Killer takes last life
Inmate commits suicide day before his new sentencing
JOLIET -- Death-row inmate Brian Nelson was found dead Thursday morning in his cell in Pontiac.
Will County Chief Judge Gerald Kinney heard the news around 8:45 a.m. Thursday when he got a telephone call from someone at the Pontiac Correctional Center. The judge had expected to see Nelson in court Friday for a hearing.
"He hung himself," Kinney said.
Nelson, who is from Momence, was found guilty in 2006 during a jury trial of killing his former girlfriend and three other people almost eight years ago. Kinney presided over the trial.
Found dead in cell
The Illinois Department of Corrections confirmed Nelson's death Thursday afternoon.
"At approximately 2:30 a.m. this morning ... an inmate in the condemned unit ... was found dead in his cell at the Pontiac Correctional Center," DOC spokeswoman Sharyn Elman wrote in an e-mailed statement. "The inmate was singled celled. Preliminary indications are that the inmate took his own life."
The death remains under investigation.
Pontiac is the only Illinois prison housing death-row inmates, and there are 15 of them, Elman wrote. The inmates are allowed five visitors each month, and have at least five hours each week of recreation outside of their cells, she said.
His mother, Janet Nelson of Momence, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Victims beat to death
Awaiting new sentence
Early in the morning of May 31, 2002, Nelson drove from his home to the Custer Park farmhouse where Sara Tennant lived with their young daughter and other members of her family. Nelson was upset because she had a new boyfriend and refused to reconcile with him.
Nelson found an unlocked door and went inside. After talking with Sara Tennant, Nelson left the house, went to the garage, found a crowbar and returned to the 19-year-old woman's basement bedroom.
After saying he loved her, Nelson beat Sara Tennant to death with the tool.
Then he went upstairs and killed Eric Tennant, her 16-year-old brother, the same way. Still armed with the crowbar, he attacked Harry Tennant, the teens' father, and his girlfriend, Jean Bookwalter of Gardner, both 46. Nelson also stabbed the two adults and started several fires in the house to destroy his clothing and conceal the crimes.
Two people who were in the house that night survived: a young man who had been working on the farm that day, and Nelson's young daughter. The farmhand escaped through a second-floor window. Nelson had put the little girl in her car seat inside a vehicle that was parked near the farmhouse. Investigators found her there later that morning.
Police reportedly captured Nelson within hours of the fire at the home of Harry Tennant's mother, near the border of Will and Kankakee counties.
Nelson's jury trial began with witness testimony on Sept. 25, 2006. On Oct. 3, the jury decided that Nelson was guilty of first-degree murder, arson and home invasion. After deliberating for about 10 minutes the following day, the jurors found him eligible for the death penalty.
In late December, the Illinois Supreme Court overturned Nelson's sentence. During the sentencing phase of his 2006 trial, two jurors complained to Kinney about another juror. The man would not give Nelson the death penalty despite the evidence and the jury instructions. Kinney removed that juror from the panel and put one of the alternates in his place.
"The only available sentence to me, to impose on Mr. Nelson, would have been natural life in prison without the possibility of parole," Kinney said Thursday. He expected to do that in court Friday morning.
Nelson knew that
"He was disappointed," said Steve Haney, a lawyer from Joliet who represented Nelson during his trial.
Haney spoke to Nelson after the Supreme Court announced its decision.
"His main fear and main concern was getting moved. The result of the decision would have gotten him a natural life sentence, and he would have been off death row and in the general population. He had a significant concern about that," Haney said.
Nelson was accustomed to his life on death row, Haney said.
"It sounds ludicrous, but in Brian's mind, it was a much more comfortable existence than he would have in the general population," Haney said.
During Nelson's sentencing hearing, correctional officers from the Will County Jail testified that they had seized letters from Nelson that included racist remarks.
Although Nelson is dead, the hearing still is scheduled for Friday.