Wednesday, October 19, 2011

True story: Holding Hands with Evil (pt. 3)

What follows is a true story. I wrote it following interviews with murderer Eric Nenno and Mark Young, and after reviewing newspaper accounts of the case. All names and information are public record. What is different is the perspective: of the killer, and the man who caught him. Parts One and Two are below.

PLEASE NOTE: while not unduly graphic in description, this is the story of the murder of a young girl. Do not read this if the subject matter is disturbing to you.


Outside the FBI trailer, the subdivision had devolved into a circus. Not only was the press there in full force, but so were the crazies—one woman stood on the sidewalk, speaking in tongues, trying to get guidance as to Nicole’s whereabouts directly from God. Above her the Black Hawk helicopter of one agency or another buzzed back and forth over the houses. Young assumed it was looking for Nicole but no one seemed to be communicating with the pilot, so he was never sure who had summoned it or what good it was doing.

Young tried to tune these distractions out, to concentrate on finding Nicole. But he knew that too much time had passed, that the chances of finding her alive were dimming by the minute. He turned his attention to the neighbors. Detective Johnson took Young to the home of one of them, a man identified by locals as being a loner, a strange individual viewed with suspicion even before this incident. The man lived directly opposite where Nicole and her friends had been playing.

Young and Johnson knocked on the front door. It was opened by a man in his 40s, visibly nervous. Young already knew that the man lived there with his mother, and that she was away on vacation. The man was clearly anxious, and Young noticed that he kept twitching, making involuntary movements that heightened the appearance of nervousness. Reluctantly, the man let them into his house and Young immediately noticed memorabilia from the Vietnam War. They asked him some initial questions, wondering if he had noticed the activity in the neighborhood. The man said he wasn’t sure what was going on, only that there were a lot of people around. Young asked if he’d heard the garage band practicing the previous evening. “No,” the man said. “I sure didn’t.” Given that the mini-concert was directly across the street, it seemed like an odd response. Young asked more directly about Nicole, and he and Detective Johnson noticed the man’s body movements increase. Young needed to know what caused the twitching, so he simply asked. The man admitted that he was on anti-psychotic medication, and it affected his muscles.

That was the clincher for Young, but he had one more idea. He turned to the man and asked: “How would you like a free security check?”

“Security check?”

“Sure,” Young said. “Let us check your home’s entry points and see how secure your house is from burglars.”

The man agreed, grateful for the free advice. And after perusing his home, Young confirmed his suspicions. He turned to Detective Johnson and said: “He’s not our man, let’s go.”

On the front steps Detective Johnson demanded an explanation. Surely, he pointed out, the guy fit the classic profile of the child abductor? He was in his 40s, lived with his mother, was seen as a weirdo, and was visibly shaken by their questions about Nicole. Not to mention that he admitted to being psychotic.

Young explained his reasoning. “Whoever did this, assuming it’s a kidnapping, has managed to cover his tracks. This guy, on the other hand, doesn’t drive, doesn’t even have a car. And being psychotic, he doesn’t have the capacity to hide such a momentous crime for very long. For an hour or two maybe, but not for this long. We would have seen some sign of her. Maybe even seen her there. It’s not him.”

“You are sure of that?”

“Yes,” Young said. He smiled ruefully and decided to let Johnson in on a secret. For some reason, researchers had found a strange correlation between sex assaults and the services.

“We don’t read too much into it,” Young cautioned him, “it’s a statistical correlation and nothing more. But when a marine or army serviceman commits a sex assault it’s usually against a woman. An adult woman. But when a former airman or navy serviceman commits one, it’s more likely to be against a child.” Young held up a hand. “I can’t explain it, but that’s what we’ve seen.”

“That guy’s Vietnam memorabilia.” Johnson nodded. “He was in the Army.”

(to be continued on October 21)


  1. I'm on the edge of my seat--even as my heart goes out to Nicole and her family since we already know that she was not recovered alive. Interesting stats about servicemen and sexual assault.

  2. I'm reading with great interest. I've now Googled and read a bit about Nenno's crime and time on death row. It seems that he belonged to the demographic of death row inmates who (a) committed an unspeakable, tragic, reprehensible crime, but (b) had at least a partial physiological explanation for the crime, with respect to his organic brain damage linked to his military service and chemical exposure, and (c) was extremely remorseful and could have been detained safely for the rest of his life in maximum-security conditions if given LWOP. Given this mix of circumstances - a not-uncommon mix on death row - I will be intrigued to hear your assessment of whether he was evil and what the term evil means as applied to perpetrators in the homicide context. (I hasten to add that I am writing the previous sentence not with a rhetorical flourish, but because I don't know the answers to those questions. My experience with capital homicides has taught me that words like "evil" and "monster," while satisfyingly black and white, don't clearly apply to one's three-dimensional interactions with the men and women on death row. But at the same time, one is confronted with flawed human beings (many of whom*) have committed acts that can rightly be characterized as evil.

    *I.e., those who are not innocent/wrongfully convicted

  3. Thanks, Lisa. :) Mark could never explain why that was the case, but it certainly seemed to be his experience.

    Anon: great question, and worthy of a separate blog entry. If I forget, please do remind me, I'd love to give my opinion on the issue of evil.


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