JEFFERSON, Wis. — A convicted sex offender was charged Thursday with killing a 71-year-old real estate agent whose body was found near a smoldering mattress in a home she had been showing him.
The criminal complaint alleges that James A. Hole choked Ann B. Nelson with her scarf and beat her with a fireplace poker Tuesday after she said something he didn't like, then set the house on fire with the still-conscious grandmother of 16 inside.
Hole, 34, of Brookfield, Ill., was charged with first-degree intentional homicide, arson and burglary. Bond was set at $1 million and a preliminary hearing was scheduled for April 4. He had not been assigned a public defender as of Thursday afternoon.
Nelson, of Cambridge, Wis., was found dead Tuesday night in a smoke-filled room of a vacant home near the town of Oakland, authorities said. Deputies had tracked her down after her family called authorities and said she hadn't come home.
An autopsy concluded Nelson died of smoke inhalation, but she also had head injuries, investigators say. Sgt. Lawrence Lee, a Jefferson County sheriff's detective, said a weapon was recovered but declined to be more specific.
Hole was arrested after he was taken in for questioning Wednesday night, Lee said. Records show he served more than eight years in prison in Illinois for aggravated criminal sexual assault before his release in January 2006, the criminal complaint said.
The complaint said Hole told investigators he met with Nelson to see property that he had not realized at first was only a lot with unimproved land. The agent then offered to show him nearby property with a home on it.
Hole initially said he did nothing to Nelson except shake her hand, but authorities say he later gave them a different story.
While Nelson was showing him the house, they discussed price and Nelson questioned why Hole was looking at a home he would not purchase, the complaint said.
"The next thing he knew, he was upset and strangling Ann Nelson," the complaint said. It said he admitted choking Nelson and hitting her at least twice with a fireplace poker that broke.
The complaint said Hole left the building, then returned so he could start a fire to destroy evidence.
It said he saw the woman was still moving and was conscious. He said he set a box of tissues on fire so he could use that to set the bed on fire, according to the complaint.
Hole said he did not intend to kill her, the complaint said.
The complaint said Hole also admitted taking a purse from Nelson's vehicle, taking valuables from the purse and hiding it in the house, where it was later found.
District Attorney David Wambach would not say whether Nelson had been sexually assaulted. Autopsy results cited in the complaint mention no such evidence, but the burglary charge alleges that Hole entered a room in the house with the intent to commit second-degree sexual assault.
The charges against Hole carry a maximum penalty of life plus 52 1/2 years in prison.
Nelson has three sons and three daughters and was active at church and in the community, said a son, Doug Nelson.
"She was always willing to help. No task was ever too difficult," he said.
The Wisconsin Realtors Association sent a note to its members informing them that a member was found dead at a vacant listing.
It urged them: "Please do not let your guard down — your safety is primary!"
Barry Luce, an owner of Re/Max Community Realty in nearby Lake Mills, said Nelson had worked for the company for four years. Her death stunned colleagues, he said.
"Everybody is very concerned," he said. "We can't believe something like this would happen in small-town America."
Nelson said on her page of the company's Web site that it was "a dream come true" to live and work in the area.
"Church and community are important aspects in my life, and it is rewarding to be involved in situations to help others who have needs," she said on the site.
Oakland is about 25 miles east of Madison.