Charmin' Billy

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

 July 28, 1999, Jefferson County Detention Center: William Lee Neal walks in with a grin on his face and his hand extended. "I'm Cody Neal," he says, shaking hands like a used-car salesman, warm and ingratiating. "Cody's a nickname...My friends call me Cody."

He glances through the glass partition to the left, smiles and exchanges nods with another inmate in the cubicle next door. "He's a great guy...brings me my food every morning," Neal says of his younger compadre, who laughs wildly at whatever his weepy mother is saying through the thick Plexiglas that separates her from her son.

There's no such barrier in this room. Neal has demanded a contact visit because he doesn't want "other people" to hear him tell his story. The request was denied by jail authorities at first; he is, after all, a confessed mass murderer. But after Neal complained to jail higher-ups, the request was quickly granted. Whatever Cody wants, as long as he behaves himself and nothing delays his death-penalty trial in September.

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.
Life of the party: "Wild Bill Cody" Neal.
Life of the party: "Wild Bill Cody" Neal.
Rebecca Holberton.
Rebecca Holberton.
Candace Walters.
Candace Walters.
Angela Fite.
Angela Fite.
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.

Manipulating, always manipulating. That's "Wild Bill Cody" Neal.

Because he's defending himself, he's already received a number of "special" considerations. Pro se defendants are always allowed a certain number of hours in the jail's law library to prepare their defenses; in Neal's case, the jail brought in extra personnel so that he could spend entire nights in the library, sometimes with a fellow inmate to help him make copies and collate his material. The court purchased a special tape recorder so that he could listen to taped interviews and make duplicates (and pass extra time listening to music). He also has a VCR and television so that he can watch videos, such as the tape of his confession; he's allowed to keep law books, legal documents and all sorts of writing materials -- provided by the court -- in his cell.

Then there's the cell phone. Robert Lee Riggan Jr., the last killer in Jefferson County to try to represent himself, had to use a public telephone in the jail for frequent discussions of his case with the prosecutor. And when Riggan was interviewed by the press, it was through Plexiglas, holding a telephone to his ear.

Neal, however, can use a cellular phone to call out ten minutes a day from his cell. He'd entered a motion claiming he had a lot of out-of-state people -- friends and family -- that he might call as witnesses. But while he's supposed to use the phone to prepare his defense, he's also used it to call a new girlfriend in Arizona and to contact the press. He's rung up huge collect telephone bills, including one for nearly a thousand dollars, talking to the one sibling in his family who has any contact with him. Still, ten minutes doesn't go too far, he complains, and he's petitioning the court for more airtime.

Neal takes a seat on one of the two stools that rise out of the floor like gray mushrooms; between them, an equally drab and secured table juts from the wall. The muted light of the single fluorescent tube in the ceiling and the interview room's brain-gray cinderblock walls do little to improve his complexion; he has the pallor of a corpse. The skin around his eyes is puffy, as if he doesn't sleep too well these days. Only the bright-orange jail jumpsuit and his voice -- a gravelly baritone with a Western rumble you might expect from an old cowboy -- give him any color. And his eyes: Those wide-set blue eyes are a bit too pale, somewhat disconcerting...but really, only if you know what he did last summer.

Neal says he wants to tell his story -- and to keep telling it as he heads down a road that he expects to end with his execution. But he doesn't want a defense attorney, appointed by the court to advise him, to use this story to try to save his life, or for the prosecution to use it in its efforts to kill him. So he hasn't told them much about his life, he confides, and will have to be careful how much he reveals now.

Already the truth is being twisted. There are "lies in the press," he says. Accounts of what he did -- "bad as it was" -- have been "sensationalized."

Neal sees himself as "owning up." This is why he says he pleaded guilty in February to three counts of first-degree murder, three counts of sexual assault, and seven other counts that include felony menacing and kidnapping. "We need to end the violence by taking responsibility for our actions," he says earnestly. "As some old Turk once said, 'No matter how long you've gone down the wrong road, turn back, turn back.'"

But he also admits it's crossed his mind that "owning up" might persuade the three-judge panel to spare his life. "It's my only chance."

He doesn't want his court-appointed advisor, attorney Randy Canney, to interfere with his strategy. "He wants me to reverse my guilty plea and is threatening to petition the court that I'm not competent to represent myself," he says. "I'm fightin' more with my defense counsel than the prosecution. I get along real well with [Chief Deputy District Attorney Charles] Tingle. He's been helpin' me protect my rights to self-representation and to accept responsibility by pleadin' guilty. And I'm thankful for that."

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.

"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.

His other choice was to be a minister. Neal had been named after a family pastor, William Lee, and one of his uncles was a minister. "He was kind and gentle," Neal remembers, "and he helped people who were hurtin'. I loved the Word and Lord Jesus, and I liked going to Sunday school, 'cause people just seem to be nicer on Sunday."

Neal pauses, furrows his brow. "Never did like mean people...My sister told me there was a bad storm when I was born, and that was the reason there was a light about me. I always got along with everybody and loved people."

But when he was twelve or thirteen years old, he says, "the light went out."

By then, his father was drinking pretty heavily, and he was quicker to lay it on with the belt. But it wasn't the occasional beatings his son minded so much as the efforts to embarrass him in front of the other drunks at the bars his father would drag him to. "He'd think it was funny. Then he'd black out and forget all about it."

The darkness settled around Neal when an older married woman seduced him, he says. The woman's husband was running around on her, and she used him as a way to get even. "I couldn't wash myself enough," he says. Nor could he talk to anybody about what was going on. "She said if I ever told, my family would disown me."

Then again, sex with a beautiful woman wasn't all bad. "It was such a contradiction," he says. "I enjoyed it, but afterward I would feel so guilty." In the interview room, Neal rubs his hands across each other. "It was like the two sides in me was sanding each other and there wasn't much left in between."

After six months, the older woman called things off. She and Neal didn't talk about it again until he got out of the Army, which he'd joined shortly after his seventeenth birthday. The woman was now divorced, he remembers, and eager to resume their affair. "I told her, 'You had me as a boy; now have me as a man.'" She started talking about them staying together, even marrying. "But that's where it ended," he says. "I turned and walked away.

"I have no ill feelings towards her. Lord knows what she's goin' through now, wonderin' if she was the cause of all of this. She was just passin' on her anger and pain, almost like it was a demon, and givin' it to me. I don't blame her, but that's when the light went out.

"I became more distant from my family, not as cheerful. I started gettin' into trouble more. I knew I couldn't be a minister or an FBI agent...not after what I done."

And he'd done more than get involved with an older woman. Soon after that affair began, he'd turned the tables and molested a younger girl. He also says he was an unwilling victim in a few other instances of sexual abuse -- by a church elder while in his teens, by an Army sergeant -- although he doesn't blame his rampage on any of that.

But in September 1998, when Neal sat down with the two Jeffco investigators, he had plenty of complaints about the women in his life -- from his married seducer to his sisters to his four wives to his four victims that summer. He wasn't angry when he lifted his ax, though. It was a warning: "Don't fuck with me."

There was one thing females did to him that he resents to this day, he says. When they were all kids, his sisters used to lie and say he hurt them to get him in trouble. "They'd make up stories that I hit or choked them. They'd even do things like squeeze their arms or necks and then say, 'Look what Bill did.'

"Then Dad would beat the tar out of me with his belt while my sisters would peek in at what was goin' on and laugh. I'm not sayin' I never did any of that...but 90 percent of what they said I did wasn't true...Just like what people are sayin' about me now -- a lot of it ain't true."

Years later, when their mother was dying of cancer, his sisters confessed how they had framed him. "My mother was furious with them for getting me beat for something I didn't do." He tears up again at the thought of his mother.

Suddenly, the man in the cubicle next door shrieks with laughter as his own mother wipes her eyes. Neal pauses mid-sentence and looks over, scowling, as though he can't believe he has to live with people who act, well, so damned crazy. "It's like going to bed one night," he says, "and waking up in the pit."

Last September, Neal told Aceves and Zimmerman that while he was still in his twenties, he lost count at a thousand sexual conquests -- although he also claimed to have killed more than 500 people. But while there are still questions about whether he has left other bodies behind, it is clear that William Neal began hunting women for his own purposes long ago.

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.

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.

"He had me hook, line and sinker," she recalls. "There had still been no kiss, but I'm like, 'You're freaking me out...I'm in love.' That's how good he was. Eighteen years ago he could have had any woman he wanted with a 'hi' and a smile. But he put the target on me."

At the time, Karen was already involved -- but the man in that relationship was abusive. Bill talked her into moving back in with her parents, who were now living in Virginia, and seeing him instead. Her parents liked Bill initially, at least in part because he discouraged Karen's use of alcohol and marijuana and he seemed to treat her well. In fact, he enjoyed treating them all to dinner at the finest D.C. restaurants, where he would always know everyone from the pianist to the matre'd, who would point them to the best tables while other patrons waited in line.

He was charming, always a gentleman and fond of surprising her. And in those days, also in fantastic shape. Although at 5'8", Bill was only a little taller than Karen, he was quick and strong, with a washboard abdomen and well-muscled arms and legs. "The neighbors in his old neighborhood used to think he was crazy because he'd put on his backpack and pick a canoe up over his head and run around the neighborhood," she remembers and laughs.

Karen and Bill dated off and on for the next three years. Off and on, because he'd disappear for months at a time "while I'd wait for him to come back," she says. He broke her heart every time he left, but she couldn't help herself -- she always welcomed his return. He seemed so perfect.

Smart: He could quote Thoreau, for God's sake, and read anything he could get his hands on.

Heroic: He said he'd been a member of the Green Berets and also the Alaskan Mountain Rescue Team and showed her photographs of himself on snowshoes, crossing crevasses.

Ambitious: He said he'd owned Neal Tech, which sold alarm systems -- including some installed in the White House -- and was confident he'd be successful at whatever he put his hand to next.

Sensitive: He was devoted to his mother and was moved to tears describing how his father had suffered a heart attack in the family car and died in his arms.

And sexy: He spared no expense on romancing her, whether it was covering their bed with rose petals, filling a bath with special lotions and bubbles, or buying extravagant dinners, all followed by dreamy massages.

"He could fit into any crowd...walk into anywhere and be whatever he wanted to be," she recalls. He was as at home in the woods as at a fancy gathering, wearing an expensive suit and a $60 haircut. She never knew where he got all the money. She didn't think it was her business to ask, figuring it might have something to do with his mysterious disappearances, which he never really explained. Or perhaps he had generous benefactors.

"He knew people everywhere," she says. "We could be on a hike and come on some drop-dead gorgeous cabin deep in the woods, and he'd know the wealthy couple who lived there. We'd be invited to dinner, like he was a long-lost son."

Looking back, she sees that from the beginning, there were signs that her perfect man was far from perfect. When they met, he told her he was living with another woman in a "purely platonic" relationship. She believed him because she was in love -- even after they went over to his apartment one day and he told her to duck when he thought he saw the woman coming out of the complex. After the coast was clear, he took her up to the apartment, which held only a single king-size bed. That's some platonic relationship, she thought. But he'd told her that's all it was, and she wanted so very much to believe him. So she did.

And then there was that weird quirk. They'd be walking down the sidewalk or in a mall, and when Bill saw a woman in a short skirt or tight sweater, he'd mutter, "Slut." The comments were always made under his breath so only Karen could hear. But they embarrassed her, and she'd ask him to stop. The next time an attractive woman passed, though, whether it was that afternoon or a week later, he'd be back to muttering. Slut. Whore.

Bill was an imaginative lover, always wanting to know her fantasies. Had she ever thought about sex with another woman? What about with two men? "I told him, 'Sure, I've thought about it; everyone has fantasies.' But that's all they were -- fantasies. I would never have done it," she says.

One night he took Karen to a mountain lodge for what was to be a romantic getaway. He didn't do drugs, but since he knew she liked marijuana, he'd brought some, along with a little cocaine he lined out. He had her slip into a negligee and opened a bottle of champagne. She was getting all warm and fuzzy, anticipating the rest of the evening, when the telephone rang.

"Who was that?" she asked after he answered, muttered something and hung up. She didn't know that anyone even knew where they were.

Then Bill explained that he was trying to fulfill her fantasy of making love to two men. He reminded her that he'd asked her what sort of fantasy man she'd want, "and since he was blond and blue-eyed, I said maybe someone with dark hair and green eyes. But it was a joke."

But now Bill's friend, green-eyed, dark-haired "Jesse," was apparently waiting in the room next to theirs.

Karen didn't want two men in her bed, only one: Bill. She screamed at him, so angry that she started putting on her clothes, getting ready to leave. When the telephone rang again, Bill picked it up, said "No," and hung up.

Later, he told her she'd passed a test. "If you had said yes, our relationship would have been over," he said. "We'd have had a good time first, but it would have been over."

"I'd passed, and I didn't even know I was being tested."

There would be many more tests.

In 1984, Bill convinced Karen to move to Houston with him. That's where his mother lived, and he said he had a good job waiting.

When they arrived in Texas, Bill had Karen lease an apartment in her name, saying he didn't want the woman at the rental office "knowing we were having relations." And while it turned out there wasn't a good job waiting for Bill, he made sure she got one as soon as possible, as the assistant manager at an import store.

Ten days after they'd landed in Houston, Bill took Karen to a justice of the peace and they were married.

"It was a classic con," says Karen, who has since made an informal study of men who prey on women. "Got me away from my environment, away from my parents, away from my job, away from my friends...made me dependent on him for everything."

But she was 26 and thought she knew what she wanted in a man. In her mind, she was marrying her fantasy man.

Then, on her wedding night, Karen failed the next test.

He wanted to play a game of sharing deepest, darkest secrets. He went first, admitting that he'd had sexual relations with men. Then he asked her a question. Had she ever slept with a married man? She said that yes, she had, and she'd regretted it ever since. "He didn't like the answer and tried to choke me," she says. "He was madder than hell. He had my neck to the floor, and he was on top of me."

She was terrified. Why is he doing this? she remembers thinking. This isn't Bill. She'd never sensed violence in him. He'd talked about getting into fights with other men, but only when he was in the right. He'd told her he had a black belt in karate, even had the uniform, a samurai sword and was pretty good with his nunchakus. "But there was no temper," she says. "He was always sweet as pie."

Until she found herself on the floor with his hands around her neck and him calling her a "liar" and a "whore." When he finally let her up, he didn't apologize. She'd done a bad thing, and that's the way he saw it. He made her call the wife of the man she'd slept with and confess.

When Bill quickly returned to his old sweet self, Karen convinced herself that it was her fault he'd attacked her. She'd done something wrong and that's what provoked him. She'd have to be more careful.

A few days later, Bill announced they were going on their honeymoon, to a place called Canyon Lake. He'd found a romantic little cabin in the hills where they could see the lake from the front porch. Despite their lack of money, somehow he'd arranged for them to spend ten days there.

The first night, though, he wanted to play the question game again. He asked her something else about her sexual history. It was a small matter, really, but she should have known better than to answer him honestly. Except that's the way she'd been raised, and he'd said that for their relationship to work, they needed to always be honest with each other. So she answered truthfully and found herself pinned against the wall with his hands around her throat.

She got loose and ran from the bedroom to the living room, where she hid behind the couch in a little ball. She heard Bill come out of the bedroom. "Where is she?" a deep, angry voice asked.

"It was him, but some part of him I had not heard before," she says. "I was very fearful."

Not seeing her, Neal went out onto the porch and smoked a cigarette. She was waiting obediently, hoping he'd calmed down, when he came back inside. Again he acted like nothing had happened.

As long as Karen continued to do what Bill said, he'd stay sweet, charming Billy. But break his rules, and there'd be hell to pay. She was rarely allowed to go anywhere except work without him. And if she was five minutes late coming home from work, he'd want to know who she'd been "beeping...only he used the F word." If she went to the swimming pool and a man talked to her, he'd somehow know it and accuse her of having an affair. When they went out on the town, Bill always wanted her to doll up -- but if another man so much as said, "Hi," he'd grab her by the arm, hard enough to bruise, and escort her out. "See how you are?" he'd sneer.

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.

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.

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.

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."

Karen has always wondered why Bill made that call. Was it because he really loved her once or thought he'd loved her? Or did he just feel like hurting the woman he was with?

In a way, Bill had done her a favor by staying in Texas the year before. Almost without realizing it, during his long absence she'd begun taking back control of her life. And so when Bill returned to sell her possessions, to strip her of every last thing both financially and emotionally, she was strong enough to withstand his assault. And now she was strong enough to realize that she was not to blame for the end of the marriage. "I never did anything to deserve what he did to me other than fail tests I was set up to fail," she says.

It was a long time before she would trust another man enough to let him get close to her. Whenever someone inquired about her past, she'd tell them, "If you ever run into a man named William Lee Neal, turn and walk the other way." But she also wondered if she'd have the strength to turn Bill away if he showed up on her doorstep. For three years, she pined for what had seemed a perfect man.

Karen had a friend, Fred, who gradually let her know that he cared for her in more than a friendly way. He wasn't overly romantic, nor did he live life on the edge. He was soft and gentle, shy yet strong, a man who didn't need to beat his chest. With him she felt safe and loved. They were married and had a daughter in 1989.

But just because she was through with Bill Neal, that didn't mean he was through with her. Every now and then there'd be a telephone call. She had unlisted telephone numbers and changed them seven times over the next thirteen years, but still, one day the phone would ring and it would be him.

And he seemed to know as much about her life as ever. After she bought a new car, he called and told her he liked her choice. "He was letting me know that he was still keeping tabs on me," she says. "Still trying to control me."

Karen had stayed close to Bill's family, who told her what little they knew of his whereabouts and activities. Bill's mother had scolded him "for losing the best thing you ever had" and continued to treat Karen like a daughter.

Through them, Karen found out when Bill married again. Another Karen, whom he later took for her money, prompting calls to the first Karen from police investigators looking for Bill. Then he was married a fourth time, to a young stripper.

The calls stopped for a time. But after her parents died -- first her dad, then her mother -- Bill got back in touch. He knew she stood to inherit a considerable amount of money, and he wanted some of it. Fortunately, her parents had put the money in a trust, and while she received lump sums on a regular basis -- a fact that Bill seemed to know -- it was tough to put her hands on the kind of money he'd ask for. Which was a good thing, because otherwise, she might have found it difficult to withstand Bill and his stories.

He'd try different tactics. Once, the Mafia was after him: He owed the mob money, and if he didn't pay it back, a hitman was going to take him out. Karen was wracked with guilt. God, if I don't give him the money, he might die. But she didn't give him the money, and he managed to stay alive. Then he'd try again with a new story.

Only once did she hear from the Bill she had loved. When his mother died, in October 1995, he called, distraught. He said he loved Karen, had always loved her. She had to admit, she felt the old twinge. But there was no going back, she told him. "Maybe someday, when we're both sixty, we'll meet and talk about old times."

The last time she heard from Bill, he was asking for money again -- this time so that he could divorce his fourth wife, Jennifer. Once he had the divorce, he hinted, he'd be free, and maybe they could hook up again.

Karen didn't give him the money. Later, she learned from one of Bill's sisters that he was already divorced from Jennifer when he made that call. He was still trying to con her. That was the last straw. After that, she lied and told Fred that Bill Neal was dead.

On July 10, 1998, her birthday, Karen was sitting on the porch when her husband came to the door. One of Bill's sisters was on the telephone, he said, a strange look on his face.

Oh, my God, Bill's really dead, she thought.

"I don't know how to tell you this," Bill's sister said softly, "but he just killed three women."

At the Denver strip club where eighteen-year-old Jennifer worked as a topless dancer, the girls all kept an eye out for their favorite customer, a charming guy in a black cowboy hat. William "Cody" Neal.

Every time Cody walked in, they'd play his song, "Strokin'," by Clarence Carter, and he'd reward them by spending lavishly on the beautiful young women who surrounded his table.

Jennifer thought she didn't have a chance with Cody, as he called himself. She was petite -- her nickname was "Baby Half-Pint" -- and didn't think she compared to the "supermodels" who fastened onto the man they'd started calling "Wild Bill Cody." But on her nineteenth birthday, September 29, 1992, Cody came over to the stage where she was dancing and laid out a thousand dollars in one-dollar bills. And he asked her out.

Jennifer had made it a policy not to date customers -- if "date" was what you'd call what most of them wanted. "Usually it was, 'I'll give you $500 to come home and fuck me," Jennifer remembers. But Cody was different. He was never so crude as to suggest a simple exchange of money for sex.

"He'd get you to sit down and talk about yourself," she says. "And with dancers, that always meant some sob story -- life was rough, or we got family problems, or we're insecure about our looks. And he always knew the right words to say. He'd make you feel like you were an angel from heaven in his eyes. You'd want to be with him."

So she broke her rule and went out with Cody. On October 2, he picked her up and took her to a Chinese restaurant. She didn't like that kind of food, but it didn't matter; she liked the way Cody talked to her.

Like the other girls, Jennifer had her own hard-luck story. Her father had walked out on her mother and her when she was three. Then there had been a succession of other men, many of them abusive to her mother, until her mother remarried when Jennifer was six.

Jennifer didn't like dancing or the men who wanted to buy her. Nor did she like the lifestyle that went with strip clubs; most of the other girls were into cocaine. Jennifer wanted nothing more than to be married. There would be no more dancing, and she and the man who loved her could settle down in a little house and raise their children in a healthy environment.

Two days past her nineteenth birthday, she found herself hoping that this handsome man might be the answer to her dreams.

"He wasn't the guy you see in the orange jumpsuit," she says. "He was older than me, but he acted like he owned the world. And he still looked real good in a tight pair of Wranglers."

Cody also seemed to know exactly what her dreams were. He challenged her to pick an ice cube from his glass with her chopsticks. "If I could do it the first time, we were going to fly to Las Vegas and get married," she remembers.

It took two tries, "so I had to wait five months."

In the meantime, two days after that first date, Jennifer moved in with Cody. He said he was part-owner of a security company, Dynamic Control Systems, and she thought it had to be a good business. He always had new cars, and he continued to spread cash around whenever they were partying. For all his extravagance in public, though, he lived in a tiny apartment with mismatched furniture and not even a couch in the living room. But Jennifer decided she didn't care. Although his money had attracted her attention, he was what she really wanted.

Cody was very romantic. He'd fix her bubble baths and spread rose petals on their bed. He bought her nice clothes, including sexy little negligees, and liked to take her out. His place was her place, he said, with one exception: a little bedroom that he kept locked and told her not to go into.

In general, Cody was secretive about his past life. He told her he'd been married three times before. He bragged that he'd put his third wife in the "loony bin" after she tried to kill him, but wouldn't elaborate. He'd been in the Army, he said, a member of the elite Airborne Rangers, where he'd learned wilderness survival skills that would allow him to live indefinitely in any country. He hardly mentioned his family, except to say that he was very close to his mother. He talked about his dad maybe once.

Although Jennifer used birth control and he used condoms, she soon became pregnant. Not long after finding out, she saw another side of Wild Bill Cody.

A gay friend had asked her to go out. She knew Cody was a little jealous, that he didn't want her seeing her usual friends, and he'd warned her often that other men saw her as a sex toy. But she figured that it was okay to see a gay man. Besides, she and Cody weren't married.

But when she got home, she found that Cody had packed all of her possessions into two garbage sacks and was kicking her out. Nineteen years old and two months pregnant, with nowhere to go, she begged him to forgive her. She would do anything to make him happy.

Angry, he drove Jennifer to his office at Dynamic Control. He made her sit in a chair in the middle of the room, then began the inquisition. While she was out, he'd gone through her things and found a list of men she'd slept with in high school. Cody told her it was proof that she was no good.

"Don't you know how this hurts me?" he screamed. Then he added something that didn't make sense. "I was molested by a preacher when I was young!" he yelled. This was another betrayal. "You're a slut -- a whore."

Jennifer was terrified and started to cry. Cody didn't seem like the same man. "If you're scared now, you don't know how evil I can be," he snarled. "You don't know the meaning of scared."

It became a favorite saying. He took Jennifer back, but all of her high school yearbooks and diaries disappeared, never to be seen again. And the shop became what Jennifer thought of as the "punishing zone." He took her there often.

But while Jennifer had to follow the rules, Cody could behave anyway he wanted. He liked to go to the Stampede, a country-Western bar. He'd throw money over the railing onto the dance floor below and watch people scramble to pick it up. But that's not all he liked at the Stampede. While the dancers were picking up bills, he'd have his hand up the waitress's skirt, in full view of pregnant Jennifer.

She had quickly learned that Cody's sexuality wasn't all bubble baths and romantic evenings. His favorite television programming was the Spice Channel, which he insisted she watch with him. And she learned fairly quickly that he was still seeing some of the other dancers she thought she'd won him from, though he would always deny that he had been unfaithful. If she complained about his dalliances -- or anything else, for that matter -- he'd kick her out, force her to move back in with her mother. Sometimes he'd leave her there for weeks before telling her she could come back home.

Still, Cody married Jennifer when she was five months pregnant and demanded she stop dancing. That was all she'd ever wanted, and she hoped he would learn to trust her, realize that she was his and his alone.

Instead, there were more rules. Cody gave her a thousand dollars a week as "spending money," but she wasn't allowed to go anywhere unless she was with him (although they hardly went anywhere other than the Stampede or Western Sizzlin' Steakhouse) or chaperoned by one of his sisters who lived in Denver. She wasn't to go grocery shopping on her own or to the laundry. She was to leave him alone at work. She wasn't to question where he went at all hours of the night. Break the rules, and it was a quick trip to the "punishment zone" or back to her mother's.

Jennifer's daughter was born on July 24, 1993. Cody wasn't there. She'd called him when she went into labor, only to be told, "Goddamn it, I'm working." So she'd gone to the hospital with her little sister and mother in the late afternoon.

Cody showed up about 10 p.m. Jennifer still hadn't delivered, so he went to a bar. They didn't see him the rest of the night. The next morning he picked up Jennifer and the baby, took them home and then left.

If anything, the child gave him more control over her. Cody was constantly threatening to take her daughter away if Jennifer didn't do as she was told.

But no matter how hard she tried, Cody wouldn't let her be the wife she wanted to be. She wasn't allowed to cook dinner; on the rare occasions when he was home, he just wanted to order pizza. Even when Jennifer was home alone with their infant daughter, he was sure she was seeing other men. Once, Jennifer was taking a morning nap when she accidentally kicked the telephone off the hook. The next thing she knew, she heard the front door being kicked in and then Cody was standing over her in the bedroom, sure he'd caught her in the act.

The romance was definitely gone, replaced by sex on command, which he called "potty for Daddy." And Cody kept quizzing her about what she'd do if he wanted her to have sex with another man. She said she didn't want to. "But what if it would make me happy?" he'd ask. She recognized the question as another test. If she said yes, he'd call her a whore. She said no.

One evening two months after the baby's birth, he took Jennifer to Mon Chalet, an adults-only motel and swingers' meeting place on East Colfax Avenue. He insisted that she watch the videos piped into their room so that she could learn how to give a proper blow job and how to masturbate. After the videos, they went out to the pool area, where another man touched her leg. She told Cody, but he said not to worry about it, that "that sort of thing happens all the time here." She grew more uncomfortable when other people started having sex in front of her. Cody didn't object when she insisted on going to their room.

Back in their room, he told her he had a surprise. But first he insisted on blindfolding her, then tying her hands above her head. She went along to make him happy, even after he said he was going to open the curtains so that others could watch. He had obviously been here before -- the code, he explained, was that open curtains meant "watch," an open door meant "join." "I said okay, but that I didn't want to have sex with anyone else," she recalls. "I trusted him. But the next thing I knew, someone was inside of me, and it wasn't my husband."

Jennifer says she "freaked out" and started kicking and demanding that Cody get whoever it was off of her. The other man seemed as confused as she was angry. "I thought it was okay," he said as Cody made him leave. After that, Cody took her home. The next day he kicked her out again, saying he needed time to work and she needed time with her family. But she knew the real reason.

When she was allowed to return home, Cody's increasingly aggressive sexuality troubled her. More alarming still was her child's behavior. The baby had always enjoyed "tub time" until the day that Jennifer left her with Cody and went off with a friend. Cody said he'd given her a bath before putting her in bed; now the baby was fighting getting into the tub.

Jennifer didn't want to think that Cody was capable of molesting his own child, but she mentioned it to his sister, anyway. The sister told her to be careful, that in the mid-'80s Cody had come under suspicion in a New York case involving a little girl abducted from a gas station, raped and killed. William Neal had been in the vicinity at the time and was questioned by the FBI. She understood that he'd been dropped from the list of suspects, his sister added. She didn't mention that Bill had molested another little girl when he was a boy.

By November 1994, Jennifer had had it with her husband. He'd left her and the baby without food or diapers, and of course she wasn't allowed to go get them. She hadn't seen him in three days when he called about 3 a.m. She could hear him talking to another woman.

"Don't forget to wear a condom," she said, and realized right away she'd made a mistake.

Angry, Cody said he'd be right home. Scared, Jennifer called the police so that she could safely pack her things and escape to her mother's. When Cody arrived, he wouldn't let her have a car. She and the baby took a cab.

Cody's mother was flying in for Thanksgiving to meet his wife and daughter. Cody came over to Jennifer's mother's house, told her she was going with him and to act like everything was okay. She did.

Like everyone else, Jennifer fell in love with Cody's mother. The old woman welcomed her with open arms and doted over her grandchild. Meanwhile, Bill's older sister, Sharon, took her to the basement of her home and lectured Jennifer about how to be a better wife. Jennifer knew better than to talk back. Next to his mother, Bill loved his sister best.

After Thanksgiving was over, Cody took Jennifer back to her mother's house, where she and the baby remained until May 1995. But Cody didn't lose track of her. He knew everything she did, whether it was shopping or going out with her sister. His calls, however, were always mushy and romantic. "I miss you, Half-Pint. I love you, Half-Pint." He just wasn't ready for her to come home yet.

In May, he finally asked her back. They were moving into a new apartment, he said, and she finally got to look in the locked room. It was filled with Army bags, but she couldn't tell what they contained. The only thing he showed her were hundreds of photographs and letters from other women. Still, Cody insisted that he was the one who was faithful.

They weren't in their new apartment a full day when Cody revealed that he'd narrowly escaped going to prison. He'd embezzled close to $70,000 from Dynamic Control Systems, he said, and had been forced to hand over his share of the company to avoid prosecution.

One day another woman came to the apartment looking for Cody. "He freaked out and ran outside and got her to leave," Jennifer recalls. "I was pissed and swore that I would never sleep with him again." This time she left him, taking only her daughter and a diaper bag.

She had no job and no money -- but at last she was through with Wild Bill Cody.

Jennifer saw Cody one more time after he filed for divorce in March 1996. It was their daughter's third birthday, and the girl wanted to see her daddy. Although he'd regularly paid his $350 in monthly child support, he'd made more personal contact only twice: He'd sent his daughter a card on Valentine's Day and another on her birthday.

Jennifer found Cody at a Lakewood bar called Shipwreck's. He was surrounded by women and a few men, holding drunken court. He made a big show of taking his daughter around and referred to Jennifer as "my wife."

Afterward, Jennifer felt good about the meeting. She hoped that things would work out so that her daughter would at least grow up knowing her father. Then she received a letter from Cody warning her to "stay the fuck out of my life." He didn't want people to know about her or his past.

Although she didn't hear from Cody again, she stayed in touch with his family. That's how she heard when he was arrested for the murder of three women, Rebecca Holberton, Candace Walters and Angela Fite.

The next day, she went to see him at the jail. For all Cody had put her through, Jennifer couldn't believe that he could kill.

"He was playing the part -- 'Oh, my little Baby Half-Pint. I've always loved you, Baby Half-Pint.'" He'd cried, she remembers, and choked up as he told her how much he needed her.

"Why'd you do it?" Jennifer asked. "You have everything. You can do anything."

Cody's tears were suddenly gone. He'd loved them all, he said, just like he loved her. "But that's what happens when you fuck with me."

September 20, 1999, Jefferson County Courthouse: William Lee "Cody" Neal shuffles into the courtroom in the standard-issue orange jumpsuit, white T-shirt and socks and blue slippers. Hunching over as he waits for the deputy to unlock the handcuffs behind him, he risks a quick glance at the spectator gallery.

If looks could kill, Neal would immediately crumple to the floor. The families and friends of his victims fill three rows in the gallery behind the prosecution table and spill over to the other side. Their eyes bore into Neal. Three of his victims -- the women he has already confessed to killing in the summer of 1998 -- cannot be here, but their supporters are, jaws clenched, voices muttering.

It will be up to Chief Deputy District Attorney Charles Tingle and Deputy District Attorney Chris Bachmeyer to speak for them.

Neal sits down next to his advisory counsel, Randy Canney. In front of Neal are a dictionary, yellow legal pads, a neat row of pens and a television monitor.

There is not enough room in the courtroom for everyone who wanted to get inside, but there are empty seats in the defendant's section. The first row behind Neal is kept empty by the deputies in charge of court security -- as much for his safety as anything else. Everything behind this front row is jammed. The second is supposed to be reserved for Neal's family members, although none are present. Instead, it's filled with associates of the defense counsel, such as representatives of the state's public defender's office, and Neal's supporters, of which there are a few. One is Byron Plumley, a representative of the anti-death penalty American Friends Service Committee and adjunct professor of religious studies at Regis University. A tall, thin, middle-aged woman dressed in black says her sister used to date Neal and that she is "like a sister" to him. A shorter woman with crosses dangling from her ears says she knows Neal from the days when he haunted Shipwreck's, the bar where he met at least one of his victims. "My seven-year-old daughter just loves Cody," she says.

In the far corner of the back row, a pretty, petite young woman nestles against a skinny young man. She's Jennifer, the defendant's fourth wife. Following Neal's arrest in July 1998, she had appeared on television newscasts to say that she supported the victims' families.

Jennifer thought this hearing would be over in a matter of minutes. She wanted to hear what sentence her ex would receive so that she could later explain it to their daughter. But after witnesses begin taking the stand and crime-scene photographs are shown, Jennifer will flee the courtroom in horror.

Those assembled now rise to their feet as the three judges -- Thomas Woodford, the presiding judge from Jefferson County, and Frank Martinez and William Meyer, both from Denver -- enter and take their seats at the enlarged dais built especially for death-penalty hearings. Since a recent law took such decisions out of juries' hands, Jefferson County has had more death-penalty cases than any other district. First there was Robert Lee Riggan Jr., who was spared in April. Then Daniel "Bang" Martinez Jr., who was also spared, in May. Third was Francisco "Pancho" Martinez Jr., now sitting on death row.

Most expect William Neal to join him soon.

Tingle walks to the lectern in front of the prosecution table and, after pausing to look one more time at his notes, begins. When they met William Lee Neal, he tells the court, Rebecca Holberton, Candace Walters and Angela Fite "were all vulnerable in one way or another and in search of happiness...He preyed upon each one of them. He promised to rescue them emotionally and financially. But he was a phony, a master manipulator. And he sucked them in with his lies and deceit."

In February, acting as his own attorney, Neal informed Judge Woodford that he was guilty "without a doubt, your honor." He also told the court that he'd met recently with a psychiatrist who "didn't see any reason why I was not competent." The judge then grilled Neal for nearly an hour, making sure he knew what he was doing. If he pleaded guilty to the three counts of first-degree murder after deliberation, his future held two possibilities: life without parole or death by lethal injection. "I understand that, sir," Neal replied.

After that hearing, Jim Aber, the public defender Neal had fired before entering his plea, criticized Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas for continuing to seek the death penalty. "This is a total farce," he told the press after Neal's guilty plea. "Seeking the death penalty against a person not represented by counsel is like trying to kill an unarmed man. There is no morality or justice in this."

Tingle and Bachmeyer considered that a cheap shot: If prosecutors dropped the death penalty every time a convicted murderer decided to go pro se, every murderer who wanted to avoid the possibility of a death sentence would automatically demand to represent himself. Except for Jeffco investigator Aceves, Tingle has had more contact with Neal than anyone else -- including his advisory counsel. As a pro se defendant, Neal had the right to contact Tingle to discuss legal matters, as would any attorney appointed to represent him. And he took full advantage of his cell-phone privileges, calling four or five times a week.

Although he was not allowed to tape their other conversations, Tingle kept the voice-mail messages; over a seven-month period, he'd accumulated two hours of Neal, at an average of a minute a message. It wasn't unusual to come to the office on Monday morning and find ten messages or more from the defendant, who would talk until cut off by the machine, then call back, often only to repeat the same information.

In fifteen years as a prosecutor, the forty-year-old Tingle had never run into anybody like Neal. The defendant was extremely intelligent, at least in his niche as a pathological liar and sociopath. He was also very meticulous, putting together an eighteen-inch-thick stack of case law regarding the death penalty in the United States.

It was clear from their conversations that he'd read every page of it, as well as the thousands and thousands of pages of discovery. And if there was a page Neal couldn't read or a clarification he needed, he'd stay after Tingle until he got what he wanted rather than let it slip, like most pro se defendants the prosecutor had dealt with in the past. Nor did the pressure seem to get to Neal: The day before the trial, he had reminded Tingle of several outstanding telephone bills for collect calls he'd made to his sister Sharon and two friends.

Of course, given the methodical way Neal had gone about the business of murdering three women and raping a fourth, his organizational skills shouldn't have been a surprise. Beyond their brutality, the one thing that stood out about these murders was the incredibly detailed web of lies he'd spun to trap his victims. He was indeed a master manipulator.

That was Tingle's greatest fear. He worried that the court, the judges and the jailers would underestimate Neal.

In their pre-trial dealings, Neal had always been courteous and respectful, often overly so. Although he would become irritated if some issue had not been taken care of quickly enough to suit him, he was never threatening on the telephone or in the dozen or so face-to-face meetings they had held. And he couldn't thank the prosecution enough for respecting him and helping him pursue his pro se course.

It made Tingle's skin crawl to hear him talk like they were on the same team. But then, he had the benefit of knowing what Neal had done. He'd been called to the scene while the bodies were still there. He'd prosecuted more than a dozen murder cases, all with their own grisly crime scenes and autopsy photographs, but none came close to those he'd had to study for this case.

Tingle had noticed something different about Neal this morning: The killer was wearing a new gold wedding band.

A few days before the trial, Tingle had received a call from deputies at the jail. An upscale Denver jewelry-store manager was complaining that the store was getting "harassing" telephone calls from Neal, who wanted a wedding set and felt he was getting the runaround.

Tingle knew that Neal had a new girlfriend, "Julie," a "trust fund baby" in Phoenix, according to a Jeffco investigator. She sent him money regularly and had even been up to visit him since his arrest. According to the investigator, Julia had met Neal in 1995 at a Lakewood bar, where he'd introduced himself by pulling up her shirt.

Incredible. Neal was still able to cast his spells inside and outside the jail. Ted Bundy, the serial killer executed in 1989 whose exploits had become favorite reading material for Neal, had married while on death row -- but at least his bride had been able to convince herself that he was innocent. Haircuts in the jail cost $6. Tingle has seen records that Neal paid cash for his -- and left $14 tips.

Neal didn't have a job in July 1998, Tingle now tells the panel. Yet he hung out at neighborhood bars and strip joints and threw money around "like it was going out of style. He'd buy a ten-dollar lunch and leave a 150 percent tip," he says. "The problem was, it was not his money." By then, he had bilked Rebecca Holberton out of as much as $70,000 and Candace Walters out of another $6,000.

But "the walls were caving in." Holberton, a 44-year-old blonde who worked at US West, had told a friend she was ready to get Neal, who had been living with her since July 1996, out of her life. But first she wanted her money back.

And Walters was trying to find out more about her secretive lover Cody, who said he had homes in Las Vegas and Denver but wouldn't tell her where he lived. She had made him sign a promissory note for the money he owed her and was threatening to expose him to Holberton and, perhaps, the police.

"Rather than risk being exposed for who he really was," Tingle says, Neal came up with a plan.

Early on June 30, 1998, Neal drove to Builder's Square for a little shopping. He bought Lava soap, four eyebolts, nylon rope, duct tape -- Tingle goes over to the jury box in front of the prosecution table to grab some evidence -- and "a seven-and-a-half-pound splitting maul."

Half ax, half sledgehammer, the maul has a wooden handle the length of a baseball bat. Even some of the spectators who know how the murders were done groan at the sight of the tool. But it is not the murder weapon, just an identical match. The actual murder weapon waits in a clear plastic bag, still stained with blood, although the Colorado Bureau of Investigation has removed most of the gore for testing.

At the time, Neal was living with Holberton at her townhome on West Chenango Drive in Lakewood. Apparently they were doing some renovations to the place -- the carpeting had been removed from the hallways leading into the living room, and butcher paper covered the windows and the glass sliding door at the back of the townhouse.

When Neal returned home from his early-morning shopping trip, he placed a chair in the middle of the living room and invited Holberton, still wearing her bathrobe, to take a seat. He had talked about a surprise he had for her, which she thought meant he was going to repay her from the "millions" he'd come into as the result of a settlement. In fact, earlier that morning he'd had her write out checks for more than $56,000 to pay back her creditors. In Neal's own words, Tingle says, she was "filled with joy and happiness."

Neal opened a bottle of champagne to celebrate Holberton's impending financial solvency, then put his briefcase on her lap and told her to place her hands on it, intimating that it contained the cash to cover her debts. He covered her with a blanket so that she couldn't see, and there she waited for her surprise.

It came quickly. Neal fetched his splitting maul and "ambushed Rebecca from behind, unleashing a violent and ferocious attack using the hammer side of the maul," Tingle told the court. He brought the weapon down "with such force that it completely caved in the back of her skull," sending skull fragments into her brain and gouging out a two-inch piece of skull that went flying across the room.

Holberton fell to the ground, "never to rise again." Neal wrapped her head in clear plastic to catch the blood, and then, after binding her limbs and body with nylon rope, wrapped her in black plastic like a mummy and placed her against a wall of the apartment.

From his seat at the defense table, Neal looks quickly behind him, then just as quickly ducks his head beneath the hard stares. He returns his attention to Tingle and continues to scribble notes on a yellow legal pad.

The day after killing Holberton, Neal told 48-year-old Candace Walters, a woman he'd met in December 1997 when she was working as a bartender at the Sheraton Hotel off Sixth Avenue and Union, that he was about to receive $52 million. He told her that in the old days, when he was "a hitman for the mob," he'd warned one of his assigned targets, and the man, who lived in Las Vegas, had been so eternally grateful that he'd left his estate to Neal. Now that his benefactor had died, Neal told Walters, he'd be able to pay off his former wife, a stripper, and get custody of his daughter.

Neal's heartwarming battle for his daughter was one of the things that had endeared him to Walters. She was told that she would now be "paid handsomely for maintaining her silence" about his former occupations. Just how handsomely had changed radically that final week. First she was to get $100,000, many times what she was owed, and they would fly to Las Vegas to get the money. Then it was $1 million and a new Toyota 4-Runner, which they would drive to Las Vegas to get the money and attend a wild party with "the family" for which he had once worked. Finally the amount reached $2.5 million -- one million in cash and the rest to be wired into a bank account. There would also be a new home -- a mansion, really -- down the street from Neal's own place in Las Vegas. He showed her pictures of both that he kept in a white photo album. They were beautiful.

On July 1, 1998, Candace Walters saw her daughter, Holly, for what would be the last time. Holly, who had hired her "best friend and mother" to work for her real-estate financing company and had also offered Neal a job, was leaving in a couple of days to set up a branch office in Missouri.

Holly had her doubts about Neal, particularly his tales of being a former hitman and the magnanimous gift. But it had been a long time since she had seen her mother so happy, and Neal was so warm and attentive toward her that Holly ignored the feeling that something wasn't right.

At Neal's suggestion, Candace Walters called her bank and asked how to go about wiring a large amount into her account. And on July 2, with Rebecca Holberton dead three days, she sold her car to an auto broker. She wouldn't be needing it: Cody was bringing that new 4-Runner that they would drive to Las Vegas.

The next morning, Holly called. Candace told her that Cody was running late but that she expected him anytime. And in fact, a little while later Neal showed up and took her to the townhouse on West Chenango Drive, where the 4-Runner had been delivered, he said.

Whatever sunlight made it in through the covered windows of the townhouse probably wasn't enough to illuminate the fine drops of blood on the wall and ceiling above the chair where Neal had Candace sit. Nor, apparently, did she see the mummy-like object in black plastic a few feet away. She happily sat in the chair, wearing a white sundress, waiting for her surprise. But she wouldn't accept being covered with a blanket. She didn't want her hair messed up for their trip.

Neal disappeared, Tingle tells the court, and returned carrying the maul, "which he brought crashing down on the back of her head with a tremendous impact." This time, however, he used the blade side of the maul and struck four times.

"Candace Walters died a horrible, violent death," Tingle says. "For what?...Unarmed, defenseless...hoping for a better future and life."

Even after that, Neal couldn't leave her in peace. He urinated on her head and shoulders, "an ultimate act of debasement and disrespect for human dignity." Then he wrapped her head in white plastic and moved her body a few feet off to the side, covering her with a blanket.

The man now sitting in front of the judges' panel had killed two women in four days, "but that did not satiate his appetite," Tingle says. "It was far from over." He took Holberton's and Walters's credit cards and accessed their bank accounts. "It was time to party and have a good time."

A time that left another young woman dead and a fourth raped.

The people will be proving six "aggravating factors," Tingle says. Whatever mitigators the defendant might offer to counter the weight of the prosecution's case will "pale in comparison." It is Tingle's hope that the court will look at the "horror of this murder, the brutal contempt for human life" and render the appropriate punishment.

It can be only death.

William Neal walks over to the lectern to make his opening statement. The freedom to move across the courtroom is part of the deal he's worked out as he plays the part of his own lawyer, but the deputies take a couple of steps closer, just in case. As with most defendants who appear in today's courtrooms, Neal was offered the opportunity to dress in civilian clothes. But he'd turned it down, saying he deserved only to wear his inmate orange.

"September 20, 1999, Monday morning, a day that's much more to some, much less to others," Neal begins. It's Yom Kippur, "a special day." The day of atonement, he notes, a day for "reconciliation, forgiveness...peace."

He shakes his head in apparent disbelief. "This is one of the most horrendous things I ever heard of," he says. "How could someone do what I have done? I wish I could say I was innocent. There is no excuse for this crime. I can't wash my hands enough for this."

He is guilty as charged, he says. "Mr. Tingle is an honorable man, and he speaks the truth. He has been honest with me and did not exaggerate anything. I would not change what he said, except maybe to fill in some blanks."

By doing so, he will be the voice for "three wonderful, trusting, beautiful women."

But first Neal launches into his now-standard spiel about the truth setting him free. He had been molested as a child, he notes, an excuse that let him spend his life blaming someone else while refusing to "look at myself."

Now he's a changed man, one who would gladly exchange his life for those of his victims if he could. There's an old Turkish proverb, he says: "No matter how long you've gone down the wrong road, turn back, turn back."

He's turned back, he says. "Even a wretched life means something," he implores the judges. "Even a wretched life can change. I do not want to die, for I know I've turned around."

He wants to live, Neal says, so that he can "zealously" serve Jesus in prison. He also promises to make "full restitution," although he does not say how. And finally, he promises not to cross-examine his rape victim or the murdered women's families so as to spare them further pain.

In his opening, Tingle didn't really outline the aggravators the state will seek to prove. So Neal does it for him.

The crime was "especially heinous, cruel and depraved," he says. "That's an accurate assessment." He killed two or more people by "lying in wait." True. He "intentionally" killed two or more people with "universal malice and extreme indifference to the value of human life." True. He killed a kidnapped person. True. He killed to prevent prosecution. "That's what precipitated the whole thing." And he killed for monetary gain. "Yes," he concludes, "all of the aggravating factors are present."

As for mitigators, Neal suggests there are only three, starting with the "age of the defendant." Although he was 42 at the time of the crimes, earlier traumas had left him "a child...hiding and stalking...scared of being punished for what he had been doing and what he had become."

And the defendant may not have been in the frame of mind to "appreciate the wrongfulness of his conduct," he says, speaking of himself in the third person before quickly admitting, "I knew that what I was going to do was wrong and chose to do it anyway." He only half-heartedly attempts to argue that the defendant may have been under "unusual and substantial duress... I've been through a lot of tough times in my life, but I don't see it."

What he had become, Neal says, did not "happen overnight...It took time to build a box to live in and hide. There's no light in that box, just the presence of evil -- and evil cannot stand the light."

No mitigator that can morally justify the crimes. "How can you justify the murder of three women and the rape of a 21-year-old, who'll be forever haunted by what she saw?" he asks. Neal says he wants to take "responsibility for the whole thing. I will not accept less." But on the other hand, he adds, "I want to live, and my only chance is to tell the truth."

Of one last, potential mitigator, that he does not pose a threat to society, he shrugs, then says: "I never expected to do what I did, but I did it."

On the second day of the trial, a small, young blond woman rises from the first row of spectator seats behind the prosecution table and approaches the judges. If this case had gone to trial, the woman would not have been allowed into the courtroom until her testimony. But since William Neal has already pleaded guilty, she is free to attend as much of the trial as she can stand.

Although she avoided all the hearings leading up to the death-penalty trial, she came for opening statements the day before, staying in the protective shadow of her mother or boyfriend as Tingle briefly outlined the horrors she suffered.

Now she keeps her eyes on Tingle and away from Neal as she meets the bailiff and swears to tell the truth on the witness stand. She states her full name for the record at the prosecutor's request; that name is not to be used by the media.

"How long have you been in Denver?" Tingle asks.

"My entire life," "Suzanne" answers. Twenty-two years. Her voice is so soft that she's asked to pull the microphone closer, which she does self-consciously by sliding her chair closer.

Tingle is worried. He can't testify for her: Suzanne has to be the one to put the judges in the middle of the crime scene and describe how horrific it was so that they know exactly the sort of defendant they are dealing with. After what she had been through, had Suzanne been adamant about not wanting to testify, the prosecutors would have understood. But she seemed to know how vital her testimony was going to be, and she never expressed the slightest hesitation about going forward. The prosecutors could tell, though, that she was scared to death.

In late 1997, Suzanne was roommates with "Beth," a woman she'd met at her work. Beth was older, divorced with three kids and struggling to make ends meet. They became close friends, rooming together and often going out for drinks and to dance. One hangout was a bar near work called Shipwreck's.

That was where she first heard about a guy named Cody Neal. Beth and some of her other co-workers knew him: He was a regular at the bar, where he could often be found from noon on.

"Do you have any specific recollection about how Mr. Neal was dressed when you would see him?" Tingle asks.

"Yeah, he always had a black cowboy hat on. When it was colder, he would wear a longer black, like a duster, coat and always wore boots...always in blue jeans," she replies.

It was Beth who wanted Suzanne to go on a double date with Neal and Jimmy, Beth's boyfriend. She wasn't thrilled about the idea -- Neal was quite a bit older -- but after some persuasion, she agreed to go.

Neal called and told Suzanne to meet him at the Sheraton Hotel at Sixth and Union. She was to let the front desk know that she was with him and his party, "and he said that they would take care of me."

Although Beth and Jimmy were already there when she arrived, Neal didn't join them right away. But she could see that the guy had pull. "From the time that I arrived at the hotel and they knew that I was with this group of people, everybody at the hotel was very nice and very accommodating, really catering to whatever our needs were."

Soon after that night, Beth and Jimmy broke up, and Beth began seeing more of Neal. As his relationship with her roommate warmed up, Suzanne began to see him more, too.

"What was your understanding, if you had any, about his financial situation by May and June of 1998?" Tingle asks. His voice is soft, guiding, as he keeps his eyes on Suzanne's. He began with easy, non-emotional questions to let her get comfortable, and she is responding very well so far.

"At certain times, it would seem like he had quite a bit of money, and he was not discreet about having the large amounts of money," she answers.

This is good; she is requiring very little prompting. "Can you elaborate for us?"

"There was an occasion before my birthday, and he came and gave me a hundred dollars," she says. "At that time, we weren't that close of friends, I don't believe."

Neal and Beth had been out that night; Suzanne woke up when they returned. "Then Cody came in," she says, "and he had a hundred dollars in one-dollar bills...He just threw them all over my bed, and he just, you know, said that we could use that when we went out to celebrate for my birthday."

Neal was always a "very generous tipper," she says. "He would never allow anybody to buy anything, you know, so whenever I went out with him and Beth, he was the one that always paid."

Neal never told the women where he lived, not exactly. He said he split his time between Denver and Las Vegas, where he had a home. "But he had never stayed there," she says. "He was waiting until his little girl could stay with him before he would stay in that house."

Neal had even showed her photos of the Las Vegas home, which he kept in a white, three-ring binder with sheet protectors. "A very huge house." A mansion.

He was always full of surprises. So it was not unusual when, in mid-June, he began talking to Suzanne about a surprise he wanted to give Beth. They were at a bar, and Neal was talking about wanting to help Beth out of the financial mess she was in. "He had talked about getting her a new car and different things like that."

But Neal also seemed to have another girlfriend, Angela Fite, whom Suzanne met about this same time. "Cody and Angie were at the Broker at the Tech Center," she remembers. "Cody had asked that Beth and I come down and see them so that we could have a drink together to celebrate my birthday."

They stayed for only one drink, but Suzanne left with the impression that Neal and Angela were boyfriend and girlfriend. But her roommate seemed to be getting more involved with Neal as well. "She was really starting to care about Cody more...their friendship had just really gotten a lot closer."

In fact, after the meeting at the Broker, they seemed to be going out all the time -- which is how Suzanne began to hear more about Neal, but she didn't know what to believe. Some of their friends at Shipwreck's insisted that he was a bounty hunter, but that wasn't what he'd told her.

In mid-June, Neal started talking to Suzanne about coming to work for him in the mortgage-lending business. "When he told you about his business and made this job offer, did you believe him?" Tingle asks.

"Not wholeheartedly," she replies, shaking her head. "With the amount of money that he was talking about...and the split of time in the offices between Las Vegas and Colorado... It really just seemed mostly too good to be true. And I didn't see why he would want -- I mean, I didn't see why he would be offering me something like this."

Neal told her not to mention his offer to anybody. But when he said he wanted her to go to Las Vegas to meet with his lawyers about the job, she broke down and asked Beth if she thought he could be trusted.

"We talked about it for quite a while, and she said that she didn't think that he would ever do anything to hurt us."

For the first time in her testimony, Suzanne falters. Her voice cracks, and she wipes briefly at her eyes. But she quickly regains her composure and goes on.

With that assurance from Beth, she decided to go to Las Vegas and at least see if the offer was solid. When Neal said they'd be staying two nights, however, she balked, until he relented and said they'd stay just one. He would pick her up in the evening of Sunday, July 5, and they'd return Monday.

On Friday, July 3, though, Beth called. "He had made plans for us," Suzanne says. "She thought maybe we were going to go gambling in Central City with Cody that night, so she just said to be home and get ready to go out."

When she got home from work, Beth was already there. She showed off some new outfits Neal had bought her that afternoon. She gave Suzanne a skirt he'd said he would like her to wear.

The night began with a mystery: When they were ready, they were to walk across the street to a pizza joint. There they waited about ten minutes until Neal showed up around 7 p.m. They didn't see him pull in; he just came walking up.

He explained that his truck had a flat and that he was getting it fixed at the tire store next door. While they waited, he said, they might as well order a pizza. And then, to Suzanne's astonishment, he dropped to one knee and proposed to Beth. "She said yes, and he gave her a ring, a diamond ring." Then he left for a nearby liquor store.

Suzanne hadn't known that the relationship between her roommate and Neal was that serious. But after he left, Beth explained that the marriage proposal was just a joke.

"When that was happening," Tingle says, "what was the attitude of Mr. Neal? What was his demeanor?"

"He was very happy, calm," she replies. "He was in a really good mood, you know, like he was happy that Friday night was there, and we were going to have such a good time that night."

Tingle nods. Neal's demeanor at this point will be important for the judges to remember. Because by 7 p.m. Friday, July 3, Rebecca Holberton had been dead and wrapped in black plastic for more than three days. And Neal had split Candace Walters's head open only eight hours earlier.

Neal returned with several airline bottles of alcohol. He invited the women outside to celebrate his "proposal" to Beth. He was dressed in his omnipresent black cowboy hat, black duster and cowboy boots, but he'd eschewed his usual black T-shirt for a Western-style dress shirt.

They were outside toasting when a white stretch limousine pulled up. Neal explained that this was another joke. They weren't taking his truck tonight; they were going in style. But this wasn't a really big surprise, since such extravagance was just Wild Bill Cody's style. "It seemed like that was the way he preferred to go out," Suzanne says.

With Neal directing, they went to two bars. First Fugglies, where he went in with the women, and then Shipwreck's, where he stayed outside without explaining why. Then it was off for the night's biggest surprise: dinner at the Diamond Cabaret, a "gentleman's club" with a restaurant and lounge on one side and topless dancing on the other.

Neal, of course, picked up the tab. He had plenty of cash, having gone to an ATM machine with Candace Walters's debit card and removed $403 -- after already taking $1,287 from Holberton's account.

Following dinner, the two women went into the bathroom, where they were approached by a woman asking for Suzanne by name. When Suzanne identified herself, the woman said that "Cody wanted us to go with her." She led them into the topless section of the club, where Neal paid two of the dancers to perform in front of his two dates.

The dance over, Neal decided it was time to leave. But first he handed Beth and Suzanne handfuls of dollar bills and instructed them to put the money on a stage where a woman was dancing. "He appeared to know the woman."

The trio ended the evening at a bar the women selected, the Stampede. There they were joined by several young men trying to figure out if one of the two women with Neal was available. Wild Bill Cody was holding court, lecturing the younger bucks on how to behave like a proper gentleman.

"That they should stand up when a lady comes back to sit down," Suzanne recalls of his lecture, "and a lady shouldn't light her own cigarettes."

They got home about 3 a.m., and Neal spent the night with Beth. Suzanne didn't see him there in the morning, but he was back that afternoon when she left to spend the Fourth of July in Greeley.

Tingle pauses. The groundwork has been laid: Within days -- hours, really -- of brutally murdering two women, the polite, respectful man in the orange jumpsuit the judges see before them had been out partying. Playing jokes. Spending the dead women's money on strippers and booze. Lecturing other men on how to treat a lady.

Suzanne has held together remarkably well, but now comes the tough part. It is time to open the wound. "I would like to talk about July the 5th, Sunday."

Neal was supposed to pick her up that night about 7 p.m.; they would drive to the airport together for the flight to Vegas. Suzanne was dressed in conservative business attire -- a peach blouse and navy blue slacks -- and she'd packed another business outfit for the next day.

In the car, Neal told her they were running a little early, so they stopped for a drink at Fugglies. In the bar, he told her that before they left for Las Vegas, he wanted to show her the surprise he had for Beth. He drove her to a townhouse on West Chenango Drive, not far from the bar.

Neal pulled into the garage and shut the garage door as soon as the truck was parked. "He explained that it would be more or less like a dress rehearsal...that he wanted me to be blindfolded and he wanted to put duct tape on my mouth because that was how Beth was going to do it when she walked into her surprise."

"What was his attitude and demeanor like at that time?"

"He seemed excited and, you know, like this was a great thing that we were going to be working on together." Neal had talked about getting Beth a new SUV, and there was a new Ford Bronco in the garage.

"He had me take off my glasses. Then he tied a piece of bath towel around my eyes and asked me if I could see out of the blindfold."

Suzanne told him no, she couldn't see -- but if she looked straight down, she actually could see the floor at her feet. He then put duct tape over her mouth, which was uncomfortable but not painful.

Neal had her take his arm as he led her through the garage and up the steps into the townhome. Inside, he picked up a cat. "He wanted me to meet his cat, and he had me pet his cat." He led her down a hallway. It was then that Suzanne knew that something was wrong. For one thing, there was no carpeting in the hallway, just bare plywood. More than that, though, "It just didn't feel right."

When they reached a room, Neal turned her around and told her to sit down. The seat was further down than she had figured; she realized she was sitting on a mattress.

In court, Suzanne can't remember if Neal told her he was going to tie her up or if he just did it. Soon she was spread-eagled and on her back. Helpless.

Suzanne hesitates and, finally, begins to cry. Tingle waits until she pulls herself together. "I didn't want to be...I didn't want to be tied up," she says, "so I started to cry, and I asked him to just let me go. And I promised that I wouldn't say anything to anybody about what had happened so far...He just told me to shut up, and he said that I hadn't seen him be cold and mean and that I didn't want to.

"Once he tied me up," Suzanne continues, "he opened my blouse and cut off my bra, and he cut off my pants, and he cut off my underwear." She couldn't see the knife he was using, but she could feel the cold steel against her skin.

"Do you remember what you were thinking?" Tingle asks.

"Mostly I was thinking about not crying."

"Did you know what was going to happen to you?"

"I had a feeling about what was going to happen."

Neal took off her blindfold and duct tape. "He asked me if I had ever seen a human skull. I said no, and he left the bed and came back with an ice cream wrapper," Suzanne says quietly. "He pulled out a piece of bone...he held it in front of me, and he was touching it...there was hair on it and he said, 'Can you see that?' And then he laid it on my stomach."

"What was his attitude and demeanor like when he did that?"

"Just like he was showing off, like, 'Look at what I have.'"

"What did he do when he put that piece of human skull on your stomach?"

"I think that he just watched me to see what my reaction would be."

Neal had been crouching at her side, but now he stood and walked past a chair at the end of the mattress toward the fireplace.

"He lifted up a blanket that was by the fireplace, and he held up a leg," Suzanne says. "I could see a leg and a sock and a shoe...that's when he said that the black plastic was a body, too...Then he kicked the black plastic bag. He kicked it hard."

"What was going through your mind at this time?"

"I just thought I was going to die, because I didn't understand why he would show me what he did and then let me live."

Neal taped her mouth closed again. He fondled her breasts and legs, but there wasn't time for more of that, he said. He had to leave to get somebody else, and she'd better not make a sound. "Because there were people upstairs, and if they were to come downstairs that they wouldn't be as nice to me as he had been. And he said that, you know, one guy would come down and would rape me, and I would die."

Covering her from head to toe with a blanket, Neal left Suzanne in the dark, thinking of the horror around her. She concentrated on the country-Western music station he'd left on the television, counting two music videos and two commercial breaks before hearing him return.

Apparently he'd brought someone else with him. She could hear them whispering. Then there was the sound of duct-tape being pulled off the roll.

In his deep rumble, Neal asked the newcomer, "Can you get out of that?" There was the sound of duct tape pulling apart, and then of more tape being applied. "That's better," he said, then asked, "So, how's your day going so far?"

Suzanne heard a woman answer him. She recognized the voice: It was Angela Fite. She heard Neal ask Angie if she'd talked to Mike, her estranged husband, that day.

In his confession to the police, Neal said this was the point at which he showed Angela the bodies of Rebecca and Candace, saying, "Welcome to my mortuary." But Suzanne couldn't hear all that was said and doesn't mention this.

Instead she recalls the blanket suddenly being pulled from her lower half and a hand briefly groping her upper thigh. A moment later, the blanket was pulled from her face and she saw Angie, sitting facing her in a chair a foot or so from the end of the mattress, her wrists and legs bound to the chair's arms and legs with duct tape.

"I think it really took Angie by surprise," Suzanne recalls. "She just looked at me, and she shook her head and she said, 'I'm sorry...We're not going to get out of here alive, are we?'"

Neal ignored the exchange and kept talking to Angie about Mike. He was smoking and let his captives each have a draw from his cigarette, pulling the tape from Suzanne's mouth. Whatever he was up to, he seemed in no hurry.

"He just stood next to [Angie] and put it in her mouth, and she inhaled. Then he took it back out, and then a few minutes later he asked her if she wanted a whole one, and if she could smoke it without her hands. She said yes.

"And then I think he retaped my mouth after he let me have some of his cigarette. He taped it very tight, tighter than it was at the other point in the night."

"Tight enough to hurt?" Tingle asks.

"It was uncomfortable, yes," she replies. "And so then he said he was going to get a treat for his cat."

It was about 11 p.m. Neal had been sitting in a white plastic patio chair next to the mattress. He got up and walked past Angela, disappearing from Suzanne's sight.

Suddenly, he reappeared behind Angie. In his half-raised hands was a long-handled splitting maul -- half ax, half sledgehammer. "Then I saw him hit Angie," Suzanne sobs. Her family, Angie's family and the other victims' families cry out as well.

In a flash, Neal brought the maul crashing down into Angie's skull. She fell to the side, but he struck her again and again, six times, before the young woman on the mattress could turn her terrified eyes from the gruesome scene.

Then, as if he'd finished some chore, Neal calmly walked away. He returned without the ax and stooped to pick something up. At the first blow, the cigarette Angie had been smoking had popped from her mouth and onto the floor. Now Neal settled into the chair next to the mattress to finish smoking it.

Suzanne could hear Angie's blood splashing onto the wood floor -- not one drop at a time, but like water pouring from a pan. Neal got up and placed a blanket under Angie's head "so you don't have to hear that," he said, and sat back down.

Angie had been saying things she wasn't supposed to, he explained. That's why he'd done what he had to do. "You see how calm and smooth I am," he boasted. "Bet you didn't know that was coming."

After he finished Angie's cigarette, Neal stood and undressed. He left his shirt on but removed his pants, underwear and boots. He came over to the mattress and untied one of Suzanne's hands. Then, laying down next to her, he made her manually stimulate his penis.

When he tired of that, he untied her other hand and her feet. Pointing a small-caliber handgun at her, he went and stood just behind the lifeless body of Angie Fite, slumped over but still held into the chair by the duct tape. He ordered Suzanne to kneel next to Angie, "maybe about a foot, if that" close, and then take his penis into her mouth.

At the defense table, Neal shakes his head. "He was holding the gun to my head, and I asked him if I was going to die," Suzanne cries. "He asked if I wanted to die. I said no."

"How was he holding the gun to your head?" Tingle asks. He knows this is hard on her, but they've got to see it through to the end.

Suzanne lifts her left hand and points it like a gun to her temple. "Like right here," she says.

"Could you see that gun?"

"No."

"Could you feel it?"

"Yes, I could feel it."

Suzanne says she will never forget the feeling of a gun barrel pressed against her head, with her face just inches from the body of a dead woman, being raped orally. When he tired of that torment, Neal took her back to the mattress and finished raping her.

He tied her up again, this time binding her legs together and securing one wrist to an eyebolt; the other hand he left free. "Then he sat, and he watched TV. He asked me if I knew what the movie was, and I didn't. He said it was something like Portrait of a Serial Killer."

The longer Suzanne testifies, the more her courage comes through. The spectators in the gallery are crying louder than she is. Those who haven't heard the story gasp when she says she asked Neal for a blanket to cover her nakedness and then, after he'd complied, invited him to come sit next to her on the mattress.

"I just wanted to have him next to me so that I knew that he couldn't sneak up on me," Suzanne explains. "He sat with me all the rest of the time that we were there."

"All night long?" Tingle asks, although he knows the answer.

"Yes."

"Did you hold his hand?" he asks.

Suzanne nods, unable to speak at first.

"Why did you do that?"

Her answer suddenly pours out. "Because I thought even if I fell asleep, that I would feel him move his hand so that I could wake up and I would see what he was doing so he couldn't sneak up on me like he snuck up on Angie."

The only time they got up off the mattress was when she had to use the bathroom upstairs. That itself another terror -- she'd never seen the "others," but she'd heard something, and Neal had warned her. Now he did so again. "He told me not to ever look to my left...because those people were there, and they didn't like to be looked at."

Neal stood guard outside the bathroom door while she went in. After she'd finished, he took her back down to the mattress, tying one wrist to an eyebolt and holding her other hand in his. The television stayed on all night. At least, she thinks it did; she might somehow have dozed off.

In the morning, Neal untied Suzanne and let her go to the bathroom to change her clothes. Then they left the townhouse in Holberton's Toyota truck and drove to her apartment.

Once there, he moved quickly, picking up all the cordless telephones and Suzanne's cellular phone, checking the bathroom to make sure there wasn't another phone in there. Then he let her go in and shower. "He said that we still had to go places," she remembers, so she dressed and dried her hair. "Then he told me not to unpack anything, because it still had to look like we had gone on this trip and that we were coming back."

Later, Neal changed his mind. "He even remarked what a good packer I was and that I had packed really well for this trip."

They left again. Neal was hungry, so they went to a restaurant, where he ordered himself a drink and Suzanne a beer, then insisted they both order lunch.

"Do you have words that you could use to describe your mental state, Suzanne?" Tingle asks.

She hesitates. "I kept expecting...I kept thinking that Angie was going to move. I kept thinking that person that I saw, they were going to move. I just kept thinking that somehow this wasn't true."

They spent the afternoon shopping, buying cigarettes for the both of them, Tums for Neal's indigestion and Nyquil for his cough. He drove to Southwest Plaza, where he bought a tape recorder at a Radio Shack, then on to Blockbuster Video, where he had Suzanne rent The Jackal, a movie about an international assassin. He picked that one, Suzanne says, "because Beth was always asking what he did for a living, and he thought that movie was the only thing that could describe what he did for a living good enough."

They returned to the women's apartment and called Beth at work, to tell her about the trip to Las Vegas. "How good it was, and I think we asked when she was going to be home," Suzanne says.

When Beth arrived, they watched the movie. Neal was "being like himself, you know, he was not acting strange at all...He had promised me that once the movie was over, that we would tell Beth what happened.

"So after the movie was done, we went to sit at the kitchen table, and he had me start to explain to Beth." Suzanne pauses, shakes her head slightly. "I really couldn't explain, so he finished telling her what happened."

In the gallery, Beth sits with her head bowed, holding the hand of her fiancé.

Later that night, Neal got out his new tape recorder and, sitting at the kitchen table with the women, began making a rambling, nearly two-hour confession. As he spoke, he took the gun from his waistband and placed it on the table.

Suzanne isn't sure how long she and Beth were forced to sit and listen to him recount his reign of terror, but at last she was allowed to go to her room. She shut the door and turned on her television, hoping to go to sleep. But sleep, if it came, was fitful...haunted. When morning came, she tried to stay in bed as long as possible "so I wouldn't have to go out into the living room."

Neal had to go out. He was leaving the women alone, but threatened that they had better not call anybody or do anything, "because if he got caught or somebody found out, more people were going to die." That was enough to terrorize them into compliance.

Suzanne wasn't totally cowed, however. She gathered up all the clothes and anything else she'd had with her at the townhouse and put it all in a plastic bag. She then hid the bag in her closet. She told Beth that if anything happened to her, she should give the bag to somebody -- it contained important evidence.

Otherwise, Suzanne and Beth didn't talk much. "We both just kind of wandered around our apartment aimlessly."

"What was going through your mind about those threats?"

"Just that he meant it," Suzanne says. "I didn't think that he would hesitate at all to hurt me or to hurt Beth. It just seemed like whatever we could think of to do to get help wouldn't work...wouldn't work good enough or fast enough."

Before they could come up with a plan, Neal returned. He told them that they could summon a male friend over to the apartment if that would make them feel more comfortable. "If we had one choice, who would we pick to come over and be with us, that we could trust...and wasn't going to try to come in and, you know, get rid of Cody."

One name leaped to both of their minds: David Cain, a 34-year-old friend of Beth's.

Beth called and invited Cain over. When he arrived, he was confronted by a gun-bearing Neal, who told him it was his choice, stay or leave, "but if he left...there was going to be consequences to everybody involved.

"Dave chose to stay with me and Beth," Suzanne says. "Then we all sat down at the kitchen table again, and Cody played that tape that he made the night before. He played that for Dave so that Dave would know what was going on."

They all spent the night together. Neal wasn't through partying. He made Cain drive him and the women to a strip club, where he complained loudly about the weakness of his rum and Coke. They stayed until closing.

The next morning was Wednesday, July 8. Neal began making plans. For days, he had been saying he was going to leave and find a place to commit suicide. "On Monday he said that he was going to leave. On Tuesday he said that he was going to leave. On Wednesday he said the same thing...that he was going to leave."

And finally, he did leave -- but not before giving out explicit instructions on what each person was to do after he was gone. Suzanne was to call 911 and tell the police what had happened. After she called, the three were to go outside and sit on the front lawn of the apartment complex.

"He said he was afraid for Dave, because if Dave was in the apartment...the police would think that Dave was actually a suspect, and he didn't want to get Dave hurt."

When the police arrived, Beth was to give them Neal's pager number and a message regarding what time to call. Then he was gone.

But the plan fell apart as soon as Suzanne called the police. She didn't want to go sit outside; she thought it might be a trick, another Neal "surprise." He might shoot them on the lawn.

Although Neal had given them specific instructions not to call anyone else, Cain had used Beth's cell phone to make a call. "It was just scary, because I didn't know if he was going to be able to know that we called somebody else or that we were not following his instructions just right."

The police arrived quickly. "Beth and I were basically hysterical...and I don't know that we were making sense to anybody. Dave was still on the phone, and so it was very chaotic when they first got there."

At last it was over. And at last Suzanne has told her horrible story, sitting just a few feet from the face of her nightmares.

Tingle has just one more image he wants to leave with the judges. Neal had driven Suzanne past the townhouse on that first day after they left West Chenango Drive. "We had gone by it...and he said we may have to go back inside just this once," she says. "I just begged him again and asked if he would please not make me go back into that house."

"Can you tell us what was going through your mind when you drove by there?"

"It was scary because, I mean, there wasn't anybody there...The police weren't there at that time, and each time he drove by it, I was very afraid that I was going to have to go back inside, and I didn't want to see what was inside again...and I was afraid if I went back inside that I wouldn't come back out."

As she speaks, Tingle shuffles through his photographs. Finding the one he seeks, he places it on the overhead so that it appears on monitors around the courtroom. It's a photograph of a beautiful, smiling young woman.

"Who is that?" Tingle asks.

"That's Angie," she answers softly.

The prosecution's turn ends. Judge Woodford asks Neal if he has any questions. Suzanne freezes. If he chooses to question her, she will have to look at him.

"Your honor, I do not," Neal says.

Next week: The judges' decision.

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