Rosalyn Nelson, a 34-year-old slender, dark brunette whose 9-year-old daughter, Jennifer Barden, was abducted earlier just months before, was at the center of one of the most complex crime tales ever to unfold in Northwest Missouri. Sympathies turned into disbelief as authorities arrested and charged Mrs. Nelson with murdering her husband in an Aug. 6, 1982, fire in Gallatin.
An inquisitive crowd of over 75 people sat through nearly seven hours of testimony. Clinton County Judge Melvin Griffin, appointed by the Missouri Supreme Court to hear the case, ruled there was “probable cause” that a crime had been committed in the death of Mr. Nelson. He was found hanging out of a second story window the morning of Aug. 6 as fire raged in the hallway of the couple’s brown stucco house.
Mrs. Nelson was taken to the Livingston County Jail where she is held on $50,000 bond.
Kansas City attorney Robert Duncan, one of two attorneys who represents Mrs. Nelson, sat on a bench outside the courtroom and mustered these words about a case which brought him back from the Virgin Islands, finding himself attracted by a case of tragedy compounded by tragedy.
“You know they say that plane crashes always happen three times in a row,” Duncan said. “Her child is kidnapped, her husband tragically dies in a fire and she’s charged with his murder …God, I hope it never happens to my family.”
Earlier in the week Mrs. Nelson’s attorneys and Livingston County Sheriff Leland O’Dell permitted a reporter for the Kansas City Times to interview Mrs. Nelson on the condition that she not discuss the pending case. The hour-long interview was conducted by telephone as she set behind a glass partition.
Rosalyn Ann Oertwig grew up in a two-story frame farmhouse tucked behind several big trees about four miles from Chula, MO. It was a simple life on the farm. The oldest of six children, she was a tomboy who wore blue jeans and T-shirts and often filled the mother role to her younger brothers and sisters. At age 17 love entered ler life. It eventually took her to several Missouri cities and brought four children into the world. She contended that she doesn’t see why it is important to talk about her five marriages.
From her first husband, Roger Whitney, she had two children, Kathy, 16, and Mike, 15. Mike testified at his mother’s preliminary hearing. When she divorced Mr. Whitney, Rosalyn took her two children to Des Moines to search for a job. After stints as a Holiday Inn maid and partly fulfilling her childhood dreams by working as a nurse’s aide at a Des Moines hospital, she married Denny Barden. To this union came Jennifer, who was later the victim of a kidnapping (and murdered). When Denny re-enlisted in the Navy, Rosalyn and her three children followed him to San Diego. Another child was born, Gilbert. But within a few years the marriage ended with experiences Rosalyn declined to discuss. She left the West Coast to eventually return to Missouri.
Rosalyn found work at Trenton Foods, a sprawling Carnation Company plant in Trenton where several food products such as chili, franks and sandwich spreads are manufactured. She worked in night cleanup duty. And here she met two employees she later married. Her union with Raymond Brinkley hasted but a few months, ending in divorce. Then she married Rex Burton, who had worked at the Trenton plant for 15 years and who, also, was experiencing maritial problems.
At the preliminary hearing it was revealed that a blaze had started a few days before the fatal fire at the Nelson residence, although the local fire department was not called. The blaze was also in the second floor hallway.
Representing the state in Mrs. Nelson’s hearing was Claire McCaskill, an assistant Jackson County prosecutor who has spent the last 2-1/2 years as an arson investigator.
Ralph Canon, a crime investigator with the Missouri fire marshal’s office and a former Kansas City firefighter, said that bedsheets were wound into what he called a “wick” and stretched from the second floor hallway to the stairwell. He determined that an accelerant was used to ignite “a ball of fire” that raged through the hallway during the early morning hours of Aug. 6. He said he smelled the odor of a gas, and a yellow container of gasoline was discovered in a basement closet.
Mike Whitney, Mrs. Nelson’s son, testified that he was told by Mrs. Nelson to fill up the yellow container with gasoline the day before the fatal fire. It was the container he usually filled to fuel the lawnmower.
When the time was up for the interview for this report, Mrs. Nelson stood up from her chair and said: “I think this could happen to anybody, anytime. I think people ought to think about that. Goodbye.”
P.S. Mrs. Nelson got two years probation.
— from an article written by Fred Mares of the Kansas City Times, Sept. 11, 1982