But nothing in his history suggested he was capable of violence of which he is now suspected: killing eight people in two states, from a toddler to a 93-year-old, all by the personalized and brutal method police describe as "blunt force trauma."
Sheley was led out of the Granite City police department in an orange jumpsuit, leg shackles and handcuffs, a day after he was quietly arrested outside a bar known as a police hangout. The capture followed an intense manhunt.
"Nothing would have made us suspect that something like this would happen," said Ron Potthoff, chief of police in Sheley's hometown of Sterling, a city of 15,000 about 100 miles west of Chicago. "But...he was becoming more and more noticeable to the officers."
Police say they don't know what motivated the 28-year-old, and said one possibility is that he was on a drug-fueled rampage.
William Monroe, an assistant special agent in charge of the FBI's Chicago field office, said he believes Sheley traveled last week to buy drugs in Chicago, where authorities recovered two handguns taken from the first man killed.
Sheley didn't speak before he was driven by Granite City police to the Madison County Jail in Edwardsville, near Granite City. An afternoon court appearance was possible Wednesday, most likely by video conference, to determine bond issues. A dispatcher with Granite City police said it wasn't known if Sheley has a lawyer.
Sheley has only been charged in two of the eight deaths. Because the eight killings occurred in Illinois and Missouri, officials need to decide where he could be tried.
Sheley was taken into custody around 6:40 p.m. Tuesday while smoking a cigarette outside Bindy's, a bar in Granite City about 10 miles north of St. Louis, witnesses said.
He ordered a glass of water and went to the bathroom before an employee and customer recognized him, bartender Katie Ronk said. The customer, Gary Range, said he left the bar and notified a police officer parked in the lot outside.
Sheley faces charges of first-degree murder, aggravated battery and vehicular hijacking in the death of Ronald Randall, 65, whose body was found Monday behind a grocery store in Galesburg, in northwestern Illinois, police said.
Sheley also is charged with murder in the death of 93-year-old Russell Reed in Sterling, according to the Whiteside County State's Attorney.
Investigators said all the victims appeared to have died from blunt force trauma and that evidence linked to Sheley was recovered at each scene. The FBI and Illinois State Police declined to elaborate.
Authorities said the killings began with the beating death of Reed, a Sterling man whose body was found stuffed in the trunk of a car Thursday.
On Monday, police discovered the bodies of two men, a woman and a child in an apartment in nearby Rock Falls. Investigators believe they likely died late Saturday or early Sunday.
Sheley was acquainted with the male victims, Brock Branson and Kenneth Ulvey, both in their 20s, said Illinois State Police Region Two Commander Mark Maton. The Whiteside County coroner identified the remaining victims as 20-year-old Kilynna Blake, 20, and Dayan Blake, 2, both of Cedar City, Utah.
More than 250 miles away, the bodies of Tom and Jill Estes of Sherwood, Ark., were found Monday behind a gas station in Festus, said Lt. Bill Baker of the St. Louis Area Major Case Squad.
The couple had checked into a Comfort Inn in Festus on Friday and were last seen late Sunday. Their dogs were found in the hotel parking lot, unharmed but covered with blood.
Public records show Sheley has multiple convictions for robbery, drugs and weapons charges and has spent three years in prison.
Two of Sheley's family members also were being held in Whiteside County on charges connected to Reed's killing.
Eric Smith, Sheley's cousin, was being held on $100,000 bond on an obstruction of justice charge. Sheley's brother Josh Sheley was being held on a $750,000 bond and was charged with concealing a homicidal death and obstructing justice, according to the state's attorney.
Both were scheduled for July 11 court appearances.
Sheley's uncle, Joe Sheley, 47, of Sterling, said before his nephew's capture that Nicholas Sheley recently struggled with drugs and his rap sheet includes arrests for home invasion.
Sheley served nearly three years for aggravated robbery between 2000 and 2003 and another 17 months on parole, which ended in April 2005, IDOC spokesman Derek Schnapp said.
Federal prosecutors in northern Illinois charged Sheley on Tuesday with fleeing the state to avoid prosecution for a June 14 felony home invasion in Sterling.
At one point Sheley was in Iowa, and stopped to call his wife Saturday from a rest area between Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, an FBI agent said in an affidavit.