The Attempted Murder at Peanuts Headquarters
By Jake Rossen
At roughly 11 a.m. on July 5, 1995, Shirley Ann Nelson walked into the Santa Rosa offices of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and approached the receptionist’s desk. She asked if her husband, Ronald Nelson, was in. Before the receptionist could answer, Shirley stalked past her and into Ronald’s office.
In court testimony the following year, Ronald would recall that he looked up to see his wife dressed head-to-toe in black and wearing sunglasses. Then he noticed the gun.
“You ruined my life,” she said, and fired.
Ronald had already gotten up from his desk and was attempting to flee when two bullets from the .357 pierced his lower back. He made it to the yard in front of One Snoopy Place before collapsing. Shirley turned the gun on herself and fired once to her chest.
Schulz, who was in the office at the time, would later tell press he hadn’t heard the shots. But after both the victim and the shooter made miraculous recoveries, Schulz and his wife, Jean, would find themselves key witnesses in Shirley's attempted murder trial. Surprisingly, their sympathies would be largely in favor of the defendant. When Shirley needed to post a $2 million cash bail to avoid being incarcerated, it was Schulz who wrote the check.
In the 1970s, Schulz was having difficulty tending to the demands of both the daily Peanuts strip and the merchandising opportunities it created. To help process the volume of business coming across his desk, he hired Ronald Nelson to act as vice president of Creative Associates, a staff devoted to the ancillary marketing of his characters. While Schulz would still have final approval over toys and other paraphernalia, Nelson would handle the day-to-day details.
The arrangement continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when Peanuts was being licensed on everything from toys to animation to snow-cone machines. Both Schulz and Nelson were headquartered at One Snoopy Place in Santa Rosa, a combination studio and office space. And it was there, according to court testimony recounted by The Press Democrat, that the problems began.
At 65 years of age, Nelson’s wife, Shirley, was more than a decade older than her husband. But Ronald’s office secretary, Eileen, was more than a decade younger than he was. According to Ronald, he and Eileen began seeing each other in the spring of 1995. When Shirley learned of the affair, she was apoplectic. The couple had frequent fights, and Ronald moved out of their home in June.
That same month, Ronald walked into Schulz’s office and told him he would be leaving his wife for a co-worker. Though he considered Ronald a friend, Schulz was angry at the office soap opera, telling him he’d have to stop seeing Eileen or risk one or both of them being fired. Schulz later explained that he was concerned a sexual harassment suit could develop if someone's feelings got hurt.
That would be the least of Ronald’s problems. With a history of depression, the news hit Shirley hard. She composed a series of letters to Ronald, Eileen, and even Schulz, handing them over to her attorney for delivery after her death. To Schulz, she wrote:
“I had a wonderful life with Ron until this slute [sic] went conveniently to afternoon motel sex. Maybe she'll work on you now. I have been destroyed and left for dead and so I take Ron with me to rot in hell.''
Shirley purchased the .357 at a gun shop after hearing the news, though she didn't act immediately. In court, Schulz testified that he and his wife had noticed the Nelsons on a golf course July 4, the day prior to the attack, but opted not to approach them. Later, Ronald would testify their outing was preceded by an angry argument. Moments before the shooting on July 5, Schulz mentioned seeing them the day before. Ronald told him things were going “very badly.”
Not long after, Shirley entered the Peanuts offices and opened fire. The burst of violence was brief and targeted only at Ronald before she turned the weapon on herself; police would later marvel that she didn’t attempt to injure Eileen, who was at work that day, and speculated she was too focused on her husband to concern herself with the mistress.
The receptionist who heard the shots called for help. EMTs found Ronald out front and critically wounded; Shirley was rushed to another hospital in serious condition. She was conscious, though, and admitted to police that she was “sorry” she hadn’t been able to finish the job.
Between her confession and the letters indicating premeditation, it was not a difficult investigative puzzle to put together. But when the case went to trial in the spring of 1996, the jury found themselves wondering whether Shirley was just as much a victim as her husband.
Though it took more than six weeks, Ronald made a full recovery from his injuries. Shirley had also recovered from her own self-inflicted wound and was being kept under psychiatric evaluation as prosecutors and her defense attorney, Chris Andrian, debated whether she should be eligible for release. After setting bail at $750,000 in July 1995, the judge revoked his decision just a week later, citing the concern both Ronald and Eileen felt over their personal safety and the fact that Shirley was known to have wealthy friends who could post bail. But Andrian told the court that he would refuse to let one anyone do so, believing she was better off under the care of a hospital.
By November 1995, however, Shirley was out on $2 million bail, which had been posted by Schulz. That August, she had entered a plea of not guilty, with Andrian citing insanity in an act he dubbed a “crime of the heart.” Her trial was set for January 1996, then pushed to April. Schulz was the first witness called by the defense to discuss Ronald's admission of the affair; Jean Schulz had been on the stand earlier, ordered by the prosecution to describe how Shirley had wanted to pay off Eileen to leave Ronald.
That month and into May, jurors heard of Ronald’s infidelity, Shirley’s darkening mood, and her spiral into depression. While prosecutor David Dunn argued her attack was calculated, jurors appeared swayed by Andrian’s defense that she had simply taken leave of rational thought. The jury deadlocked 9-3 in favor of an acquittal.
Rather than endure a second trial, Shirley accepted a plea bargain in April 1997: one year in prison, five years’ probation, and 3000 hours of community service. She served roughly six months and another 18 months of home confinement before being released and retreating to a retirement community, dying of colon cancer in 2005 at the age of 78.
Before her trial commenced, Schulz had written a letter urging the prosecution to consider probation in lieu of a jail term. Surprisingly, so did Ronald. Andrian, who acted as a defense attorney for several domestic incidents in his career, reflected on the case in 2009, observing that Shirley was “a good person who went off the deep end.”
Schulz never made any public comment on the case. True to his word, he fired Ronald from Creative Associates in August of 1995. Though the artist told media at the time it had nothing to do with the shooting, he would later testify that he felt compelled to let Ronald go because he and Eileen refused to stop seeing one another. (She would resign shortly thereafter.)
If Schulz was exceptionally annoyed at Ronald’s indiscretion, it may have been because he had been in his shoes. During his first marriage in the early 1970s, Schulz had engaged in an affair with Tracey Claudius, an office employee two decades his junior. In one Peanuts strip from that time period, Charlie Brown cautions Snoopy to stop chasing after an attractive beagle and to “start behaving himself.”