Was Delray man Palm Beach County’s ‘smartest’ murderer?

11:30 a.m. Friday, Dec. 22, 2017 Local
Michael Nelson at his 1980 murder trial (Palm Beach Post Archives)

“If released from custody, Michael Nelson will kill again.”

Ann Vitunac felt qualified to say it. In 1980, she had successfully prosecuted Nelson, then of Delray Beach, on murder charges. And on July 31, 2006, the U.S. magistrate judge detailed the sordid case in a letter to the Florida Parole Commission as it considered Nelson’s case.

Michael Nelson in 2017

Vitunac said she believes he likely used poison to kill his mother and nearly kill his first wife.

And “bought” his Pakistani second wife, whom authorities never found.

And twice tried to poison his third wife for her insurance. And when that didn’t work, held her underwater in the tub until she died. And then acted more like a man reacting to a flat tire.

In 2011, she’d again lobby that he be kept in prison, calling him “the personification of an evil genius.”

Nelson, now 71, has spent half his life in prison, Florida Department of Correction records show. He’s at a state facility near Miami. His “presumptive parole release date” is Nov. 29, 2050. He would be 104. His first chance in the past six years to shave some — not all — of his term comes next month.

In a four-page handwritten Oct. 16 letter to The Palm Beach Post, Nelson said he was surprised his story was being revisited nearly four decades later.

Michael Nelson wrote The Palm Beach Post from prison in Ocober to say he was innocent of murder. (Supplied)

“I’ve murdered no one,” he said, “nor ever had any real intent to do so.”

A black-and-white photo from the fall of 1980 shows a pudgy 34-year-old man, in glasses, sideburns and a three-piece suit. His trial featured a Who’s Who of the judiciary. Court-watchers crammed the room and even other prosecutors peeked in. And one reporter described the Delray Beach self-employed financial consultant as “one of the smartest men ever convicted of murder in Palm Beach County.”

Michael Nelson at his 1980 murder trial (Palm Beach Post Archives)

Nelson called himself “an old-fashioned guy.” He would say to detectives, and in court, that he had worked as a police dispatcher and an insurance agent and most recently was a laid-off advertising salesman.

He also was a would-be novelist. He liked rough sex and wrote about it. He said at times he was a clairvoyant and actually was a Polish nobleman or the Archangel Michael. He brought a Quran to court every day, saying he’d become a Muslim and claiming his conversion entitled him to “beat my women at least once a week, whether they need it or not.”

And he said Vietnam was a place for people such as him who knew how to act decisively, and that pacifists made him sick. He said he was a karate enthusiast who came from a long line of Cossacks and warriors and he was comfortable with killing.

Authorities said Nelson did kill. More than once.

Police and prosecutors would say Nelson’s weapon of choice was aconite. The “queen of poisons,” which comes from the wild plant wolf’s bane, affects the heart, and at one time was either difficult or impossible to detect, making it the perfect weapon for the perfect murder.

Nelson insisted he was working to earn millions on a product that killed boat barnacles, not spouses.

But there was his mother.

Jeanne Myers, just 46, was living in Orlando in May 1969 when her son, then 23, whose father had been a Cincinnati disc jockey, came to visit. Sometime after he left, she took some pain medication, cried out for help and fell unconscious. Days later, on May 5, she was dead. No autopsy was done. The cause of death was listed as a brain hemorrhage. She was cremated.

“Do I think she was murdered?” Nelson wrote The Post in October. “I’m intensely suspicious about her death and the way so many ‘doors slammed shut.’ ”

He didn’t elaborate.

Nelson’s first wife later would say that after Jeanne Myers’ death, her son rifled her papers and was disappointed to learn her insurance policy left him a measly $1,000.

That first wife was Sherrie Braswell — the one who prosecutors say got away.

The grave of Jeanne Myers, Michael Nelson's mother, who died mysteriously in Orlando (Supplied)

The two married in 1969 and settled in Cincinnati. Sherrie bought an expensive life insurance policy.

Soon after, she had the first of what would be five bizarre medical incidents. She went to the hospital three times in 1971 alone.

“I felt like I was dying,” she recounted about one of the incidents during testimony at Nelson’s trial.

She said she eventually canceled the policy over Nelson’s objections and broke up with him. Her symptoms mysteriously disappeared. By then, the couple had moved to Florida.

In court, Sherri Braswell testified she asked Nelson point-blank if he was trying to poison her, but “he said he loved me and I wouldn’t ask him such a thing if I loved him.”

“She had been rather mysteriously ill several times but I never had murderous intent,” Nelson said cryptically to The Post in October. “I must confess, I still love her.”

The couple divorced in 1974.

Sherrie Braswell Nelson, Michael Nelson's first wife, testified in his 1980 murder trial (Palm Beach Post archives)

Some time after that, police later would say, Nelson married a woman from Pakistan named Mia Querashi. Nelson later would say she got cancer and returned to her homeland. He said on his license to marry for the third time that his second marriage ended in death in 1978.

In her 2006 letter to the Parole Commission, Vitunac said she found a letter Querashi wrote Nelson, “detailing beatings by him and stating that his shooting her was the last straw and she was leaving.” Vitunac’s letter doesn’t elaborate.

Querashi “was alive and well at my last communication with her,” Nelson told The Post on October. He said she “wanted ‘away’ from our (Muslim) marriage” and he gave her at least $3,400 when she left. 

Nelson would relocate to Lauderhill in Broward County. In December 1978, he bought a newspaper ad seeking a companion. It said he sought an “obedient young lady.” Authorities later would say that was code for wanting a sexual bondage partner.

The ad was answered by 32-year-old Linda Eileen Ingles Sachsenmaier.

“Linda was like Bambi in Times Square,” sister Donna Trombly said in October from Southern California.

She said her sister, born Linda Ingles in Rhinebeck, N.Y., went to work at IBM in nearby Kingston in the Hudson River Valley. There, she met and married a fellow programmer, Robert Sachsenmaier. Soon after, her new husband wanted to go back to his native Florida, and the two transferred to IBM’s Boca Raton plant. They bought a house on the Intracoastal Waterway in Delray Beach and “had a car and a boat,” her sister said.

But the two divorced on Nov. 14, 1978, ending a six-year marriage. Linda’s sister said she didn’t know where to start handling things as basic as finances.

Then, she said, Linda “called me and said, ‘I can’t come for Christmas because I met the most wonderful man.’ ”

Trombly said Linda told her Nelson ordered her meals, measured her for jewelry and brought her flowers almost daily. He called her “baby girl” and “lady blue eyes” and she called him “teddy bear.”

Trombly asked how long her sister had known the man. She said three weeks.

On June 6, 1979, after a courtship of about six months, a notary public wed Nelson and Linda in their home. Trombly and her husband were witnesses.

Four months later, Linda was dead.

Michael Nelson was convicted of trying to poison third wife Linda Nelson, then drowning her in their bathtub. (Photo courtesy Donna Trombly)

On Labor Day weekend in 1979, Trombly was attending a seminar in Kansas City when a colleague handed her the phone. 

“Mary Lou said to me, “It’s your husband.’ I got scared. I answered the phone. He said, ‘I don’t know how to tell you this, but Linda’s dead.’ ”

Trombly said she called Nelson. And was amazed at what he said.

“Suppose somebody told you a full-grown woman drowned in a bathtub. I mean, hello!”

Nelson would tell police that on the afternoon of Sept. 12, 1979, Linda felt ill. He said he called her office to say she wouldn’t be in, then drew her a bath, at her request. He then went to a jewelry store to pick up items she had ordered. He said he returned to find her lifeless body.

The first Delray Beach paramedic to arrive was Doug Trawick. He found Linda naked on the living room floor. Her hair was damp but not soaked. The rest of her body was dry. Nelson was working on her. He told Trawick and the others he found an empty Valium bottle, suggesting a fatal overdose. When Trawick began CPR, he later would testify, water shot out of the woman’s mouth and nose. That suggested water was pulled into the lungs of someone who was still alive. 

In 2006, U.S. Magistrate Judge Ann E. Vitunac, who had prosecuted Michael Nelson for murder in 1980, wrote parole officials to say that if released, he would kill again. (Florida Parole Commission)

Nelson had first told Trawick he found Linda in the living room. Later, he asked if someone could drown in a tub. Told yes, only then did he say that’s where he found his wife. 

The next day, Detective Allan Lewis answered a call. The man — either unknown to police or not identified in reports — said he spoke for a large group of people who wanted the detective to know Nelson was a con man. That he had poisoned Linda. And had bought — and sold — his second wife. And maybe killed another wife.

Then Rick Dayan, an IBM co-worker of Linda Nelson, told Lewis he and his girlfriend had taken Nelson home from the hospital just after Linda’s death. Dayan said he took it on himself to clean the bathtub. There he found two rows of hair running the length of the tub, which a maid later would say had been cleaned the previous day. The maid of four years also would tell detectives Linda took only showers; she disliked baths.

Dayan said he watched as Nelson called Linda’s supervisor at IBM and arranged to come in the next day to discuss her death benefits, which Dayan knew included the pricey life insurance policy.

Nelson later would tell detectives he was $10,000 in debt and “was contemplating bankruptcy.”

Dayan told the detective Nelson appeared just a little too collected for someone who had been a widower for just a few hours. And he said Nelson told him the day after Linda’s death that, if an autopsy showed he was home at the time of her death, he was in trouble.

The first autopsy showed only small amounts of Valium. It placed the cause of death not as an overdose, but rather a drowning.

But authorities asked for a second autopsy, Ann Vitunac recalled this October to The Post. By then, she said, lividity had set in. The blood in Linda’s body had settled and “a hand appeared on her face,” Vitunac said. “You could see the whole hand where he held her under.”

Then detectives began to spot a pattern. On Aug. 30, just two weeks before Linda Nelson died, she wound up in a hospital. Vitunac would write the Florida Parole Commission in 2011 that Linda had been poisoned twice, and both times had “flatlined.”

A doctor and pharmacists later would testify in the murder trial that they found symptoms consistent with aconite poisoning. In fact, the doctor said no other chemical could produce them. They were the same symptoms observed with first wife Sherri Braswell. And Nelson’s mother.

A pharmacologist would testify people have survived doses of 100 milligrams — about the amount found in an aspirin — and died from as few as 1.75 milligrams. A search of Nelson’s apartment the day before his arrest uncovered 2 pounds of the stuff. He claimed he and Linda were developing a product to kill barnacles on boats.

On Jan. 29, 1980, four months after Linda died, Delray Beach police arrested Nelson. Chief William Cochrane said that “people just don’t drown themselves in bathtubs.”

Ann E. Vitunac, Assistant State Attorney for Palm Beach County, prosecuted Michael Nelson. She went on to become a U.S. Magistrate Judge. (Palm Beach Post archives)

“I had come home and found my baby girl drowned in the bathtub. Do you believe it?” Michael Nelson, sitting in the witness stand, told a hushed courtroom on Oct. 27, 1980. 

Asked by Vitunac, the prosecutor, if he ever gave his wife poison, he said, “Absolutely not.”

The state’s case: Nelson wanted Linda dead so he could collect a life insurance policy worth $80,000 — more than $231,000 in 2017 dollars. He was no stranger to insurance; prosecutors alleged he had a habit of reporting items stolen and collecting insurance, only to have them mysteriously turn up.

Nelson said he wrote for a magazine called S&M Express — S&M is sadism and masochism — and he testified that he and Linda practiced “light bondage.” And he admitted he might have shaken her the day she died, but only to get her attention.

At one point in the trial, defense attorney Richard Lubin claimed an 18-year-old Palm Beach Gardens man named Andrew Lewis murdered Linda while on an LSD trip. Lewis reportedly was a jail cellmate of Nelson and said he’d had a dream that was especially rich in detail about murdering her. Lewis later would testify Nelson talked him into the dream.

Michael Nelson at his 1980 murder trial (Palm Beach Post Archives)

After nine days of testimony, Vitunac said in closing arguments that Nelson carefully planned his wife’s murder. She called him a “cold, calculating insecure individual capable of committing the ultimate crime without a tinge of shame or a shade or remorse.”

Linda was “easy prey,” Vitunac said. “How could she possibly know what horrors awaited her?”

Then Lubin, who has declined to comment for this story, said in closing arguments that Nelson believes someone drowned his wife. Just not Nelson. But Vitunac told jurors Nelson “deceived many people, ladies and gentlemen. Do not let him deceive you.”

It took the jury seven hours to find Nelson guilty on Oct. 30. Nelson trembled and his face flushed. 

Vitunac called Linda’s sister in California. Trombly burst into tears.

Within days of his murder conviction, Nelson bought another newspaper ad, again saying he was seeking a companion.

At a November 1980 sentencing hearing, Nelson begged to escape the electric chair, saying, “I feel I can be a constructive and positive member of prison society.”

But the jurors recommended to Circuit Judge Marvin Mounts that Nelson die.

At sentencing on March 9, 1982, Trombly, who had flown in from California, said her sister “was stalked, plotted against and murdered by her very husband.”

Mounts said he was satisfied that Nelson murdered for money, adding, “the whole trial reeks of his greed.” He said the idea of holding someone’s head under water “is certainly personally loathsome and emotionally revolting to me.” But, he concluded, “All death cases are horrible; our law requires that a distinction be made.”

He sentenced Nelson, for Linda Nelson’s murder, to life with no parole for 25 years. And, for her attempted murder two weeks earlier, another 30 years to run after the life term ends. Which is why Nelson is scheduled to get out when he’s 104.

In prison, Nelson filed a motion with the Fourth District Court of Appeal in West Palm Beach, saying jurors should not have heard about Sherrie Braswell’s mysterious malady. While he waited, the condo he and Linda shared was sold in July 1981. In 1984, the appeals court said no. 

A message left this fall by The Post at a St. Augustine number believed to be Sherrie Braswell’s was not returned.

Nelson has in ensuing years filed various court challenges, all handwritten and “pro se,” meaning without legal representation. All have been turned down.

He complained in 2004 that prison officials improperly cited pornography bans when they confiscated “a catalog pertaining to human bondage.” He challenged his original conviction in 2005. In 2011, he alleged “fraud on the court.” 

In his October letter to The Post, Nelson claimed he’d learned from fellow inmates that that the murder of a female teenager by two friends in a condo right behind his occurred because she was going to snitch about Linda’s murder.

“Irrational though it seemed, since they were convicted already, I thought they would confess,” Nelson wrote. “They didn’t.”

Meghan McCarthy/Meghan McCarthy / Daily News
Ann Vitunac in 2015. (Palm Beach Daily News archives)

State records show Nelson mostly has been a model prisoner. He’s completed numerous courses. In 1992, a prison supervisor called him and another inmate “excellent candidates for parole.”

But he was cited for violations six times, including twice for “possession of escape paraphernalia.”

And in the summer of 1995, guards found in his locker a map of Florida. He said he’d never been told maps were forbidden and in fact a guard had handed it to him with the day’s mail. Besides, he said, Florida maps are “readily available” in the prison library. He got two months of confinement and lost six months of gain time.

In 2011, Nelson again was up for parole.

Vitunac, still a federal magistrate, again wrote the Florida Parole Commission, saying, “whatever Michael has accomplished in prison pales in comparison with the evil that lurks in his heart. He is the personification of an evil genius.”

Trombly said Linda’s relatives, most of them in California, do not plan to attend next month’s hearing.

“Linda was smart. She was kind. She was a good person,” Trombly said. “She just trusted too much.”

Asked what she’d tell Michael Nelson, she said, “ ‘Very sorry you found it necessary to kill my sister. And it destroyed a lot of lives.’ ”

Staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story.

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