Charmin' Billy

William Cody Neal knew how to spin a story. Believing him was murder.

On the other hand, Canney doesn't think that Neal is prepared for the hearing. "And that could be true," Neal concedes. There are some 10,000 pages of discovery to read -- including the transcript of that seven-and-a-half-hour confession he gave sheriff's investigators Jose Aceves and Cheryl Zimmerman in September 1998. Neal complains that he still hasn't received some of the addresses and telephone numbers he needs to implement his "strategy" -- which he won't discuss with anyone, especially his attorney.

But he's at last ready to discuss what he claims a jailer told him has been an "extraordinary life...from livin' with the rich and famous to the dregs." Not even his family knows his tale, he says. "I've lived a private life...where I didn't want them involved in it."

When he goes before the death-penalty panel on September 20, Neal will be asked to present "mitigators" -- factors that counter the prosecution's arguments, called "aggravators," for why he should be put to death. In many death-penalty trials, mitigators include physical, emotional and sexual abuse in the defendant's childhood, or addictions to drugs and alcohol that left the defendant unable to assess the impact of his behavior, or a lack of criminal history, or even past good deeds that might show the defendant wasn't all bad.

Life of the party: "Wild Bill Cody" Neal.
Life of the party: "Wild Bill Cody" Neal.
Rebecca Holberton.
Rebecca Holberton.


Previous Westword articles

"Judging the Judge,"
September 30, 1999
After a year on the Jefferson County bench, Brooke Jackson knows it can be a real hot seat.
By Steve Jackson

"Judgment Day,"
May 6, 1999
The state's first death-penalty panel spares the life of Robert Riggan.

"Like that fella Bob Riggan, who I guess had a helluva time growin' up," Neal says of the man found guilty of murdering a prostitute by a Jeffco jury in October 1998. During his death-penalty trial the following April, Riggan's defense attorneys described their client's childhood in an extremely dysfunctional family in which incest, sexual abuse and emotional deprivation were common. But while Riggan escaped the death penalty, it was because the jury couldn't decide if he had "intentionally" killed his victim. This absence of intent, not the sorry tale of his life, was what persuaded that panel of judges to spare Riggan.

There'll be no sad stories for Neal. "I grew up in an all-American family," he says.

William Lee Neal was born October 7, 1955, in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. His father was a chief warrant officer in the Air Force, "a good man, a disciplinarian," Neal remembers. "It was 'Yes, ma'am' and 'No, sir' and 'Don't you raise your voice to your mother,' or you'd find your lip on the wall."

Neal's father retired from the service "when I was nine or so," he says. "Some of these dates are hard to pin down. I have a lot of places where the memory just isn't there."

But he knows he got his passion for country music from his dad. "You know, Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash." There was even a little Rick Nelson: "Hello Mary Lou, goodbye heart. Sweet Mary Lou, I'm so in love with you," he sings, breaking out in an impromptu serenade.

And his memories of his mother are clear. "I absolutely loved my mother," he says. His eyes tear and his voice grows even huskier as he tries to describe the woman who died in 1995. "Mom was awesome -- the definition of love was my mom. She was beautiful, a gorgeous brunette. She looked like a movie star. But she was very much the mother...devoted to her family."

His parents never fought, Neal says. One word from his soft-spoken mother was enough to let his dad know he had stepped over the line, "and he would do anything to make it right."

His father was an honest man who taught his three daughters and two boys the difference between right and wrong. "Don't steal. Don't lie," his second son remembers. "Do what's right, tell the truth...and if you do something wrong, 'You'd better come to me before somebody else does.'"

Neal was ten years old when he and a friend were caught shoplifting toy cars at a local five-and-dime. Brought to the owner's office, where a security guard loomed over the boys, the owner threatened to call their fathers. "I was cryin' and beggin', 'No, anything but that,'" he says, then laughs.

The boys ended up talking their way out of trouble, promising they'd never steal again. "She thought she was givin' me a break," he says. "And we thought we had really put one over on her. But she should have called my dad and had him whip the tar out of me...Maybe if she didn't give me a break, things would have been different."

It might go better for him, Neal acknowledges, if there was some dark secret -- some evil done to him by his father, or some twisted relationship with his mother -- that might help the panel of judges understand why he did what he did. But no, he says, there's nothing to explain how he ended up in this cell.

Neal had a couple of different ideas about what he wanted to be when he grew up. After his father took him to FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., and he looked through its museum filled with stories about Elliot Ness and J. Edgar Hoover, he thought he might want to be an FBI agent. The life of a G-man sounded exciting, and he thought he could do a lot of good, catching bad guys and all.

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