Rambo Hooser, 20, standing left, confers with his attorney Craig Shannon during his trial on a deliberate homicide charge in the death of Seeley Lake Elementary School teacher Cliff Nelson, 49, on Sept. 30, 1996. Hooser, at right, is embraced by family and friends following a "not guilty" verdict on Friday, May 30, 1996.
Hooser 'Not Guilty' in Nelson Murder
by Gary Noland
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
June 5, 1997
Related Story: Trial Testimony as reported for the trial, which spanned 8 days over a two-week period.
Opposing families sat anxiously in Missoula District Court last Friday afternoon when the jury's verdict was passed to the clerk in Rambo Hooser's trial for the murder of Seeley Lake school teacher Cliff Nelson.
Warned by Judge Ed Mclean to not display any emotions until the jury was excused and out of the courtroom, the families waited tensely as the clerk read the jury's findings of "not guilty" to Hooser's charge of deliberate homicide.
Muted, but audible sighs and tears began flowing from members of Hooser's family, his father, and friends. From where the Nelson family sat there was solemn silence and tears-but emotions were contained as the judge had ordered. Hooser and his attorney, Craig Shannon, embraced in obvious relief.
After the verdict of "not guilty" to a second charge of criminal mischief for the related shooting of windows at Seeley Swan High School was read, District Attorney Robert L. Deschamps III suddenly moved to dismiss the murder charge and criminal mischief charge against Matt Livingston, 21, who had been held, along with Hooser, in jail since their arrests three weeks after the Sept. 30, murder last year. Livinston was to have been tried at a later date, though police alleged they acted together.
Deschamps quick dismissal of Livingston's charges prompted a suprised gasp of relief from Randy Livingston, father of Matt, who sat in the back of the courtroom with Hooser's family. Both young men were ordered released, Hooser on his own recognizance pending a drug possession charge.
As the jury left, Hooser's father, Tip, rushed from the back of the courtroom, leaned over the railing and hugged his son tightly for several minutes, both crying in emotional release.
The Nelson family who had been represented at the trial by four brothers and sisters, spouses, and nieces-some 16 in all throughout most of the trial-sat quietly, somewhat stunned, with the women wiping away tears.
It was little consolation to the Nelson family when Tip Hooser turned to the family and said he was "...so very, very sorry."
Earlier, outside the courthouse, while the jury was deliberating, Tip Hooser had said "...I only want my son back." He said he knew his son didn't do it, and hoped the police would catch whoever had. Rambo Hooser later said the same.
The not guilty verdicts came shortly after 5 p.m. Friday, only 2 and 1/2 hours after the jury had been sent out to deliberate their findings from eight days of trail that spanned the past two weeks.
In rendering a "not guilty" verdict, the six-woman, six-man jury sided with defense attorney Shannon's contention that the police settled two quickly on his client as the main suspect and that other, possibly better suspects, were not checked out in an investigation riddled with shortcomings, errors and deficiencies. Additionally, jurors gave little credence to statements by a former jail inmate with Hooser who testified that Hooser said he did it, but that it couldn't be proved.
In his closing argument, Deschamps told jurors the case was "...extremely complex, confusing and complicated." He reminded jurors that he had told them initially it was going to be a "circumstantial" case. "I picked up all the rocks and some of them had snakes under them," Deschamps admitted.
He accused defense attorney Shannon of creating "Red Herrings-things that divert us off the subject and on to wild goose chases that mean nothing." An empty liter of Jim Beam and an empty carton of beer found in a field across the street from Nelson had nothing to do with the case, Deschamps said, but was made an issue by the defense.
"Something or someone at the 1-Stop" was another Red Herring, Deschamps said, adding that the truck driver heard something, maybe a deer or dog, run by. "That was it," he said.
The truck witness Wayne Soss testified he saw could have been Dana Vanderburg's or Deputy Newell's Blazer, or someone coming home from the bar, Deschamps said, citing this and other issues as Red Herrings the defense dwelled upon to deflect suspicion away from Hooser.
Initially there were eleven suspects, Deschamps said, explaining that all were eliminated for various reasons-alibis, height (not fitting crime lab analysis that the shooter was 5'9" or taller, not owning weapons, or not having the kind of ammunition found at the scene.
Hooser had motive, opportunity and the means, Deschamps argued in affirming police statements that Hooser held a long-time grudge against Nelson, he had a ammunition that was of the same kind as that found at the high school and Nelson's home, he had a gun in his car, and was last seen leaving the Saloon less than an hour before the shooting two blocks away from the Saloon.
Shannon countered in his closing argument that "...this case has been fueled by rumors," that Hooser was the victim of these rumors, that the police pursued the investigation against Rambo to the premature exclusion of other suspects.
"So, it's a little late and not enough," Shannon said. "You do the work, figure it out and then charge. It's that simple."
There were eyewitnesses and they ignored them, Shannon charged.
"Wayne Soss knew what he saw. They ignored it until the trial. He's not an ignorant man," Shannon said in replying to the Red Herring charges Deschamps had made.
"If he (Rambo) had a girfriend (that night), would Rambo be here?" Shannon asked the jurors, noting that for Jon Williams, Jeff Kimmell, Dana Vanderburg and Patricia Anderson "...they are each other's alibis and their alibis don't add up." He also accused these people of lying to the police and himself in later statements. Their stories are all the same on certain points, then they started falling apart, Shannon said.
"Who's on drugs?" Shannon asked, then answered with the names of Williams, Kimmell, Anderson and Vanderburg.
"Nelson had little to do with expelling Rambo," Shannon said, adding there was no real substance to the "grudge theory."
Shannon reviewed Hooser's mental state. He didn't get rid of his ammunition, he didn't hide, he didn't run, and he didn't have to make a voluntary statement, he noted.
His car was never seen that night after he left the Saloon, Shannon observed.
And, in a demonstration with a shotgun before the jury, Shannon, who is 5'll" tall, pointed the gun in a straight line from his shoulder. The level barrel of the gun would be over five feet off the ground, Shannon said. Rambo is 6'6" tall, he added, reminding jurors of previous testimony by a crime lab expert that the trajectory of the shot that felled Nelson was level and five feet above the floor, indicating a shooter 5'9" or taller. He told the jurors this was assuming a normal, standing position and that the shooter could have been crouching.
Shannon dismissed Vaughn Taylor's testimony about Hooser admitting in jail that he had done it, asking why none of the other inmates in the eight-man cell were questioned. Taylor had testified he thought everyone could have heard Hooser.
Shannon concluded by telling the jurors that he had been working on the case for eight months. "His (Hooser's) life has been in our hands. Now it is in your hands. I ask that you send Rambo back to his family."
Testimony - First Week Testimony - Second Week Jury Acquits Hooser