It was one of the most unforgettable news stories of the '90s. On April 2, 1993, Ellie Nesler, a single mother seeking justice, shot and killed her son's accused rapist in the courtroom.
Some hailed Ellie as a hero...but that didn't help her case. She was charged with voluntary manslaughter and convicted. Her son, Willy, was sent to live with his aunt, while her daughter, Rebecca, went to live with her grandmother.
Back then, Ellie had mixed feelings about shooting Daniel. "I am sorry that I killed someone and that I'm not with my children," she said. "But on the other hand, I wish the judicial system would have taken care of it. I wish I wouldn't have had to."
At the time, Ellie said she pulled the trigger because she was afraid the system would fail and Daniel would be set free.
After serving four years of her 10-year sentence, Ellie was released from prison...but the family's troubles with the law were far from over.
Willy's life had begun to spiral out of control. During a 1999 Oprah Show follow up, Ellie said Willy was sent away to boot camps throughout his teenage years. "He needed help, and he needed support," she said. "But they didn't know how to deal with it. ... I regret the pain I have caused my children. In hindsight, I wouldn't have done it."
Then, in 2001, the Nesler family made headlines once again. Ellie was arrested for selling and possessing meth, and she pled guilty. The following year, a judge sentenced her to six more years in prison.
While Ellie was serving her time, 23-year-old Willy was having his own troubles with the law. In 2004, Willy stomped a man to death in a fit of rage. He's now serving 28 years to life for murder in the first degree.
Freed from jail in June 2006, Ellie was unable to visit Willy in prison because she was in the final stages of a long battle with breast cancer. She was 56 years old when she died on December 26, 2008.
When Rebecca, Ellie's daughter, was just 23 years old, she buried her mother. Her older brother, Willy, was not allowed to leave prison for the funeral.
Today, Rebecca returns to The Oprah Show for the first time in 15 years to reflect on her family's tragic past.
"You all suffered because your mom, in an act of rage in the courtroom, didn't want to see that molester go free again," Oprah says. "Any mother or father watching can understand what that rage feels like."
Since Ellie and Willy have been in prison for most of Rebecca's life, she says she hasn't been able to move forward with her life. "It's been really hard to move on and know that I have a normal life," she says. "I'll catch myself laughing with family, and I'll sit back and I'll be like: 'You know, [mom and Willy] should be here with me in this moment. They should be able to laugh like this.'"
Thanks to the supportive loved ones who took her in after her mother went to prison, Rebecca says she's doing "okay" and living a normal life. She got married and has children, but during the big milestones in her life, Rebecca wishes she had Willy and Ellie by her side. "My brother wasn't able to walk me down the aisle," she says. "[At] graduation, my mom wasn't able to be there."
Rebecca says she doesn't think Willy would be in prison today if it weren't for her mother shooting his molestor. "He even stated he was over the molestation," Rebecca says. "What hurt all of us was mom being torn away from us."
In October 2010, Rebecca went with NBC chief legal analyst Dan Abrams, a reporter who's covered the Nesler family's story over the years, to visit Willy at the High Desert State Prison in California. It was the first time Rebecca had seen her brother in two years.
Dan and Rebecca met with Willy for two and a half hours, but cameras were not allowed inside the prison. Afterward, Dan says he was impressed by Willy's behavior. "Very often when I'll interview someone in prison, they'll either blame other people or they'll be angry or they'll talk about their innocence," Dan says. "Willy didn't do any of that. He was really introspective and thoughtful about his whole life and about the path that had led him there. That really struck me."
Dan says Willy told him it was the sexual molestation he suffered as a child that set him on this path of destruction. "He said, 'It's a scar that you have with you for life, and nothing is going to fix that,'" Dan says. But, Willy also made it clear that he'd moved on. "The thing that really changed his life, it sounds like, wasn't necessarily just the molestation—it was losing his mother and his sister," Dan says.
Despite the fact that they've been separated for years, Willy and Rebecca remain very close. "Watching these two together is striking," Dan says. "He walks in, and they start talking to each other as if they had just seen each other yesterday."
Rebecca and Willy stay close by writing letters to each other often. "They started talking as if the end of the letter was the beginning of the conversation," Dan says. "When you talk to Willy, that's really clear—that it's about family to him."
Although Willy said he'd moved past the molestation—he mentioned several times he had many pretty girlfriends—Dan says he thinks Willy feels ashamed about what happened when he was 6 years old. "He talked about the fact that he really hated it when people would point him out and say, 'Hey, that's the kid who was molested,'" Dan says. "Once his mother became this national figure and his life was on display for the world, I think that was the hardest part for him."
In fact, Dan's interview was the first time Willy talked about his family being separated. "Obviously, it hurts him, and I know that, but him saying it validated it," Rebecca says. "That was a turning point, and that is what tore him up and led him on the wrong path—all of us being separated and how much he missed me during that time."
Rebecca says she cries because she misses Willy and wishes he could share her life with her. "He was always such a good big brother," Rebecca says. "He always took care of me." Rebecca is not the only person who will grow up without Willy—he also has a 9-year-old son who lives in Texas with his mom.
Dan thinks it's likely Willy will be in prison until 2031, the year he's eligible for parole.