Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Earle Leonard Nelson: The Dark Strangler


Earle Leonard Nelson mugshot
Earle Leonard Nelson

In the spring of 1915, Earle set out from his aunt's home on one of his aimless forays around the northern California area. As he grew, Earle became more restless and would disappear for days or weeks at a time without leaving any word as to his whereabouts or destination. He financed these jaunts by petty crime and the occasional odd job.

This time, in need of money and food, Earle broke into what he thought was an abandoned cabin, only to be surprised on his way out by the returning owner. He fled into the nearby woods but was tracked down by a posse and arrested. Caught red-handed, it was an open-and-shut case, and Earle was quickly tried and convicted of burglary. Just a little older than 18, Earle was sentenced to two years in prison and sent to San Quentin prison.

His time behind bars passed without note, and he emerged two years later not rehabilitated in the least. The United States was slowly being drawn into the Great War in Europe, patriotism surged in many a young man, including Earle Leonard Ferral, who enlisted in the U.S. Army, hoping to serve "over there."

He went to prison as Earle Nelson, but joined the U.S. Army as Earle Ferral, but it didn't take long for him to realize he was not cut out for military life. Ordered to stand guard one cold night, Nelson went AWOL and headed to Salt Lake City, Utah.

However, Nelson wasn't suited to be a Mormon and once again he enlisted in the military: this time in the U.S. Navy. Assigned to be a cook in San Francisco, Nelson lasted just over a month in the Navy before he deserted. The chores, Schechter reported, were too onerous.

He bounced around the Bay area for two months before trying the military once again, this time as a medical corpsman. Here, Nelson began to exhibit the signs of mental illness that would later turn into violence. He deserted again, because "burning about his anus bothered him," Schechter wrote. In 1918, Nelson returned to the Navy and immediately became a problem. He refused to work; instead, he spent his time reading the Bible and prophesizing about the Apocalypse. Within a month, he was committed to the Napa State Mental Hospital. Nelson was 18 years old.

In his intake interview, Nelson told of a bizarre lifestyle.

He admitted to masturbating daily between the ages of 13 and 18, "but not since then," and was an alcoholic who had not had a drink in the last seven months. Blood tests showed evidence of gonorrhea and syphilis, which Nelson said he contracted before his 16th birthday. He displayed a preoccupation with religion and God, and a proclivity to flee. Twice Nelson escaped from Napa in the 13 months he spent there, earning him the nickname "Houdini" from the other patients, and twice he was captured and returned.

The third time he escaped, in 1919, the medical personal at Napa didn't even bother to track him down. They simply discharged him from the military and wrote down in his record that he had "improved." This assessment was as wrong as the one in his folder that reported he was "not violent; homicidal; or destructive."

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