To the grave with him, Richard (Rick) Nelson took the answers to, and the ultimate responsibility for, his death. For reasons we'll never precisely know, the 50-year-old Seattle police officer drove to a forest trail in the morning last week and, walking through the woods, took a last look at life and shot himself in the head. Nonetheless, some of his fellow officers and close friends ask if there wasn't more his department could have done to prevent it.
And they point out that his supervisors knew as early as July that Nelson was suspected of stealing drugs that were confiscated as evidence. If - as Mayor Mike McGinn said at a news conference last week - Nelson was "apparently" a cocaine addict, why wasn't an intervention held rather than a trap set?, some ask.
"I am so very sorry and sad that the SPD command staff failed you," retired SPD officer Jack Meduna wrote to Nelson's family on the memorial site. An unnamed colleague complained that "SPD command has a problem. Our department is being destroyed from the top down. If there was any trust, it is probably gone now." Adds Mariana Quarnstrom, ex-chairwoman of the Southeast Seattle Crime Prevention Council, "I think the department handled it very poorly for one. This thing has totally scarred his family. The department has had no regard for his family."
Nelson was a cop two decades. States his obit:
As a mounted and bicycle officer, Rick devoted his entire 21 year career to making the Rainier Valley area safer for the community. Rick also served as a Field Training Officer, training and mentoring numerous young officers on the realities of serving in South Seattle. Considered "legendary," Rick's passion, jokes, great cooking, and friendship will be missed by many on the force.
He participated in approximately 100 crack cocaine investigations, such as this one. After a fellow officer told superiors last summer that Nelson was pocketing confiscated drugs, he was allegedly caught last week stealing crack in a department sting, arrested, jailed, and, hours later on Thursday, dead at his own hand.
"We are a department that holds each other accountable," Chief John Diaz said.
Suicide as a solution was Nelson's choice - as best a disgraced officer, husband and father of two teen daughters could make at that dark moment. But could have the department done more? "It rose to the point where he felt he could not get help or the assistance he needed," said Nelson's former partner, Brian Gunther, "and had to end it in such a tragic way." SPD officer Steve Redmond, who helped start Safe Call Now - a 24-hour crisis referral line for public safety officers and their families - says "You ask [a superior] for help and the concern is, 'Yeah you can get help, but give me your badge and your gun.'"
A surprising number of public commentors last week felt Nelson got what he deserved. But as another wrote on the KIRO-FM web site, "So I wonder just in the interest of human compassion (that is often very lacking on this blog) if, after 21 years, his boss couldn't just ask this guy if he was having a problem and needed time to get help???? If this happened, and he denied it, then maybe what they did was the way to go."
At least Nelson was there for the department, adds William Shaub, who worked at the South Precinct with Nelson for four years. "When things started looking grim around this department, he would always find me and encourage me. I would like to think he only did this for me, but I know better. He was like this to anyone he considered a friend. His presence at the South Precinct will be greatly missed."