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.”

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Amateur Sleuths Claim to Have Uncovered D.B. Cooper's Real Identity
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For decades, both the FBI and amateur investigators have been preoccupied with the identity of “Dan Cooper,” a mysterious passenger mistakenly reported by journalists as "D.B. Cooper" who boarded a flight from Portland to Seattle on November 24, 1971. Without appearing frantic or violent, Cooper informed the crew he had a bomb and demanded $200,000 in ransom. After making the pilots stop for fuel and then lift off again, the skyjacker collected his money and parachuted out of the plane, never to be seen or heard from again.

According to one Cooper devotee, that might not be exactly true. Tom Colbert has led a team of amateur investigators looking into the case and made headlines last year after acquiring some of the closed portions of the FBI’s file via a freedom of information lawsuit. According to Colbert, a letter purportedly written by Cooper and sent to the Oregonian shortly after the crime reveals a “confession” hidden in code. The man’s identity, Colbert claims, is that of Robert Rackstraw, a Vietnam veteran who is now 74 years old and living in San Diego.

“I want out of the system and saw a way through good ole Unk,” the letter read. “Now it is Uncle’s turn to weep and pay one of it’s [sic] own some cash for a change. (And please tell the lackey cops D.B. Cooper is not my real name).”

Colbert showed the letter to Rick Sherwood, a former codebreaker for the now-defunct Army Security Agency. Sherwood maintains the repetitive phrasing of Unk and other words corresponds with a simple letter-to-number code that, when broken, reveals the sentence “I am 1st LT Robert Rackstraw.”

Another letter uncovered in the FBI’s files earlier this year contains a numerical sequence that Colbert's team says they have matched to codes used by Rackstraw’s Army unit in Vietnam. That letter’s writer—who Colbert believes to be Rackstraw—claimed he used a toupee and a putty nose to disguise his appearance on the plane.

Rackstraw was at one time considered a suspect by the FBI but was later cleared in 1979. After initially teasing that he might be the culprit, Rackstraw backed off those claims and insisted the accusation was without merit. The bureau officially closed the case in 2016, citing a lack of strong leads. In February 2018, Colbert claimed the FBI wasn’t acknowledging his work out of embarrassment.

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Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock
Lies, Blackmail, and Murder: The Mysterious Life—and Death—of ‘Madame X’
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Images: iStock

Three screams pierced the night air—loud enough to be heard over the waves crashing on the rocky beach below—and Olive Dimick froze.

It was February 4, 1929, and she had just said goodnight to her next-door-neighbor Kate Jackson, after spending a night out at the movies with her. The two women lived in a cluster of cliffside bungalows overlooking Limeslade Bay in Wales, on a headland known as Mumbles. The area is said to derive its name from two shapely rock formations just offshore; according to town lore, they once looked to French sailors like les mamelles, or a pair of breasts rising from the water.

It took just a few seconds for Olive to realize the screams sounded like her neighbor, and that they were coming from the direction of her backyard. She rushed over, where she found her friend crouched on her hands and knees, bleeding from her head and moaning. Kate's husband, a fishmonger named Thomas, stood over her, half-dressed.

The pair carried Kate into the kitchen, where Olive attended to her. At about 11:45, Thomas called a doctor, who arrived around midnight and said that Kate should be taken to the hospital. Once there—Thomas, Kate, and Olive travelled in a taxi, the doctor in his own car—Thomas made a very curious remark. When the doctor asked through the taxicab window how Kate was doing, Thomas replied that she was sleeping peacefully, and then added: "I have been married to her for ten years, and I still don't know who she really is. She has never been open with me."

This was not just a simple issue of marital miscommunication. Kate Jackson's identity—her background, her source of income, even her name—was ever-shifting. To her husband, she was an aristocrat born in a foreign land. To neighbors, she was a best-selling novelist and journalist. But to the local police, and soon a jury, she would become a murder case that has yet to be solved.

STRANGER THAN FICTION

The woman who would become Kate Jackson was born Kate Atkinson in the late 1880s to John Atkinson, a laborer in Lancaster, and his wife, Agnes. Sometime in her teens, she left Lancaster with a dream of becoming an actress on the London stage. She lived for a while with an artist named Leopold Le Grys, who later described her as uneducated, but "clever, and a good talker."

Never one to pass up an opportunity for the dramatic, she caught the attention of union official George Harrison in 1914 by fainting after witnessing a minor car accident on Charing Cross Road. She told him she hadn't eaten in three days, and so he took her to lunch. They became involved, and the next year she asked him for £40 for an abortion. Then she said there were complications from the procedure, so she needed more. For one reason or another—perhaps there were more procedures, perhaps she threatened to expose the affair, perhaps he was paying for her sexual services—Harrison sent her as much as £30 (over $4000 in 2018 dollars) a week over the course of a decade. All of it was embezzled through his position as the secretary of a cooper's union.

Harrison was far from the only man in Kate's life. When she met the man who would become her husband in 1919, Kate told him she was Madame Molly Le Grys, the Indian-born youngest daughter of the Duke of Abercorn. That wasn't all: She also said she was a writer under contract with publisher Alfred Harmsworth, an early-day Rupert Murdoch-type who pioneered tabloid-style journalism. It was a mutual deception, as he gave her a fake name of his own: Captain Harry-Gordon Ingram. Really, he was Thomas Jackson, a World War I veteran surviving on a pension.

The pair married later that year, and Thomas moved into Kate's palatial farmhouse in Surrey. Kate always seemed to have money—even after Harrison was put on trial in 1927 for embezzling £19,000 (over a million British pounds in today's dollars) from his union, £8000 of which reportedly went to Kate. She was called to give evidence at the trial, but was not identified; the police called her "Madame X," in hopes that she would return at least some of the money Harrison had stolen and given to her. (It's not clear what her husband thought about all this.)

Kate indeed signed over her beautiful house as restitution and moved with Thomas to a humble bungalow named Kenilworth. They adopted a daughter, Betty, whose origin was another of Kate's mysteries: She told Thomas that Betty was the illegitimate daughter of a lord, and he apparently asked no follow-up questions.

Though her setting was less rarefied, Kate was still behaving like a belle in a Gothic melodrama. She dressed in silk, her homes were luxuriously decorated, she tipped generously, and she spent more than her husband made in a week on her fresh flowers. The source of her income at this point is unclear: Harrison was serving a five-year prison stint, so he likely wasn't sending her cash any longer. But she was still receiving regular bundles of banknotes every Wednesday—money she may have earned through sex work, or possibly blackmail of other lovers/clients. Thomas later said that they mostly lived happily, except one time when she threw a flower pot at his head and threatened him with a knife for getting too friendly with Olive Dimick.

To Olive and her other neighbors, Kate explained the money by saying that she was a writer and the daughter of nobility. She let drop that she was secretly Ethel M. Dell, a well-known but critically reviled romance writer mocked by the likes of Orwell and Wodehouse. The real Dell was famously secretive; she was never interviewed and rarely photographed. So how were her neighbors supposed to fact-check their new friend? Besides, Dell's stories were quite racy, filled with passion and throbbing and exoticized visions of India, befitting Kate's made-up aristocratic origins.

"A PLEASANT SURPRISE"

Back at the hospital, Thomas Jackson left quickly, saying he had to return to his daughter. Kate spent six days there without ever fully regaining consciousness. When questioned about the identity of her attacker, she repeated the word Gorse, although it's not clear what—or who—she meant. She died on February 10, 1929, at the age of 43.

Police who arrived early in the morning after the attack found a tire iron under a cushion in the house, which Thomas later suggested Kate had hidden as a "pleasant surprise" (it's not clear if he was being ironic, or if he considered it a potential gift for his tool box). They also found a number of threatening letters. One read:

"Lest you forget. This is to tell you that we are watching you and we will get you. You husband-stealer. You robber of miner's money that would have fed starving children; you and that man of yours, I suppose he is somebody's husband, too. When we get you we will tar-and-feather you, and for every quid you have taken from us you will get another lump of tar and one more feather. We will show people you are as black outside as you are in. We don't mind doing quod [prison time] for you, you Picadilly Lily. We will get you yet."

It went on like that. Though he had been cooperative and there was no indication the letters were written by him, police arrested Thomas promptly. The next month he was charged with murder.

When the trial commenced in June 1929, the prosecution's theory was that Jackson, tired of his wife now that she was bringing in less money, had argued with and then attacked her as she was removing her coat. The prosecution pointed out that his story was weird—who hides a tire iron in a couch as a surprise?—and his behavior after her attack, including not summoning police immediately and not staying long at the hospital, was sketchy. They pointed to triangular cuts in her coat that looked like they could have been made with the tire iron. It was also alleged that all of the mystery in her life was entirely his creation, and that Kate never claimed to be anyone other than she was. The letters were ignored.

In his defense, Jackson produced expert witnesses who said it might not have been the tire iron that killed his wife. He spoke of her fear of attack after the threatening letters, saying that she was nervous to be left alone at night. Another neighbor, Rose Gammon, testified that Kate had been jumpy; Gammon recalled seeing Kate jump out of a bath, put on a robe, grab her gun, and walk out onto her dark veranda to investigate a noise (it's not clear if Gammon was spying on her neighbor, or how else she might have witnessed a bath).

The judge was firmly against Jackson, but during the trial, the fishmonger became a folk hero of sorts. He was charming and witty, playing up the grieving-single-father angle by emphasizing his concern for poor Betty. After just half an hour, the jury returned a verdict of "not guilty." The crowd went wild. As he left the courtroom after his verdict, a crush of women pressed upon Thomas, trying for a kiss.

The police never pursued any other leads, convinced that they had missed their shot at the true villain. And maybe they were right. Perhaps Kate's husband was her killer. Or perhaps it was a man who suffered from her blackmailing—"Gorse," or someone else. Perhaps it was a member of the union who felt she hadn't paid enough restitution. Kate Jackson had made a lot of enemies in her four decades, which helped make her death as mysterious and complicated and sad as her enigmatic life as Molly, and/or Kate, and/or Madame X; she was truly the stuff of the novels she never actually wrote.

Additional Sources: The Times of London: February 12, 1929; February 25-26, 1929; March 13-14, 1929; March 20-22, 1929, July 2-8, 1929; Still Unsolved: Great True Murder Cases; A-Z of Swansea: Places-People-History

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