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Charmin' Billy

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

Many women have fallen for Neal's charms, his lies and deceits, his ability to make himself whatever they wanted or needed, to touch their dreams and make them believe that he was the one who could make those dreams come true.

At least three of his victims can't speak to what hold he had over them -- although the families of the women will try to explain it at his death-penalty hearing. One woman survived that rampage; she is ready to tell the court about his cold-blooded efficiency during those days when he says he just "snapped."

There are other witnesses who will not be testifying: the women Neal married. Four of them. All of them attractive, intelligent, independent and trusting -- just like his victims in 1998. Some of them still live in mortal fear that Neal will somehow find a way to reach out from behind walls and razor wire and hurt them. Neal's actions in the summer of 1998 were extreme, they say, but not out of character and the inevitable conclusion for a man who spent his adult life manipulating and testing the women he supposedly loved, a man ruled by his jealousies, obsessions and paranoia.

Guilty plea: William Neal heads into court.
Brett Amole
Guilty plea: William Neal heads into court.

Details


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.

Neal's first wife has tried to stay out of the picture. She talked to Jeffco investigators but didn't say much. Neal told the woman he would marry next that his first marriage ended when he caught her in bed with another man. That's a lie, his own family says.

Karen, who became Neal's second wife, has a whole collection of his lies.

She was born in upstate New York in 1959 to upper-middle-class parents. "I was not the perfect child," she says. "I had my teen-age rebellion, but I went to college for two years, studying English and horticulture. In other words, I'm not stupid, nor did I come from a dysfunctional background."

Karen was an accomplished outdoorswoman -- a rock climber and cave explorer. She taught kayaking and tried twice to make the U.S. Olympic canoe team, coming in second both times. There wasn't any adventure she wouldn't try. But with William Neal, she got more adventure than she bargained for.

In 1981, she was working as an assistant manager at a Hudson Bay Outfitters store in the Washington, D.C., area, a prestigious job for a 23-year-old woman. Karen was beautiful, with long, strawberry-blond hair, as well as financially self-sufficient and as tough as the wilderness treks she led. Then he walked in.

Many years later, she would hear unflattering physical descriptions of William Neal and say there must have been a transformation, "a sort of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." The description of a soft, somewhat pear-shaped man doesn't match the "Bill" who approached her one day in the store, looking for information and equipment to hike the Appalachian Trail. He said he was leaving that very afternoon.

"He wasn't dressed to kill or anything, but he had long blond hair and those blue eyes and was as sweet as can be," Karen says, her voice full of the Tennessee hill country where she now lives. "He was bubbly, and I'm bubbly. And he was into what I was into; we were alike." She had already hiked the Appalachian Trail, and for an hour they discussed what he could expect. She could have talked to him all day.

Unfortunately, he wanted a piece of equipment that her store didn't carry, so she referred him to another outfitter some distance away. Bill had already left the store when she got the notion to offer him a ride to her competitor's place during her lunch break. She hurried outside, didn't see Bill, but drove to the other store anyway. He wasn't there. Disappointed, she sat in the parking lot for a few minutes -- and then saw him getting off a bus, toting his backpack. I was going to give you a ride, she said, explaining her presence.

"I told him to take care, and when he came back, to stop in and say hey -- and maybe we could do a canoe trip or something," she says. "There was no kiss, no talk of love...but I was smitten. And there I was, thinking, 'Gosh, I'm never going to see him again. He'll go do the trail, and that will be the end of it.'"

But it wasn't. The next day, Karen arrived at work to find Bill waiting in the store wearing a sharp three-piece suit and sporting a new haircut. He'd skipped his trip, he said, so that he could take her to lunch. And although she usually had only a half-hour break, he'd already talked her boss into giving her an hour.

At lunchtime, Bill escorted Karen to a nice, four-wheel drive Subaru and drove her to a country estate owned by an older couple he knew. There, beneath 200-year-old white pines, a picnic was spread out. They ate lunch and talked, and then there was a surprise waiting in the bottom of the picnic basket: a silver necklace. But not just any necklace. Somehow he'd found a jeweler who overnight had created a pendant in silver that matched the Hudson Bay Outfitters logo she'd worn on her shirt the day before. A wolf howling at the moon.

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