The Attempted Murder at Peanuts Headquarters

At roughly 11 a.m. on July 5, 1995, Shirley Ann Nelson walked into the Santa Rosa offices of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and approached the receptionist’s desk. She asked if her husband, Ronald Nelson, was in. Before the receptionist could answer, Shirley stalked past her and into Ronald’s office.

In court testimony the following year, Ronald would recall that he looked up to see his wife dressed head-to-toe in black and wearing sunglasses. Then he noticed the gun.

“You ruined my life,” she said, and fired.

Ronald had already gotten up from his desk and was attempting to flee when two bullets from the .357 pierced his lower back. He made it to the yard in front of One Snoopy Place before collapsing. Shirley turned the gun on herself and fired once to her chest.

Schulz, who was in the office at the time, would later tell press he hadn’t heard the shots. But after both the victim and the shooter made miraculous recoveries, Schulz and his wife, Jean, would find themselves key witnesses in Shirley's attempted murder trial. Surprisingly, their sympathies would be largely in favor of the defendant. When Shirley needed to post a $2 million cash bail to avoid being incarcerated, it was Schulz who wrote the check.

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In the 1970s, Schulz was having difficulty tending to the demands of both the daily Peanuts strip and the merchandising opportunities it created. To help process the volume of business coming across his desk, he hired Ronald Nelson to act as vice president of Creative Associates, a staff devoted to the ancillary marketing of his characters. While Schulz would still have final approval over toys and other paraphernalia, Nelson would handle the day-to-day details.

The arrangement continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when Peanuts was being licensed on everything from toys to animation to snow-cone machines. Both Schulz and Nelson were headquartered at One Snoopy Place in Santa Rosa, a combination studio and office space. And it was there, according to court testimony recounted by The Press Democrat, that the problems began.

At 65 years of age, Nelson’s wife, Shirley, was more than a decade older than her husband. But Ronald’s office secretary, Eileen, was more than a decade younger than he was. According to Ronald, he and Eileen began seeing each other in the spring of 1995. When Shirley learned of the affair, she was apoplectic. The couple had frequent fights, and Ronald moved out of their home in June.

That same month, Ronald walked into Schulz’s office and told him he would be leaving his wife for a co-worker. Though he considered Ronald a friend, Schulz was angry at the office soap opera, telling him he’d have to stop seeing Eileen or risk one or both of them being fired. Schulz later explained that he was concerned a sexual harassment suit could develop if someone's feelings got hurt.

That would be the least of Ronald’s problems. With a history of depression, the news hit Shirley hard. She composed a series of letters to Ronald, Eileen, and even Schulz, handing them over to her attorney for delivery after her death. To Schulz, she wrote:

“I had a wonderful life with Ron until this slute [sic] went conveniently to afternoon motel sex. Maybe she'll work on you now. I have been destroyed and left for dead and so I take Ron with me to rot in hell.''

Shirley purchased the .357 at a gun shop after hearing the news, though she didn't act immediately. In court, Schulz testified that he and his wife had noticed the Nelsons on a golf course July 4, the day prior to the attack, but opted not to approach them. Later, Ronald would testify their outing was preceded by an angry argument. Moments before the shooting on July 5, Schulz mentioned seeing them the day before. Ronald told him things were going “very badly.”

Not long after, Shirley entered the Peanuts offices and opened fire. The burst of violence was brief and targeted only at Ronald before she turned the weapon on herself; police would later marvel that she didn’t attempt to injure Eileen, who was at work that day, and speculated she was too focused on her husband to concern herself with the mistress.

The receptionist who heard the shots called for help. EMTs found Ronald out front and critically wounded; Shirley was rushed to another hospital in serious condition. She was conscious, though, and admitted to police that she was “sorry” she hadn’t been able to finish the job.

Between her confession and the letters indicating premeditation, it was not a difficult investigative puzzle to put together. But when the case went to trial in the spring of 1996, the jury found themselves wondering whether Shirley was just as much a victim as her husband.

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Though it took more than six weeks, Ronald made a full recovery from his injuries. Shirley had also recovered from her own self-inflicted wound and was being kept under psychiatric evaluation as prosecutors and her defense attorney, Chris Andrian, debated whether she should be eligible for release. After setting bail at $750,000 in July 1995, the judge revoked his decision just a week later, citing the concern both Ronald and Eileen felt over their personal safety and the fact that Shirley was known to have wealthy friends who could post bail. But Andrian told the court that he would refuse to let one anyone do so, believing she was better off under the care of a hospital.

By November 1995, however, Shirley was out on $2 million bail, which had been posted by Schulz. That August, she had entered a plea of not guilty, with Andrian citing insanity in an act he dubbed a “crime of the heart.” Her trial was set for January 1996, then pushed to April. Schulz was the first witness called by the defense to discuss Ronald's admission of the affair; Jean Schulz had been on the stand earlier, ordered by the prosecution to describe how Shirley had wanted to pay off Eileen to leave Ronald.

That month and into May, jurors heard of Ronald’s infidelity, Shirley’s darkening mood, and her spiral into depression. While prosecutor David Dunn argued her attack was calculated, jurors appeared swayed by Andrian’s defense that she had simply taken leave of rational thought. The jury deadlocked 9-3 in favor of an acquittal.

Rather than endure a second trial, Shirley accepted a plea bargain in April 1997: one year in prison, five years’ probation, and 3000 hours of community service. She served roughly six months and another 18 months of home confinement before being released and retreating to a retirement community, dying of colon cancer in 2005 at the age of 78.

Before her trial commenced, Schulz had written a letter urging the prosecution to consider probation in lieu of a jail term. Surprisingly, so did Ronald. Andrian, who acted as a defense attorney for several domestic incidents in his career, reflected on the case in 2009, observing that Shirley was “a good person who went off the deep end.”

Schulz never made any public comment on the case. True to his word, he fired Ronald from Creative Associates in August of 1995. Though the artist told media at the time it had nothing to do with the shooting, he would later testify that he felt compelled to let Ronald go because he and Eileen refused to stop seeing one another. (She would resign shortly thereafter.)

If Schulz was exceptionally annoyed at Ronald’s indiscretion, it may have been because he had been in his shoes. During his first marriage in the early 1970s, Schulz had engaged in an affair with Tracey Claudius, an office employee two decades his junior. In one Peanuts strip from that time period, Charlie Brown cautions Snoopy to stop chasing after an attractive beagle and to “start behaving himself.”

Jennifer Young, AFP/Getty Images
An Affair to Dismember: John Wayne Bobbitt's Penis at 25
Jennifer Young, AFP/Getty Images
Jennifer Young, AFP/Getty Images

In the early morning hours of June 23, 1993, Manassas, Virginia manicurist Lorena Bobbitt crept into the bedroom she shared with her husband, John Wayne Bobbitt. While John—who had been drinking heavily—slept, she proceeded to mutilate his genitals with a 12-inch kitchen knife. When a drunken John woke up, the sheets were covered in blood; Lorena ran to her car, knife and lump of flesh in tow. Not quite sure what to do next, she wound up tossing part of his shaft out the window.

The scene was so morbid and so titillating that the news media couldn’t get enough. From the time Lorena performed the amputation to her acquittal seven months later, the story of a marriage so broken it ended in genital disfigurement ran almost around the clock.

But reporters had a major hurdle to clear: The word penis had never been printed or spoken aloud with any regularity in American news coverage.

They tried euphemisms, i.e. male member, appendage. When those ran out, The New York Times finally acquiesced and began using “penis” in their coverage of the criminal trial. According to journalist Gay Talese, the sheer volume of the Bobbitt circus broke one of the last sexual taboos in mainstream culture. Soon after, the word penis began regularly appearing on late night talk shows and in print.

There was really no other choice. While the Bobbitt case raised issues over domestic violence, female empowerment, and even the threshold for celebrity, the story always boiled down to that one lurid moment. John Wayne’s reattached, mostly functional penis was—and perhaps still is—the most famous sexual organ in America.


John Wayne and Lorena first met in 1988, when the burly 21-year-old Marine walked into a club for enlisted men near Quantico in Virginia and spotted the then-19-year-old, who was born in Ecuador and raised in Venezuela. They married just months later and settled in Manassas, where Lorena worked in the beauty industry and John Wayne worked as a cab driver and bar bouncer. Friends and relatives of the couple who would later be questioned on the witness stand described a tumultuous coupling, one that saw the two separated briefly in 1991 before reconciling.

John Wayne was temperamental and physical with Lorena, a fact that her eventual prosecutors would later admit. Divorce was on the table when John Wayne came home the night of June 23, 1993 and when, Lorena alleged, he raped her. (In a separate trial, a jury found John Wayne not guilty of martial sexual abuse in the five days preceding the attack.) After falling asleep, he awoke to a mutilated penis, his wife having excised an inch or more of its lower third portion.

Police retrieved the missing flesh and handed it over to emergency doctors. Before being wheeled in for a nine-hour operation to reattach the severed portion, John Wayne said he considered suicide.

John Wayne Bobbitt testifies during a court appearance in 1994
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The surgery was more or less successful—John Wayne later recollected calling his mother and enthusiastically telling her he had gotten his first post-operative erection—but attempts to have Lorena convicted for the attack were not. In January 1994, a jury found her not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. The defense argued that Lorena had been so traumatized by abuse that she acted irrationally but not maliciously.

The trial and its outcome seemed to provide metaphorical fuel for ever-present issues regarding gender. Although he had not technically been castrated, John Wayne was certainly emasculated, and in a rather horrific way—punishment, some believed, for his deplorable behavior. In defacing his manhood, Lorena seemed to become emblematic of what some women felt like doing to spousal abusers.

Lorena fielded book, movie, and interview offers but largely stayed out of the spotlight, reverting to her maiden name and trying to disappear. (She was also sentenced to a 45-day psychiatric evaluation to make sure she presented no danger to the public.) It was John Wayne who perpetuated his own celebrity, turning what was a gruesome assault into a story worth monetizing.

First, there was the requisite appearance on The Howard Stern Show in December 1993—one of many—in which Stern attempted to fundraise for Bobbitt’s $250,000 in medical and legal expenses.

Stern and other interviewers were preoccupied with Bobbitt’s sexual ability. As of that December, Bobbitt told Stern, he had not been able to engage in any intercourse; he claimed his penis bore little evidence of the attack aside from a “slight” scar; it hurt a little when he showered. He urinated with use of a catheter for two months following the procedure.

The radio panhandling met with some success, although as some observers noted virtually from the beginning, Bobbitt’s opportunities to cash in on his notoriety were almost inevitably in the red light district of the entertainment industry. In 1994, he signed a deal for $1 million to appear in an adult video distributed by Leisure Time Communications titled John Wayne Bobbitt: Uncut. A kind of pornographic biopic, Bobbitt played himself, reenacting the attack and then proving his restored sexual abilities by engaging in sexual acts with a succession of actresses. In what must be one of the few adult movie reviews published by Entertainment Weekly, critic Owen Gleiberman observed that Bobbitt’s reconstructed penis had “no real stitch marks” but looked as though it “may have lost an inch or two.”

Uncut was a curiosity, but Bobbitt was unable to sustain interest in two follow-up tapes: One was titled Frankenpenis and may have lived up to a viewer’s anticipation of a freakish member, due to a penis enlargement surgery John Wayne underwent following the release of the first video.


Having exhausted his potential in pornography, Bobbitt and his penis sought other venues. First, he tried his hand at stand-up comedy. When that failed to pan out, Dennis Hof, owner of the Bunny Ranch brothel, paid him $50,000 a year to be a bartender/chauffeur/handyman

, not unlike the way aging boxing legends like Joe Louis used to stand near casino doors so patrons could shake the hand of a champion.

At the Ranch, Bobbitt introduced himself to men waiting for prostitutes and sometimes indulged their request to have him drop his pants for a look. Hof didn’t keep him on for long, later calling him a “stupid, low-life creep” and “boring oaf” who couldn’t keep his hands off of Hof’s female employees.

John Wayne Bobbitt arrives for a court appearance in 1994
J. David Ake, AFP/Getty Images

Bobbitt later found a brief home in a carnival, alongside a professional insect eater and a man with a split tongue. Here, too, Bobbitt seemed to fail in realizing his potential, refusing to be a target for a knife-thrower or learn the art of hammering nails into his nose.

He also appeared to have learned little from the consequences of his boorish behavior. In 1999, he was jailed for pushing a girlfriend into a wall. In 2005, he was arrested and charged with battery in relation to an incident involving his new wife, Joanna Ferrell, the third such allegation during their now-defunct marriage. (He was later acquitted.) The accusations cost him a gig facing off against Joey Buttafuoco on Fox’s Celebrity Boxing.

Currently, Bobbitt has settled in Niagara Falls and works as a limo driver and carpenter. Lorena has founded Lorena’s Red Wagon, an organization offering assistance to women victimized by domestic violence. Lorena’s actions in 1993 were largely unmatched until 2011, when a California woman named Catherine Kieu took a knife and severed her husband’s penis following an argument.

The man would not have an opportunity for a Bobbitt-esque reattachment and subsequent victory lap. Perhaps learning from Lorena’s mistake, Kieu didn't merely toss the severed flesh away. She pulverized the penis in their garbage disposal.

Paramount Pictures
15 Surprising Facts About The Godfather
Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Leave the gun, take these facts about Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece adaptation of Mario Puzo’s gangster novel, which premiered in New York City 46 years ago (on March 15, 1972).


Francis Ford Coppola (who got the job because of his previous movie, The Rain People) wasn’t the first director Paramount Pictures had in mind for The Godfather. Elia Kazan, Arthur Penn, Richard Brooks, and Costa-Gavras all turned the job down. And after filming began, executives didn’t like the brooding, talky drama that Coppola was shooting.

The studio wanted a more salacious gangster movie, so it constantly threatened to fire Coppola (even going so far as to have stand-in directors waiting on set). Coppola was reportedly getting the ax until he shot the scene where Michael kills Sollozzo and McCluskey, which the executives saw and loved.


The studio originally wanted to scrap the now-iconic “puppet strings” logo (which was first created by graphic designer S. Neil Fujita for the novel’s release) with Puzo’s name above the title for the movie release, but Coppola insisted on keeping it because Puzo co-wrote the script with him.


As a cost-cutting measure, Paramount asked Coppola to modernize the script so the action took place in 1972 and to shoot the movie in Kansas City as a stand-in for the more expensive New York City. Coppola convinced them to keep the story in a post-World War II New York setting to maintain the integrity of the film.


Coppola held improvisational rehearsal sessions that simply consisted of the main cast sitting down in character for a family meal. The actors couldn’t break character, which Coppola saw as a way for the cast to organically establish the family roles seen in the final film.


When Coppola initially mentioned Brando as a possibility for Vito Corleone, the head of Paramount, Charles Bluhdorn, told Coppola the actor would “never appear in a Paramount picture.”

The studio pushed the director to cast Laurence Olivier as Vito, before eventually agreeing to pursue Brando under three stringent conditions: 1) Brando had to do a screen test; 2) if cast, Brando would have to do the movie for free; and 3) Brando would have to personally put up a bond to make up for potential losses caused by his infamously bad on-set behavior.

Coppola surreptitiously lured the famously cagey Brando into what he called a “makeup test,” which in reality was the screen test the studio demanded. When Coppola showed the studio the test they liked it so much they dropped the second and third stipulations and agreed to let Brando be in the movie.


The studio wanted Robert Redford or Ryan O’Neal to play Michael Corleone, but Coppola always wanted Al Pacino. Other actors, like Martin Sheen and James Caan (who would go on to play Sonny), screen tested for Michael.


Robert De Niro auditioned for the role of Sonny, but Coppola thought his personality was too violent for the role. De Niro would later appear as the young Vito Corleone in The Godfather: Part II, and win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work.


To add a sense of reality to the wedding scene (and because he only had two days to shoot it), Coppola had the cast freely act out and improvise in the background. He then shot specific vignettes amongst the action.


Lenny Montana, who played Luca Brasi, was a professional wrestler before becoming an actor. He was so nervous delivering his lines to a legend like Brando during the scene in the Godfather’s study that he didn’t give one good take during an entire day’s shoot. Because he didn’t have time to reshoot the scene, Coppola added a new scene of Luca Brasi rehearsing his lines before seeing the Godfather to make Montana’s bad takes seem like Brasi was simply nervous to talk to the Godfather.


The residence was put up for sale in 2014 for just under $3 million. That’s a price we can probably refuse.


During his daily walks to the set, Coppola would often see a stray cat, and on the day of shooting the scenes in Vito’s study, Coppola took the cat and told Brando to improvise with it. The cat loved Brando so much that it sat in his lap during takes for the whole day.


He really had his jaw wired shut for the first part of the shoot after his character is punched in the face.


The horse head in the movie producer’s bed wasn’t a prop. The production got a real horse’s head from a local dog food company.


The line in the script only had actor Richard Castellano as Clemenza say “Leave the gun” after the hit on the mobster who ratted on the Corleones. He was inspired to make the addition after Coppola inserted a line in which the character’s wife asks him to buy cannoli for dessert.


The 175-minute movie is long by Hollywood standards, and an intermission was going to be included just after the Solozzo/McCluskey shooting scene—but the idea was scrapped because the filmmakers thought it would ruin the momentum and take the audience out of the movie.


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