Steven Nelson was in his late 40s when he finished his bachelor’s degree in public relations at the University of Idaho in 2011. He aspired to work as a development director, possibly one day managing fundraising for a political campaign.
Nelson stood out at the university for a number of reasons, faculty and friends said Monday. He wasn’t a big guy, but he had a distinctive baritone voice — and he wasn’t shy about expressing his opinions.
“He knew the value of education, perhaps more than an 18-year-old freshman would,” said Professor Kenton Bird, who served as director of the School of Journalism from 2003 to 2015. “He was among the few students who would sit at the front of the classroom, who would ask questions, who would engage with the guest speakers after they had finished.”
Nelson, who died Friday morning after he was beaten and robbed near Lake Lowell in Canyon County, is remembered as a light-hearted person who laughed a lot. He had a talent for theater lighting and baking tasty croissants. He developed close friendships with faculty and students at the University of Idaho, and they were crushed to learn of the brutal, fatal attack on the 49-year-old.
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Professor Becky Tallent said she woke early Saturday to urgent messages from those who cared about Nelson, pleading for information on his whereabouts.
“They were saying, ‘There’s been a Steven Nelson attacked in Boise. Is it our Steven?’” Tallent recalled.
Nelson’s classmate Ivan Solotov, who now lives in Denver, said he felt profound sadness in reading the details of his friend’s death — that he was beaten, stripped naked and left to crawl for help. He believes his friend was targeted for being gay, and his attackers intended to steal his dignity in the process of taking his life.
It really blew me away, just the thought of how trivial a human life is to some people. How angry would you have to be to do this to someone, and where does it come from?”
Ivan Solotov, friend of Steven Nelson
Before he died, Nelson gave investigators a detailed description of one of the attackers and of the events that left him battered, naked and robbed of his possessions. Four suspects were arrested later Friday and are being held without bail.
Kelly B. Schneider, 22, Jayson C. Woods, 28, Kevin R. Tracy, 21, and Daniel A. Henkel, 23, were arraigned on first-degree murder, robbery and other charges in a Canyon County courtroom Monday afternoon. Henkel lives in Wilder; the other three list Nampa addresses.
Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue said Nelson used the Internet site Backpage.com to seek out a sexual encounter, arranged to meet one of the suspects and planned to pay the suspect for sex.
According to court documents, Schneider met Nelson at the Caldwell Wal-Mart and had him drive to a deserted spot at the Gott’s Point area of Lake Lowell. Schneider allegedly then pushed Nelson to the ground and kicked him multiple times, seriously injuring him.
“He was the one who kicked Mr. Nelson again and again with steel-toed boots,” Deputy Canyon County Prosecutor Chris Boyd said during Schneider’s arraignment.
Woods placed the Internet ad offering sexual services that Nelson responded to, and he is accused of helping Schneider as he robbed and beat Nelson. Tracy and Henkel are accused of hiding nearby in case Nelson put up a struggle and Schneider needed more muscle.
Schneider is accused of taking Nelson’s wallet, car keys and 2006 Chevrolet Impala, along with all of Nelson’s clothes, Boyd said. The assailants forced Nelson to give them the PIN for his debit card, which was later used to withdraw cash from an ATM.
Barefoot, naked and badly injured, Nelson reportedly made his way down the dirt and gravel road out of the Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge, trying to seek help at nearby homes. Residents called law enforcement about 5:45 a.m., concerned about a naked man knocking on doors.
Nelson was taken to a local hospital, bleeding from the ear and with what appeared to be broken ribs, according to court documents. He died of cardiac arrest a few hours later.
After speaking with Nelson, investigators identified and arrested Schneider by comparing his tattoos to a photo in the Backpage.com ad. They located the others with the help of a woman who called the sheriff’s office to say her SUV had been used to drop Schneider off at the Wal-Mart. The woman said Woods had held her inside the SUV, “driven her around and forced her to perform sex acts with random men for money,” according to an affidavit filed in court; she was in the vehicle for the trip to Wal-Mart.
Prosecutor Boyd alleged that Schneider had lured and beaten other victims “many, many times before.” He called the beating of Nelson “particularly brutal.”
He said no decision has been made on whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty against any of the defendants. All four are scheduled to return to court May 13 for a preliminary hearing.
If you’ve been attacked in a similar situation, the Canyon County Sheriff’s Office asks you to call 208-454-7510.
The sheriff’s office has received a “number of tips” since a call was put out seeking information on other people who may have been victimized by Schneider and the others, Sheriff Donahue said, stressing that victims can come forward without fear of being charged with solicitation.
Asked whether the spot where Nelson was attacked is a known hookup place, Canyon County spokesman Joe Decker said, "It doesn't happen out there any more frequently than the rest of the county.”
No one is supposed to be in the wildlife refuge after dark, but police sometimes do find people parked there when they patrol, he said.
Was this a hate crime?
U of I Professor Tallent said the first thing she thought of when she heard about the attack was Matthew Shepard, a gay man who was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die in Laramie, Wyo., in 1998. Shephard’s death drew national attention to hate crime legislation, and Congress passed the Hate Crimes Prevention Act in 2009 to provide funding and technical assistance in the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes.
Authorities stopped short of calling Nelson’s beating a hate crime, but they are investigating whether the suspects in this case targeted other victims specifically because of their sexuality, Donahue said.
U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson said Monday that the FBI has participated in investigating Nelson’s death but it’s too soon to tell if they will bring any federal charges against the suspects.
Nelson was an “out” gay man who gave presentations to university classes about his experiences. He had suffered both verbal and physical attacks, Tallent said.
“Somebody brought up Matthew Shepard in class one day,” she said. “Steven said something along the line of, ‘I hope to God we’ve gotten past that kind of violence.’”
Denise Bennett, an assistant professor of journalism and mass media, said Nelson was “thoughtful, critical and creative.” He had previously held jobs as a florist and restaurant manager, and he developed advanced lighting skills from his involvement in the theater.
“We would often meet during my office hours to discuss TV and film,” Bennett said. “His passion for the arts was inspiring.”
Watch: Nelson was among those who Bennett interviewed for a 2014 documentary by Bennett about gay marriage in Idaho. Nelson speaks at about 3:12.
Nelson spent some or all of his youth in Alaska — something he had in common with Solotov. They became friends while working on their “capstone” class project, and Nelson allowed Solotov to move in when he needed place to stay while finishing a summer class.
Solotov said people often ask him, “What’s it like living with a gay guy?”
“I always tell them that it was just like living with anyone else,” he said. “And that on the rare times our schedules aligned our favorite activity would be to binge watch ‘The West Wing’ and debate the complex political situations presented therein.”
Nelson worked in fundraising for the University of Idaho as phonathon manager. He took a similar position at Boise State University in late January of this year.
“We were shocked and saddened by his death, and the campus community shares deepest condolences with his family,” Boise State University spokesman Greg Hahn said Monday. Counseling services are being made available to those who worked with Nelson.
Tallent recalled how excited Nelson was to start his new job.
“He said, ‘I got the job at BSU, and I will know the words to the fight song by the end of the day,’” Tallent said. “Part of it was joking as a loyal Vandal, but part of it was ‘I’m taking this role very seriously.’”
Wake planned this week
Friends plan to hold a wake for Steven Nelson at 7 p.m. Friday in the Fiske Room at the 1912 Center, 412 East 3rd St., Moscow.