Steven Nelson pulled his car up to the Idaho Walmart that night in April expecting to meet a male escort, a man he had contacted via an ad on the website Backpage. Nelson picked up the bearded, tattooed man named Kelly Schneider and, at his request, drove him to Gotts Point, on the shore of Lake Lowell.
Another man met them there. With him, Schneider pushed Nelson to the ground and kicked him at least 30 times with steel-toed boots while Nelson begged for his life, according to court documents. Nelson was choked and stripped of his clothes before they drove away in his car, taking Nelson’s wallet, credit cards and clothing with him.
Barefoot and naked, Nelson knocked on the doors of nearby homes, asking residents to call 911. Hours after being transported to a Boise, Idaho, hospital with broken ribs and a bleeding ear, he died of cardiac arrest.
In a state court Monday, Schneider pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, saying he intended to rob Nelson but not kill him, the Idaho Statesman reported. He admitted to kicking the man repeatedly and acknowledged that his actions caused Nelson’s death.
Afterward, Idaho U.S. attorney Wendy J. Olson announced that Schneider, 23, of Nampa, Idaho, had been indicted on federal hate crime charges by a grand jury for willfully assaulting Nelson because of his sexual orientation. The indictment alleges that Schneider’s actions resulted in the death of his victim. The charge is punishable by up to life in prison, supervised release of not more than five years and a $250,000 fine. He is scheduled to be arraigned Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Boise before Magistrate Ronald Bush. A trial date will be set at the same time.
The fatal beating of the openly gay man has been compared by some in the community to the murder of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student from Wyoming whose torture and subsequent death set off a nationwide debate about hate crimes and homophobia and led to the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
“Folks are grieving the loss of a fellow colleague, as well as facing the reality that our community can be a hostile and sometimes very dangerous place for folks who identify as LGBTQIA,” said Adriane Bang, director of the Gender Equity Center at Boise State University.
Prosecutors dropped Schneider’s charges of felony robbery, theft and robbery conspiracy in exchange for his guilty plea on the murder charge. He faces up to life in prison when sentenced March 20. Prosecutors can recommend a fixed sentence as high as 28 years before parole eligibility, and the defense can ask for as little as 10 years.
Deputy Canyon County Prosecutor Chris Boyd said Schneider had lured and beaten other victims “many, many times before.” He called the beating of Nelson “particularly brutal,” the Idaho Statesman reported.
Jayson Woods, 28, of Nampa, is accused of helping Schneider as he beat and robbed Nelson of his car, wallet and other possessions. Kevin R. Tracy, 21, of Nampa, and Daniel Henkel, 23, of Wilder, are accused of hiding nearby in case Nelson put up a struggle.
Woods’s trial began in District Court on Monday, and Tracy and Henkel are scheduled as witnesses. Tracy is scheduled to go to trial Feb. 6 on first-degree murder, robbery and conspiracy charges. Henkel is set for trial March 6 on the same charges. They have both pleaded not guilty, the Idaho Statesman reported.
Investigators identified and arrested Schneider by comparing his tattoos to a photo in the Backpage ad. They found the others with the help of a woman who called the sheriff’s office to say her SUV had been used to drop Schneider off at the Walmart. According to court documents, the woman said Woods held her inside the SUV, drove her around and forced her to perform sex acts with random men for money.
In the wake of the news last spring, family and friends mourned Nelson’s death, recounting memories of his distinctive baritone voice, his talent for theater lighting and his love for baking croissants.
He was in his late 40s when he finished his bachelor’s degree in public relations at the University of Idaho in 2011. He hoped to work as a development director, possibly one day managing fundraising for a political campaign, the Idaho Statesman reported.
Nelson was anything but shy, and gave presentations to university classes about his experiences as an openly gay man, according to University of Idaho Professor Becky Tallent.
“Somebody brought up Matthew Shepard in class one day,” she said. “Steven said something along the line of, ‘I hope to God we’ve gotten past that kind of violence.’”
According to KTVB, Tallent said her friend and former student had previously received homophobic slurs and even a punch, but frequently let cruel comments roll off his back.
“As he put it, people are just sometimes so bigoted that there’s nothing you can do to talk to them,” she said.
Tallent said she was horrified to hear of the brutal way in which her friend died.
“For one human being to do this to another is just beyond the pale, especially as someone as generous as Steven Nelson,” she said.