Gregory K. Nelson was drinking, despondent over a breakup, frightened from being the victim of a recent carjacking and armed when Illinois State Trooper William Owen pulled him over on the entrance ramp of Interstate 255 near State Street in East St. Louis.
Nelson, 54, fired a single shot at Owen. That shot earned Nelson a 50-year prison sentence Wednesday for attempted murder.
Owen stopped Nelson at 11:30 p.m. on June 23, 2015, on a suspicion that he was driving under the influence of alcohol. Nelson had a gun and feared he would go to prison again for carrying a gun illegally.
“Guns have always been my downfall,” Nelson said.
Owen approached the car and told Nelson he smelled alcohol. Minutes later, Nelson took seven steps toward Owen, pulled a gun from his waistband and fired a single shot toward Owen’s head. He missed. Owen, a former social worker, returned fire, shooting 12 times at the fleeing Nelson. He missed, too.
“Not only did he try to take my life, he put me in a position of taking his life,” Owen testified during Nelson’s sentencing on Wednesday.
Nelson went on the lam for four days, hiding out at a friend’s apartment in St. Ann, Mo.
Owen called his wife to tell her he had nearly been killed. Owen’s wife, also a social worker, worried about his safety, their family’s safety. The both worried about the police searching for Nelson.
“He had no respect for human life,” Owen said.
Karen Craig, Nelson’s attorney, said he was looking for a way to safely turn himself in and to secure a lawyer. The Illinois State Troopers and U.S. Marshals caught up with him before he did either.
Nelson went to the county jail to await trial. Owen returned to work.
“Those first traffic stops after the shooting were some of the most stressful of my life,” Owen told Circuit Judge Zina Cruse during Nelson’s sentencing.
Nelson apologized to Owen and his wife.
“Black lives matter to me. Blue lives matter to me. All lives matter to me,” Nelson said. “Police officers are necessary because it’s a crazy world out there.”
Nelson went on to insist that he didn’t mean to shoot anyone that night.
Craig had argued during Nelson’s trial that he never intended to kill Owen. The gun went off when he tried to get away, Nelson testified during the trial. Craig asked Cruse to sentence Nelson to 40 years, the minimum sentence. Nelson would have to serve 85 percent of his sentence before he was eligible for parole.
“He would be 88 years old at the time of his release,” Craig said.
State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly and his assistant Amanda Fischer asked Cruse for a 55-year prison sentence.
“No one is seeking revenge. (Owen) and our primary concern is the safety of others,” Kelly said.
Nelson’s criminal record listed 10 prior felonies, including residential burglary. Nelson had three convictions for illegally carrying a gun.
“He can’t seem to refrain from carrying a weapon illegally,” Kelly said.
Illinois State Police filled the courtroom’s gallery for the sentencing.
“We are a family and we have to support one of our own,” said ISP spokesman Calvin Dye, Jr. “We are thankful that no one was injured that night.”
Cruse said she couldn’t know Nelson’s intentions that night, but she could see his actions. She saw them on the video recording taken from Owen’s dash-mounted camera.
I saw you pull a gun out of the waist of your pants and point it at that man,” said St. Clair County Circuit Judge Zina Cruse, who during the trial watched dash-cam video of the encounter. “I saw it with my own eyes. What did you think he was going to do? Punk out? He was going to do his job. How dare you?”
Nelson, who wore earphones to assist his hearing during the sentencing, took them out after Cruse pronounced sentence.
“Let him read it,” Cruse said as she left the bench.