The FBI is looking into whether the April 29 beating death of Steven Nelson south of Nampa qualifies as a hate crime.
Canyon County Sheriff Kieran Donahue, in an interview Tuesday with the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board, confirmed that the FBI is looking into the possibility that Nelson, 49, was targeted by his killers because he was gay.
“They’re going to have to meet some pretty high standards of federal law to make that happen, to get beyond that robbery aspect,” Donahue said.
Under the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, willfully causing bodily injury based on the victim’s race, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, gender or gender identity, or disability is classified as a hate crime. The statute carries a possible life sentence in cases in which the victim is killed.
The law is somewhat complicated, U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy Olson said.
“We have to prove that the offense occurred because of the protected status of the victim,” she said.
When an individual is attacked because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, prosecutors must also prove that the crime somehow affected interstate commerce, which allows a person to be charged under the federal statute. If the perpetrators used a cellphone or a computer with access to the Internet in furtherance of their crime, that would qualify, she said.
“Having that extra element of proving interstate commerce can be a little bit cumbersome,” Olson said.
Other existing federal laws allow for federal prosecution of hate crimes directed against minorities and other victims.
Two Boise men — charged under the Shepard-Byrd act — were acquitted by a jury last year after being accused of beating a black man in The Torch 2 lounge because of his race. In a 2009 case charged under a different hate crime statute, one man pleaded guilty and two others were found guilty for beating a black man after he came out of a Nampa Wal-Mart.
Investigators are looking to the federal law in Nelson’s death because Idaho’s Malicious Harassment statute does not cover violence committed because of the victim’s sexual orientation.
The widening of the federal law to include victims of sexual orientation came after the deaths of Shepard and Byrd.
University of Wyoming student Shepard, 21, was tortured, beaten to death and left to die near Laramie, Wyo., in October 1998. Two men pretended they were gay to gain Shepard’s trust so they could rob him.
Byrd was a black man who was killed in Jasper, Texas, in June 1998. Two of the three men who dragged Byrd for 3 miles behind a pickup were white supremacists. One of the killers was executed, one remains on death row and the third was sentenced to life.
In the Lake Lowell case, Nelson responded to an ad for a sexual encounter on Backpage.com and arranged to meet a man and pay him for sex, police said.
Police said Kelly B. Schneider, 22, of Nampa, met Nelson and had him drive to a deserted spot at the Gott’s Point area of Lake Lowell. Schneider, allegedly assisted by Jayson C. Woods, 28, also from Nampa, pushed Nelson to the ground and kicked him at least 30 times with steel-toed boots, a prosecutor said.
Two other men, Kevin R. Tracy, 21, of Nampa, and Daniel A. Henkel, 23, of Nampa, hid nearby in case they were needed, police said.
All four are charged with first-degree murder. They are scheduled to appear Friday in District Court, but it’s unclear whether those hearings will take place. In complex cases, the hearings often are rescheduled to allow both sides more time to investigate.
Woods told police that he placed the Internet ad and that it had been used before to set up people so they could be robbed, according to a probable cause affidavit filed in the case. Investigators are looking into whether only gay people were targeted or whether heterosexuals also might have been victimized.
“I’ve put out requests for the public and potential victims and I’m certain there are other victims,” Donahue said. “My goal is to see more people come forward.”
The perpetrators banked on the idea that their victims would be too embarrassed to report the robberies to police, Donahue said.
“There’s a reason they’re preying on these people. The secrecy of the underground black market of the Internet, and let’s say it’s a man who’s going to have sex with another man and yet he’s married and has kids. If they beat him up and rob him, he’s probably not going to report that, for family reasons, professional reasons,” Donahue said.
The robbers are “not stupid,” Donahue said. “They get that. That’s why they’re preying on them.”
Treasure Valley killings since 2015
At least 14 people have died in 12 violent acts in Ada and Canyon counties since January 2015.
April 29, 2016: Steven E. Nelson died after being attacked at Lake Lowell.
March 10, 2016: Robert Stevens, 37, was stabbed to death in Nampa. The main suspect, James Mancuso, 32, of Nampa, has evaded capture. Ashley Ford, 27, is charged with accessory to second-degree murder.
Feb. 20, 2016: Joshua Warren, 31, was shot to death outside a Boise apartment complex when he went to pick up his sons. Joshua J. Alberts, 39, is charged with first-degree murder.
Jan. 5, 2016: Daniel Ridgeway, 26, was stabbed to death at a Boise home. His friend, Michael R. Downs, 25, is charged with first-degree murder.
Nov. 18, 2015: Chelsey Rae Malone, 23, was stabbed to death in Nampa. Her then-boyfriend, Brandon Shaw, 23, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder. He is scheduled to be sentenced June 24.
Oct. 18, 2015: Tristin Fenton was shot to death at his Meridian home. David Provencio, 18, accidentally shot his friend. He pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter and was sentenced to five to 15 years in prison.
Sept. 23, 2015: Zacheriah N. Peterson, 21, was shot to death by Brandon Bahr, 24, at the Boise Depot. Bahr was found guilty of first-degree murder and is scheduled to be sentenced June 24.
Aug. 22, 2015: Kylo Jackson, 26, of Nampa, was shot to death in a gang-related incident outside a Nampa store. Alberto Chavez, 20, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to seven to 15 years in prison.
July 1, 2015: Melvin J. Baptie, 70, shot his wife, Karen S. Baptie, 68, and then himself at their Nampa home.
June 11, 2015: Amparo Godinez Sanchez, 39, was shot to death at her home in Wilder. Her husband, Erasmo A. Diaz, 52, fled and is being sought for the killing.
March 8, 2015: Ted Welp, 80, his wife Elaine Welp, 77, and their son, Thomas Welp, 52, were each shot in the head and beaten with a baseball bat inside their Foothills home. Adam Dees, 23, of Nampa, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.
Jan. 31, 2015: Trent Spreier, 57, was shot to death following a confrontation at his Meridian home with his son in law. Cameron E. Post pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to five to 15 years in prison.