Will County man on death row an apparent suicide

Killer of 4 feared living in general prison population, his lawyer says

By: Steve Schmadeke, Tribune reporters
The Chicago Tribune
Thursday, April 29, 2010

A death row inmate who sneaked into his estranged girlfriend's Will County farmhouse in 2002 and beat her and three others to death with a crowbar apparently killed himself Thursday because he was scared of being moved into the prison system's general population.

Brian Nelson, 27, who was convicted of murder, home invasion and aggravated arson in 2006, was found dead in his Pontiac Correctional Center cell about 2:30 a.m., according to a Department of Corrections spokeswoman. Other sources said it appeared Nelson had hanged himself.

Nelson was scheduled to appear at the Will County Courthouse on Friday and likely be re-sentenced to life in prison. In December, the Illinois Supreme Court upheld his convictions but threw out his death sentence, finding the trial judge had wrongly removed a juror opposed to the death penalty.

The convicted killer had hoped for a new trial or to remain on death row, his attorney said.

"As nuts as it sounds, he preferred the death sentence over natural life," said Steve Haney, his Joliet attorney. "He had indicated he would rather have stayed on death row, with the definite potential of dying by lethal injection, than to live the rest of his natural life in the midst of the general population in prison."

Nelson, whose stepfather for a time was far south suburban Beecher's police chief, was described during his trial as an emotionally stunted man obsessed with his girlfriends.

A woman who dated Nelson for six months at Beecher Elementary testified that he shot her name into his chest with a pellet gun and carved "Megan4eva" on his arm. When she tried to break up with him, Nelson threatened to kill them both and handed her bullets to take home.

The week of the murders in May 2002, Nelson called his former girlfriend Sara Tennant 129 times.

The 19-year-old Joliet Junior College student called him back to confront him after Nelson broke into her car, stealing $80 and a picture of her new boyfriend, according to trial testimony.

On May 31, Nelson sneaked into the Tennants' farmhouse on a rural road in Custer Park. When Sara refused to take him back, Nelson said he loved her and then beat her to death with a crowbar in the bedroom basement she shared with their 15-month-old daughter, who was later found unharmed outside the house.

Nelson then went upstairs, beating and stabbing to death Sara's father, Harold Tennant, 46, and his girlfriend Jean Bookwalter, 46. He then killed Sara's brother Eric Tennant, 16, as he slept in a recliner after a long day of farm work.

Afterward, Nelson set the family and their house on fire.

Then he left a chilling cell-phone message for Sara.

"Sara, I love you," he said in the recording. "Please call me. I don't want you to be mad at me … I don't feel good right now … bye, honey."