I just wanted to give you a heads up. I got a call today, and the OC Weekly is going to write something on me. I don't know when. I don't know if they will try to contact you. If they do, please don't talk to them. —April 7, 2005, e-mail from Jeff Nielsen to friends
Accused child molester Jeffrey Ray Nielsen has been buddies with Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, former Orange County Republican bigwig Tom Fuentes and Sheriff Mike Carona. District Attorney Tony Rackauckas once hired him as a prosecution analyst. Mike Schroeder, the top political adviser to Carona and Rackauckas, successfully recommended Nielsen for USC law school.
Nielsen's even closer to Scott Baugh, the onetime minority leader of the state Assembly, now chairman of the local Republican Party. Baugh has partied and traveled with Nielsen, employed him as a top aide, and, when term limits forced him from office, displayed the type of generosity usually reserved for a best friend. Baugh got Manatt, Phelps & Phillips—"the powerhouse law firm"—to hire himself and Nielsen as lawyers.
When he was arrested on sex-crimes charges in 2003, sources say, the 35-year-old Nielsen called Baugh first.
Dominated by a small group of politically minded conservative businessmen, Orange County is a place where ambitious guys like Nielsen thrive. Sure, he was a closeted gay man, but that was hardly rare in the local GOP. Tall and handsome, he had formidable academic credentials and even better connections. It didn't hurt that he'd also been a foot soldier for conservative causes or that his father, Ben, also a Republican, had served as mayor of Fountain Valley. Some observers believe the Republican establishment was grooming Nielsen for the local judiciary.
Although he liked to engage underage boys in chat rooms and e-mails, Nielsen's future seemed limitless. He hobnobbed not just with the most powerful people in Orange County but in California. With a reported six-figure income, he purchased a BMW, ate at the best restaurants, relaxed at out-of-town gay bars, accumulated an impressive wardrobe and, according to friends, spent an enormous amount of energy creating the persona of an active, single straight guy. He bought a three-story home in Ladera Ranch for himself, his dog and the stuffed animals that adorned his bed. More than once, Fuentes, the godfather of the local Republican Party, where only open homosexuality is discouraged—visited Casa de Nielsen for parties.
Now Nielsen's meteoric rise is apparently over. It's not a pretty way to escape the closet, but his arrest two years ago forced him finally to acknowledge that he's gay. Nielsen has pleaded not guilty to six criminal counts of repeatedly molesting a 14-year-old Westminster boy. He's free on $10,000 bail but faces potentially more than six years in prison if convicted.
His situation grew worse in March when authorities added a new charge: possession of a huge, illegal cache of man-boy pornography. Many of the images show men having sex with prepubescent boys.
You might guess that a man facing sex-crimes charges would appear distraught or embarrassed, but Nielsen seems relaxed during his monthly pretrial court appearances. In fact, he often looks downright cocky, joking with his father in courtrooms crowded with other, far less natty defendants whose faces show nothing but fear.
There could be good reason for the nonchalance. Either through luck, hidden assistance or the work of Paul S. Meyer, his well-connected lawyer, Nielsen has managed to delay his trial for each of the past 28 months. He's flatly told friends that prosecutors will eventually drop the case without fanfare.
"The defense is hoping the case just goes away," said one of Nielsen's friends who spoke on condition of anonymity. "And they want it done quietly."
And this is where the story becomes convoluted.
The DA insists through spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder that the case will be handled judiciously. But Schroeder is the wife of Nielsen's friend Mike Schroeder, and she has excluded the Nielsen prosecution from her office's weekly list of cases for the media to watch. "We list only the cases we believe the media is interested in," she said. But she insists Nielsen has gained no insider advantage.
Schroeder blames the slow pace of the case on several factors: sex-crimes prosecutor Dan Hess has been busy pursuing other defendants. A complicated investigation required a special master to inspect Nielsen's home and office computers.
"Our office is handling the Nielsen case like any other," said Schroeder. "He's received no special treatment. Remember, it's my office that's prosecuting him."
But after two years of pretrial motions, a trial date still has not been set. Whatever is stalling the case, one undeniable impact must delight the defense. Jurors won't get to see the skinny, baby-faced 14-year-old high school student Nielsen met, romanced—police believe the boy was given roses—and allegedly used for oral and anal sex.
The boy is now growing into a man. He's 17 years old and could be in college before he testifies.
If law enforcement records are accurate, details of the case are simple. Nielsen had an adult boyfriend when he logged in anonymously to a gay online chat room in early 2003. There, he found the 14-year-old we'll call John Doe because of his age. Doe, an energetic youth who viewed himself as bisexual and lived with his mother, had been surfing the Net on a computer at Westminster High School. Police say Nielsen somehow bonded with Doe after shaving about six years from his age, telling the kid he was 26. They exchanged pictures and arranged to meet.
On March 27, 2003, Nielsen picked Doe up after school and drove him 35 minutes away to his Ladera Ranch home. In Nielsen's third-floor bedroom, the two stripped and had sex, according to law enforcement sources. Afterward, they cleaned up and Nielsen drove the boy 30 miles back to Westminster.
Following a flurry of e-mails, Nielsen left work on April 2 and drove to the boy's Westminster home. Except for the boy, the house was empty. It was a Wednesday afternoon. The boy's mother was at work. On the floor beside her bed, they had sex again, the boy told authorities.
Nielsen didn't know that, shortly after, Doe revealed details of the relationship to a female schoolmate at a Starbucks. They talked, and the boy decided he would not see Nielsen again. But the girl later told police detectives that Nielsen "conned" Doe into another encounter. On April 25, Nielsen drove to a Mexican restaurant in Westminster, picked up Doe for the last time and took him again to his Ladera Ranch bedroom. Police found an e-mail Nielsen sent the boy: "Maybe we can do something again on Sunday just like last week."
Alarmed, the boy's girlfriend told school officials about Nielsen. The officials confronted the boy, who reluctantly told enough of the story that a child-abuse report was filed. A police investigation and raid on Nielsen's property followed. Cops determined that the boy had not fabricated the relationship.
During a Sept. 6, 2005, preliminary hearing, prosecutor Hess asked Westminster police officer Scott Storey if Doe knew details of Nielsen's home and bedroom. Storey said the boy described the contents of the bedroom, even correctly identifying the color of Nielsen's bed comforter.
"It was," said Storey, "exactly as John Doe had described."
If you can pass on to Jeff, who is aware I'm looking at the case, that he should talk to me even if it's off the record. I'd like to know his version. I haven't yet decided if I'll write about the matter, but if he doesn't talk to me, then I'll have to rely almost exclusively on police, prosecutors and witness reports—all of which don't hold him in a favorable light.
—An e-mail from Moxley to a close Nielsen friend, Nov. 26, 2004
As you know, ANY publicity prior to trial could potentially hurt him. So in reality, like Scott Peterson, his lawyers are probably telling him to shut up about it. I really feel for the guy . . . This problem for Jeff—beyond his own interest in "younger guys" really—is his lifelong problem facing reality. That is, admitting his homosexuality.
—Nielsen's friend, Nov. 26, 2004
Regarding possible pretrial publicity: I don't know Jeff, so I don't have any personal interest in the case and, frankly, I don't know what I'm going to write yet. But it'd be difficult to write anything he'd view as sympathetic if he doesn't share with me his version, his thoughts, his concerns—all of which I'm open to considering without animosity.
—Moxley, Nov. 26, 2004
I quite frankly don't think a story is warranted here. If one is written, it really is proof in the pudding that your editorial board has questionable ethics and is more interested in salacious B.S. than real news.
—Nielsen friend, Dec. 6, 2004
Please remind Jeff that he still has an opportunity to talk to me on background before I write.
—Moxley, April 7, 2005
With all due respect, WHY IS THIS NEWSWORTHY FOR YOU???
—Nielsen friend, April 7, 2005
If the charges are true, you'd still think the case should be off-limits to press coverage?
—Moxley, April 7, 2005
But see, Scott, I think that you may not just want to report on this incident. It seems based on previous writings and the OC Weekly being what it is, there is a threat here of you writing an EXPOSÉ and including some big innuendos about Nielsen and the GOP, Baugh, Rackauckas, etc., rather than just reporting that a young attorney molested a kid.
—Nielsen friend, April 7, 2005
I'm really surprised that Jeff, who is undoubtedly very smart and also well-versed in journalism, wouldn't want to take advantage of my repeated offers to talk on or off the record. I've shown no hostility and I've been patient, following the case for more than a year without writing a word. But ultimately it's going to be difficult to fully tell someone's side of the story when they won't share it.
—Moxley, April 8, 2005
I understand you e-mailed Jeff interview requests? Where did you get his e-mail address? . . . Why is it newsworthy in the first place? Ramification of writing something will serve WHAT PURPOSE?
—Nielsen friend, April 19, 2005
You're actually pissed that I, a reporter, asked a criminal defendant, Jeff, for an interview before I write about an ongoing felony case?
—Moxley, April 19, 2005
Taking a pass on this "story" would be a personal favor to me because I don't want to see anything severe happen to Jeff with or without government help—if you get my drift—but that is your call.
—Nielsen friend, April 20, 2005
At the Sept. 6 preliminary hearing, Nielsen defense lawyer Meyer, who has also represented ex-Orange County Superior Court Judge Ronald Kline on unresolved child pornography charges, tried to undermine the prosecution's case. First, he attacked the credibility of the boy, quizzing Officer Storey about the 14-year-old's alleged inconsistent statements and his "motivation" to be with Nielsen. Storey said Doe admitted he was struggling with his sexuality. Meyer has also suggested that the relationship should be blamed on Doe. After all, the lawyer noted, it was the high school freshman who shouldn't have been visiting an adult personals website.
But the most heated part of the preliminary hearing had to do with the "400-plus" child porn images found at Nielsen's home. Despite more than half a dozen objections by Meyer to enter that information into the record, prosecutor Hess successfully showed the judge a sampling of the photos. Hess asked Thomas Avery, a computer forensics specialist with the Orange County Sheriff's Department, to describe just one of the pictures.
Meyer fired back, asking why Avery was so sure the depicted young male was a minor.
"Based on the facial characteristics, he appears to be young," said the sheriff's department official. "In the picture you can't see any pubic hair on the genital area, which would mean a young age. He appears to be a child."
Meyer then asked Avery if he was aware of "digital manipulation" or "morphing" of photos. He said yes, but highly doubted that Nielsen's photos had been altered. "They don't appear to be morphed to me," said Avery, who described "the majority" of Nielsen's photo collection involved minor boys in sexual positions.
Nielsen won't talk to the Weekly, but his friends say he has sworn he didn't know the Westminster boy was underage; apparently, then, lightning struck at least twice: police say he was also exchanging e-mails with a 16-year-old at Ocean View High School in Huntington Beach. He was let go from Manatt, Phelps & Phillips after his arrest and has reportedly found a less high-profile job at an Irvine law firm. He's using a private detective to dig up dirt on the alleged victim and his mother.
But he's also still building his impressive résumé—this time for a jury. He's reportedly abandoned his hard-line conservatism. Once a member of the ultraconservative Federalist Society, he's joined a gay-friendly, liberal church in Laguna Beach, where he's been making new friends who might serve as the usual character witnesses. He's blamed his case on homophobia.
"Jeff has tearfully told everyone he can that he's the victim," said one of his Laguna acquaintances.
And he's also finagled some favorable pretrial publicity in the paper that loves to service the local GOP. On Sept. 5, The Orange County Register published this item about Katrina hurricane relief efforts:
Nielsen even provided the Register, which didn't mention the pending sex-crimes charges, with a heroic quote:
Although neither Baugh nor Rohrabacher returned calls about Nielsen, it's only fitting to end this story by quoting a conservative. Winston Churchill once opined that any man who is under 30 and not a liberal has no heart; any man over 30 and not a conservative has no brains.
If Churchill was right, what do we make of Jeffrey Ray Nielsen, who—at the age of 35—suddenly found his sensitive side?
Perhaps another saying is helpful: a liberal is a conservative who's been arrested.
At least twice a month, someone asks me: Where is Jeffrey Ray Nielsen, the Orange County conservative activist who worked for years as a Washington, D.C. aide to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach) and is now a convicted serial child molester?
Thanks to the fondness California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has for the private prison industry (which showers his campaigns with large contributions), Nielsen is serving his three-year sentence not in a state-run hell hole but at the far less stressful, privately-run Golden State Community Correctional Facility.
The facility, located about 25 miles north of Bakersfield, is a place inmates can enjoy. According to a March 2008 Sacramento Bee article, Golden State offers a "relaxed atmosphere," taxpayer-funded satellite television access, indoor and outdoor recreational areas, a library and "comfortable" bunk beds in a college dorm-style setting.
"Right here is love compared to [state prison]," one veteran inmate told the Bee. "Here, you get all the football games, you get movies every day. It's real easy to do your time here. You don't have to worry about nothing . . ."
Nielsen--a 38-year-old graduate of USC law school, a close pal of OC Republican Party boss Scott Baugh, a onetime intern for District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and the son of a former Republican mayor of Fountain Valley--worked his way up rabidly conservative Christian political circles while secretly boning up on his pedophilia practices. His victims included an eighth-grade middle school Virginia boy (sexually abused for three years while Nielsen worked under Rohrabacher) as well as a ninth-grade Westminster, California boy. Before he finally pleaded guilty last year, the child porn collector and his defense lawyer, Paul S. Meyer, ruthlessly attacked the victims as mentally disturbed liars and the Weekly's dogged coverage of the crimes--which went unpunished for more than a decade--as left-wing bias.