Monday, April 30, 2018

The Perplexing Case of the Nimer Murders

by Nomad

Back in 2009, I stumbled across this strange story about an investigation of a horrific pair of murders that took a bizarre twist.

two-page article in the September 22 1958 issue of LIFE magazine relates the chilling and bewildering story of the Nimer murder case. The double homicide of Mr. and Mrs. Melvin Nimer of Staten Island, New York, was a sensation at the time. The reason?
The chief suspect in the crime was their eight-year-old son, Melvin Dean Nimer.

The Murders and the Suspicions

Sometime before two in the morning of September 2, 1958, Melvin Nimer and his wife, Lou Jean Nimer were apparently attacked by an armed assailant in their home.

According to their son's initial account, he was awakened in the night to find a masked man attempting to choke him. His parents rushed to his aid and, in the struggle, were stabbed in the struggle. Based on the boy's description, police issued a manhunt for a white male, wearing blue dungarees and a blue print-striped shirt.
But the police officers felt something was not quite right. Given the fact that he had just witnessed the violent deaths of both his parents, his calm behavior seemed suspicious.

The child's unnaturally calm demeanor convinced the investigators that the boy knew more than he was telling. Based on the child's reactions, the officers quickly suspected that the boy had committed the murders of his parents.

Other things didn't seem to add up. The police found no easy means of entry was found. How could the alleged attacker have entered the Nimer home? The crime scene bore all the marks of an inside job.

Decades later, Frank Donnelly of the Staten Island Advance would interview retired police officer Vincent Meli, who, along with his late partner, Officer Harry Tyson. These two patrolmen were the first cops on the scene. Meli stated that the locked exterior screen door at the Nimer home seemed to be confirmation of their initial doubts about Melvin's story.

The 77-year-old Dongan Hills resident would later tell a local reporter:
"Back then, I knew he did it..The door was locked. The bad guy didn't lock the door on the way out."
Those initial doubts about the child's account were enough to sidetrack the early investigation. Nobody stopped to ask the sensible questions: was it really plausible for a boy to murder both his parents in such a cold-blooded way? Was it physically possible for him to murder both his parents?

The Confession

In fact, there was physical evidence that seemed to back up the boy's version of events. Strips of cloth, matching nothing else found in the house were discovered on the boy's bed. Had the attacker planned to use them as gags and restraints?
Police initially thought the strips of cloth might have come from an old hospital mattress. It was never traced or identified.

Additionally, detectives found a set of footprints at the rear side of the Nimer's home and plaster casts were taken at that time. 

The following day, patrolmen found a knife in a hedge about 1000 feet from the site. A laboratory analysis revealed traces of blood on the weapon. It was impossible to determine whether the blood residue was animal or human. 

Despite the evidence that appeared to corroborate the child's version of events, the detectives remained unconvinced that child was not the killer.

With Dean's uncle's consent, District Attorney John M. Braisted Jr. sent the boy to the Staten Island Mental Health Center on Friday, September 5, just three days after the deaths of his parents. 

The case was referred to psychoanalyst Dr. Richard Silberstein.
And Silberstein's qualifications were impeccable. He was the founding director of the Staten Island Mental Health Society, a founder and a director of the North Richmond (S.I.) Mental Health Center and the founding director of the department of psychiatry at St. Vincent's Hospital on Staten Island.

A team of qualified doctors examined Dean on Friday and Saturday. After these examinations, it was disclosed that Dean had changed his original story. 
The boy was now confessing to the murders of his parents.

On the day after of his parent's September 9 funeral, New York Journal-American broke the story that the Melvin Dean Nimer was the chief suspect in the murder of his parents. Braisted, instead of withholding comment, confirmed that the boy was under suspicion. 
In fact, he stated that preliminary psychiatric examinations had shown the boy to be suffering "from a paranoid type of schizophrenia and the boy's illness and basic personality were compatible to the commission of a violent crime."

With seeming confirmation by the local authorities, press agencies picked up the shocking story and spread it across the nation. 

Closer Scrutiny

Despite the confession, there were some serious problems with the case. Besides the obvious implausibility of an eight-year-old boy murdering both his parents, critics noted the lack of blood on the boy's pajamas. If he had stabbed both his parents- even without waking them- Melvin would surely have been drenched in their blood.
On top of this, where was the motive?
Nevertheless, Braisted continued to focus his investigation on Melvin Dean Nimer- effectively trying the child in the court of public opinion.

According to an article in Time Magazine, dated Sept 22, 1958:
Into the case swarmed more than 60 New York detectives, who questioned 1,000 people, including patients at the nearby U.S. Public Health Service Hospital, where promising Resident Surgeon Nimer began work two months before. But nothing clicked. No motive appeared; the house was not robbed, and how the prowler entered was unclear. Questioned repeatedly, little Dean told conflicting versions of the sequence of events.
Some cops were struck by the boy's unusual intelligence, others by his consistent lack of emotion. ("My mother and father's dead," he told one cop after the tragedy, and rode off on his bike.) 
Not everybody was buying the child's confession. Some reporters began to question the disturbing direction of the investigation and the motives of the authorities. 
"Minds seemed more preoccupied with the question of the reflected image than they were with the baffling details of the horrible crime."
A few of the journalists noted that there were vital elements of the case that had been kept secret because they failed to fit into the detectives' premise that the child had committed the crimes. Those details supported the child's initial story of a masked intruder.
The plain truth was that virtually every word that the eight-year-old had uttered had been corroborated from the mouths of his dying parents. Braisted refused to admit that and continued to insist there were "no discrepancies" in the child's confession. 


In a press conference on 12 September, Braisted was asked by Vincent E. Sorge, a reporter for the New York World-Telegram about a rumored exchange between the dying Mrs. Nimer and a detective.  
Using the detective's notes, Sorge read the last words of Lou Jean Nimer. 
Q.  Can you tell me about the case?
A.   A mask... a mask.
Q.  Can you tell me anything else?
A.  A hood... a hood.
Q.  What kind?
A.  White.
Q.  Slits in the eyes?
A.  Yes, cover full head.
Q.  How tall?
A.  Tall as my husband, same build.
Q.  Why did you get up?
A.  Heard boy scream.
At first, Braisted admitted that the dying mother had validated the testimony of her son. Then, he discounted Mrs. Nimer's statement. She was, he told reporters, "in shock and under sedation." Her account came out "in dribs and drabs."
However, he then back-peddled.
"I will make no comment on any published statement attributed to victims of this crime. I am declining comment because I sincerely believe that comment would impede our investigation."
Reporters continued to press the district attorney in the following days and finally, he admitted that Mr. Nimer had also used to word "prowler" and "mask" prior to dying of his injuries. 
The bungling of the police investigation had been exposed.

Things were only to get worse for the detectives. Following day, police picked up an 18-year-old former mental patient, William Fletcher. (News reports stressed the fact that Fletcher was a "Negro.")
Fletcher, after 12-hours of interrogation, admitted to committing the double homicide. Then he retracted his statement and was released the following day.

A More Probable Scenario

On Sept 19th, 1958, the Daily Record writes that reporters pieced together an altogether more probable scenario. 

Police stated that on June 19th of that year, the owner of the house that the Nimers rented had left a full set of keys at the switchboard of the US Public Health Service (where Nimer and the owner both worked.) 

The set included the front and rear doors of the house and the overhead and side doors of the garage. The keys were in an envelope with the Dr. Nimer's name written on the front. Police now theorized that those copies were made by somebody who may have worked or may have been a patient at the hospital.

A few weeks later, only after the entire nation had been stunned by the confession of an eight-year-old "murderer" did Detective James Cox begin to take a more logical view of the case. 

He discovered that two formal medical reports written by Dr. William Smith, an associate of Dr. Nimer, and another independent physician. These reports which had been written shortly after the murders, established that strangulation marks on the neck of Dean supported the original testimony. The marks could not have been self-inflicted due to their size and position.

Even upon this revelation, officials refused to admit their series of mistakes in the case. They continued to maintain that Melvin was the chief suspect in the homicide. No charges were ever brought for these murders and the case remains unsolved to this day.    

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If you are interested in learning more about this case, you may find more information at the links below. I have also included interviews with the adult Melvin Dean Nimer who discussed his case at length.

Staten Island Advance Reporter Frank Donnelly talks about his experience reporting on the Nimer case.

Special thanks to:  A View of the Nation: an anthology, 1955-1959 by Henry M. Christman which contains an excellent article about the Nimer murders.