In the early morning hours of May 31st, 2002, a fifteen-year-old boy awoke in the guest bedroom of his friend’s rural Custer Park, Illinois farmhouse to the sounds of a smoke alarm. The boy had been staying the night to assist his friend, sixteen-year-old Eric Tennant, with farm chores the following day. The young teen realized the house was on fire, grabbed his cell phone, and exited the house swiftly. He then dialed 911, followed by calling his father who worked for the fire department. When authorities arrived, they found something very unexpected inside the farmhouse, the bodies of four murder victims. This is the story of the Tennant Family murders.
Sara Lynn Tennant was born April 10th, 1983, to parents Harold and Debra Tennant of Will County, Illinois. Sara welcomed a younger brother in 1986, Eric Harry Tennant. Harold Tennant owned an insurance agency and purchased a farm in rural Custer Park, Illinois. Sara was an avid volleyball player and enjoyed raising and showing miniature horses. Her brother, Eric, was dedicated to a career in agriculture and worked on the family farm. In 1999, Sara met Brian Nelson and they began dating.
Sara’s parents did not like Brian, and they tried to keep Sara from dating him. They would drive to her and from school and limit her activities. As most teenagers do, Sara defied her parents and continued to see Brian. Sara learned she was pregnant in the fall of 2000, when she was a senior at Reed-Custer High School. Despite her parents’ best efforts, Sara and Brian would share a lifelong connection.
Brian Nelson was born Brian West on June 2nd, 1982, in Texas. Brian was one of six children born to Janet Nelson and her then husband. When Janet decided to relocate to Wisconsin, the children’s father stayed behind in Texas and had very little contact with his children. Janet then married Tom Nelson, who became a father to Brian. Brian looked up to his stepfather very much. Tragically, Tom died in a car accident when Brian was seven years old. According to family and teachers, Brian took the loss very hard, and counseling was recommended. This loss would set the tone for emotional issues Brian would suffer throughout his life.
Starting in about sixth grade, Brian had disciplinary issues at school. He was suspended several times for conduct. His principal described him as “emotionally unstable, unpredictable, and volatile” (People V. Nelson, 2009). Members of the teaching staff were actually afraid of the young boy. The principal claimed that Brian’s mother was overly protective of him and did not acknowledge the problems Brian was having in school.
When Brian was in the eighth grade, he started dating a girl named Megan. Despite their young age, Megan claimed Brian was obsessive and controlling. She spent most of her time with Brian, and her friends disappeared out of fear of Brian. According to Megan, Brian used a BB gun to “shoot” her name on to his chest. He also carved “Megan 4-eva” on to himself. This was too much for the young lady, so she tried to end the relationship. Brian threatened to hurt himself and her. She tried to end it several times, but each time he would make these threats. Eventually, her parents intervened to end the relationship. Brian continued to write her tons of notes and make contact with her for quite some time before being checked into a mental health facility for severe depression.
In March of 2000, Harold Tenant reported some guns were missing from his home. There were no signs of forced entry as the house was left unlocked. On that same day, police responded to a call from Brian Nelson’s mother’s home. She reported domestic violence, claiming Brian had pushed her into a table and cut her finger during an argument. While responding to the incident, police located Harold Tennant’s missing guns in Brian’s possession. He claimed to have bought them from someone, not realizing they were stolen from his girlfriend’s father. While police investigated the case, Brian remained free.
On April 3rd, 2000, a 1989 Ford Pickup truck was reported stolen and later found abandoned along a rural highway. Whomever stole the vehicle tried to set it on fire using paper and matches. An anonymous tipster suggested Brian Nelson had stolen the vehicle. Under questioning, Brian admitted to stealing the truck as well as a dump truck that had also been reported stolen. At this time, he also admitted to stealing the guns from Harold Tennant.
On April 27th, 2000, police responded to a car accident involving a semi-truck and a stolen pick-up truck. The driver of the pickup truck was Brian Nelson. He claimed to have borrowed the truck from his mother’s home, a statement later proven false. Following the accident, Brian was hospitalized for several days related to a sustained concussion. He would later face charges for the stolen vehicles, guns, and assault on his mother.
On August 9th, 2000, a young man named Corey was leaving his house when he encountered a stranger who looked suspicious. The man asked Corey to go for a walk and talk about Sara Tennant. He inquired what the man thought of Sara, who was an ex-girlfriend of his. When Corey grew uncomfortable and turned to leave, the man grabbed him around the neck and stabbed Corey in the back. He threatened to kill Corey before fleeing the scene. Corey identified his assailant through a photo line-up as Brian Nelson. Brian was charged with aggravated battery. Around this time, Sara learned she was pregnant.
On September 18th, 2000, Brian was sentenced to three years in prison for the stolen vehicle with a recommendation for impact incarceration. Impact incarceration is a program in Illinois that allows defendants to reduce their sentence by successfully completing a military boot camp style program The program requires the defendant to be less than thirty-five years old, physically and mentally fit, sentenced to less than eight years, and not be convicted of any Class X offense such as murder (Haney). That same day, he was convicted of aggravated battery for stabbing Corey. For this crime, he was sentenced to 12 months of conditional discharge. On September 25th, 2000, Brian was sentenced to an additional two years in prison for the theft of the guns, again with a recommendation for impact incarceration.
In February 2001, Brian Nelson was paroled from the Illinois Department of Corrections. A month later, Sara gave birth to their baby daughter. Following Sara’s graduation from high school in May of 2001, she ended her relationship with Brian. He did not accept this and fought to keep Sara in his life. The two had a tumultuous relationship in which they often broke up and got back together. In January of 2002, Sara was arrested and charged with domestic battery following an argument with Brian in which she punched him in the face. In February of 2002, Brian filed a family law case against Sara for allegedly withholding visitation with their daughter. On May 24th of 2002, Nelson’s attorney indicated that the couple may be reconciling. A week later, Sara would be dead.
By the spring of 2002, Sara had begun classes at a community college and was working for her father’s insurance agency. Harold and his wife had split up, leaving Harold, Sara, Eric, and baby Amber living at the farmhouse in Custer Park. Harold’s girlfriend, Jean Bookwalter, was also living in the home. Jean was a forty-six-year-old mother and grandmother. Shew as currently working for Harold’s insurance company as well. She enjoyed painting, crafts, and gardening.
Sara was dating another man and seemed to be getting her life together. This didn’t settle well with Brian, who was still obsessed with the mother of his child. Brian was calling Sara constantly and stopping by her home and work to talk with her. On May 30th, 2002, a man identifying himself as Brian called Tennant Insurance and asked for Sara. Sara refused to talk with him, so Brian asked the employee answering the call to tell Sara he was sorry. Later, Sara and her co-workers noticed a vehicle in the parking lot with a man watching the business. They called 911, but the vehicle left before police arrived. Sara’s coworkers noted she was scared and nervous that day.
Between May 23rd and May 31st, Brian called Sara 129 times, per phone records. On May 30th, Sara reported a theft of eighty dollars from her vehicle while parked outside her college. A photo of her new love interest had also been taken out of the vehicle. Brian would later confess to stealing the picture from Sara’s car. Brian was stalking her. Late in the evening on May 30th, 2002, Brian went to the rural farmhouse in Custer Park. He entered the unlocked house and proceeded to the basement where Sara’s room was.
According to Brian, he and Sara talked for about an hour and had sex before Sara asked him to leave. Brian had tried to convince Sara to get back together, but she was not willing to take him back. Brian then went to the garage of the Tennant home, where he claimed he paced for about twenty minutes trying to determine his next move. At that point, he returned to the basement room with a crowbar. It was approximately 2 am on May 31st, 2002.
When first responders arrived at the farmhouse following the teenage visitor’s 911 call, they found a gruesome scene. The house fire was quickly extinguished. Authorities went to the basement of the home, where they found the body of nineteen-year-old Sara Tennant lying on the bed. Sara had been bludgeoned in the head, causing severe damage and death. On the second floor of the home, the bludgeoned bodies of Harold Tennant, Jean Bookwalter, and Eric Tennant were found. The young man who survived had been asleep in the guest bedroom, so it is likely the assailant did not know he was in the home. Fourteen-month-old Amber Nelson was found in a baby seat inside of Sara Tennant’s Vehicle, which was parked outside of the home.
The autopsy of Sara Tennant showed four blunt lacerations on the left side and back of her head and severe skull fractures. The medical examiner determined the cause of death to be blunt force trauma with an object such as a crowbar. It was noted that Sara was not alive when the home was set on fire as she had no smoke damage inside of her lungs. There were traces of accelerant noted in her bedroom and the fire seemed to have started on her bed.
The autopsy of Jean Bookwalter revealed five blows to her head, causing massive skull fractures. Additionally, a large stab wound was noted to the upper left portion of her back, traveling through her entire body, and exiting through her breast. The stab wound had punctured her lung and broke two of her ribs. The blows to the head and the stab wound would have both been fatal. The medical examiner found that Jean was not alive when a separate fire was started near her and Harold Tennant’s bodies.
The autopsy of Harold Tennant showed blunt lacerations to the top and left side of the skull as well as two stab wounds to his left upper back. The blunt force wounds were consistent with a crowbar, causing massive skull fractures. The stab wounds caused severe blood loss into the chest cavity, which would have also been fatal. Harold was also determined to be deceased when the fire was started.
Sixteen-year-old Eric Tennant was found in a recliner in his bedroom. There was extensive fire damage to Eric’s body as well as four blunt injuries to the top of his head and forehead. Eric had not smoke damage in his lungs, indicating he likely died before the fire was set. His cause of death was determined to be related to severe skull fractures and brain damage as a result of homicide.
Of the six people staying in the house that night, only two were alive. One was a toddler and the other a teenage boy. The teenage boy had to be investigated as a suspect, but he was quickly ruled out as a suspect. The detectives were informed of the tumultuous relationship between Brian Nelson and Sara Tennant and his attempts to contact her on May 30th. Brian Nelson was quickly brought in for questioning.
Brian said he received a call from Sara on May 30th, where she told him someone broke into her car. Brian admitted that he had broken into the vehicle, stealing a picture of her new love interest. Sara angrily hung up on. After that, he drove to the insurance agency she worked at and attempted to speak with her, but Sara refused. That evening, he called her 10-12 times, but Sara did not answer her phone. He said he went to sleep at about 11:30 pm and had nothing to do with the murders.
Detectives were skeptical of Brian’s story and pushed him further. Brian finally admitted to being involved in the murders. In a videotaped confession, Brian admitted that he wanted to save his relationship with Sara. He drove to her home after she refused his calls. He claimed to arrive around 2 am. He entered the home through an unlocked door and proceeded to the basement. Brian said that the two talked for about an hour before Sara told him to leave. Instead of leaving, Brian said he went to the garage to think. He picked up a crowbar and went back to Sara’s bedroom.
Sara told him once again to leave and rolled over on her bed. Brian said the rejection made him angry. He told Sara he loved her and then struck her twice in the head with the crowbar. Brian than confessed that he was afraid that the other people in the house would know he was the one who killed Sara. He decided to kill them. He went to the second story of the farmhouse where he encountered Sara’s father, Harold Tennant. He admitted to hitting Harold with the crowbar. After bludgeoning Harold, Jean walked out of the bedroom and was attacked next. He admitted to hitting her in the head with the crowbar.
Brian than admitted to going to Eric’s bedroom. He found Eric lying asleep in a recliner. He confessed to striking him with the crowbar multiple times. He said he thought he left the crowbar in Eric’s room. He then claimed he changed out of his bloody clothes and put on clean clothing that he had previously left at the home. He said he lit some paper and clothing on fire in each room in an attempt to cover up the evidence. On his way out of the house, Brian said he grabbed his daughter and placed her in Sara’s car so that she would be safe from the fire. He then left and went home.
There were a few problems with the confession. Brian never made a statement about using a knife, which was found on the autopsies of Harold and Jean. He also denied using accelerant to start the fires, although the fire marshal determined accelerant was definitely used. Detectives were unable to find the crowbar at the Tennant house. After his initial confession, Brian asked to speak with detectives again. At this time, he confessed to having sexual intercourse with Sara the night of her death. Medical examiners were unable to determine if the sexual encounter occurred before or after Sara’s death. There were no signs of forcible rape found on her autopsy, but Brian’s sperm was found inside of her.
Detectives searched Brian Nelson’s mother’s property, where Brian was residing. Evidence technicians examined a dumpster and burn barrels on the property. One of the barrels was still warm to touch, indicating it had recently been used. Inside, a driver’s license with the name Sara Grollemond was found along with a camera and receipt with Sara Tennant’s name on it. They also found an appointment reminder card with Brian’s name on it. A knife was collected from the residence as well as a crowbar found next to a corn bin. There were no bloodstains or bloody clothing found in the home or Brian’s car.
Brian Nelson was arrested and charged with sixteen counts of first-degree murder, four counts of home invasion, and four counts of aggravated arson. His defense team filed several motions including an attempt to have his confession thrown out. The defense claimed Brian was coerced into a false confession, which is why he didn’t mention the stabbings. The motions were all denied, and he finally stood trial in 2006. He was convicted on all counts.
This crime occurred prior to the dissolution of the death penalty in Illinois, and prosecutors sought the death penalty for Brian Nelson. The death penalty phase of the trial focused on mitigating and aggravating factors. Before the hearings could commence, the mothers of Sara Tennant and Brian Nelson had their own feud. Debra Tennant had obtained an order of protection against Janet Nelson, prohibiting any contact. However, the judge determined that both women had a right to attend the hearings and warned them to be on their best behavior and not speak to one another.
In her petition, Debra Tennant alleged that Janet Nelson approached her at the courthouse and said, “We are going to get you. It’s not over ‘til it’s over” (Dardick, 2006). Janet denied this accusation. The two women began feuding after the murders because Janet believed that Debra Tennant played a role in the murders. Debra denied this, explaining she would not kill her former husband or only children. In the end, both women were granted permission to attend the hearings.
The death penalty hearing included testimony about Brian’s other crimes and convictions, his obsessive nature, and his history of violence. His girlfriend from eighth grade, Megan, testified about his obsession with her. The defense presented mitigating circumstances including a forensic psychologist who determined that the abandonment from his biological father and death of his stepfather caused Brian to be severely afraid of being alone. Former employers described him as a polite young man who worked hard. Another expert suggested Brian may have suffered frontal lobe brain damage in the car accident, impacting his judgment and impulse control. MRI and CT scans did not demonstrate this damage, but the expert suggested that was not uncommon. In the end, the aggravating factors outweighed the mitigating factors, and Brian Nelson was sentenced to death.
In 2009, the Illinois Supreme Court overturned Brian’s death sentence on the grounds that the judge erred in removing a juror in trial. Brian was sent to return to court for resentencing on April 30th, 2010, at which time he would have more than likely been sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. On April 29th, 2010, at approximately 2:30 am, Brian Nelson was found hanging in his cell on the death row at Illinois’ Pontiac Correctional Center. In the end, Brian’s death sentence being reversed caused him to commit suicide.
“His main fear and main concern was getting moved (to general prison population)”, his lawyer Steve Haney explained (Byrns, 2010). Nelson was kept in a single cell for four years while on death row. “It sounds ludacris, but in Brian’s mind, it was a much more comfortable existence than he would have in the general population” Haney elaborated (Byrns, 2010). According to his lawyer, Brian’s guilt was never a question for him, but he fought to keep Brian from the death penalty. In 2011, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn abolished the death penalty in Illinois.
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Ziemba, S. & Mellen, K. (2002). Ex-boyfriend held in slayings of 4. Chicago Tribune. 2 Jun 2002
Dardick, H. (2006). 2 moms feud in murder case. Chicago Tribune. 5 Oct 2006.
Associated Press. (2002). $20 million bond set in quadruple killing case. 5 Jun 2002