Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Earle Leonard Nelson: The Dark Strangler

Capture and Breakout

Winnipeg reward poster
Winnipeg reward poster

Nelson had made a series of mistakes. His face became known to too many people in a relatively small city, he left witnesses at the rooming house where he pretended to be Mr. Woodcoats, and he raped and killed a young girl. Not only was the entire Royal Canadian Mounted Police Force looking for him, but also every other law-abiding, peace-loving citizen who would not stand for such barbarity also wanted his head.

The rewards being offered didn't help his case, either. As a foreigner, Earle Nelson was unfamiliar with the customs and traits of Winnipeg. Canadian culture may be similar to American, but it is still different. For one thing, Nelson, hitching a ride toward the international border, told some people he had worked on a ranch near Winnipeg. The men looked at him strangely, for no Canadian would call a spread of land that far west a "ranch" — they were farms. That made him stand out in their minds as a liar and suspicious character, which in turn made him memorable enough that when reports of the horrible events of Winnipeg became public, they immediately thought of Nelson.

Thus, police were able to track his movements and predict his next appearance.

Earle Nelson was five miles from the U.S. border when the first lawman caught up with him. His description had spread throughout the province and every border town was on the alert. When Nelson stopped in a general store in Wakopa to buy food, he was recognized by the storeowner and a patron who knew of the $1,500 reward and notified the law. Nelson was headed out of town along the southbound railroad tracks aware that he had been spotted. He had gotten about a mile and a half away from Wakopa when the local constable appeared in front of him, revolver drawn.

Earle Nelson immediately raised his hands and surrendered.

Killarney's Main Street (CORBIS)
Killarney's Main Street (CORBIS)

Taken to the Killarney, Manitoba jail, Nelson stuck to his story that he was Virgil Wilson, a day laborer who had no knowledge of any "Gorilla Killer." He cooperated fully with his captors, who began to doubt that they had indeed captured the monster who murdered the two women in Winnipeg. After all, this man was a God-fearing and personable young man who might have been a physical giant, but seemed nice enough. His size and coloring might have matched the description the Mounties had distributed, but his clothes certainly did not.

Nelson was put into a century-old cell in the Killarney jail, without his shoes, socks and belt, as was the custom. He complied fully and without complaint and his jailer locked the cell door as Nelson or "Wilson" lay down on the straw-filled mattress on the iron bed hanging from the wall. Secure in the knowledge that his prisoner was locked up tight, the constable went to telegraph Winnipeg with the news. When he returned after stopping to buy a cigar and newspaper, the cell door was open and his prisoner was gone. The Gorilla Killer had managed to find a wire, pick the double lock on the cell door and escape from the jail without being seen.

Constable Wilton Gray immediately formed a posse to find the man he was now convinced was the Gorilla Killer. Every able-bodied man was armed and searching for Earle Nelson who was trying to make for the border sans belt, socks and shoes.

Nelson managed to find an old barn and hid there for the night. He found an old sweater and a pair of hockey skates from which he removed the blades and fashioned shoes. Not the best disguise, but it was better than nothing. The next morning, he began heading south once more and met a man from whom he bummed a couple of smokes.

Nelson's psychopathic nature was evident as he interacted with the farmer with the cigarettes. He was completely at ease standing in front of the farmer in a moth-eaten sweater and hockey skates for shoes, thinking himself invincible. This feeling of superiority is a common trait among serial killers who imagine themselves somehow protected from capture.

"Indeed what (Nelson) felt was even stronger than confidence," Schechter wrote. "It was more like omnipotence, the sense that he could get away with anything, that nothing could touch him — as though he were the chosen instrument of an irresistible power that was using him for its own unimaginable ends."

Unfortunately for Nelson, it didn't take long for the farmer to realize he was speaking with the escaped Gorilla Killer, and shortly after Nelson went on his way, the farmer was alerting the police.

His capture was anticlimactic; he had only traveled a few hundred yards down the track by the time lawmen caught up with him and returned him to custody. This time, there would be no escape for the Dark Strangler.

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