Instructor dies in murder-suicide

by Sandy Coronilla

The bodies of a San Diego State instructor and her husband were found on Dec. 24 in their Temecula home, more than a week after an apparent murder-suicide.

Nichelle Nelson, 43, was a lecturer and clinical supervisor in the Early Childhood Socio-Emotional Behavior Regulation Intervention Specialist certificate program within the SDSU Department of Child and Family Development.

On Dec. 14, Nelson’s husband John Arthur Reyes, 49, left an expletive-laced voice mail message for his brother saying he had killed Nelson, according to The Press-Enterprise. However, the brother did not receive the message until several days later.
Reyes’ brother then drove to the couple’s home and found Reyes’ body hanged in the master bedroom.

The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department was called and deputies discovered Nelson’s body in the study. She had been strangled.

During Winter Break, news of Nelson’s death shocked the EC-SEBRIS program. Nelson guided a small group of 16 students through  reflective supervision and field experience during the fall semester.

Shane Padamada, in the graduate certificate program, was one of the students who found out about Nelson’s death from a news article a classmate sent through the EC-SEBRIS e-mail list.

“I was speechless. I thought, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe this. There’s no way.’ I had to read (the article) multiple times for it to register,” Padamada said.

The murder method haunted Padamada and others in the program.

Denise Arneson, also in the graduate certificate program, said Nelson came to class on Nov. 9 and told them she had been choked. Unknown to the students, Reyes was arrested on Nov. 7 on suspicion of assault, domestic violence and possession of methamphetamine.

“She came into class on a Tuesday and apologized for her throat being hoarse,” Arneson said. “I thought maybe she had a cold, but then she told us she had been attacked. That was not the response we were expecting to get. It took a little while to process but then another student asked her what happened and if she was all right. She said ‘Yes,’ … but she didn’t want to talk about it.”

The students were flabbergasted but Nelson continued to lecture for the remainder of class time. As the  students trekked across campus to their next class, they discussed what they had heard.

“We were very concerned for her and also concerned because myself, Denise and another student were considering going to her house on Thursday, the Veteran’s Day holiday that we had off, to complete some hours that we needed,” Padamada said.
Padamada and Arneson said the students decided to ask for advice from their next lecturer, Dr. Sascha Mitchell, who advised them to tell the department chair, Dr. Shulamit Ritblatt.

“(Nelson) did confirm that her husband was the one who choked her, that she reported him to the police and he was in custody of the police,” Ritblatt said. After Ritblatt made sure Nelson was safe, she referred her to a mental health specialist. Nelson agreed to contact the clinical psychologist and also said she planned to divorce Reyes.

On Dec. 2, Reyes plead guilty to felony domestic violence and was served with a restraining order preventing him from having contact with Nelson. However, by this point Nelson had already posted bond for Reyes and brought him home for the holidays.
Ritblatt recalled the conversation with Nelson when she found out that Reyes was out of police custody.

“Immediately after Thanksgiving there was a message from a man indicating that she was sick and couldn’t meet the students,” Ritblatt said. “I called her again and asked her if the message was from (Reyes). She said that the police released him. She didn’t say then that she paid for the bail. I sat her down here and I said, ‘You know it’s wrong; you are not safe and he can be very dangerous,’ and she said ‘No, I want to divorce him and he’s going back to custody Jan. 3. I want the time of the holidays to be pleasant. I want to finish it on good terms.’ I said to her, ‘There are no good terms,’ and she said, ‘I can handle it.’”

On average, more than three women are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in this country every day, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

To the students and staff at EC-SEBRIS, her death was senseless.

“I think this is something that is most upsetting because when you see professional women, they’re usually embarrassed to talk about abuse, especially physical abuse and especially if they’re coming from a mental health profession,” Ritblatt said. “They believe that they have the skill to deal with it and they don’t.”

According to Padamada and Arneson, they did end up carpooling to Nelson’s home on Veteran’s Day and noticed something was amiss. Reyes was still in jail at the time, but when Nelson’s brother-in-law arrived, she became very jumpy and nervous.

“I wish that I had done something more. It was really obvious to us that something was wrong with her but we didn’t know what,” Padamada said.

“I don’t like the fact that I missed the warning signs. I didn’t put two and two together,” said Arneson.

Ritblatt believes that a systematic change needs to occur. She said there is a gap in the system that allows police to release abusers to the hands of their victims. “It should not happen,” Ritblatt said.

“Someone can say ‘Oh, she released him,’ or ‘She whatever,’ but you don’t understand the mind of someone who has been abused and you can’t judge them,” she said. “It’s our responsibility to protect them.”