Murders A-Z is a collection of true crime stories that take an in-depth look at both little-known and famous murders throughout history.
High school sweethearts Phyllis and Richard Nelson were married for more than 30 years, had two loving daughters and were active in their church. They also both had successful careers. She was a teacher and he was a pediatrician and later a university dean. Their house was filled with devotion, commitment and love. But all the love in the world couldn’t stop him from having an affair and getting stabbed to death as a result.
Phyllis Fritschle was born in 1947 in a small town in Southern Illinois, America’s heartland. A farm girl from a religious family, she met preacher’s son Richard “Dick” Nelson when she was 16 at a camp run by the Lutheran Church. They soon became an item, and after graduating from college in 1965, she followed him to a Lutheran school in Rock Island, Illinois.
With college behind them, they were married in 1969 and moved to Chicago where Richard studied medicine. Phyllis supported them by teaching elementary school in the inner city.
As Dick became Dr. Nelson, one of Chicago’s top pediatricians, Phyllis raised their two daughters, Elyse and Emily. In 1987, Dick got a prestigious job heading the Specialty Child Health Clinic at the University of Iowa, so the whole family moved to Iowa City, Iowa. Phyllis had given up her teaching career and filled her free time with volunteer work.
Phyllis and Richard Nelson were pillars of their community and lived a charmed life in Iowa City.
“The Nelsons were the kind of family that everybody would like to be,” Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Elizabeth Kutter told Oxygen’s "Snapped." “They were a family to be envied not only for their position and affluence, but because of kind of people they were and the way they got along.”
Reporter Grant Schulte agreed, saying Richard and Phyllis were “a very loving couple. They were always doting on one another.”
Unfortunately, when Richard turned 50, everything collapsed. It all started when he was promoted to Executive Dean at the University of Iowa’s College of Medicine. The stress of the new job put him on edge, and he found comfort in the arms of his secretary, Mary Jo Young. Though only five years younger than Phyllis (and in Kutter’s words, “not a young hottie”), she caught Dick’s eye. They had been working together for two years when they began having an affair in 1998.
Young says Richard Nelson told her his marriage of 33 years “wasn't as good as it should be,” according to the Rock Island Dispatch. The deeply religious doctor “was conflicted with regard to his relationship with me on a lot of levels,'' said Young. While she and Richard spoke about getting married, he wouldn’t commit to a timeframe.
Meanwhile, at home Richard allegedly acted out, vacillating between anger and depression. According to Phyllis, he had also become verbally abusive. In April of 2001, he moved out of the family home and rented an apartment 30 miles away in Cedar Rapids.
Phyllis Nelson didn’t know why her three-decade-old marriage was falling apart, but she was determined to find out. After sneaking into Richard’s university office, she found incriminating photographs of him and Mary Jo. When she confronted her husband, he admitted to having an affair with his secretary.
To punish him, Phyllis told the university administration, which docked $30,000 from his yearly paycheck and moved Mary Jo to another department within the school, according to NBC's Dateline.
“It is a violation of the rules of the University to have a relationship with someone that is a direct subordinate,” Prosecutor Harold Denton told "Snapped."
For the rest of the year, Dick veered between carrying on with Mary Jo and trying to patch things up with his wife. While Phyllis was initially willing to let bygones by bygones, that summer a violent episode — in which he shoved his daughter Elyse — gave her pause. She consulted a divorce attorney, and papers for a separation were prepared.
On the evening of December 11, 2001, Phyllis and Richard had dinner together, and she issued an ultimatum. It was either her or Mary Jo. Richard begged her not divorce him and said he would end the affair. He then drove back to his apartment in Cedar Rapids.
Feeling optimistic about their future together, Phyllis called Richard around 11 PM that night. He didn’t answer, so she left him a message then called back a little while later. There was still no answer. So, she left one message after another. There were five messages in all, each one angrier than the last. Then, at 4 a.m., she got in her car and drove the 30 miles to Cedar Rapids to confront him. When she got there, Mary Jo Young’s car was in the parking lot.
Her intentions of storming in on her husband and his mistress were foiled by the building’s broken buzzer. She then went to his bedroom window and threw her shoe at it.
“One of her shoes actually ended up on the roof of the apartment complex,” investigator John Matias told "Snapped." Richard came to the window before going downstairs to let her in. In the meantime, Mary Jo hid in the apartment building’s laundry room until she felt it was safe to leave.
Phyllis claims once Richard let her into his apartment, she wanted to sit down with him and Mary Jo Young and have an adult discussion about where they would all go from here.
In her court testimony, quoted on NBC’s "Dateline," she claimed she said, “Dick, are you planning a future together, don't you think I have a right to know?”
When he protested that he and Mary Jo hadn’t had sex that night, she said she responded, “Dick, this is not about where you put your penis, this is about our future!” Then she picked up one of her loafers and threw it at him.
Phyllis said Richard then became enraged. He called her a bitch and said they had no future and accused her of ruining his career. She backed into his tiny kitchen, and claiming she was scared he might attack her, she picked up a small paring knife that was on the counter. She claims she then came around the corner and Richard walked right into the knife, which made a small wound on his chest.
Recordings of her 911 call capture the frantic scene, as Phyllis tells the operator, “I need an ambulance right away. I stabbed my husband.” Richard can be heard groaning in the background.
Police were already en route to Richard Nelson’s building after a neighbor called 911 to complain about Phyllis carrying on outside.
Cedar Rapids Police Officer Rod Shifflett told "Snapped," “We get this call at the apartment complex stating that there’s somebody outside throwing stuff at the apartment.”
Richard was still conscious on the floor when they got there and in a considerable amount of pain. As they loaded him into an ambulance, Phyllis told Police Officer Corey Peiffer that she “only meant to hurt him and not to kill him.”
Police took Phyllis down to the station to get her statement. She kept repeating that it was an accident. When they told her there might be assault charges, she asked for a lawyer and her pastor. At 10 AM that morning, Richard Nelson died. Though the knife’s blade was less than 4 inches long, it fatally punctured his heart, causing internal bleeding.
“She stabbed him with this kitchen knife, and that resulted in his death,” Prosecutor Harold Denton told "Snapped." “At this point in time, I think we have a murder case pending.”
Almost a year to the day of her husband Richard’s death, Phyllis Nelson went on trial for his murder. If convicted, the 54-year-old former schoolteacher would spend the rest of her life in prison. Her defense team tried to hammer home the idea that his death was a fatal accident, and it was mostly the result of Richard’s own erratic behavior, with the Nelson’s daughters testifying on her behalf. Because of pre-trial publicity, Phyllis’s lawyers also decided to waive her right to a trial by jury, thinking a judge would be more impartial and weigh the evidence fairly.
On March 17, 2003, following the trial’s conclusion, both sides reconvened to hear District Judge Thomas Horan’s verdict. Rejecting both the prosecution’s charge of first-degree murder and the defense’s contention that Richard Nelson’s death was a case of involuntary manslaughter, Judge Horan ruled Phyllis Nelson was guilty of voluntary manslaughter. In his ruling, he said Phyllis stabbed her husband in a "sudden, violent and irresistible passion," according to The Edwardsville Intelligencer. Upon issuing the verdict, the judge ordered her held without bond, pending sentencing. She broke down in tears as she was led away, later receiving a 10-year prison sentence.
In early September 2006, after serving three-and-a-half years of her sentence, Phyllis Nelson walked out the gates of the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women. She had been paroled that July and was going to live in the Chicago area with her sister-in-law and work as a secretary in a geologist's office, with her daughters living not far away. The Courier newspaper reported she shook hands with the prison staff as she left before getting into a waiting car. Prison officials said she "adamantly" did not want to talk to the media and she gave no comments upon her release.