Charmin' Billy

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

Of course, none of the same rules applied to him. He came and went as he pleased and always seemed to have plenty of cash, although his only job was as the apartment complex's maintenance man. And that job got him out of the apartment at all sorts of strange hours. He'd answer the phone and say he had to go fix some woman's toilet. Later he'd come back, snickering about how the tenant met him in a negligee and just wanted to get in my pants. Of course, he'd swear, he kept his zipper zipped. "He thought he was God's gift to women. But I always trusted him. Me? I couldn't be trusted, even though I was never unfaithful to him."

Then there was the day an envelope arrived at their home, containing a pair of panties and a photograph of a beautiful woman. "He just said, 'I used to get that kind of shit all the time. It doesn't mean anything.' But I'm sitting there thinking, Yeah, but we're married now."

Karen couldn't figure out where Bill got his mean streak or his obsessive jealousy. She'd met his mother, "who was good as gold," she remembers. "A wonderful woman -- beautiful inside and out. She thought of Bill as her golden child; he could do no wrong, and around her, he wouldn't." His mother was the one who'd taught Bill how to act around a lady. To be a gentleman and open doors, send flowers, write poetry.

Life of the party: "Wild Bill Cody" Neal.
Life of the party: "Wild Bill Cody" Neal.
Rebecca Holderton, Candace Walters and Angela Fite all made fatal mistakes: They believed William Neal.
Rebecca Holderton, Candace Walters and Angela Fite all made fatal mistakes: They believed William Neal.


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But Bill was no longer a gentleman around Karen. When he got angry, he'd slap her with an open hand or shove her roughly. He couldn't trust her, he'd say. But he had a quotation, something he'd read somewhere, that no matter what she had done wrong, however far she had gone down the wrong road, she could turn back. "Turn back," he'd tell her.

Karen knows how all of this sounds. "But I couldn't leave," she says, "not when I was the one who had done wrong. If he was unhappy, then I was the one who was making him unhappy. I had to stay and make things right...It's what you do when you think you really love someone."

Soon after the couple moved to Texas, her mother had told Karen there was something wrong with Bill. "I can't put my finger on it," she'd said. Karen didn't clue her mother in regarding Bill's abuse. But that feeling was so strong that Karen's parents changed their will to make sure Bill would have a tough time getting his hands on their money if he and Karen ever split.

As that first year of marriage passed, even Karen could see that Bill was a natural con artist. Not just in the way he could insinuate himself into any conversation and be whatever someone wanted him to be at the moment. But in little, everyday ways, too. If he was hungry and short of cash, for example, he'd go into a McDonald's, complain that a cheeseburger had been left out of his order and get one free.

Other habits were more worrisome. Those comments Bill made about other women in passing were getting louder, more vehement, and Karen worried that the women might hear. But he wouldn't stop, and if she wasn't careful, the comments would be directed at her as well.

The sex had also changed. When they were dating, their lovemaking was pleasurable and mutually satisfying. Although Bill had always been into experiments, such as body painting and photographs, in Texas he started getting kinkier, more aggressive. "Then it was 'Pain is good' and 'It hurts when it's good,'" she recalls.

It wasn't lovemaking anymore. It was hard, angry -- almost as if she wasn't there, or like it didn't matter who was there. They had sex when he wanted and how he wanted it.

When Bill decided to leave Texas after a year in Houston, that was fine with her. Neither of them liked the weather or the surroundings. They talked about using the money they'd saved, mostly from her job, to travel up and down the East Coast looking for the next place to live.

The adventure appealed to Karen, and so did the idea that the change might help them get their marriage back on track. Maybe if life wasn't so ordinary and stressful, they could recapture the magic. It seemed like Bill wanted a clean start: Before they left Texas, he insisted Karen be rebaptized "to cleanse my soul," she remembers.

They packed up the van and headed out, visiting relatives as they looked for a place to settle down. They stayed in Tennessee several weeks, then went on to New York, Vermont and Virginia. Finally they settled on Antioch, Tennessee, about fifteen minutes from Nashville. For Karen, that was like another dream come true. When she was seventeen, she'd taken a trip down a nearby river; when she returned home, she'd told a friend that someday she'd live in a log cabin in Tennessee.

But the young couple settled into an apartment, not a cabin. And the rules, tests and accusations returned. They'd only been in Antioch a few months when Bill's mother decided to move out of her home and into an apartment. Bill told Karen he had to go back to Texas to help his mother fix up her place to sell. He figured he'd be gone about three weeks.

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