Few places are as empty as a church on Thursday. March 3, 2011, there were only two people working at Northpoint Baptist Church on Brown Blvd: Pastor Clint Dobson, 28 and church secretary Judy Elliot, 67. Clint Dobson had been a pastor at the church for three years. Young and enthusiastic, he was equally at home discussing the Office or Seinfield with the younger church members as he was talking over the deep spiritual concerns of the more senior members. It wasn’t unusual for people to appear at the church doors looking for help. Although the front door was kept locked, no one seeking help would be turned away.
We don’t know everything about what happened that day, but we do know that both Clint and Judy were at work by 8:30 that morning. Northpoint is a satellite church of First Baptist Arlington. The L-shaped building is shared by another small church. That church also had two people present. We know they didn’t hear anything unusual, but they did notice Judy Elliot’s car, a white Mitsubishi Galant, was gone sometime between noon and one.
We know that Judy’s husband became increasingly concerned when no one answered the phone at the church. He went to the church and discovered his wife’s car was missing and no one would answer the door. He called another church member who had a key. Through a window, the men believed they could see a pair of men’s shoes and immediately called the police around 4 pm.
They found a horrific scene. Both Clint Dobson and Judy Elliot were on the floor, hands and feet trussed up behind them. They were severely beaten and plastic bags had been tied over their heads with a black electrical cord and masking tape. The responding officer and Judy’s husband hurriedly opened the bags. Clint was deceased but Judy was still alive, although severely injured. Her jaw was broken and all her teeth had been knocked out. Her face was so swollen and disfigured, that her own husband could only identify her by her clothing. She was mumbling incoherently.
Clint had been deceased for an hour or more. The medical examiner would later testify that he survived a horrific beating in which he sustained 21 separate injuries, but the plastic bag had been placed so tightly over his head that he sucked in the plastic and slowly suffocated.
Judy was unable to help police. She hovered on the brink of death in ICU. While at the hospital, she coded twice and her injuries were so severe she needed a blood transfusion.
The office had clearly been ransacked. Judy’s purse and car were missing as was Clint’s phone and laptop. Police began tracking Judy Elliot’s credit cards. They learned her cards were used to buy items at The Parks, an Arlington Mall on the same day as the murder. Someone purchased jewelry and shoes. Surveillance video showed two men using the cards.
At the same time detectives were obtaining the surveillance footage, other officers were interviewing two women who had come forward. The women told Arlington Police that a pair of their acquaintances, had been laughing about the murder. The women said that when a news story came on the television regarding the murder of an Arlington pastor, both men made “inappropriate comments” and flashed items they claimed belonged to the pastor. The women further said that the men had been trying to rob people recently and that Nelson had new shoes and clothing. Police now had names and soon they had photo graphs to match up to the surveillance video. The person using Judy Elliot’s credit cards within hours of her near fatal beating was Stephen Lewayne Nelson.
Within hours of learning this information, Arlington PD arrested Anthony Gregory Springs, the man who was with Nelson. Springs had Clint’s cell phone and the keys to Judy Elliot’s car. He told police that he didn’t participate in the killing, but that Nelson had picked him up in the white Mitsubishi Gallant around 2 pm. Nelson told him he had killed a man and probably the woman as well. They went to the mall and Nelson bought items for them both with the credit cards. He said Nelson had given him Clint’s phone.
Springs actually had an alibi for the time of the murders. Police were able to confirm his alibi and cell phone records would later confirm he wasn’t in the area at the time of the robbery and murder. That isn’t to say Springs was any kind of saint. He has been in prison since this for another aggravated robbery. He was out there committing crimes, but he was no Stephen Nelson.
March 3, 2011 marked the intersection of two lives, two men on very different trajectories. Twenty-eight year old Clint Dobson was a man of faith and he believed in putting his faith into action. He was actively involved in trying to make the world a better place. He had fallen in love and married. He had gone to Seminary to become a pastor. Friends and family also remember him as someone who was warm, outgoing, with a great sense of humor. He once described his “super power” as being the “world’s best parallel parker.”
Twenty-four year old Stephen Nelson had just been released from an in-patient treatment program. He already had an impressive criminal history starting from the age of 13 years old. He served juvenile probations and had been sent to TYC. His most recent troubles were from May 2010 after he had strangled and pulled a knife on his then girlfriend. This wasn’t the first attempt at turning Nelson’s life around and he was good at tell the counselors what they wanted to hear. His counselor wrote that Nelson had made great strides in anger control and learning how to work for things instead of grabbing at “fast money.” Nelson wrote that he knew how to keep from going back to jail. He completed the anger control counseling days before the murder. He was still on probation for the violent assault.
Between the murder and the arrest, more witnesses came forward. At 1:45, just more than an hour after the murder, Nelson sold Clint’s laptop to a man at a tire shop. The next day when the news broke, the man brought the laptop in to the police. He had thought the man who sold him the computer was Clint because all the paperwork in the laptop bag had that name on it. Two women at a QT were approached by a heavily tattooed man with dollar signs on his eyelids who showed them a phone and said it came from “that dead preacher in Arlington.” Nelson has dollar signs tattooed on his eyelids.
A woman named Brittany Bursey came forward to say that Nelson, Springs, and her nephew showed up at her house in a white Mitsubishi Gallant the afternoon of the murder. Nelson was introduced to her as “Romeo.” Springs told her that the car was stolen and Nelson had cards. He was offering to buy free gas for everyone. When she questioned Nelson, he admitting that he had “hit a lick,” which is street slang for robbery. He told her that “somebody was strangled and somebody got beat half to death…I think I killed her, too.” She described his demeanor as “Nonchalant. He didn’t really show any emotion or any care about anything.”
That night, Nelson went clubbing with his girlfriend. She testified that he was normal that night, untroubled.
Police located Nelson at his mother’s home just blocks from the church. He barricaded himself inside, but police were able to talk him out.
Nelson might be contained in jail, but he wasn’t’ safe, not by a long shot. While in jail he broke light bulbs, flooded his cell, threatened jailers and assaulted one of them. He flew into a rage during a visit. He was found in possession of a shank, narcotics, and even razor blades. All of that pales in response to what he did to Johnathan Holden. Holden was incarcerated in the same cell block as Nelson. His crime was breaking into a car, most likely to sleep. Holden suffered from mental illness and often ended up arrested for petty crimes.
According to the other inmates, Nelson tricked Holden into helping him with a “fake suicide attempt” to get the guards attention. Holden stood in front of the cell bars and let Nelson loop a blanket around his neck. Instead of the fake attempt, Nelson strangled Holden. He held him there until his legs stopped kicking, then grabbed a broomstick and celebrated by performing a “Chuck Berry Dance” on top of a table by using the broomstick like a guitar.
Nelson would insist Holden had committed suicide, but his DNA was under Holden’s nails as he had tried to escape once he realized Nelson’s intentions.
Nelson testified at his own trial. He claimed that Springs and another man went inside and remained outside. They did the crime while he waited outside. But he was forced to admit that he went inside after the attack. When he was arrested, police found his bloody shoes in his mother’s house. He had stepped in Clint and Judy’s blood. It was splattered on his shoes and he left his tracks at the murder scene. He also left fingerprints inside the church office and some white, metal studs which came off his belt. The studs were good evidence that he had been part of a violent struggle, especially when phone forensics placed the men he accused at another location at the time of the crime.
Nelson tried to claim they were still alive and he just stepped around them to rob them. His attorney had to prompt him. “Did you feel bad about that?” He agreed that he did. He showed no emotion while discussing it. He couldn’t even fake the emotion in front of the jury. Unsurprisingly, he was found guilty in only 90 minutes. The evidence was overwhelming.
Upon being convicted, however, he showed emotion for the first time: rage. He was taken to the holdover cell behind he courtroom. He howled and screamed and managed to break the sprinkler system with his bare hands. The courtroom began flooding with black water as court personnel rushed to grab boxes of evidence off the ground and subdue Nelson. The day before his trial resumed, he was found to have razor blades in his possession.
At the punishment phase, the jury heard all about Nelson’s behavior in jail, including the murder of Holden. He wasn’t even safe behind bars.
Nelson’s attorneys claimed that he had never gotten the help he needed. He first acted out at the age of 3 when he set his mother’s bed on fire. They pointed out that his father was incarcerated most of Nelson’s life and was a negative influence. Nelson got into trouble with Oklahoma juvenile authorities at the age of 6. Ronnie Meeks, with the Office of Juvenile Affairs in Oklahoma, testified that Nelson finally ended up in the custody of Juvenile Affairs while they tried to rehabilitate him. Once, Nelson stole Meeks’ truck while he was being transported from one facility to another. Meeks remembered Nelson well. “That’s the thing I remember about Steven. I don’t remember ever seeing any remorse about anything.”
Nelson moved to Texas with his mother and siblings. Mary Kelleher, a psychologist and juvenile services supervisor, testified that Nelson’s criminal history in Texas dates to 2000 when he was 13. At 14 he was committed to the Texas Youth Commission. Even at that young age, he was unrepentant. When she asked him why he kept committing crimes, he just said that he was bored.
She also testified about his home life. His mother tried, but was very frustrated by Steven. She did everything she could. He had two siblings who turned out fine, but from an early age, Nelson seemed destined to a life of crime. The jury sentenced Nelson to die by lethal injection. He has exhausted all appeals and remains defiant, writing poetry from behind bars. I’ve read it and it isn’t bad poetry. I say that as a former English teacher. But it’s self-indulgent and narcissistic. Every poem is about him because that is how Steven Nelson sees the world.
Two men. One whose epitaph reads “He was generous of heart, constant of faith, and joyful of spirit.”
The other who took that joyful life. Unrepentant. Cold. Heartless.
SOURCE NOTES: Here are some of the public articles I relied on in my investigation. In addition I reviewed some of the primary sources such as reports and photographs which may be obtained with open records requests.