By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Jeffrey Ray Nielsen, 36, can't deny that he found a 14-year-old Westminster boy in a gay sex chat room, exchanged personal information, arranged a meeting and then took the kid home to his condo, where stuffed animals decorated the bed. But like the perverts featured on Dateline NBC's "To Catch a Predator," Nielsen insists that his intentions were honorable.
Sure, he had repeatedly called, e-mailed and visited the boy, who was a special-education student in his freshman year at Westminster High. Sure, he had let the boy call him "sexy." Sure, he repeatedly begged the boy for more attention and demanded a quick rendezvous in the middle of the day, when the boy's mother was not at home. Sure, Nielsen possessed more than 100 pictures of nude male children or man-boy sex in his home. (Forget however that he'd begged for the affection of a 9th grade Virginia boy who gave the Weekly copies of five months' worth of disturbing love letters from Nielsen.)
But Nielsen's defense attorney, Paul Meyer, says there is a simple, innocent explanation for all of that.
"This is a teenager Jeffrey Nielsen thought he could help," Meyer told the jury in his opening statement of Nielsen's trial for child molestation.
According to Meyer, the boy was poor, hated his life, thought about running away, struggled with his sexuality—and Nielsen, the wealthy hero and onetime congressional aide to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, wanted to help. All Nielsen did, insisted Meyer, was take the boy for walks, offer him advice and return him home safely.
Will no good deed go unpunished?
Pounding his finger on the podium and frowning, Meyer declared that Nielsen is not only innocent of repeatedly molesting the boy in 2003, but also a victim of lazy prosecutors and bumbling police detectives. Meyer railed about the "audacity" of prosecutor Dan Hess, who introduced five photos from Nielsen's child pornography cachť.
"Those pictures have nothing to do with this case," said Meyer, who argued that possessing a huge collection of kiddie porn has no correlation to molesting children.
Besides, said Meyer, Nielsen is no freak.
"Don't be misled," he told the jury. "Jeff Nielsen is a conservative guy, responsible, caring and very family-oriented. He cares about people."
The comment drew Nielsen's attention. He stopped scribbling on a notepad, looked up and gave jurors an earnest expression. Next to Nielsen at the defense table, Meyer had placed a prop: a petite, gray-haired, grandfatherly lawyer prone to dandruff-speckled suits. He's yet to argue a motion in three years' worth of pretrial hearings, but he provides a warm presence that counteracts the chilly specter of an accused pervert.
Hess began the Feb. 22 trial by explaining that Nielsen "actively sought out a boy, pursued this boy to carry out his own sexual perversion." Hess says a police investigation confirms that Nielsen met the boy in an online gay chat room called men4sexnow.com, exchanged telephone numbers with him and met him at a city library. Nielsen portrayed himself to the boy as a 26-year-old—shaving seven years off his real age—while the boy claimed he was 15. The two had sex on three occasions in 2003, including one encounter where Nielsen allegedly buggered the boy twice.
"The defendant is free to do what he wants, but not with a 14-year-old boy," said Hess, who noted that a minor cannot legally consent to have sex with an adult in California.
Indeed, the boy—now 18—testified that Nielsen knew they were breaking the law, recalling in a soft-spoken voice that, "He said, 'You know we can get into trouble doing this.'"
The boy knew that Nielsen kept stuffed animals on his bed.
But Meyer, who kept referring to the boy as "Mr. John Doe" in a bulldog style similar to TV's Nancy Grace, claimed that piece of information was meaningless.
"Did Mr. Nielsen and Mr. Doe meet?" said Meyer. "Yeah, they did. Did they go to his house? Yeah, they did. But it's a hopeful leap to believe that they must have had sex."
The defense version is that Nielsen was startled at the boy's age when they met, resisted the boy's sexual passes and chose instead to mentor him because, as Meyer claimed, "he's a kid who is out of control . . . wanting to run away from home . . . suicidal . . . hating his life."
Meyer portrayed the boy as a wily, if deluded, aggressor, "a kid who is pushing every button in that man [Nielsen]" and who "built a fantasy" about the sex to feel important.
Meyer indulged the members of the Newport Beach jury with a list of status symbols, reminding them that Nielsen is a "successful lawyer," USC graduate, home owner and BMW driver who loves his dog, Paige—then asked them what such a man could see in a boy who "lives in a Westminster trailer park"?
"Doe got to get into a BMW!" said Meyer. "In his mind, he's got a boyfriend, a lawyer who is wealthy. Jeffrey Nielsen could get him out of his life!"
Odd then, that evidence shows the boy was the one who ended the affair.
"I can't do this any more," wrote Doe in an e-mail to Nielsen. "I NEED TO FIND SOMEONE MY OWN AGE. Do you understand?"