On an early December morning in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, what was happening on the backside of the apartment complex didn't sound like the end of a marriage, and certainly not the beginning of the end of a life.
To the neighbors calling 911, it was more like a clumsy burglar stupidly making a ruckus.
Patrolman Rodney Shifflet and his partner caught the dispatch but didn't find anything.
Rodney Shifflet: We had gone over there initially, walked around the building that was in question. They advised that they had seen somebody with a gray hooded sweatshirt.Dennis Murphy [Dateline correspondent]: Maybe a prowler?Shifflet: Exactly. We didn't see anything. We walked around the building, drove through the parking lots and we cleared that call and went back into service.
But the two cops didn't get far because about 20 minutes later, at 5:34 a.m., the dispatcher was sending them back to the same address. It was a good one in Cedar Rapids, not the kind of place where you get what officers call a "domestic." And this one sounded bad when the call came in.
The officers cautiously treaded their way up to the third floor apartment, stopping to quick-check an exterior utility locker by the front door. It was clear.
Inside, they saw a middle-aged man sprawled on the kitchen floor and a woman in blue jeans and a grey fleece standing nearby with bloody hands.
Shifflet: There was blood on the floor. Some blood on his chest and everything. My partner says, "Who did this? What happened?" and she responded she had done that.Murphy: Was he conscious?Shifflet: He was conscious. Yes.Murphy: Speaking to you?Shifflet: He was trying to advise me that he was a doctor.
The doctor stabbed in the chest was Richard Nelson, the 54-year-old executive dean of the University of Iowa College of Medicine, a nationally regarded pediatrics specialist.
The woman who'd admitted stabbing him -- both to 911 and to the arriving officers -- was his wife of 33 years, Phyllis Nelson, mother of their two grown daughters. She was also 54.
Somehow the couple -- she was a music teacher and a member of the choir at their Lutheran church -- had come to this bloody encounter in a sparsely furnished two-bedroom apartment.
What had imploded in the marriage of two of eastern Iowa's best and brightest?
Newspaper reporter Elizabeth Kutter would spend many months looking for the answer.
Dennis Murphy: So this is a very prominent figure?Elizabeth Kutter [reporter]: Prominent family.Murphy: In the university ... in the medical school?Kutter: Not only for their accomplishments, but for the kind of people that they were.Murphy: Two nice kids.Kutter: Nice kids.Murphy: Nice house. They had a role in the community.Kutter: Everything you would like to be as a grown-up or everything you would like your children to be.
They'd been high-school sweethearts since the age of 16, Dick and Phyllis.
Every year their friends could expect the Christmas letter from the Nelsons recounting their blessings, the girls graduating from prestigious colleges, Phyllis's volunteer work and Dick's ever growing responsibilities at the med school.
But now as the EMTs worked to stabilize Dr. Richard Nelson all those accompishments were turning to dust.
The patrolmen didn't know how to read the wife's removed composure as they sat her down in the couch.
Shifflet: You would think, if you had genuine feelings you'd be crying, a little hysterical but she really was ... showed no emotion whatsoever. I don't know. I tried to put myself in that situation. I think I would be a little emotional, especially if it's somebody you've been married to, had children with, had a relationship with.
Dr. Nelson was rushed to the emergency room with a single stab wound to the heart.
The weapon was obviously the bloody paring knife found in the kitchen, with a black plastic handle and a four-inch blade.
The investigators methodically photographed the apartment and bagged and inventoried what they found:
A bloody towel in the living room.
Clothes by the bed.
Books by the bedside table, one titled "After the Affair."
There was a woman's loafer on the floor.
And the other on the roof of the apartment outside.
What they didn't find any trace of was the doctor's lover of several years. The other woman. Phyllis told the police she knew she'd been there. She'd even seen her car parked outside when she arrived a little after 5 a.m.
Shifflet: I remember her saying that she just wanted to hurt him.Murphy: She wanted to hurt him?Shifflet: "I just wanted to hurt him."Murphy: I just wanted to hurt him. I didn't want to kill him.Shifflet: Yes.
But she had.
About four hours later, Dr. Richard Nelson died in the emergency room, a punctured heart beyond repair.
Patrolman Shifflet would look back on what the wife, Phyllis, had said as she was handcuffed in the back seat riding to the police station.
Shifflet: I can remember her saying that how he had hurt her heart and she just wanted to hurt him back.Murphy: She talked about her heart?Shifflet: Her heart being hurt and how he had hurt her heart and how she basically wanted him to feel the pain that she was feeling.
Phyllis Nelson said something else that morning. She hoped her name wouldn't get in the paper.
But Phyllis Nelson had become front-page news indeed.
Kutter: The fact that someone with his stature was killed here and in a love triangle made it very big news.
The doctor's wife was charged with first-degree murder.
Dr. Richard Nelson, a prominent Iowa pediatrician and a medical college dean, had died of a stab wound to the heart.
His wife of 33 years, Phyllis Nelson, was charged with his first-degree murder.
Prosecutor Harold Denton would argue that an ongoing messy love triangle – with Phyllis, her husband and his secretary -- had ended in a fatal confrontation in the kitchen of his temporary apartment.
There was no question that the weapon, a common kitchen paring knife with a short blade, was in Phyllis Nelson's hand.
The matter before the court was what was in Phyllis' mind when the stabbing occurred.
She'd pleaded not guilty, claiming it was an accident.
She said she'd held the blade straight in front of her in a posture of self-defense when she rounded a blind corner and her furious husband walked right into the blade.
Was that self-defense? Some kind of horrible accident?
Or was it murder?
To arrive at a verdict the court would have to hear the story of the marriage of Richard and Phyllis Nelson.
It was a story that sounded like a model TV family from the 1950s. He went to work and did well. She stayed home and raised the accomplished daughters, with time for lots of volunteering in the community.
Phyllis artfully juggled the delicate role of being the supportive faculty wife of an important man at the university. They were Dick and Phyllis and the girls. The teaching of the Lutheran church was their rock.
Then, as Phyllis would say later, he turned 50 and moody at the same time. He was withdrawing from their marriage.
Betsy Kutter: I mean, I don't think it probably ever occurred to Phyllis that Dr. Nelson wasn't going to be her husband forever or that he would ever betray her in such a way.
The betrayal was the intimate relationship that developed between Dr. Nelson and his secretary Mary Joe Young, an affair that started about three years before his death. She was married at the time, too.
Mary Joe Young was 49 years old, 5 years younger than Phyllis, but few people's stereotype of a middle-aged man's trophy mistress. But then Dr. Richard Nelson was no one's vision of a modern day lothario either.
Betsy Kutter: She was not a young hottie. She was a woman very near his age. She didn't look a whole lot different than his wife.
Mary Jo, the doctor's lover, testified that she'd been at his apartment in the pre-dawn hours before Richard Nelson was stabbed. She'd hid briefly in the outside utility closet before fleeing, as Phyllis made her way up the stairs.
Mary Jo would tell the court when her professional relationship with the man she worked for became something else.
At the time, Dr. Nelson was spearheading the construction of a new building at University of Iowa College of Medicine.
There had been a lot of hours with his able assistant Mary Jo.
Denton (prosecutor): I think that probably a lot of it was spending time away from the family but then at the same time having daily contact with your administrative assistant. I think that that was one of those things, that these sort of things happen.
She told the court that one morning she arrived at her desk to find a handwritten note from the doctor, a declaration of what both knew had been brewing between them.
The very married doctor who'd never seemed to have a wandering eye for women was quickly involved in a torrid affair.
They had sex in his office, she testified, and when they traveled together on business.
At the same time, Dick told Phyllis his annual physical had uncovered a low testosterone count, rendering him virtually impotent.
Betsy Kutter: He told her that probably they wouldn't be having as much sex as they've had before. And she said what I think any wife would say "That's all right, you know I love you." And when in fact while this was going on he was having a very sexually active relationship with Mary Joe Young. And it became kind of a joke between the two of them that his testosterone was low that there was was no evidence of it when he was with her.
A year and half before the stabbing, and about a year-and-a-half into their affair, Mary Jo divorced her husband. Dick stayed married.
William Kutmus: Didn't he tell you that "You know, once my youngest daughter marries … that that would be a beginning perhaps of you and and the good doctor?"Mary Joe Young: Yes, that's true.
But Mary Jo couldn't pin the doctor to a date when he would leave his wife for good, even though he was moving in and out of the house. Richard told Phyllis he needed time-out separations because of the work stress.
Phyllis wrote it all off to that -- until the night she followed her husband on a solitary midnight walk.
She trailed him to the river near their home. She could hear him on the phone to Mary Jo.
Mary Jo Young: He had told me later that she had been standing behind a tree and had seen him.
A few months after the first hints of the affair the doctor took a week off alone to decompress from the stress, he said, at a resort area in northern Minnesota. It was a place he'd been with Phyllis. They thought of it as their romantic spot. Only this time he took along Mary Jo and came back with happy snapshots of their illicit week together.
Snapshots that Dr. Nelson left in his office drawer at the university.
Snapshots that early one morning Phyllis discovered.
Kutter: She found pictures of him and her on vacation where they had vacationed together and she took those pictures to his boss -- who while he was his boss, they were good friends, and then Dr. Nelson was in trouble.
Sleeping with the secretary resulted in a sharp career setback for the previously impeccable Dr. Richard Nelson, the man many at the medical school referred to as "their moral compass."
Those compromising snapshots resulted in a letter of reprimand in his official file and the loss of some $30,000 from his paycheck that year.
Mary Joe Young was transferred to another department.
The affair was going badly. He promised to leave his wife and then didn't. Mary Jo started dating other men.
Mary Jo Young: I think he was concerned about losing me.
The doctor, she says, became frantic that she'd find someone else.
He finally gave her a date for their wedding -- her upcoming birthday, which fell on a Saturday.
Mary Jo Young: And he thought it would be a good idea if we got married in the morning and that way we could fly out, leave that afternoon.
On Dec. 11, 2001, Dick Nelson sounded as though he'd finally chosen her over Phyllis, as Mary Jo saw it.
But when he arrived for dinner at his family home that evening, he may not have counted on Phyllis firing first. His wife presented him that night with divorce papers.
He left the house and asked Mary Jo to come meet him at his apartment.
Mary Jo Young: He told me that the divorce had been filed and he wanted me to come and stay with him.
That night they made love, she says, in the barren lonely guy's apartment, fell asleep, only to be awakened by a thud at the window before dawn. He knew right away what it was.
Mary Jo Young: I told him that I would get dressed right away and leave.
She scurried out the door and concealed herself in the hallway utility closet.
Phyllis stormed in and Mary Jo made her way out of the building to her car.
She never heard whatever the confrontation was.
She never saw her lover Richard Nelson alive again.
The moment had arrived for the prosecution to tell the court its theory of what had happened in that barren apartment in the early morning hours when Dr. Richard Nelson was stabbed to death.
The prosecutor would recount the final hours of the doctor's life that December evening at the couple's home here alongside the Iowa River.
Phyllis said that Dick had spotted the divorce papers she'd prepared lying on a table. She claims that he then begged her not to go through with it.
But there's an alternate theory: that Phyllis had actually prepared those divorce papers as a kind of ultimatum to actually keep Dick, and when that gamble failed she panicked.
Phyllis began calling Dick's cell phone into the wee hours, leaving messages that the prosecutor said sounded like a woman who'd been up all night working herself into a frenzy.
Denton (prosecutor): The tenor seemed to be that she was getting more and more upset as the evening went on. And the messages as they became later and later in the morning. She was clearly more upset about the thing.
She placed the first call a little after midnight.
He didn't pick up...
The second message was left a half hour later, at 1:45 a.m.
The third message was at 2 a.m.
And another at 2:30 a.m.
The final message comes at 4:12 a.m., only an hour and half before Phyllis Nelson would put a four-inch knife into her husband's heart.
About 20 minutes after the final message, Phyllis Nelson drove 30 miles to Dick's apartment.
When she arrived, she saw Mary Jo's car.
Murphy (Dateline correspondent): There's the mistress's car right in front of the place?Denton: Yes.
Phyllis would say later she wasn't upset by knowing Mary Jo was there with Dick. Rather, she thought the moment had arrived for everyone to talk through what should happen next in their three-way stand-off.
Murphy: She would say she was relieved to see that carDenton: That's what she said.Murphy: Does that make sense to you?Denton: No. I don't think that. I don't think she was relieved.
That's when Phyllis starts throwing her shoe at her husband's window, making such a ruckus that neighbors, worried about a potential prowler, call 911.
The shoe ended up on the roof.
As Mary Jo hid in the hallway utility closet until the coast was clear, Phyllis came up the stairs to confront them.
Phyllis said she went into the bedroom looking for the lover. Then, according to Phyllis, Dick lost it and became explosively angry, accusing her of ruining his life and his career and preventing her from leaving the apartment. Phyllis said she then spotted a knife on the kitchen counter, picked it up, and stabbed Dick once in the chest as she rounded a blind corner from the kitchen.
But when one of the police officers arrived he said she said nothing about holding the knife in front of her because her husband had flipped out and was scaring her.
Murphy: Did she say anything at that point about self-defense, or he's coming after her, and she was scared?Shifflet: No. No.Murphy: I held the knife out and he ran into it? Did you hear any of that story?Shifflet: No. Never. I guess it might have been different if she said, 'He came at me, he lunged at me, I was scared' but at no time did she voice any concern about her own safety.
Ultimately, the prosecution had tried Phyllis Nelson with her own words.
The messages left on the husband's cell phone…
Her call to 911...
Her words to the patrolmen...
Shifflet: I can remember her saying that how he had hurt her heart and she just wanted to hurt him back.
To the prosecution and the cops at the scene, the evidence fit their common-sense theory of a woman arriving with steam coming out her ears and only getting more angry from there.
Shifflet: I believe the confrontation was pre-meditated. She came up from Iowa City to Cedar Rapids in the middle of the evening. It was something that probably could have maybe happened the next day in a setting, or in the public, or something other than driving from Iowa City to Cedar Rapids in the early morning hours to confront somebody.
Dr. Richard Nelson was dead and the prosecution argued his wife had murdered him in a pique of rage over the other woman.
The defense, of course, saw something else altogether.
Although it would seemingly be a tough argument to make, Phyllis Nelson's defense attorney would tell the court the almost improbable: Richard Nelson stabbed himself.
Murphy: He stabbed himself?Kutmus (defense attorney): In essense he did.
Imagine for a moment that you're William Kutmus, Phyllis Nelson's defense lawyer.
Your client's been charged with the first-degree murder of the husband that she's already prepared divorce papers on.
After a night of making rambling phone calls.
After driving half an hour to the husband's apartment sometime after 4:30 a.m. only to discover that he's upstairs in bed with his lover.
Then the police arrive, find the husband stabbed through the heart, blood on your client's hands, and a bloody kitchen knife nearby.
Your client's already told 911 "I stabbed him" and said to the arriving officers, "I only meant to hurt him, I didn't mean to kill him."
It was a very bad set of facts for any criminal defense lawyer to explain, even for William Kutmus -- one of Iowa's best.
It was always going to be an uphill fight to get a court to believe Phyllis Nelson's not guilty plea.
Lawyer Kutmus's strategy was to portray that confrontation in a Cedar Rapids apartment as the fatal moment a patient wife finally realizes her gentle husband of more than 30 years has changed into a kind of monster.
Signs she'd seen coming.
Kutmus: The marriage is now crumbling for Phyllis. She recognizes a husband that's changed, he even became physical at one time. But, loud outbursts like, 'You bitch!' if they'd ever get into an argument. This was very unlike him.
So again the court was hearing scenes from the marriage of Dick and Phyllis Nelson, this time from some of the people who knew them best, starting with their two grown daughters who would stand steadfast by their mother.
Elyse, the older, had been living with her parents the summer before her father died. That was the summer of the devastating discovery that dad was involved with his secretary Mary Joe Young.
Elyse had caught her father in a lie the night before the family was due to go away together.
Elyse says she told her father that she wouldn't go away with them that weekend.
And the daughter testified about another ugly scene that she and her sister walked in on just a few weeks later.
It was another family weekend get-away, an argument between her parents in a hotel not long after Dick had returned from his illicit vacation week with Mary Jo.
And Emily, the younger daughter, also testified to the frightening nature of her father's sudden anger. She recalled an incident the month before he died when he blew up after scratching his car on hers when it was parked at the house.
Kutmus: The daughters really corroborated the fact that Dr. Nelson was an exploding time bomb.Murphy: Had to feel sorry for them. I mean here they love their father, but they've got to say bad things about him...Kutmus: Yes, and it's all true.Murphy: ...in order to save their mother.Kutmus: You've got to paint the entire picture even if it means denigrating a deceased father. There was just no no doubt whatsoever, what their testimony was, in fact, true. Was it significant? Did it help us? Yes it did. Corroborates. It shores up the version of our defense.
And to corroborate the daughter's stories of Daddy Dearest, longtime friends of Dick and Phyllis said they too had marked the changes that came over Dr. Nelson.
His former college roommate said, during a visit to Iowa with his wife, not long before Dick's death, he too was stunned by the changes he saw in his old friend.
An old friend from their Minneapolis days also said she saw his lights dimming the summer before his death.
Murphy: Hard thing for them, too -- to pick between Dick and Phyllis.Kutmus: Right.Murphy: Been friends with both.Kutmus: Exactly, sure. It was hard for them to do this, but they were willing to speak their mind, to speak the truth.
And though they never testified, no one in the courtroom could have missed the loyal supporters of Phyllis filling the benches everyday. Some were in clerical garb. Friends huddled in a prayer circle.
Kutmus: Talk to any judge or any jury and they look over there and they see support. They say, well, somebody thinks the defendant is worthy. That's really important. It may not be the deciding fact in the case, but it certainly helps you. It gives your case credibility. It lifts it. It is very important.
Character witnesses and some background flavor to the story of the marriage is all fine but it wasn't going to be enough to keep Phyllis Nelson out of prison.
Kutmus would have to take a huge gamble and put his client on the stand to tell her story in her own words, something most criminal defense lawyers dread.
It was the seventh day of trial and it was now Phyllis Nelson's turn to tell her account of the marriage and of her husband's death at her hands.
The woman who'd enjoyed acting in community theater would have to now come up with the performance of her life.
She began by recounting that, until the other woman came along, life was about as full as a person could expect: a fine home that overlooked the Iowa River, two accomplished daughters and a husband with a prestigious job.
But by the winter of 2000 things had changed drastically and not for the better. Their sex life had been all but extinguished.
But, Dick Nelson had become moody and dark. Phyllis says she had a hard time coping with his trip-wire anger.
She says she wasn't aware that something was up until the May before he died. Dick had told Phyllis he was going for a solitary walk. When she woke up around midnight and saw he wasn't in bed, she went outside and found him down near the river talking to Mary Jo on his cell.
Nelson: I thought it was inappropriate. I looked up her phone number and I called her. She said, "I'm in love with him." I said, "Well Mary Jo, I've never heard anything like that before. I've got a 32 year marriage that deserves some respect here.”
A few weeks later, another incident. They'd come back from a night out when Dick said he had to go to the office. Phyllis said she went out looking.
Nelson: I looked up her address. I got dressed and I drove out to the address. I saw our car. He came around the front of the building and said, "What the hell do you think you're doing, you f---ing bitch?” I was astonished.
An already tense summer got worse.
There was his week supposedly alone in northern Minnesota.
The shouting match vacation weekends refereed by the daughters.
Dick and Phyllis were a marriage spinning out of control.
On Labor Day weekend, she says he approached her in the garage.
The wife called the girlfriend again.
It was a few weeks later that she took the keys to his office and in the early hours went through his desk drawers, where she found the compromising photos of Dick and Mary Jo.
Phyllis says she took the compromising snapshots to friends to get some advice. The male friend of the couple also happened to be Dick's direct boss at the medical center.
The photographic evidence of the affair with the secretary had big consequences for Dr. Nelson and Mary Jo. That's when he got the letter of reprimand and a dock in pay and the lover was transferred out of his department.
Phyllis then left Iowa to visit her brother in Florida. When she got back, she said Dick asked for forgiveness.
Dick was back and forth between the house and a short term apartment rental.
Phyllis, meanwhile, was hoping to salvage and rebuild the marriage.
But Phyllis was talking to a divorce attorney that fall and on the night of Dec. 11, when she and Dick had planned a dinner together at home; she left the divorce papers out where he could see them. She said he took it badly.
The series of after-midnight phone calls weren't evidence of her rage building as the prosecution had claimed, rather, she said, she called repeatedly because she was worried that her husband might hurt himself in his grief over the divorce papers.
It so worried her, she said, that she didn’t hear back from him after all her calls that around 4:30 a.m. she got in her car and drove to her husband's apartment. When she arrived, there was Mary Jo Young's car.
The apartment buzzer was broken so she said she threw her shoe at the window to wake them up. Dick let her into the apartment.
Phyllis says she tried to hide in the kitchen.
Nelson: I stepped into the kitchen and thought this is too small a space, I can't get out of here, and, I saw a knife on the counter. I picked the knife up, he, he was going to hurt me. There was no question in my mind. Kutmus: Did he make any threatening gestures while you were at the door? Nelson: Absolutely, his fists were clenched and he was coming towards me with this look.
She then says she held the knife out in front of her to protect herself.
Nelson: I came around to the corner of the kitchen and he was right there and came right into the knife.Kutmus: Was it a plain and simple accident?Nelson: Absolutely, it was an accident. Never would I intend to harm a man whom I had cared for and loved deeply, nearly all my life.
An accident, a frightened woman holding out a kitchen knife to put some distance between her and her angry husband.
That had been Phyllis Nelson's account. Out on bond, she left court each day surrounded by her friends who'd stood by her side.
But not everyone in eastern Iowa’s court of public opinion saw it her way.
Kutmus: It was divided. I think the majority of the individuals were on the side of Richard Nelson, probably believed that there was some form of murder, either first- or second-degree murder.
It was a case that had kept the farming communities of eastern Iowa transfixed. But now the prosecution and defense had rested and the case was not in the hands of a jury but a judge.
Worried that Iowa’s rural communities would not be sympathetic to a well-to-do doctor's wife who claimed her husband walked into the knife she held, defense attorney Kutmus had made the risky choice of arguing the case only to a judge, so one person, not 12, would make the decision about guilt or innocence.
Murphy: Did you not go with a jury because you thought you would not get 12 people to agree on a self-defense? That you couldn't sell it?Kutmus: I thought that because of the pre-trial publicity it was just overwhelming against Phyllis.
So now he had taken just about every risk a defense attorney could take, waived the jury, put his client on the stand, and if it didn’t work, Phyllis Nelson, if convicted, faced life in prison. The stress was crushing him
Kutmus: I literally broke down, you know, just bawling. And it was all that stress that finally reached a head. That was an awful moment. It was an awful moment. I guarantee you, whenever I die, because of being a trial lawyer, I would have probably lived maybe a couple of days more. It rips you apart waiting for that verdict, especially when you've got someone that you think is innocent.
But would the judge agree?
His choice was either first or second degree murder either of which meant the former doctor's wife would die in prison, or a lesser degree of manslaughter which could mean little or no prison time.
Courthouse reporter Elizabeth Kutter found this one too close to call.
Kutter: The trial ultimately came down to whether you believed Phyllis or no. And, some people did and some people didn't.
The moment of the verdict had arrived.
Phyllis Nelson and attorney Kutmus nervously held hands as the judge read out his finding.
Kutmus: Voluntary manslaughter, it shocked Phyllis.Kutter: The judge found that she didn't intend to kill him, but she knew or should have known that picking up that knife could possibly have that result. That's voluntary manslaughter.
But some in town thought the verdict of voluntary manslaughter was too light, that her argument that her husband ran into the knife, essentially stabbing himself, was just too hard to believe.
Kutter: People thought a woman that had all these privileges should be able to find a better way to solve her problems than stabbing her husband.Murphy: When you pick up a knife, there are consequences.Kutter: Right.Murphy: And what did those people want to have happen to Phyllis?Kutter: There were people who thought she should be convicted of first-degree murder and I suspect there are still people that think she got away with it.
Dick Nelson's lover Mary Jo Young was one of them.
After the trial concluded she read this statement on the courthouse steps that she let the cameras record but not film.
Mary Jo Young: “Phyllis Nelson's vicious temper during the many months prior to Dick's death, and the violent punishment she chose to inflict upon him that resulted in his death, are deserving to no one. I wish the sentence would have been longer, but I am confident that Phyllis Nelson will pay for this crime for the rest of her life and beyond, regardless of her prison term, and for that, I am at peace."
Last fall after serving three and half years in an Iowa woman's prison, Phyllis Nelson walked free, released to her friends who'd stood by her all the while.
After leaving prison, Phyllis Nelson was paroled to Illinois, where she is said to be living near family. She'll remain on parole until her sentence is complete in September 2007.