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From the archives: Man sentenced in shooting, 35 years later

Frank Nelson in a 1960s police mug shot.

Frank Nelson in a 1960s police mug shot. (File photo)

This story was originally published in Newsday on April 11, 2007

He is bald, heavier and sports a gray beard and glasses, but the Frank Nelson who stood before a judge yesterday is at his core the same man who pulled the trigger on a Stony Brook University police officer more than three decades ago, his victim said in court yesterday.

"I'm happy to be here today after 35 years to face the man who shot me, and is finally being brought to justice," Charles Cali said in a Riverhead courtroom where Nelson, 69, was sentenced yesterday to 1 to 3 years in prison for the 1971 shooting.

Nelson, formerly of Riverhead, pleaded guilty last month to charges of first-degree assault, trespassing and weapons possession in exchange for the sentence. Prosecutors recommended a sentence of 2 to 6 years.

On Christmas Eve 1971, Cali was patrolling the Stony Brook campus when he got a call about a pair of trespassers, prosecutors said.

"It happened in a second," Cali recalled yesterday outside the courtroom. Cali, 63, who wore his university police badge on his lapel yesterday, said the moment he stepped out of his patrol car, Nelson pulled out a gun and shot him in the arm. "At first I thought it was a toy. ... Then the shot went off."

Nelson's co-defendant, Ricardo Appling, was arrested, but Nelson fled. Over the next three decades, Nelson "crisscrossed the country," living and working in various states and using different names, "all to avoid taking responsibility for this crime," Suffolk Assistant District Attorney Nancy Clifford said.

Authorities finally caught up with him after he tried to file for Social Security benefits using his original Social Security number. He had been living in a 36-acre Muslim religious compound in York, S.C., known as Holy Islamville.

Because the compound has protected status, U.S. marshals waited until Nelson stepped off the property to arrest him at a construction site where he worked in September 2005.

So intent on getting away was Nelson - a one-time track star at Riverhead High School - that he ran from the marshals and was found with a handcuff key in his wallet, Clifford said.

Nelson declined to speak in court, and never faced Cali. Nelson's Legal Aid attorney, Edward Vitale, said his client has stayed out of trouble since the 1971 shooting, which Vitale called "a thing of the past."

Nelson's brother, Ray Nelson, 67, of Riverhead, questioned prosecutors' account of the shooting and said his brother was not the type "to just walk up and see a uniform and pull the trigger." Ray Nelson described his brother as a family man and a father of four who regretted the shooting and was glad to put the case behind him.

Cali, an East End resident who retired from the university police department in 1992 and recovered fully from the shooting, echoed that sentiment. "It was like a goal that I always wanted to accomplish," he said. "And it's been accomplished."

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