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Petaluma man’s killer brought to justice 17 years later

Thousands of miles from home, with a few days of downtime while he waited to pick up a load of Florida-bound frozen chicken parts, Petaluma trucker Bob Nelson encountered a couple from Texas, shared a few meals and became friends.

It was 1999, and Nelson, 59, was en route to Miami via Alabama when he met the Texans in Joplin, Missouri. They happened to be headed to the coast themselves and needed a ride, so he offered his help.

A gentle, gregarious man, Nelson drove the pair for several days in his double bunk rig, apparently unaware the couple, Gary Lee Poisel Jr. and Johanna Gray, were on the lam, a prosecutor said Friday. They had both been on probation and had left Texas illegally on a drug-fueled road trip when the theft of their pickup somewhere near Charlotte, North Carolina, left them hitching rides until they crossed paths with Nelson, Assistant Macon County District Attorney Damon Lewis said.

One night, outside a truck stop near Montgomery, Alabama, after Nelson had gone to bed and Gray had run inside a store for some beer, Poisel apparently decided it was time to part ways with Nelson.

Finding a knife with which Nelson had earlier cut tomatoes for sandwiches, he stabbed the driver to death where he lay and, with Gray, took the truck and dumped the body.

That’s the story that emerged this week in a Tuskegee, Alabama, courtroom where Poisel, 45, was found guilty of capital murder Friday. He was sentenced immediately to life in prison without possibility of parole. Lewis thinks Poisel just reached a point where he needed a fix and decided to steal the big rig, sell what property he could and buy some drugs.

After 17 years of wondering about her husband’s final days and fearing she might never see justice, having the case over “is big,” his widow, Mary Ann Nelson, said by phone from Tuskegee on Friday. It’s “weird,” “unbelievable,” even “surreal” to have a conviction after so many years of having one hopeful sign after another fade away, she said.

“Every time I got this little glimmer of hope, it just kept dying out,” Nelson said.

Nelson last talked with her husband June 27, 1999, when he called from Joplin. He later missed several regular check-in calls and even their 25th wedding anniversary on July 6 of that year. And she was miffed, at first, until days became weeks, and her disappointment turned to fear.

What she didn’t know until later was that her husband’s unidentified body had been found July 2 off the side of Interstate 85 outside Montgomery, where Poisel and Gray had dumped him and his bedding just a few miles down the road from the murder scene.

Two weeks later, she got a call about his cab, which had been abandoned at a north Georgia truck stop, unlocked with the keys inside.

The trailer filled with rotting chicken parts came to light two days after that, abandoned about 15 miles south of the cab.

There, the trail went cold, except for a photograph that, for a little while, seemed like a clue, but ultimately wasn’t.

Nelson’s case was without suspect, motive or leads to follow.

But somewhere around the decade mark, at Mary Ann Nelson’s urging, some Marlboro cigarette butts that would not have been her husband’s were submitted to a nationwide DNA database and hit on Poisel as a possible suspect, Lewis said.

A special agent with the Alabama Bureau of Investigation, who had inherited the case from a string of predecessors, began looking back through the evidence and found a battered road atlas, on which were stains consistent with blood. In the Alabama/Georgia region, agent Jason DiNunzio found two pages stuck together and carefully peeled them apart. They had been glued together with Nelson’s blood, but the blood yielded fingerprints that would pinpoint Poisel. Additional lab tests conclusively linked Poisel to semen on the upper bunk bedding, as well.

He was arrested for murder in Amarillo in March 2011, nearly 12 years after Nelson was killed, and extradited to Alabama to await trial.

Poisel had been in and out of prison in the years since he had slain Nelson, beginning just two days after the murder, when he and Gray were at an Oklahoma truck stop with another trucker. Gray, again, was in the store when Poisel and the trucker’s loud partying caught the attention of a law enforcement officer. Poisel, aware of an outstanding warrant, gave him a false name, Lewis said.

When Gray came out of the store, she told the officer who Poisel really was. She would afterward head to Alaska, leaving Poisel to face the consequences without her, Lewis said.

But in 2014, Gray came home to Texas and turned herself in on other charges. When her DNA matched evidence from Nelson’s truck, she told investigators what Poisel had done outside Montgomery. She was charged with murder and accessory, charges still to be resolved.

When Gray took the stand to testify against Poisel this week, she had been told prosecutors would be lenient, Lewis said. She told her story without any promises, deals or anything in writing.

Poisel took the stand, as well, and said he stabbed Nelson when the trucker sexually attacked him - a story the evidence disproves, Lewis said.

The blood spatters, wounds, bedding and timing suggest Nelson was wrapped in his comforter, asleep, when Poisel acted. And Gray testified there had been no previous hints of sexual interest or aggression from Nelson.

“He has to attempt to explain why he killed Mr. Nelson,” said Lewis, who thought the story fiction. It took a jury 70 minutes on Friday to agree, he said.

During her own testimony, Gray said she wanted to tell the truth for Nelson’s widow, Lewis said. “She looked at Miss Nelson and she said, ‘I’m not doing this for a deal. Miss Nelson needs to hear the truth, and she needs to have closure.’?”

And leaving the courtroom, she told Nelson’s widow, “I’m sorry.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter?@MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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