard. Weldon said Pete arrived at work with a fresh haircut and clean-shaven face the week leading up to the murders. And Pete said he’d started exercising at the Y ever day. Weldon also felt that Pete had a renewed zest for improving his work performance. This was a man determined to save his marriage.
But was it too little, too late? The same week, Ann was allegedly already speaking to a lawyer about divorce. He reportedly advised her to take a short getaway — to think things over. Thursday morning, Ann checked in to Milwaukee’s Ramada Inn, where she planned to stay for the weekend.
The next morning, Ann’s mind was made up. She called her attorney, and told him to light the fuse on a divorce from Pete. By 3 p.m. on Friday, Pete had received a call from Ann’s attorney, advising him of Ann’s decision.
Pete left work early after hearing the devastating news, explaining to Weldon that he really needed to try and save his marriage.
It was suggested that Pete stay with a mutual friend in order to give the couple a little space. Pete said he’d follow up on the suggestion, but that he wanted to see Ann first. If he couldn’t change her mind, Pete said he’d go stay with a friend.
Ann’s attorney, apparently a friend of the couple, stopped by the Nelson home later that night to check up on Pete. When attorney Karl Winkler arrived around 8 p.m., he said Pete was already in the company of another friend, Douglas Hamm. Relieved that Pete already had someone to talk to, Winkler said he only stayed for about 30 minutes.
As Pete and Weldon talked on the phone late Friday night, Weldon reported that Pete said he intended to plead his case to Ann — to show her that he’s really trying to be better, that he’s doing everything she’d asked of him.
Weldon told the Rockford Register Republic Pete had said, “The most important thing to me right now is my wife and kids.”
When they hung up at around 11:30 p.m., Pete then phoned a family friend in Waukesha, less than 20 miles from Milwaukee, asking him to go to Ann’s hotel and try to talk her out of divorcing him. The man, Ernie Johnson, was a skating student of Ann’s, and Pete implored him to call back afterward and let him know how it went.
According to the Rockford Register Republic, confidential sources with access to the investigation allegedly told the paper that Hamm had stayed with Nelson until 2 a.m., leaving some of today’s amateur sleuths with a degree of suspicion regarding that night’s timeline of events.
But it was late. Hamm may well have been tired, and he had a long drive back home to Fontana, Wisconsin, after all. So, now alone, and with the children all presumably asleep in their beds, Pete’s mind would seem to begin developing some very bad ideas between 2 and 3 a.m.
Meantime, his friend from Waukesha had complied with Pete’s request, arriving at Ann’s room just after midnight. But by the time he tried to call Pete back more than two hours later, Pete wasn’t answering. After nearly a dozen more unanswered calls, both the friend and Ann started to worry.
But it turns out at least one person may have heard something. Next door, a neighbor later reported having been awakened around 3 or 4 a.m. by a pounding noise. The sound eventually ceased, and the neighbor fell back asleep.
At 4:30 a.m., a newspaper carrier saw what he thought was Pete’s car pull away from the Camp Avenue home, where the lights remained on.
Next door, the sleeping neighbor awoke to pounding again at 6 a.m., but this time it was on the Nelson’s front door when Officer Pirages had first arrived.
By 7 a.m., Pete had arrived in Milwaukee, and was inside Ann’s room. A man believed to be the friend Pete had sent there overnight, instructed a desk clerk to send police to Ann’s room. When police arrived, they found Pete beating Ann in the bathroom, and took him into custody. Shortly after, Officer Steve Pirages was sent back to the Nelson home, where a gruesome crime scene awaited.
As funeral attendees mourned around half-a-dozen fresh graves in the frozen ground of Cavalry Cemetery, Simon Peter Nelson would enter a plea of not-guilty to six counts of murder levied by a grand jury’s indictment. Nelson was pleading insanity.
Judge Reinhard read the charges, but paused before the point when he’d normally state the names of victims. Reinhard offered Nelson the opportunity to choose whether he would hear the names of his six children, or to waive a full reading of the charges. Conferring with his attorney, which only took a short glance, Pete chose the latter.
Ann Nelson would later testify that she kept asking Pete about their children after he’d confronted her in her motel room. She said Pete responded: “Call a priest. Call two priests. Then call the police. …I’ve killed the children, and I’ve done it in such a spectacular way that you’ll never work again. …They’re all dead. How do you feel?”
Ann testified that Pete had wanted to see the expression on her face when he told her their kids were dead. His plan was allegedly to then kill himself in an automobile accident so that — in his mind — she alone would suffer the consequences resulting from her decision to leave him.
Ann then testified that Pete called out for his father, who had committed suicide 24 years earlier, on the birthday of Pete’s mother. Pete reportedly cried out one word — daddy — before physically attacking Ann in Milwaukee.
In court, Ann admitted she and Ernie Johnson, the very friend Pete had asked to intervene at her motel room, had been involved in an affair. Hearing this was too much for Pete to bear, and he excused himself from listening further to her testimony.
The defense would seem to seize on this detail as a cornerstone in order to paint Ann as being a bad wife and mother.
Meantime, Nelson’s attorney began crafting Pete’s insanity defense. After a failed suicide attempt in the basement on the night of the murders, Craig Peterson claimed, Nelson had seen his dead father ascending the stairs toward the children’s rooms before blacking out. Pete allegedly begged the apparition not to hurt the kids. It seemed that sometime after his father’s suicide, young Pete had read the man’s diary and learned he blamed his own family for the feelings of despair leading up to his death.
Pete, too, had allegedly threatened suicide in spousal arguments over the course of two failed marriages. Peterson argued that Nelson would see his father’s face whenever he got depressed and thought about harming himself. His father had been abusive, the defense argued in an attempt to paint Pete as a victim.
In a page taken from Anatomy of a Murder, the defense, while not denying Pete had committed murder, claimed Pete had no memory of killing his six children. Instead, Nelson claimed to recall witnessing his father carrying out the slayings, and that it was his father again in Ann’s motel room.
In fact, State’s Attorney Dan Doyle introduced a paperback copy of Anatomy of a Murder into evidence — a copy belonging to Simon Peter Nelson. Doyle asserted that Nelson’s temporary insanity defense was gleaned directly from the book in the weeks leading up to the murders.
The trial eventually came to a close, and Pete was convicted after only 75 minutes of deliberation. But jurors still needed to determine his punishment. Perhaps the jury comprised of wholesome peers didn’t want the weight of sentencing a man to death on their shoulders. Deliberations over the death penalty resulted in a deadlock, but jurors were in agreement that Simon Peter Nelson should never draw a breath of freedom’s air again. Instead of sending Pete to death row, the court administered terms of 100–200 years for each of the six first-degree murder counts.
From behind bars, Nelson remarried in 1982. Jewell Friend met Pete while teaching at the Menard maximum-security facility. He was later moved to the Graham Correctional Center, and Jewell passed away from cancer in 1982.
As for Ann, those who know her after the murders never told what became of her — only that she’d remarried and moved away to start a new life with Ernie Johnson. She, too, has since passed away.
And for decades to come, the community would have to circulate petitions every few years when Nelson would be eligible for parole, to assure members of the parole board that no one had forgotten or forgiven that horror back in 1978 — a scab that was never really able to heal when there was a possibility he could ever be released.
Even before moving into the neighborhood two years ago, I was certainly aware of what had happened inside that home. During my years as a newspaper reporter in town, I even reached out via e-mail to an owner of the home.
I’ll admit I wasn’t exactly doing a story about the murders, but I was curious what it was like to live in a house where six children had been murdered. How can something like that ever be erased, or painted over?
Though I can’t say I was surprised to learn what I did, I wasn’t expecting the owner to reveal to me that what was described as poltergeist-like activity was present in the home.
The house was on the market at the time, and the owner told me there were two kinds of people who expressed interest in buying — those who lost interest once they learned of the murders, and those who were drawn to the home because of them.
It has since become a rental property, and no one seems to stay for very long.
On June 18, 2017, Churchill’s Grove and the rest of Rockford, Illinois, breathed a sigh of relief. Simon Peter Nelson was dead at 85. Could the healing finally begin in Churchill’s Grove?
Since moving into a house half-a-block from the crime scene, I don’t think a day goes by where I still don’t gaze out the window at the Nelson house while sipping my morning coffee, or look down the street at night while taking in some fresh air on the porch, and I remember.
Now spring is upon us, and my neighbors will start stepping out of their houses after a winter’s hibernation.
Maybe this will be the summer where I’ll be taking an after-dinner walk, and strike up a conversation with whomever may be living there now. At some point, I’ll breach the subject. Maybe they’ll laugh it off and say, it’s just a house.
But maybe they’re so glad that winter is over, and that they can spend as much time outside of the house as possible. Maybe they’ll even invite me inside, hoping I’ll experience something out of the ordinary, thereby vindicating self-assurances that they’re not crazy — that even after 40 years, there’s still something not right about the place.
During those solitary moments on my front porch on cool nights, the sound of a child’s swing can be heard intermittently on the wind. I’ve never found the source. But the Nelson house is still there. The memory is there.
Pete is dead now, but we all still remember. Neither time, nor cleansing rain will make us forget the unforgettable. And houses have memories, too.
At these times, I find myself again speculating what it must be like to live there now. If what a previous owner told me was true — that there is paranormal activity in the house — would that activity dissipate after Pete’s passing? Could his children finally rest in peace? Would objects stop moving around in the house?
But then a chill hits me, and I can’t escape the thought that Simon Peter Nelson may, too, have come home to Camp Avenue when he died. And I wonder whether his children were there to greet their father at the door, or if the terror of Jan. 7, 1978, replays itself over and over again in a hellish loop, like a stuck record.