Charmin' Billy

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

Three weeks turned into three months. To pay for their own place, Karen had to take a second job and then a third. And still he didn't come home.

Bill always had excuses. His mom's house had needed more work than he'd thought, and her apartment needed more. But when he called, he always sounded distant. So Karen would talk to his mother and ask if Bill was all right. "Oh, honey, don't you worry about Bill," she'd said. "He's just fine."

She didn't know what he was doing, but Bill seemed aware of Karen's every move. He knew if she came home late from work. He knew if she had a bottle of beer in her hand when she answered the door. No sooner would she walk in than the telephone would ring, and Bill would be asking where she'd been and with whom.

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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After eight months, Bill finally returned to Tennessee. He lasted there two weeks, then took off. He left behind a seven-page letter, written front and back, listing Karen's faults. She couldn't be trusted. He thought she was perfect when he married her, but she wasn't, and he was sorry, but he couldn't deal with it. He wanted a divorce.

The next day, Karen was telling the woman across the hall that Bill had left her when the woman made a startling admission. At Bill's request, she and her husband had kept a diary of Karen's comings and goings. The woman showed it to her -- a steno pad with notations about the company she kept, even what she had in her hands as she stood out in the hallway. When Karen asked the couple why they'd done it, they shrugged. Bill had told them Karen couldn't be trusted and had asked them to keep tabs on her.

Two weeks later, Bill was back. He loved her, wanted to make it work. Years later, Karen would wonder why she agreed. But at the time, she was a young woman desperately trying to salvage a marriage that she had thought would last forever. "I had married him for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, 'til death do us part," she says. "I believed in those vows. I was willing to try again."

She came home a few days later to find that he'd sold all of their belongings, which were mostly hers. He'd gotten rid of her climbing gear and camping equipment -- thousands of dollars' worth of high-tech gear. He'd unloaded all of her pots and pans for $7, sold several antiques and given anything he couldn't sell to friends. All she had left were a few items of clothing, a fifteen-inch television, and the backpack and tent she kept in her car.

It was part of a grand plan, Bill told her as she walked around the empty apartment in disbelief. They were going to start fresh, live in their van for a few months to save money and then head to Colorado.

They'd talked about living in Colorado practically ever since they'd started going out. It was their dream, together. And Karen quickly came to share Bill's excitement. She didn't care about all that stuff -- not much, anyway. She could always get more. She cared about being with Bill, and especially about being with him in Colorado.

The rest of that fall they lived in the van, parked in a friend's driveway. She was working as a secretary, so she had to make herself presentable every morning in the van's cramped quarters. Meanwhile, he did nothing all day.

Then, on December 1, 1985, Bill announced another change in plans. "He said it wasn't working out," she recalls. "I had until January 1 to get out of the van. That's how I learned he was divorcing me."

The divorce was final a few days after Christmas 1985.

The last time she ever saw Bill Neal was when he found Karen in a girlfriend's apartment across the hall from where she'd moved. He demanded that the other woman leave so that he could talk to his ex-wife. Instead, Karen led him to her place.

He saw that she had purchased a waterbed, and he wanted to know what she needed that for. She told him she needed a place to sleep, and "what business is it of yours, anyway?" Finally, Bill got down to business: He wanted her to leave town. Karen refused. She had little else, but she had her independence back. She said she wasn't budging. If anyone was leaving, it would have to be him.

Bill stormed out, leaving behind a chilling prediction: "I'm going to fuck over every woman in my path. You all ain't nothing but a bunch of whores."

Karen never saw him again, but she heard from him. In March 1986, Bill called to apologize, of all things, and say he'd actually been living with another woman when he'd been back in Texas supposedly fixing his mother's place -- apparently, the same woman who was now yelling in the background. "The divorce wasn't your fault," he said, then suggested that in a way, it was. "You know I put you on a pedestal...Then when I found out you weren't perfect, I didn't know what to do. I couldn't trust you."

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