Soldier tries to help boy, lands in jail

Ashley Ramos, 5, and grandmother Gaylene Ramos wait outside the courthouse Sept. 11, 2007, in support of Army Pfc. Matthew Nicholson. ( Bart Ah You / The Modesto Bee )
Ashley Ramos, 5, and grandmother Gaylene Ramos wait outside the courthouse Sept. 11, 2007, in support of Army Pfc. Matthew Nicholson. ( Bart Ah You / The Modesto Bee ) Modesto Bee

Matthew Nicholson of Oakdale thought he was helping when he followed a frightened little boy home after the child said his father was assaulting his mother and grandmother. Rather than gratitude, Nicholson's perceived act of heroism landed him in jail, where he sits today.

Nicholson, 22, an Army private first class who is scheduled to return to Iraq in three weeks for his second tour, is charged with felony battery for allegedly beating Martin Lemas, 35, of Oakdale enough to send him to the hospital. If convicted, Nicholson could spend a year in county jail or as long as four years in state prison. It's unknown what will become of his military career.

"It's up to his unit commander. Commanders have an array of options open to them," said U.S. Army Public Affairs Specialist Monica Miller.

Nicholson has been in worse situations while fighting in Iraq, he said Friday. But if he had a choice, he'd rather be there than in jail.

"You got a bunch of gangsters and thugs in here. I just mind my own business," he said during a phone call from jail. "I believe what happened to me is unfair. I got the raw end of the deal here."

According to police, Lemas was arguing with his mother and wife on Sept. 1, frightening his 10-year-old son. The boy ran for help and found Nicholson's family.

The group considered calling the police, but they didn't know where to send them because the boy didn't know his house number, said Nicholson's sister, Shelby Wolf, 16. So Nicholson, his girlfriend, his two sisters and the boy walked to the boy's house about 8:45 p.m. to get the house number, said Lavonna Fletcher, 22, Nicholson's stepsister.

Once there, Nicholson said, he could hear commotion from the sidewalk. The door was wide open. He said he saw one woman being pushed and another being choked. So he helped the women out of the house. While doing so, Lemas raised his hand as though he was going to hit Nicholson, Shelby and Nicholson said.

Lemas told police he didn't have a chance to raise a fist before Nicholson threw a punch, Officer Joseph Carrillo said.

Nicholson hit Lemas, who fell to the ground, where Nicholson hit him several more times.

Lemas tried to kick Nicholson, Shelby said.

"My son went down there with no intention of hurting anyone and all hell broke lose. This is such a crazy mess," said Christina Johnson, 45, Nicholson's mother. "You know Matt thought he was doing the right thing."

But the most responsible thing would have been to call police, Oakdale Police Chief Marty West said. "When you go in a house like that and strike someone, there are some questions of judgment," West said.

"I think Nicholson's intentions were good. He was probably trying to protect the women there."

Nicholson's family said they originally intended to call the police. The situation escalated further when the Lemas family discovered the police had been called. In the end, that call helped put Nicholson behind bars, his military career in jeopardy and his dreams of becoming a police officer on shaky ground.

It's unjust, Fletcher said.

"The only reason he hit the guy is because he was under the impression the women in the house were getting the crap beat out of them," she said.

Lesson: 'Just call the police'

Lemas - who had a bruised forehead, bruised and swollen nose, bruised jaw and punctured lip - was not arrested. The women didn't report Lemas as having beaten them, Carrillo said.

Martin Lemas was unavailable for comment. His phone line has been busy since Tuesday.

West figures the situation wouldn't have escalated to this point had Nicholson let police handle it.

"There's a right and wrong way to help out the family. It was just a poor judgment call," West said.

During the arraignment Wednesday, the judge increased Nicholson's bail from $20,000 to $50,000 after Nicholson asked to be released on his own recognizance so he could speak with his superior officer about the situation.

"You're going to have to stay here for a little while," said Judge Charles Stone, who had told everyone being arraigned not to ask to be released on their own recognizance. Nicholson is set to return to court Tuesday.

The whole situation is a lesson learned for Fletcher, but she said having learned a lesson is of little consequence at this point because her brother is still in jail.

"If there's a message in this, it's: Stay out of it. Just call the police," she said.

Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at 578-2382 or ehightower@modbee.com.