Jeff Pelline: You can’t sugar-coat a crossbow murder |

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Jeff Pelline: You can’t sugar-coat a crossbow murder

Nevada County is shaped like a Deringer pistol (you know, the same gun that John Wilkes Booth used to assassinate Abraham Lincoln). But the murder weapons used to kill people in our wee neck of the woods are ” well ” a wee more horrifying.

If you’ve ever played the board game “Clue,” we’re not talking about a “Whodunit” involving “Colonel Mustard in the Conservatory with a Revolver.”

Among the weapons found at crime scenes around here: a crossbow arrow, a nail gun, a sickle and a chain saw, among others. In 1993, a tree trimmer killed himself with his own chain saw near Truckee ” the first recorded U.S. incident of its kind.

The details of these murder cases are ” well ” incendiary. The judicial system needs to accept this, not blame the media.

Just this week, a Lake of the Pines area man (just outside the gated area) was found dead in his home with crossbow arrows through his chest and neck. One shot landed in his heart, and the other landed in his neck. The man’s brother was charged with murder.

The crossbow-arrow case comes on the heels of the nail-gun murder, where a Grass Valley man is accused of shooting his wife once in the chest and twice in the head with a high-powered nail gun on Oct. 22, 2005. The jury is being bussed to the courthouse from Truckee for the trial because of what a judge considers “incendiary” local media reports that could jeopardize his right to a fair trial.

These are awful tragedies, for the victims and their families. But you can’t sugar coat the details of cases like these, and people have a right to know.

Adding to the drama of the nail-gun murder, defendant Richard Williams’ jailmate, convicted murderer Frank Zupan, is set to testify against him. The same defense attorney has represented both men. Isn’t that a conflict of interest (seemingly an epidemic in our county)? Some also are questioning the attorney’s decision to seek a change in venue: Many prospective jurors in Nevada City are more liberal than Truckee residents, a possible plus for the defendant.

Prior restraint?

The judge in the nail-gun murder case, Robert Tamietti, said he is a “fan” of the First Amendment. But in a previous case of a Grass Valley man who confessed on tape to molesting his toddler son (more incendiary details), the judge placed restrictions on a camera in the courtroom that we think were unconstitutional based on case law.

Jury selection in the nail-gun murder is set to begin soon.

Dramatic crimes are nothing new around here. Do you remember the gruesome attack of the “sickle slayer”?

“Two persons were hacked to death and three others wounded by a balding man shouting guttural sounds, who attacked several campers on Bear River at the Dog Bar Bridge last night,” The Union’s front-page article said on July 13, 1971. “According to witnesses the assailant ran amuck through three camp sites, then disappeared.”

“(A witness) told authorities that the man smiled constantly and made strange sounds as he chased and hacked at the people in the camps.”

According to later articles in our paper, Auburn resident Clarence Otis Smith believed “he was instructed by God to root out marijuana users and other evil-doers. He quit his job and fled to Mexico, where he was arrested by the FBI several weeks later.”

The chain saw case of 1993 was horrific. As the UPI reported, “Authorities originally investigated the death as a homicide after (the man’s) body and his chain saw were found next to his truck near a cemetery. But a state investigation found no other fingerprints on the equipment, and a reenactment with a mannequin found it was indeed possible to commit suicide with a chain saw.”

The only other such incident was reported in Russia, according to the UPI.

Over the years, murder mysteries have provided some surprisingly lethal weapons, according to research by a Waterboro, Maine, librarian. In “Murder by Toaster, Mysteries with Surprisingly Lethal Weapons,” she cites murder by a mouse cord at a software gaming company (“Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon” by Donna Andrews), a killing where a bonsai tree is sticking out a man’s chest (“Bloody Bonsai” by Peter Abresch), and a book where someone is killed in a locked steam room turned on to maximum (“Evans to Betsy” by Rhys Bowen). The list is interesting.

But the books mentioned are fiction, just like horror movies such as the Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

By contrast, the killings here with a crossbow, a nail gun, a sickle and a chain saw are all real ” with real victims. “Sickle slayer” Smith was sent to prison and has been denied parole more than a dozen times, thank goodness.

Across the nation, the most common murder weapons used are, in order, guns, knives, strangulation, blunt objects and arson, according to the U.S. Department of Justice and FBI crime statistics. A sixth category called “all other” includes “poison, explosives, drowning, asphyxiation, narcotics, other means and weapons not stated.”

To be sure, Nevada County has a low crime rate and fewer sensational crimes than other cities. Have you read the New York Post?

As many of you know, the movie “Zodiac” was based on a true story in San Francisco; I used to work at the paper that was contacted by the creepy notes. I’ll never forget the gory details of the Tate-LaBianca murders, which I read as a child day after day in the L.A. Times.

Also, some of the unusual-sounding murder weapons used around here are more common in a rural area ” a crossbow for hunting, for example. I’ve often seen them in the Cabela’s catalog, and this is Cabela’s country. (The hunting and fishing store is building a superstore between Truckee and Reno that is due to open late this year or next year, with 400 workers, a testament to its popularity around here).

As for a nail gun as a murder weapon, it is used routinely in construction, and we were doing some building back in 2005. I can’t say I’ve seen a sickle or machete in use here for a while, but that was 1971. We often use weed eaters now. Beware: they also are very dangerous.

The county always has been a little rough around the edges, too. It grew up quickly during the gold rush, and along with the growth came murder and brothels.

History and some context aside, nobody can deny that sensational crimes occur in our county and no doubt will continue.

Judge Tamietti ” appointed to the post four days before Gray Davis exited as governor in a 2003 recall election ” took some heat for siding with the defense attorney in choosing Truckee jurors in the nail-gun case. I hope he knows our stories are reprinted in our sister paper, the Sierra Sun, which circulates to the jury pool in Truckee as well.

In his ruling, Tamietti relied on a defense-attorney requested poll (costing us $125 per hour in consulting fees), saying he’d be a “damn fool” to deny the motion.

Poll questioned

Some people spoke up.

In one startling response, a Nevada City resident solicited for his opinion about the case alleged the pollster tried to coerce him into saying defendant Williams is guilty. He disagreed with the judge’s decision and thinks the people of western Nevada County are capable of sitting on a jury in the case.

“I would like to think the people here would be able to make a rational decision,” Ed Arnott said.

The defense attorney countered the man’s impressions were not accurate. Was he there?

The change of venue issue will continue to resurface, no doubt starting with the crossbow-arrow murder case. Maybe we should just lighten up and rename it the “merry men” case in the media ” you know, Robin Hood and his Merry Men, bows and arrows and stuff.

Few change of venue motions are granted. In the Grass Valley molestation case, a change of venue motion was rejected by another judge, but a plea bargain was reached before the case went to trial.

I hope by the time the crossbow-arrow murder case gets near trial here in Sherwood Forest West (watch for another plea deal) that more people will accept the truth: Details of crimes committed with crossbows, nail guns, and sickles are incendiary by their very nature and, most important, the people of our county are intelligent enough and can be trusted enough to think independently.

One of our senior reporters remembered the words of a former longtime Plumas County judge on this matter: “I trust that the citizens of our county can render judgment on this case no matter what they did or didn’t read in the local newspaper.”

I also hope any poll of residents that is presented to the court will be more closely scrutinized as well. Citizen journalist Arnott’s charges were disturbing.


Jeff Pelline is the editor of The Union. His column appears on Saturdays. Contact him at 477-4235,, or 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.

Truth is stranger than fiction: Macabre weapons used here

-Clarence Otis Smith hacks two people to death with a sickle at Bear River Campground in July 1971.

-Truckee man, 27, kills himself with a chain saw in 1993.

-Richard Williams of Grass Valley is accused of shooting his wife once in the chest and twice in the head with a nail gun in October 2005.

-Arthur Prosser, a Lake of the Pines area man, is accused of killing his brother with a crossbow arrow shot into his heart.

Source: The Union, UPI