SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- By the time Fred Nelson Jr. walked up to Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson Wednesday morning, his once-promising life had largely unraveled.
His career as a drummer for a successful post-grunge band and other groups had hit the skids, his marriage had crumbled, and he had been in and out of jail several times.
But the perceived threat he allegedly uttered to the mayor -- that Johnson would be out of office within four hours -- may have been the result of mental illness rather than a desire to harm anyone, his friends said Wednesday.
"I've known him for 11 years and he's not a criminal," said one friend and bandmate, Kally Turner. "He's ill."
Nelson, 43, said in a jailhouse interview with The Sacramento Bee that he meant the mayor no harm and does not consider himself to be mentally ill. He said he believed Johnson has not done enough to promote new business in Sacramento's Oak Park section and that he simply wanted to warn the mayor that his political career would not last if he did not do better.
Nelson was arrested after he approached the mayor around 8 a.m. at The Grange restaurant downtown and allegedly made the statement.
The mayor's security officer, a retired police official who also acts as his driver, summoned authorities because the statement may have been a threat, police said.
"I felt threatened," Johnson said later. "I hope no public official has to be in that predicament or situation.
"It's unfortunate. I hope it's an isolated incident that doesn't happen very often, but I would just encourage everyone to just stay vigilant and don't let your guard down, because it was a very uncomfortable situation."
Johnson said he did not know Nelson, a former basketball player at Sacramento's Hiram Johnson High School who said he had followed Johnson's NBA career.
"I'm big enough to be able to defend myself but, you know, a lot of people aren't," Johnson added.
Nelson was not armed and made no physical contact with the mayor. He was booked into the Sacramento County jail on probation violations for prior assault and resisting an officer charges, but he was not charged with making a threat.
"We ran it by the District Attorney's Office and they did not feel they had enough, based on how the way the Penal Code is written, to charge the threat," said police Sgt. Norm Leong. "He violated some of the conditions of his probation."
Sacramento Superior Court records show criminal cases involving Nelson dating to 2006, with charges including assault with a deadly weapon, resisting a police officer and violating a protective order.
Nelson conceded in the jailhouse interview that "I've had an intense last five years."
He gave what seemed confusing and contradictory answers to some questions. While saying he's not mentally ill, he conceded he had seen a psychiatrist over the summer for treatment of a "bipolar condition."
Court records indicate Nelson was ordered evaluated to determine his mental competence last year as he faced charges of resisting police officers. The results of those exams were not available, but records show Nelson was granted probation on May 27, had it revoked Aug. 5, and then reinstated Sept. 23.
Nelson was well-known in Sacramento's music scene, especially with the band Oleander, which had a 1999 gold-selling album "February Son." He had carved out a reputation as an excellent and reliable drummer.
"When we were in a band together, he was the most responsible person in the band," said Robert Perry, who has known Nelson since 1990. "He had his stuff together better than anybody, and then I don't know what happened."
Between stints with his bands, Nelson worked on and off for 10 years as a server and bartender at midtown Sacramento's Tapa the World restaurant.
"He was a great guy," manager Paul Ringstrom said.
Ringstrom and other friends said Nelson's troubles began after his divorce in 2006 following seven years of marriage.
The couple had two sons, now 9 and 7. His ex-wife received a restraining order at the time of the divorce and court records say Nelson was required to "take his medication as prescribed by his psychiatrist and participate in counseling as recommended."
In recent months, Nelson had tried without much success to establish himself as a producer and musical manager, friends said. He was living with a friend, and had made plans to meet Perry on Wednesday. "It was today he wanted me to get together with him to practice," Perry said.
Instead, Nelson walked into The Grange, where he said he was to make arrangements for a wedding he was planning.
He said he was impressed by how quickly security responded to the possibility of a threat to the mayor. "It makes me feel safe if I ever run for office," he said.
(The Bee's Bill Lindelof, Carla Meyer and David Siders contributed to this report.)
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