Texas County Sheriff Carl Watson often found himself wondering how the search for Neldon Neal would end.
Would Neal be found holed in a house where he was receiving help?
Would a disgusted drinking buddy simply give up Neal’s location?
Would another life – like that of a 9-year-old boy who was accidentally killed by his grandfather’s loaded rifle – be lost?
Would the notorious Neal go out in a blaze of glory as he shot it out with officers?
To Watson’s relief, a manhunt that began 62 days earlier, when an intoxicated Neal allegedly killed his common law wife, ended without incident. Authorities coaxed Neal – Watson hasn’t said how – from under a rock outcropping in remote Mark Twain National Forest land, then leapt from behind thick brush to tackle the career criminal before he knew what had happened.
It was the perfect ending to the longest manhunt in Texas County history.
“It’s definitely a good feeling to know that it’s all behind us and that nobody was hurt,” Watson said Tuesday afternoon. “I thank the good Lord that it turned out the way it did.”
A manhunt that began March 13 when multiple agencies and as many as 100 officers began combing the dense forest around Roby ended May 12 with good information from a tip that led to Neal’s location in Laclede County. The anonymous tipster will receive a reward that swelled from $1,000 to $6,000 just days before the apprehension.
Neal, who grew up in the woods that hid him from authorities, didn’t live off the land. He had multiple people helping him. Four women who provided beer, food and camping supplies to Neal as he hid in a hollow log in extreme northwest Texas County were all arrested for hindering prosecution. Watson said he believes two different individuals from Pulaski County gave Neal food, clothing and even took him to an undisclosed location on one occasion from his latest hideout.
Watson said Neal cooperated with authorities after his arrest. He even disclosed the location where he ditched the murder weapon on an abandoned trailer. But he wouldn’t give up the names of his accomplices.
“That’s the only thing that Neldon wouldn’t give us much information on,” Watson said. “Right now, we probably don’t have enough to get charges filed. If we can make a case at all, we’re going to.”
After an initial eight-day manhunt from a Roby command post yielded no signs of Neal – he confirmed to authorities an earlier story that officers on four-wheelers passed a few feet from him just after the murder – the search was left to Watson and his department chasing down leads. Many sounded promising. All turned up empty. Watson said he never received information that someone had seen Neal.
Then came the lead Watson had been seeking nearly two months. A tip led a group of about 20 local, state and federal officers to an area where Neal had fished and dug roots for many years. The location was 12 miles northwest of Lynchburg along the Gasconade River. There were no homes within three miles.
To keep the element of surprise, officers only drove within a mile of the anticipated location. They walked the rest of the way, then hid and waited for Neal. Another group set up on the opposite side of the river in case he fled.
Watson said authorities spent the previous day devising a plan to safely apprehend Neal. It went flawlessly. Neal, who was carrying a handgun, was tackled to the ground at 11:05 a.m. before he had time to react.
“We knew we had to do something to get him out of there to a location where we felt the arrest could be made in a halfway safe environment,” Watson said. “There’s just no way we could have gotten where he was at without him knowing for quite some time there was somebody there. We couldn’t have put a SWAT team or even a smaller group of people there without him knowing it.”
Once in custody, Neal led authorities three-tenths of a mile down a washed out service road to his hiding place for the previous five weeks. It was a rock overhang halfway down a heavily wooded ridge. The river was 100 yards away, but not visible through the thick trees.
The overhang, just a few feet high and not much wider, couldn’t be seen from above. Neal added extra security with camouflage netting draped over the rocks. It was held down by tent stakes.
Getting to the spot wasn’t easy. Watson had to hang onto trees to make his way down the steep decline to the location. It was difficult to stand up in one place, he said.
Watson believes Neal left the log on Sante Anna Road on March 29 with his next location in mind. It was five miles through the woods, but many more by road.
“I’m sure Neldon knew where he could go at a location he felt safe at, from detection as well as somebody coming in on him,” Watson said. “He knew he was at a location where we couldn’t see him from air or use a heat sensor device.”
Even though he had many supplies – tarps, sleeping bags, water purification pills, fishing gear and food – at his disposal, Neal survived poor conditions. There were several chilly nights in the spring as temperatures dipped into the teens. Watson said copperhead snakes crawl along the rocks in the area. Officers also found tick bite medication in the hideout.
Neal showed signs of two months on the run. He was considerably lighter, Watson said, and his clothes produced an awful stench.
“The living conditions had to be bad for the time he was there,” Watson said. “Nobody deserves to live that way.”
On the run from Texas County authorities for nearly two months, Neal didn’t stay in Houston very long once he was apprehended. He appeared the day after his arrest in front of Texas County Associate Circuit Judge Brad Ellsworth in a rare Sunday afternoon session. Less than 24 hours later, he was taken to Fulton to serve time on a parole violation from a 1999 armed robbery conviction.
Although there are still loose ends to tie up and two potential arrests to be made, Watson is ready to move forward. He finally escaped it all Tuesday morning when he went fishing on the Gasconade.
“It was nice to know it’s over,” he said.