Losing a parent is a devastating experience. The loss of her father, Raymond Nels Nelson, to senseless violence has left its mark on Rebecca. Her father, Raymond Nels Nelson, was not without flaw. However, everyone you asked had a positive first impression from Raymond Nelson.
Rebecca has chosen to share her thoughts about her father, his murder, the investigation, and its aftermath. Nobody was ever arrested in Raymond’s murder and the reward money is unclaimed. Raymond was found dead in 1981 and to this day, there is no movement in his case.
I wish to thank Rebecca and the Nelson Family for their courage to speak out. I am very sorry for your loss and hope that one day, we will have the answers that we have been searching for since 1981.
My father, Raymond Nels Nelson, was brutally murdered in his apartment in Washington D.C., on June 1, 1981. He’d been a U.S. Senate staff member for 20 years, 14 of which he was chief aide to Senator Claiborne Pell. Hundreds attended his funeral in Washington and a memorial service in his home state of R.I. Afterwards, this ‘respected and beloved’ man, as he was lauded in memorials, and spoken of in eulogies, seemed all but forgotten by the police, his colleagues, and even by his family and friends.
The police didn’t bother to question those of us with my father the night before he was slain. My older brother finally requested a meeting with the lead detective, who appeared disinterested in anything we could add to the investigation. He intimidated us by having us wait in an interrogation room; he was cavalier and even hostile, as if, as the victim’s family, we didn’t have a rightful interest in the case. My father had come out of the closet 5 years prior to his death, before homosexuality was ‘accepted’ and assimilated into the culture. The detective intimated that it was a ‘typical gay murder’, an on-going mantra that greatly angered the burgeoning gay community. He did assure us that, because of mounting evidence, an arrest would be forthcoming. But days became weeks, weeks became months, months years, then decades.
I’ve often wondered why, when it became clear that the investigation had stalled, my family didn’t hire a private investigator; given the money my father left my mother, she could have afforded one. But I remember that, with the overwhelming fear and fallout in the aftermath of the crime, there also seemed to be a tacit warning, agreed upon by family and friends, that we be silent, not ask questions, and certainly not demand answers. Over the years, when we’ve tried to re-kindle police and others’ involvement, our efforts have first been met with initial interest, followed by promises, then unreturned calls, and, finally, silence.
My father was an alcoholic. When he drank, he could be difficult, undependable, narcisstic and even abusive. He was often a poor parent, who, because of the risks he took and the people he attracted, and was attracted to, at times made him dangerous. When I heard of his murder, I felt relief that my younger brother (who sometimes stayed at his apartment) wasn’t with him. Perhaps, because of his attraction to risk, or even because he was gay, it was assumed he deserved what happened. But he didn’t, and he certainly didn’t deserved the betrayal of his closest friend, the abandonment of the senators and high ranking officials for whom he served two decades of his life and the amnesia of his family and friends.
Despite his bad parenting & abuse, I loved him and always forgave him; he was my father and I miss him. He was someone I could argue with and he never carried a grudge. When he wasn’t drinking, he could still be exasperating, but he was also deeply empathetic. He cared about people and was more than generous with anyone who needed help.
He was also funny and always irreverent. If he became tired or bored during a party, he simply lay down in the middle of the floor and fell asleep, leaving family & friends to step over or around him. Nobody seemed to mind—it was Ray. In the mid 1970’s, when my mother finally discovered his ‘other life’, she told him to move out. She was leaving on vacation with my two brothers and expected him gone when she returned. He sank into a deep depression and became dependant on me for family support. Though an adult & married, I was too immature to handle it well, and one afternoon put myself at risk by venturing out, on foot, to buy a newspaper and outrace an impending and violent thunderstorm. I didn’t make it home; a large tree limb fell on me and I spent a week in the hospital recovering from surgery. But my encounter with the tree was the jump-start my father needed to break through his depression. He was visibly shaken & visited me every morning and evening, shared my meals, conferred with doctors, and entertained my elderly roommate, a former concert pianist. He loved older women, he loved music, and she was charmed by the attention of the distinguished, silver haired and dapper gentleman who appreciated music. The day I was released, Dad drove me to my house, settled in and became, as was his nature, a whirling dervish of activity. When he wasn’t pacing back and forth, fielding phone calls or preparing snacks, he was precariously perched on a ladder, fixing my storm damaged roof. His energy level was so exhausting, I finally unplugged the phone, took the tools away from him and insisted he take a nap, because I was exhausted and needed to rest.
After they separated, my parents became good friends, better, really, than when they were married; they traveled together and he often performed chores around my mother’s (his former) house. My father loved to draw and he was playful, like a child. When he promised to wall-paper her kitchen one Saturday, he procrastinated, as usual, and was on the phone all morning. She got mad, told him she was going shopping and said she expected the job finished, or at least started, by the time she got home. When she returned, he was gone and the wall papering was done. Years later, after his death, she had the walls stripped to be re-papered and there, under his wallpaper, were hilarious drawings of the two of them arguing, with her caricature angrily scolding him.
The last time we saw my dad alive was the night before he was killed. My brothers and my sister-in-law were visiting me, my husband, and our infant daughter. We weren’t expecting my father, but he appeared without calling, which was unlike him. He’d probably been drinking. Before he left, he walked around the room, hugged each of us and looked into our eyes before saying goodbye; it was as if he knew he’d never see us again. We were in the middle of a thunder & lightening storm and, having learned the hard way, I asked him to stay until it was over. But, of course, as always, he was in a hurry. My last image of him was him running to his car, dodging the rain, silhouetted by lightening, dramatic as usual. We never saw him again.
A polygraph specialist once told me that it doesn’t matter if years go by between a crime and testing a suspect. The passage of time won’t alter the results. I believe the same can be said for the grief and anxiety felt when a loved one has suffered a violent death that remains unsolved; the passage of time matters little.