Friday, October 28, 2011

True story: Holding Hands with Evil (pt. 7)

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 through Six 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.


Young reached the bottom of the ladder and looked at Nenno. What to do with his suspect now? Young read his compliant posture and decided that Nenno had done the hard part, telling them where to find the body, and now it was time for him to answer some of the other questions. He and Detective Johnson took Nenno back to the command post and, once they were inside, Young removed his handcuffs. Nenno remained in a slumped, defeated posture. Oddly, he kept his arms rigid behind him as if he knew he should be in handcuffs, wanted to be restrained. Gently, Young put his hands on Nenno’s arms and guided them forward.

Young directed Nenno to sit down at a small table, and took the chair opposite Nenno. Johnson sat to one side, opening a laptop computer to take down any statement their suspect made.

Young wanted to bring Nenno out of the stupor into which he appeared to have sunken, so he began asking about his military service, his work history, and his home life. Nenno was a salesman for a plumbing supply company and lived in his sister’s house. She was in the military, currently stationed overseas, and Nenno lived there with her son, his 18-year-old nephew, Wes Chamness.

Finally Young said: “Eric, we need to talk about how Nicole ended up in your attic.”

Nenno fell silent, slumped so far down in his chair that his nose almost touched the table. This, of course, was the key moment. If it was going to happen at all, the confession would have to come now. Even though they could likely gather enough evidence to convict Nenno, Young was determined to find out exactly what happened. He stood and walked around the table, taking his chair and putting it next to Nenno. He sat down and took Nenno’s left hand in his, and then began to slowly rub the man’s back with his other hand.

Nenno started talking. He had been outside the night Nicole’s father was practicing with his band. He had walked along the sidewalk when he noticed Nicole walking away from the party, towards him. He stopped her, being as friendly as he could be, and engaged her in conversation. She told him that her father was in a band, and played guitar. He had laughed and said what a coincidence that was, because he, too, was in a band, and like her daddy he played the guitar.

Almost as soon as they got inside his house, Nenno said, Nicole realized something was wrong. She resisted. Nenno said he was unable to force himself on her, to rape her while she was alive. In a calm, steady voice, he told Young how he had killed Nicole in his bedroom, and then raped her.

Young continued to sit beside Nenno, holding his hand, rubbing his back. As difficult as it was to touch this man, it was working and so Young willed himself to keep doing it. As if under a spell, Nenno continued to talk in his quiet but clear voice. Nenno would later claim: “I knew I was to be arrested anyway, so there was no point in resisting or withholding anything which might help Nicole Benton’s family.”

Young, however, remembers that Nenno sounded like a young boy confessing a naughty deed to a parent, and contrary to his purported flash of decency, Young’s impression remained that Nenno was not sorry for the deed, just sorry that he had been caught.

It struck Young forcefully, and backed up what he already knew about these types of crimes, that within ten minutes of walking away from the neighbor’s yard, within ten minutes of being in full view of her father and friends, Nicole Benton was dead.

Nenno told Young and Johnson about the dilemma he faced once she was dead—what to do with her body. He wanted to take her out of the house, drive her somewhere, but he was afraid to do so with all the activity in the neighborhood. And he couldn’t leave her in the main house and risk his nephew coming home and finding her. His solution was to carry her to the garage and stash her body in the attic, behind the boxes. As it turns out, there was one admission that Nenno would leave out of his confession. A physical examination of Nicole would show that after being dumped in the attic, Nenno returned and raped her multiple times over the next few days.

As forthcoming as Nenno was during his confession, as freely as he related his horrendous crime, he remained absolutely inscrutable on one small point. Nicole was found naked, so Young asked what he did with her clothes. For no reason Young could fathom, either then or thinking about it later, Nenno refused to say. Young pressed, asking the question several different ways but Nenno simply wouldn’t tell him. A search of the house would later locate them, hidden in a filing cabinet in his den. In the same filing cabinet investigators found Nenno’s stash of pornography, not especially extensive but very revealing: young models, purportedly aged eighteen or older, but all dressed as little children.

Young testified at Eric Nenno’s trial and on January 18, 1996, Nenno was found guilty of the sexual assault and murder of Nicole Benton. On February 1, 1996, the jury sentenced him to death and after the judge entered the sentence Nenno was transported in leg irons to death row.

(Final installment to appear on 10/31)


  1. That actually made me nauseous--to think he returned to rape her after he had killed her. Truly evil. I'm so glad he was sentenced to death. How horrible. That poor girl and her family. God I am just glad they caught this guy so he couldn't do the same to someone else's little girl. Very, very sad.

  2. Thanks Lisa, for posting. So few people get to see or hear from the Nenno's of this world, and thank heavens there are very few of them out there. It was chilling and fascinating and terrifying to talk to him, and I intend to give a more personal summary of the meeting at the end of the series, next week.

  3. This continues to be a fascinating close-up look at the investigative process that occurs prior to lawyers and courts rushing in, after a crime has been committed. Thanks for writing it.

    - This isn't the first time I've heard about a defendant who could not bring himself to rape a live girl or woman and somehow seemed to think it was preferable to murder the victim before sexually penetrating her body. That (lack of) reasoning seems indicative of very serious mental problems, and I would like to understand more about the neuropsychological condition of men who commit their crimes in that order.

    - Does Texas law categorize the sexual penetration of a dead body as "rape" because the corpse cannot give consent? I have a hard time understanding this as rape, although it is a very upsetting act. I am grateful that the victim did not experience being raped when she was alive - a small mercy - though the senseless way in which her life was taken is so, so heartbreaking.

    - I really appreciated your exploration of Young's feelings upon finding the victim's body in your last post. I wonder about the toll that these cases - tragedies - take on people who work on them in the long-term. It makes sense that people like Young could at least take solace in their ability to participate in the investigation and ultimate prosecution of the crime. I imagine that criminal prosecutors feel that same solace.

    - I didn't realize that an investigator would ever do something as personal as touch a homicide suspect very familiarly and continuously, as is described in this post. It seems highly unorthodox and it left me feeling a bit odd to read it, but I can't quite put my finger on why. Did it come up in postconviction in this case? It sounds like it might have (from your "Nenno would later claim...")

  4. Thanks Anon. I think what I'll do is comb through the comments and write one post addressing people's questions in it. Sometime next week, hopefully it'll make for interesting reading.


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