On the 62nd day, Neldon Neal was captured.
Hiding at remote locations in the dense Mark Twain National Forest as he received help from his associates, Neal’s nearly two-month run from the law finally came to an abrupt end late Saturday morning. Acting on information from a tip, authorities used “common sense police work” to apprehend one of America’s Most Wanted near a rock outcropping in Laclede County.
The arrest – made by officers from Texas County – brought an end to the longest manhunt in county history. It also lifted a heavy burden from those directly or indirectly involved in a story that by the week grew more and more frustrating.
“I think people in that area are relieved, and I know all the officers are,” Texas County Sheriff Carl Watson said. “I’m just glad it went down the way it did.”
Authorities had no knowledge of Neal’s whereabouts since four women, all arrested for hindering prosecution, took him supplies March 29 at a log hideout in extreme northern Texas County. Leads continued to trickle in and all were checked out, but none turned up Neal.
Shortly after reward money increased from $1,000 to $6,000 following a Wednesday afternoon meeting with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Watson said his department received two promising leads. The seemingly better of the two in Pulaski County turned out empty, but the other in Laclede County provided the break lawmen had been waiting for.
With a general area in mind, about 20 local, state and federal officers set out Saturday morning for a location 12 miles northwest of Lynchburg on the Gasconade River. With groups on each side of the river, seven officers hid in the brush as Neal walked in front of them. They tackled the 61-year-old suspected killer, who had a handgun, and apprehended him without incident.
“We knew sooner or later he’d be caught, regardless of where he was at,” said Watson, whose department never received a lead stating someone had seen Neal. “But not knowing where he was at or a location, we had to kind of play a waiting game.”
After his apprehension, Neal took authorities to his month-long hideout about three-tenths of a mile away. It was under a rock overhang about halfway down a bluff overlooking the river, which was another 100 yards away. There wasn’t a home within three miles.
Watson believes Neal hid at the location – where tarps, sleeping bags, medication, water purification pills, fishing gear and food were found – just a matter of days after he left his log hiding place in late March. It was five miles through the woods, Watson said, and difficult to find.
“Had we not got him out from where he had been hiding, we probably never would have gotten him. He knew where he was safe,” Watson said. “We had anything available to use and probably none of it would have worked. Where he was at, aircraft wouldn’t have been able to see him. Heat sensor devices, with the rocks and where he was at, probably wouldn’t have worked.
“It was just plain ole, basic common sense police work.”
Watson said the tipster who provided information leading to Neal will remain anonymous and receive the reward money. Neal’s son, Nathan, was also arrested near the hiding place, but is “probably not going to be charged.”
“Had it not been for information we received from (Nathan), we probably wouldn’t have got (Neldon),” Watson said. “Nathan didn’t know where he was at and had not been there, but he gave us enough information.”
As the days and weeks went by after an intoxicated Neal allegedly killed his wife March 13 – Neal told authorities he married Judy Lewis in June 2006 in Miami, Okla. – Watson insisted he believed Neal hadn’t left the area. Fearful neighbors loaded their weapons, and a 9-year-old child tragically lost his life in an accidental shooting.
Watson also believed the career criminal was receiving help. Four women admitted to providing Neal supplies at his log hiding place and even showers at one home. After she was arrested, one of the women took authorities to the hollow log less than one mile down Sante Anna Road, where food, beer and a copy of the Herald were recovered. The women said officers on four-wheelers in the initial eight-day manhunt following the murder came close enough to Neal that he saw their badges.
Watson said two men from Pulaski County potentially face charges for aiding Neal at his latest hideout. They are believed to have last had contact with Neal on May 9.
Although he doesn’t know the exact day Neal set up camp near the river, Watson believes Neal, who turned 61 during the manhunt, stayed at or near the location when he arrived sometime around the beginning of April. The only time he left, Watson believes, was when he received a ride to retrieve supplies within the search area.
Authorities planned to pursue the Gasconade River lead on Friday, but decided to rest overnight and make their move during the daylight. They had only a general area to search.
Neal was found shortly after 11 a.m. unshaven with dirty clothes and considerably lighter. When he arrived at the Texas County Jail that afternoon, Neal had visible abrasions on his forehead from the arrest. A convoy carrying him to Houston reported Neal was complaining of chest pains, but those subsided, and the suspect was whisked in through an east door of the jail.
Watson said Neal appeared ready for the saga to end. He told authorities he had ditched the murder weapon on top of an abandoned trailer near the murder scene. It was recovered Saturday night.
“He was relieved and cooperative. I think he’s probably as relieved as we are that this is over,” Watson said.
Neal, who is facing second-degree murder charges, was clean-shaven and had no visible marks on his face when he appeared in front of Texas County Associate Circuit Judge Brad Ellsworth in a rare Sunday afternoon session. Neal kept his eyes fixed on the judge for the duration of the session and gave short “Yes, sir” replies when asked if he understood his rights. He also asked the judge for a public defender. Neal was supplied the paperwork by Prosecuting Attorney Mike Anderson, one of just seven people in the courtroom.
Anderson and a sheriff’s deputy escorted Neal out of the back door of the jail and into Ellsworth’s third-story courtroom at 2:10 p.m. He was back in jail less than 15 minutes later.
Neal spent just two nights in Texas County before being taken to Fulton to serve time on a parole violation from a 1999 armed robbery conviction that carried a 15-year sentence. Neal was paroled in February 2005 and by April was back in prison. He was most recently released Nov. 9, 2005.
With Neal’s most recent saga behind him and an episode of America’s Most Wanted depicting the events cancelled, Watson said he was ready to move forward.
“It’s been a long two months,” the sheriff said.