Video: A chance for closure?

By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/4/2006 8:37:00 PM ET 2006-08-05T00:37:00

This report aired Dateline Friday, Aug. 4

It could be said that like snowflakes, no two murders are exactly alike.

As heavy snow fell two decades ago in Bristol, Wisconsin, two teenage assassins lived out their fantasy and nearly destroyed a family.

Terry Anderson, sister of a shooting victim: You lay awake at night thinking of ways that you would like to torture them.

At trial, the killer would show himself to be a liar. And yet 21 years later, the victim’s sister would now turn to the killer for the truth.

Terry Anderson can still recall every detail of that January night back in 1985. She and herfamily had been at the local hospital visiting her grandmother.

Anderson: I could hear all kinds of screaming behind me.

And then she found out why.

Anderson: My brother came up to me, grabbed me and pushed me against the wall, and said that Joe had been shot.

Joe was her 42-year-old brother. At first Terry was thinking that he’d been injured.

Anderson: And he kept saying, "No, no he’s dead." And you know, at that point, time just stopped. 

It was a horrifying crime. Joe Vite was murdered in his own home, shot at close range. The house had been ransacked, money and jewelry were stolen.

Police began a search and five days later two teenage boys—Joe’s foster son Danny and his friend Eric Nelson were arrested in St. Louis and charged with first degree murder.

Both trials ended quickly. Both boys, aged 16, were sentenced to life and locked away.

Case closed? Not exactly. On the other side, Terry and her family began their lives in wake of a murder.

John Larson, Dateline correspondent: You don’t really put something like this behind you, do you?

Anderson: Never. Everything is either before or after. My mother used to tell time by “before Joey died” and “after Joey died.”  No you never get over it.

What really happens when there’s a brutal crime? On television there’s an investigation, an arrest and a verdict. But in real life, when the gavel drops a more painful story often begins. Family members are sentenced to a lifetime of aftershocks and unimaginable loss.

Anderson: There wasn’t one person ever that ever had anything negative to say about him.

Joe Vite was the first born in a large Italian family. Terry, the only girl, was the third of six children. Among their many traditions was sunday meals together even after they were grown.  If Joe made an appearance, it made all the difference.

Anderson: My mother thought it was a national holiday.  She’d call and say, “Joe is here, come over.” And you know it was like “the Pope is here.”  We’ve gotta go see him.  That’s how special a visit to her was from him.

A beloved brother, uncle, cousin and husband, over the years Joe and his wife were foster parents to 12 children.

Anderson: I think he was probably the ideal father.  He did lots of things with these kids.  I mean if one grows up to be a physician, you have some pretty good parenting there. 

The murder happened three weeks after Christmas. The joy of holiday was lost forever.

Anderson: My parents never put up a Christmas tree after that.

Larson: Ever?

Anderson: Ever.

In fact her parents’ grief knew no bounds.

Anderson: Up until either one of my parents got sick, they went to the cemetery every single day, every day without fail.

Larson: And this is for how many years?

Anderson: Probably at least 10 or 15. 

And perhaps powerful evidence of how grief lives on was the last family photo ever taken—at Christmas 1984. Joe was in it. Since then, Terry has not allowed the family to take another one. Looking at it would cause too much pain.

Anderson: It’s like putting a puzzle together with a piece that’s missing.  It’s never whole again. You can see what the picture is or what it might be.  But it’s never complete.

It’s a truth about crime often unknown to all but the victims themselves.  Even a trial can inflict more pain, like when Eric Nelson, who fired the fatal shot, swaggered into court.

Anderson: He got up and was kind of walking and said to the judge and “Yo, man.”

17 years would pass before Terry would see Nelson again, at a parole hearing. The passage of time had changed him.

Anderson: I knew that was a face that I would, at that time, hate for the rest of eternity.  And then he looked so completely different.  It was a shock.

Her brother’s killer was noticeably older, and sounded more mature.

Larson: Did anything he said really change your idea of who he was?

Anderson: No. I don’t think a leopard changes his spots. 

Among the things he spoke of at the hearing was his new faith in Christianity. Terry didn’t buy it.

Anderson: I mean everybody that’s looking for Jesus Christ should go to the prison because he’s there.  Why keep looking?  Eric found him, let him show you.

They never spoke to each other, but after the parole hearing Terry learned of a program that could potentially provide her with answers to some troubling questions about the crime and ease her grief. It’s called Restorative Justice.

Janine Geske, Restorative Justice: Restorative Justice puts the harm that caused by a criminal act in the middle of attention, and the idea of restoration justice is to work towards healing that harm.

Janine Geske is a former Wisconsin supreme court judge who now teaches restorative justice at Marquette University law school. 

She also puts it to work by bringing together victims or survivors of violent crime with the offenders for a face to face conversation  controlled by the victim.

Larson: And with knowledge, you found that some healing begins?

Geske: That’s part of it. A lot of victims come to a place where things change after the meeting.  They see life differently. They interact with family differently. And they kind of move on.  It’s not closure—but it’s a moving on into a place that they are more at peace.

So at Terry’s request, Janine has set up a meeting between Terry and the man who killed her brother.

Larson: Why go through that painful journey?

Anderson: For a couple of reasons. Mr. Nelson has had so much power over us for 21 years.  Now there’s a little bit of shift in the power.

Larson: Power how?  I mean—he’s locked up.  Ya know he can’t move.  How does he have power?

Anderson: He killed my brother.

In 1985, Eric Nelson was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Terry Anderson’s brother Joseph Vite. At the time, a life sentence in Wisconsin meant he’d serve at least 13 years. Eric’s been eligible for parole twice and has been denied both times.

According to the rules of restorative justice, the program that brings victims and offenders together, Eric must take full responsibility for his crime before any meeting takes place.  That came after a few years in prison when Eric says he was wrecked by guilt, panic, thoughts of suicide, and a tortured conscience.

Eric Nelson, convicted for killing Terry Anderson's brother: How do you deal with that?  You know when you come to terms with the fact that you went and killed somebody who didn’t do anything to you. I couldn’t deal with that.  And I didn’t wanna be that person.  I didn’t wanna be that murderer.

John Larson, Dateline correspondent: And you were that murderer?

Nelson: Yes. I was like, “Oh, no.  That can’t be me.  No, no, no, no.”

Video: The killer’s story

Eric says in prison, he embraced Christianity and his faith helped him see the deeply troubled youth he once was. He was at odds with his parents and had very few friends.

Nelson: Most of my time I spent by myself.  You know alone. And I would just go off into this crazy fantasy world.

It was a fantasy world that may grown out of a troubled childhood. Eric says his father, an army drill sergeant was extremely tough on him. When he was nine he says he was kidnapped and locked in a shed for days. Over time he retreated into a fantasy world in which he was a powerful soldier like his father, and an assassin. And then in 8th grade, Eric met Joe Vite’s foster son Danny. They both loved the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons and dreamed of being powerful.

Nelson: That really kind of clicked with him. I kind of met him where he was at. He wanted to be violent. I wanted to be violent.

And that’s when everything changed. Eric says Danny told him he was being abused byhisfoster father Joe Vite and that Danny wanted to kill both his foster parents, so he asked for Eric’s help... and now they were a team.

Nelson: That really sealed it, you know, and made it something that was ah not only had potential to it, but now it was kinetic. It was moving.

And with a plan coming into focus, the fantasy in Eric’s mind was becoming real.

Nelson: “Now I’m someone. Now I’m important.  Now I’m powerful.  Now I run the world.”

Nelson: Yeah.  And now I’m going hunting.

The plot percolated a full year until they were 16-year-old freshmen in high school and one day in 1985.

Nelson: The first thought I remember having on January 16th was “Today’s the day.”  

That day, Eric went to school and took the bus to Danny’s house for the first time. Incredibly he’d never met Danny’s foster parents—the people he was planning to kill.

When he first got there, Eric says he wasn’t sure he was going to stay.

Larson: So half of you maybe was thinking you’re gonna do this, the other half was still thinking, “Well, we might not?”

Nelson: Yeah.  Yeah.

Sometime around 5:00 p.m., snow began to fall. Eric spotted Joe Vite’s boots and put them on... and then he discovered something else in the closet.

Nelson: I found like some khakis, some military khakis.  And that--  was like, “Whoa...”

Khakis—just like in the military, just like his fantasy. He put them on.

Nelson: After I put those things on, I no longer thought about leaving. It was like “Now, this is what’s going to happen.”

And then, the adrenaline kicked in.

Nelson:  We both I think started feeding off one another. Things began to speed up and we began to shut lights off.

Armed with rifles they’d found in Joe Vite’s gun cabinet, they took positions.

Then a car pulled in...

Nelson: I heard keys.  I heard the door open... 

Danny fired off three quick shots—one hit his father in the elbow, who fell to his knees and then Eric moved in.

Nelson: I didn’t aim or anything.  I just shot.

The bullet tore through Joe Vite’s forehead—so much so there would have to be a closed casket.

Danny and Eric took off, on the run, as the blinding snowstorm filled in their tracks.

Larson: At any point right after the killing, did you ever think about the man you’d just killed?

Nelson: Yeah.  As a matter of fact, I didn’t sleep the whole time we were on the run. I kept seeing him everywhere. I didn’t even know what he looked like.  I just kept seeing this guy who was chasing me.

Five days later they were captured. Eric lied his way through his trial.

Nelson: I just made up a story that I didn’t do anything.  I was there.  I was—

Larson: It was all Dan’s fault?

Nelson: Yeah, it was all Dan’s fault.  And from what I understood he was gonna do the same thing. 

In the intervening years, he says he’s tried to embrace the truth. In 1993, eight years into his life sentence, he wrote a letter to the trial judge.

Larson: You say, “I was the one who pulled the trigger.”

Nelson: Yeah.

Larson: You said, “I lied blatantly in your courtroom.”  This is all that you wanted to accomplish.

Nelson: Yes,  to appease my conscience.

Larson: You had to be thinking, “this might look good at a parole hearing.”

Nelson: No.  I actually didn’t think that they’d ever see it, honestly.

He also asked the judge to forward a letter he’d written to Terry Anderson and her family.

Nelson: I wrote that letter a lot of times. I remember that the more I wrote it, the less it made sense to me because it just didn’t convey what I felt. Here I’ve ripped this person out of your life.  And how do you say sorry for that?

In the letter, he wrote:

“I cannot find this peace I seek so desperately until I reach out to you and express my guilt and sorrow over what I have caused.”

Larson: There is a part of this that’s incredibly selfish.

Nelson: Oh, yeah.

Larson: In other words, you’re writing to the victim’s family to make YOU feel better.

Nelson: Yeah, obviously at the time it was a selfish act.I think I was being sincere.  But at the same time—I don’t think I considered the depth of the pain that they were going through.  I think I was just thinking about me.

Eric never knew if Terry received his letter. Ever since then he’s wanted to do more to personally convey his remorse, but inmates are not allowed to contact their victims or the survivors.

Larson: There’s a huge portion of the population that because of what you did says, “I don’t care what he thinks.”

Nelson: Yeah.

Larson: He lost his right for me to care what he thinks when he pulled the trigger.  Right?  All we want him to do is to stay in his jail.  We don’t care if he comes to grips with it.  We don’t care if he feels bad about it.  There is that element.

Nelson: Yes, absolutely.  And you know what?  And-- (sigh) you know, if that’s the way it is, I can’t argue with that. If I spend the rest of my life in here, I did it. But on the flip side of the coin, I look at it and I say well, you know, corrections is about corrections.  It’s about changing. The whole idea of prison is not just “Oh, just lock them away forever, but changing people and making people better to bring them back into society so they don’t repeat what they’ve done.”

Eric would finally get a chance to show how much he’s changed to the family he’s hurt the most. In 2005, Terry Anderson, still haunted by her brother’s murder, made a request to speak with Eric Nelson.

Nelson: It actually scared the hell out of me to be really honest with you.

Larson: Be careful of what you ask for.

Nelson: Well, yeah.

21 years after her brother was violently killed, Terry Anderson has requested to meet the man who killed him, Eric Nelson.

After two decades, a meeting between a killer and the victim’s sister could be explosive. Turns out the letter Eric wrote which terry did receive caused more damage

Terry Anderson, whose brother was murdered: Interesting, “the family of the victim.”

Janine Geske, Restorative Justice: Yeah, he doesn’t name… them.

Anderson: There’s not a name.

Geske: Yeah, I know.

So for months, facilitator Janine Geske, carefully prepares each side.

John Larson, Dateline correspondent: What if it turns out that when you sit down with him face to face that you really sort of realize he’s not a monster?  That for whatever inexplicable reason he wound up where he is and in some mysterious way you actually understand how he got there.

Anderson: I don’t foresee that happening ‘cause I don’t understand how you can kill anybody.

Terry suspects that Eric might be coming into the meeting with a hidden agenda.

Anderson: I hope his motivation isn’t when he goes before the parole board next year, “see what I did?”

Eric is up for parole in 2007. A prisoner who’s owned up to his crime—in front of a surviving family member—could look good to the parole board.

Eric Nelson, committed the murder: I don’t have anything else I can do for these people.  I can’t bring back birthdays.  I can’t bring back Christmases.  I can’t take bullets back or do anything. But, you know, if something comes through this that they can grasp onto, that if it’ll make a difference, maybe it won’t be as bad. 

Larson: The thought does occur to me that this better not be a con. 

Nelson: Oh, no.

Larson: It couldn’t be a more sacred place for this victim’s family—any little lies or deception is just one more bullet.

Nelson: Honestly, if things hadn’t changed in my life, we wouldn’t be having this conversation because I would in no way want to look those people in the eye. 

After six months of preparation, the day of the meeting between Terry Anderson and the man who killed her brother had finally arrived.

Geske: What do you think about this snow?

Anderson: You think Joe’s smiling?

Incredibly, Terry and Eric would sit down during a blizzard. It was a reminder of the snowstorm the night of the murder.

Nelson: I was kind of having thoughts, maybe she’s crying on the way up here thinking about this.

Eric assumed what he had to say would be troubling for terry. Not likely.

Terry had brought to the room a steely resolve. She was poised and confident and bolstered by Janine Geske and Terry Sullivan with victim services for Wisconsin.

Geske (face-to-face meeting): Eric, do you remember Terry?

Nelson: Yes.

Video: Face-to-face

Eric was immediately uncomfortable.  After 21 years, the tables had turned, the power reversed.

Geske: Suddenly now, this is victim focused. This is about Terri and her journey.

Anderson: Just because the person that we’re here to talk about today is my brother. I wanna kind of keep us in focus.

She began with a picture of Joe.

Anderson: This is our last family picture.

And that 1984 family photograph...the last time Terry and her surviving family members ever took a photo together.

Anderson: And now my mom’s gone, my Dad’s gone and Joe’s gone.

Nelson: I’m sorry that I, that I,  that I did that.

Initially, Eric was tongue tied.

And that would continue as Terry made sure Eric knew the terrible price her family paid. Among her many stories, she described a vision her mother had had on her deathbed.

Anderson: And she said, “But where’s Joey?  I know he’s over there in the corner, but I can’t see his face.”  And it troubled her that she couldn’t see his face.  And I’m absolutely convinced that she couldn’t see his face because of the damage that you did.

She also put together a portrait of her brother, the kind of man who helped others.

Anderson: Right on the lake there was a three lane road. Well, someone skidded off that road into a big body of water.  A family stuck in the water.  Joey jumped out of his car and rescued those people.

Nelson: Your brother sounds like a great guy.

Anderson: There’s not another one like him, you’re right.

And she recounted the annual gift he gave his mother.

Anderson: On Joey’s birthday he would call my mother and always wish her a happy birthday.  She would always say Joey called to wish you a happy birthday because he was happy that he had been born.

Nelson: I just feel so, I feel terrible for—

Anderson: And I’m glad.  Because that shows me that you have some emotion that you didn’t have 21 years ago.

Nelson: I don’t know what to say.  I really don’t.  I mean I deserve it all, you know, honestly. What do you say to that? I don’t think “I’m sorry” covers that.

Anderson: Unfortunately it doesn’t.

Nelson: Up until this point I didn’t know anything about  Joey.  I’ve never seen a picture of him.  The only thing I knew about him was what Danny had said.  He did not sound like a nice man. 

Remember, Eric said he believed that Danny had been abused by his foster father. Terry did not pursue that and Danny has since denied it. Instead, she chose to concentrate on how anyone can reach the point where he can take the life of another person.

Anderson: Make me understand how you can sit in school for seven or eight hours, and know exactly what you’re gonna do at the end of the day and function?

Nelson: I don’t think honestly that I thought about it. I think there was still part of myself that allowed myself to drift into this fantasy world where I didn’t think about those things.

Eric went onto to describe his fantasy world where he had all the power... and he confessed something he’d never told anyone before—just how far he had taken his fantasy.

Nelson: I had thought about killing just about everybody. I remember there was a guy that lived in our neighborhood.  And he had like a little restaurant or something.  And for some reason I wanted to kill him.

Anderson: Had he done something to offend you?  I mean, I don’t under-

Nelson: No, it was—I think what it was—he was there.  He was convenient.

His story did not seem to over well. Often in meetings like this, victims and offenders come to an uneasy understanding of one another. But for Terry, on this day, there were no tears and no coming together.

Anderson: I feel that it’s important for you to know that if today’s meeting has anything to do with forgiveness—it doesn’t.  Because it’s something that I can’t forgive. 

This was about communicating loss and restoring power.

Anderson: How was justice done? 

Nelson: I think I got what I deserved.

Anderson: If justice was done and you got what you deserved—well—why would you ever go to a parole hearing?

Nelson: Um—oh, you’re right.  You’re right. I guess that doesn’t make sense in a way. 

Anderson: And how old are your Eric?

Nelson: I’m 37.

Anderson: Are you ready to die in five years?  Joe was 42.

For several hours, terry barely contained her rage and Eric conceded everything to her.

Nelson: I really feel like I broke somebody’s heart. 

Eric seemed to understand the contempt she had for him and her need to express it.

Anderson: I’m gonna give you an opportunity to tell me something that’s really, really important for me to hear other than “I’m sorry and forgive me” because—

Nelson: I didn’t plan on coming here today and saying "forgive me." I guess a thought in my mind of saying that, you know, that “I’m sorry that I’m the monster that walked into your life.” And I’m glad for what you’ve said because that will help me.  I just hope to God that I don’t somehow control how you feel the rest your life. 

Finally, after several hours of conversation, there was one small moment of levity.

Nelson: I’ve just seen like the whole other human side of this—that I—that I hadn’t seen really before. And it just seems like just a decent guy. Even in this picture here—he’s the one that’s got the biggest smile on his face.

Anderson: Well, he’s full of ravioli.  (laughs)

And in the end, when asked if she’s learned anything, Terry made a concession.

Anderson: I think I learned a lot.  I mean, it wasn’t that you weren’t a faceless person, but you’re a person.  And I think that even good people sometimes do bad things.

But when all was said and done they parted ways without so much as a handshake.

Immediately after their four hour meeting, Eric was drained.

Larson: Do you feel like there was any restoration today?

Nelson: Yeah, in a way, cause I feel like she was able to say some things that she needed to say.

Nelson: Yeah, yeah, he was a great guy, how could somebody do that to him and that somebody is me.

As for Terry, the meeting left her unsettled and conflicted.

Larson: Were you getting a sense that there’s some good in there?

Anderson: I haven’t found the good yet, but I don’t think he’s really rotten to the core.

A week after the meeting, Terry comfortably relaxed at a family get together, but beneath it all, she had grown increasingly disturbed.

Anderson: Actually from some of the things that he said, he’s much more frightening to me now than he was three months ago.

She was haunted by the more disturbing details Eric revealed about his mindset 21 years ago: that he wanted to kill everybody.

But often after these emotionally charged meetings, time has a way of causing perspective to shift.

This summer, we spoke to Terry again but it turns out, now she wasn’t convinced Eric was sorry for killing her brother.

Larson: Now I gotta tell you listening to him, this guy sounded like he was truly sorry, that he understood better than most how much damage he had done.

Anderson: I’d like to challenge that, because I still am wondering was he sorry for what he did.  Was he sorry that he was caught?  Or is he sorry that he’s still in prison?  So I’m not quite sure where his remorse came from. But I think most he’s sorry for himself.

Though she continued to take a hard line toward her brother’s killer, things were changing. Remember that family photograph from 1984?

Terry had not allowed her family to take a group photograph after that, the memory of her missing brother, too painful, but since the meeting, she’s been thinking.

Anderson: Since then I realize that that probably was something selfish on my part.  Now to ever do that again—and when my son got married last week, we did have some family photos taken.

Terry and her three brothers stood with their spouses—all with huge smiles on their faces.

Anderson: Would I call it a family photo?  No, we’re not all there.  My parents are gone.  My brother is gone.  But, while I was taking the picture, I thought, “I can’t believe I’m standing here.  I cannot believe that we’re doing this.” And it’s about time.

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