The Life, Death and Legacy of Nelson McNair
This following is part of a series entitled “Unsolved in Montana,” in which author Brian D’Ambrosio will re-examine Montana crimes over recent decades that have never been brought to a definitive legal conclusion. Perhaps readers of Montana Press may be able to bring new information forward to resolve some of these situations and the circumstances that surround them.
It’s been nearly 25 years since the black-and-blue, decomposed body of an 18-year-old Livingston youth was found wedged in the banks of the Yellowstone River.
Generations filter and pass, yet a cluster of Livingston residents vividly remember Nelson McNair’s renegade teenage charisma. Charisma is a word that of course is hard to bring to life on the page. When compared with the flesh experience it tries to capture, it falls short. But Nelson McNair had it and, according to friends, family and law enforcement, someone may have purposely eliminated it by taking his life almost 25 years ago.
Two Sides of Livingston
Nelson’s mother, Arleta Berg, opens a small plastic folder of newspaper clippings which cover the rudiments of her son’s death. Scattered across the kitchen table, they are surprisingly few, and almost all of them are terse, providing a slight amount of copy and not very much insight. After all, how could they capture just how smart and athletic and funny her son was? Accompanying images preserve his edgy 1990s skateboarder persona, blonde hair, parted in the middle, often tightly tied back. He was handsome with a distinct jaw line and eyes full of marvel, waywardness and possibility.
As the physical pain and mental anguish washes over her, Arleta peels back the layers of her only son’s life. Thomas Nelson McNair was born December 2, 1976, in Bozeman, the son of Clifford McNair and Arleta Berg. He was a “good baby” and “a happy camper,” says Arleta. When Nelson was five years old, his parents separated.
Nelson was a product of the days before Livingston was a gentrified tourist town, rather “a rough railroad, sawmill and mining town,” as one resident described it. Indeed, the small town that so fascinates out-of-town outdoor escapists, tourists, well-compensated newcomers and travel bloggers around the country is actually only half of Livingston. The other half, the so-called outskirts or fringes, continues to be characterized by a poorer landscape and a more parochial way of life that has remained basically unchanged for a half a century or more.
The anodyne watercolor paintings, Americano shops and expensive restaurants are really only half of the story. The other half – Nelson McNair’s half – is a story of limitation and determination. It’s the story of an artistically-inclined, likable kid living with a single mom, who, not unlike many other children, lacked the advantage of guidance and direction, a good boy who “wouldn’t hurt a fly,” raised in poverty by a hardworking mother who, proverbially speaking, did the best she could.
Beginning in his pre-teens, Nelson spent much of his free time at Chico Hot Springs, stretching out his calves in the Bridger Mountains or zipping down the ski hill. He’d celebrate the end of school with friends fishing in the lagoon at Sacajawea Park, using worms or metal spinners, reeling in trout, some as extensive as 19 inches in length. One summer he worked in construction up at Mill Creek drainage. Another summer, he spent four days with a friend in the mountains of northwestern Wyoming, where he “survived on a bag of hamburger buns and a can of corn.”
Nelson liked classical music and poetry, and he was almost always drawing. There were the typical rites of passage: the shenanigans in the classroom, the experimentation with pushing boundaries, the occasional alcohol consumption and the more frequent joint. He wasn’t confrontational, though he was no pushover. Nelson’s relationship with his dad, a logger who lived in Big Timber, was often strained. His mother Arleta’s free-ranging parenting style was dictated as much by attitude as it was economics. It’s hard to quantify latitude, but it’s innocent to say that Nelson enjoyed a lot of it.
“Mom loved him a lot,” says one of Nelson’s longtime friends, “but she had her own issues and there was no structure for him to develop within, and he did what he wanted.”
When he needed space, Nelson would wander to the overpass or under the I-90 bridge to get high or to scribble lines and images in one of his notebooks. Nights were passed with friends, fiddling with musical instruments and art supplies in between breaks of peanut butter and oatmeal concoctions.
Drugs eventually put him under a cloud, but just which ones he was using and how often are sources of contention. Friends said he frequently used marijuana and may have occasionally taken LSD.
The stigmatization of marijuana in the early to mid-1990s had a profound effect on the context of Nelson’s life and death. On October 12, 1992, Park High School principal Robert Moore confronted Nelson about his drug-induced appearance and the youth provided him two baggies of marijuana. A third bag was found in a classroom where he had been sitting.
“If you weren’t a straight A student or athlete around Livingston, you would never get a chance to be branded anything but a trouble maker,” says his friend Candace Casey.
“Nelson was naturally cool. He was just a kid without a lot of structure. There were no skateboard parks. He wasn’t a bully or a jerk. He was the guy who, if a girl was too drunk, he was part of the group who would get her home and would be dropping her off. He talked of the possibility of getting out of Livingston, joining the Job Corps but he thought that he didn’t have the means. He had brains and talent, and he could’ve turned his life around.”
Sean Gadberry was one of Nelson’s friends and one of the first people to get involved with trying to build the skatepark in Livingston that now bears Nelson’s name.
Nelson was a good person with a good heart,” says Gadberry, of Livingston. “He loved his mom and he was a good athlete. I miss him always.”
“Broken Kids” Who Identified with Nirvana and Skateboarding
Another one of Nelson’s friends, Jackson Welker, recalls their relationship as one bonded around mountain biking, skateboard hopping, and at one point even matching Mohawks. They were kids with little supervision who grew up in challenging households, “half-country” kids with the mind-set of nonchalance, lower socio-economic couriers of the pre-Pilates and Airbnb-everywhere Livingston.
“We were 1990s grunge kids running amok,” says Welker, who now lives in the Seattle area. “We were the broken kids. I can remember the morning that we got Nirvana’s Nevermind CD (1991). We all lived that life for sure.”
Skateboarding both filled the void and created a chasm.
While its popularity, participation and acceptance has increased exponentially since the mid-1990s, at that time skateboarding was viewed by many as nothing more than a rebellious activity with a dark side. Indeed, it is a sport that has long been identified with defiance, and many skateboarders have sought the image of being rebels in an outlaw sport in which escaping security guards and the police comes with the territory.
“There were people in Livingston who hated us because we were skateboarders,” says Welker. “There were families and adults who went out of their way to make us miserable.”
Jackson says that when he was approximately age 15, he was involved in a collision while on his skateboard with a Livingston police officer; one minute he was riding on the sidewalk and another he was prostrate on the pavement.
“The officer drug me to the police car and left the skateboard in the street. You would’ve thought that I was the devil himself for riding a skateboard. To me, the saddest part was that not a single adult or business owner or anyone raised their voice.”
“I was a promoter of it (skateboarding) and I’d shown them how to build ramps at the old school,” says Sean Gadberry. “We’d set them up and the police would destroy the ramps and throw them over the fence. You would see them do it. There was a ridiculous hillbilly redneck prejudice against something new. You had to deal with it, and that was ridiculous because none of us were bad kids. But the police had a target on our backs. We couldn’t ride in the streets or the parking lots and wherever we went, the cops would push you out, and they made you a criminal.”
Nelson’s junior and senior years were marked by pangs of growth, remorse and confusion. School was both uplifting and soul-crushing. There were plenty of fun times and smiles, yet there was also an undercurrent of incongruity: he would receive straight A’s in shop, but then he’d flunk gym. He wasn’t proficient with numbers or math, yet he took the initiative to find an algebra tutor and address his weaknesses. He was smart as a whip, but he could be reckless with his actions. Such as the time, recalled by friends, when he “ruptured his spleen, exploded his pelvis, and suffered internal bleeding” after he took a nasty fall on the ice while allegedly under the influence.
In the spring of 1995, Nelson expressed frustration to several friends that he had “gone too far down the wrong path.” One friend remembers a telephone call with Nelson in which the young man described his desire to “get his shit together” and “to do better than this.” He alluded that he had been “too far into drug activity,” and the friend speculated that Nelson might have been “helping transport some stuff.”
The Big Bust
Still, Nelson generally proved himself capable of handling life’s challenges – until the big bust that may have set in motion a series of events which led to his death. Few who attended Park High School in 1995 would forget the raid, the February day when the full-blown sting operation at the school saw officers authoritatively march students into closed interrogation rooms.
Nelson was found to be in possession of a marijuana pipe. City Judge Neil Travis later fined him $420 and sentenced him to ten days in jail, with the jail time deferred on the condition he perform 160 hours of community service, undergo drug counseling, not be cited for controlled substance violations and “provide law enforcement officials with information or testimony on illegal drug use upon request.”
One month after his arrest, purportedly at the behest of Judge Travis, Nelson and another person, Carisa Schneider, were publicly disclosed as informants on the front page of the Livingston Enterprise. Alarmed by the obvious potential repercussions, the second individual’s family subsequently moved.
“Why is still a good question,” says Welker. “Why on planet earth would you do that to a teenager other than to simply mess with a kid who you thought was trouble?”
Disappearance and Discovery
Nelson McNair disappeared on or about Wednesday, March 29, 1995, after he dropped a friend named Jon Romans off at his home and invited the friend to come over to McNair’s mother’s house east of Livingston (near the intersection of Highway 89 North and Interstate 90 near the Yellowstone River) the next day. It ended what was a rather bland night. Nelson and his friends had almost no money and even less marijuana. After they took turns shooting at empty beer bottles at the town dump with a .22 pistol, Nelson dropped off Romans and Joshua Kronske.
“I’ll pick you up tomorrow for school,” Nelson told Romans and Kronske. “’See you in the morning for jail,’ were the exact words,” says Romans. “That’s how we referred to it.”
Nelson dropped off the fourth kid, Eli Fisher, and headed home.
Nelson ordinarily padlocked his bedroom door, but he didn’t lock it after he left his room that night or early the following morning for the final time. He missed a pair of school days. Nelson had been working as a dishwasher at The Stockman’s Bar and busing tables at a Mexican café, where he had plans to work that weekend. But no one heard from him.
At first, his mother Arleta, who worked graveyard-shifts at the convalescence center as a laundress, hadn’t been alarmed. Nothing appeared out of place. His collection of CDs, estimated value of $1,500, wasn’t looted. Nelson’s truck was parked in front of the house as he had left it. Wherever he had gone he seemingly had gone willingly, perhaps on foot. But after three days without contact, on Saturday, April 1, Nelson’s aunt, Peggy Berg, reported her nephew missing to the Sheriff’s office. On Friday, April 7, his father, Clifford McNair, filed a second missing person’s report.
In drug-detection mode, police arrived at the house and ransacked Nelson’s room in search of drug paraphernalia; they confiscated a closet full of about ten marijuana plants. In the process, evidence may have been compromised. A 9mm handgun that Nelson kept in his bedroom has never been recovered.
On May 4, 1995, four fishermen in a boat discovered the body of McNair in the Yellowstone River, the victim of an apparent drowning. His billfold and driver’s license were reported to have been discovered. Silt from the banks of the river clogged his lungs, an indicator that perhaps he was held face down and had sucked in the particles. The birthmark patch of reddish warts on the left side of the neck as well as a burn mark on the right cheek (from the masonite of the skate ramp) were perhaps some of the physical hallmarks used to identify Nelson.
Coroner Al Jenkins accompanied Nelson’s body to the autopsy at the state crime lab in Missoula. Jenkins, who began working as the Park County Coroner in 1990, told the media in 2002 that there was nothing on the body to indicate that Nelson had been stabbed or shot, “but a body traveling in the water suffers all sorts of bruises and abrasions. It’s also possible that injury may have been inflicted before he went into the water.”
From the start, Jenkins has been laconic – a sentence here, a one-line declaration there. Though, he stated in a recent interview at the City-County Building in Livingston, time hasn’t distorted his memory of the instant he arrived at the scene.
“From the moment he was found, I knew that it wasn’t right, and it was proven out more and more that way as the hours went by.”
Despite the despondency Nelson endured in previous weeks, not a single member of his family or friends seem to have ever believed that he committed suicide.
“Nelson loved life too much,” writes his friend Cody Redmon in a letter. “He appreciated its hardships and relished in its simple pleasures.” Nelson’s memorial pamphlet concluded with a one-page poem written by Clifford McNair: “Nels – I’ll always have a hug for you in my heart, Dad.”
Possible Suicide Note Draws Disbelief
On May 15, 1995, a group of Beaverhead County high school students located a note found under a rock near the boat launch at the Carter’s Bridge fishing access. The note read:
“Dear God, All my life has been a big mistake. I can do no right. I have no one who cares. No matter how hard I try I am not a crazy person. I’m just damned to living hell. I can’t take much more of it. I’m not living in self-pity either I’ve tried.”
“(Park County Sheriff) Charlie Johnson showed the note to me – blue ink on white paper,” says Nelson’s mother, Arleta Berg. “I never believed it was Nelson. He was missing for 36 days and then it showed up neatly under a rock. First of all, it was too religious. That wasn’t Nelson.”
“Nelson was an articulate kid who could write poetry and this was a boilerplate suicide note,” adds friend Jackson Welker.
Coroner Jenkins once publicly expressed his skepticism with the note’s location and its overall neatness, but he has long since denied any requests to elaborate on its characteristics.
Nelson’s case has been particularly exasperating for law enforcement to clarify. The evidence is minimal; there is no time-stamped security-camera footage, there is no one who heard shots or saw smoke, there are no internet searches of social media profiles to comb to indicate Nelson’s mindset.
The time line of Nelson’s disappearance is nebulous, and certain ensuing activities have only intensified the family’s suspicion of a plot to conceal or obscure the truth. Not the least of which is Arleta’s insistence that she never ordered the cremation of Nelson’s body. Coroner Jenkins affirmed this in 2019 and added that he also had nothing to do with ordering the cremation.
Nelson was known to be a “fantastic swimmer” and “a survivalist,” but he ended up drowning in the river. One witness stated that there was a phone call made to the Berg residence the early morning of March 30, either fielded or heard by Arleta and perhaps even transferred to Nelson, which Arleta dismisses as false. Either way, something concrete – a phone call, a knock on the door – drew him out of the house that fateful night.
Skateboard Park Legacy:
No Statute of Limitations on Murder
Family and friends scattered Nelson McNair’s ashes near Livingston Peak in late May of 1995. For Arleta Berg, now in her seventies, time stands still in a town of change. Decades of silence and unanswered questions have only amplified her feelings that Nelson’s death will forever be associated with a fundamental absence of accountability.
Livingston is a rapidly changing town, with a skateboard park named after this charismatic boy who would now be age 42. The skateboard park is a great introduction to Nelson McNair’s indelible stamp on the town’s character. Perhaps the resentment some police officers in the town might have held toward skateboarders has diminished; perhaps skateboarding is now so normalized that an officer wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow much less a fist to some hormonal, shaggy-haired kid with a board and a bunch of brazen slogans on a t-shirt.
“Everyone harassed us back then and it was the social norm to fuck with poor kids,” says Welker. “We’d act the way people projected us to be. Adults trained me to be that way. All of the cops had a thing for us.”
As for matters of investigation, Coroner Jenkins says that Nelson McNair’s mystery remains an open case, “an undetermined case which we are still looking for finality,” as he recently put it. Park County Sheriff’s Office Detective Brian Green reiterates Jenkins’s opinion, and points out that there is no statute of limitations on murder. Like any law enforcement officer whose worth his weight in shield and tin knows, Green also insists that the investigation can never go too far down one trail of theory at the expense of other lanes.
Both the Livingston police and coroner Jenkins insist that they’ve been rigorous and inclusive in their truth-searching but the primary desire of Nelson’s family and friends is to rekindle the investigation. In their defense, the police point to “inconsistent testimony and statements” among several of Nelson’s associates and maintain that they’ve done everything legally possible to deliver charges. If a break in the case is ever going to happen, they say, it’s going to have to originate from within the soul of someone who is finally prepared to reveal the truth.
While law enforcement initially questioned Nelson’s peers after his death, many of those who knew McNair allege that the same law enforcement may have a part to play in defeating any further investigation into the matter. The tension between the two groups at the time is documented in many statements from those familiar with the case and continues to be a bone of contention with Nelson’s associates from the time of his disappearance and death.
“It feels like the officials and law enforcement of Livingston have always maintained some type of plausible deniability,” says Welker. “We’d still like to know what the fuck happened? If someone drug him out there, we want to know. If so, someone deserves to pay for it. His mom deserves to know why her son never came home.”
If you have information relating to this case, contact Park County Sheriff’s Office Detective Brian Green at (406) 222-4172.
Author Brian D’Ambrosio may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.