Jessica Pillow lived her entire life in Texas. She was living in Fort Worth with her grandmother when her mother called — they were going on a road trip. Pillow was excited — she didn’t spend much time with her mother, who was effectively homeless. The next day, Teresa Pillow picked her daughter up in a big rig truck, driven by Joseph Michael Nissensohn.
They were to be gone for a few weeks, Jessica Pillow testified Tuesday morning during the Nissensohn triple murder trial. She only spent a few nights in the truck before going back home.
The adventure began with them leaving Texas. Her first impressions of the accused murderer were good. Nissensohn “seemed like he was a good guy, especially good for my mom.” He asked the then-11-year-old if she wanted to live on the road and be home schooled, an exciting prospect for the girl who hadn’t seen her mom in a few years. That day went smoothly, she said.
The second day, however, did not. On the first real day of the trip, her mother got on the CB radio, she said, and asked if any truckers going southbound “wanted company” and to “holler back.” They were parked at a truck stop when her mother left for an hour.
Nissensohn asked the young girl if she knew what her mom was doing. “‘You know what your mother does, right?’” Pillow quoted. “‘She sells her body for money.’” He offered to show her what he meant, pulling out a photo album with a photo of Teresa Pillow performing oral sex on another woman. He closed the photo album and told her not to tell anyone he had shown it to her. A half hour later, her mom was back.
That night, in the middle of the night, she woke up to Nissenohn “messing with me,” molesting her with his hand. She “didn’t know how to react because I was scared.” Her mother, on the other side of Nissensohn on the bed in the truck’s cab, did not wake up. Pillow said nothing, but Nissensohn stopped when he realized the girl was awake. She scooted away from him and went back to sleep.
The next morning, she said nothing because she was scared, she said. She acted strange that day, Teresa Pillow asking her daughter what was wrong but getting no real response. The driving continued.
That night, the same thing happened. When she moved, he stopped. The third day of the trip, she finally told her mother what happened. “Joe touched me where he wasn’t supposed to,” she said.
Her mother didn’t believe her until Pillow confronted her about the photos Nissensohn had shown her. Teresa Pillow left to talk with Nissensohn, returning some time later to tell her daughter that it was time to go back to her grandmother’s. They both got in another truck with someone heading in the right direction, and Teresa Pillow rode halfway with her daughter back to Fort Worth. Jessica Pillow arrived safely and did not see Nissensohn again until the trial.
After telling her story to prosecutor Dale Gomes, defense attorney Hayes Gable III began questioning Pillow’s memory. She revealed she had been convicted of theft charges and conspiracy to commit bank fraud, serving time in a federal penitentiary, and her memory of exactly when the road trip occurred was sketchy. While she repeatedly said it was the summer before her grandmother died in 1990, she was unsure of whether she was 7 or 11 years old at the time. In a previous interview with both Teresa and Jessica Pillow present, the mother disputed the year.
Back under questioning from Gomes, Pillow said she was willing to believe she was 11 at the time, rather than the 7 years old of her recollection.
After hearing from witnesses regarding evidence, Gomes called a jailhouse informant to the stand. The man, in his mid-20s, whose identity is not being published due to fear of retaliation, had a storied history with the law, both breaking the law and as an informant.
He began informing after he was caught with two AK-47s for sale and was known to have family in the Hell’s Angels associated with drugs, he testified. He wore a wire and set up drug deals, but after becoming addicted to heroin and lying to his handler, the man stopped informing.
Instead, in 2010, he broke into a neighborhood house to steal construction tools to trade for drugs. “We weren’t very smart,” he said, with the trail leading directly back to his house. He pleaded out and was sent to the El Dorado County Jail. On a previous arrest, while handcuffed, he ran down the street. Because he had fled then, he was considered a flight risk and sent to Administrative Segregation, essentially solitary confinement, for 90 days.
He was in the cell next to Nissensohn, who, unknown to the informant, had been arrested on murder charges. During their one hour out of the cell each day, they could clearly talk to each other through the slot meant to deliver food. “He was just another inmate, I didn’t know anything about him.” He asked Nissensohn about the jail program and eventually struck up a friendship, exchanging sci-fi books and discussing the Twilight series. They would talk at least every other day and share coffee, which was against jail rules. The informant felt bad for Nissensohn, “nobody outside the jail cared about him.” He provided information for Nissensohn to mail the informant’s mother and his mother’s friend.
About a month in, the informant asked, “What is this case you are fighting?” Nissensohn had mentioned serving a 15-year sentence and was now serving another three years.
Nissensohn told the man that he was accused — but did not commit — murder. His wife had lied and taken a deal, landing him in jail. He wouldn’t, at first, say what he was currently in jail for, but when he did, once again said he was accused of murder. “I did try to probe,” the informant said, but got nowhere.
They became closer as time went on. The informant inquired about sexual content in one of the books they had shared, a consensual, graphic sex scene. After having read it, he commented to Nissensohn that he had never read anything like it, “that book was pretty graphic.” Nissensohn replied, “That book’s nothing.”
The accused murderer slid pages ripped out of books out and shared them with the informant. “Disturbing scenes about girls being raped and drugged and forced to do stuff,” he said. He brought the pages back to Nissensohn. “Some of the craziest stuff I’ve read,” he told the older man. There couldn’t possibly be anything worse. Nissensohn slid him a red folder, telling him to ignore the first few pages, a disciplinary action. Nissensohn told him he wasn’t supposed to have the pages behind and to keep it “under wraps.” At this point, Nissensohn hadn’t revealed anything about his cases.
The content was “extreme…like the other pages but a thousand times more extreme.” He said it was little girls “forced to do stuff, hurt and raped.” He was provided some of the pages and read them in court — a male perpetrator, a female accomplice, a little girl being drugged and raped, eventually dying. “It gets a lot worse than that,” the informant said after reading. In all, there were about 40 or 50 pages of it, he said, with one assault after the other. He “thought it was disturbing” and it troubled him.
But, he tried to put on a face of not being weak and disturbed when he talked with Nissensohn next. Nissensohn commented that it was similar to his case, and that the main character was similar to him. “I was taken aback,” the informant said.
The friendship changed. The informant wanted to know more about the case and no longer felt sorry for the accused murderer. Maybe, he said, he could find something out. “If any little girls were involved,” he trailed off. He said he was morally disturbed and wanted to help whoever the victims were.
After two months, Nissensohn opened up. He called his wife, Cheryl Rose, “conniving” and the reason he was in jail. But, as she had died and was the star witness, he would be free soon. He “wished he had killed her first, before all this,” the older man told the informant. His wife was the “ideal woman,” submissive, “who won’t fold on you.” He said Rose had stabbed a woman in a van — Sally Jo Tsaggaris — and Nissensohn helped dispose of the body.
In South Lake Tahoe, Nissensohn was jealous of Kathy Graves “doing stuff” with Rose and was jealous. He got upset and accidentally killed Graves — even though he had previously said it was Rose who did the killing. “He was coming down (from doing drugs) and was really upset, he didn’t plan on killing,” the informant was told. “He brought her away from the van to smoke weed” and tried to have sex with her, but when Graves rebuffed him, “In the moment, during a struggle, he killed her.”
Later, Nissensohn implied he killed Graves with a screwdriver that he later hid in a hollowed out log from the Angora Fire. “‘That’s where I put the screwdriver…”‘ the informant quoted, before Nissensohn went back to saying his wife did it.
As for the two Monterey teenagers he was accused of killing, Tammy Jarschke and Tonya Jones, Nissensohn said the evidence was too mixed up to pin him. He said he had been around them, but never done anything. Then he said he did something to the girls after they were killed, that he made an agreement with another man — whose phone number was found in the jeans pocket of one of the girls — to go back and have sex with the bodies. He was supposed to drive the girls home, he told the informant, but drove them to Chews Ridge near Carmel and killed them. He left, hitchhiking to provide an alibi. “That’s when we came back and used the girls,” Nissensohn told the informant, he testified.
Nissensohn also bragged how he beat a polygraph lie detector test, the informant said.
Despite being offered no deals to help his own situation, the informant said, he felt “morally obligated to say what I know.” Asked by Gable, he said it was “Because there was dead little girls out there that couldn’t speak for themselves.” But, he confirmed that, as an informant, he was good at coming up with stories on the fly.
After going over most of the information, including notes he made of the conversations, a second time in cross-examine, he was excused.
The trial will resume Sept. 18 at 8:30 a.m. in Department 3 in South Lake Tahoe.