Charmin' Billy: Part Two

Editor's Note: This is the second part of a two-part series. You can read last week's installment at http://www.westword.com/issues/1999-10-14/feature.html

By the early afternoon of July 8, 1995, the horrific last ride of "Wild Bill Cody" was drawing to a close. Three women were dead in a townhouse on West Chenango Drive, their skulls split by a seven-and-a-half-pound maul -- one killed by the sledgehammer side, the other two by the ax.

A few miles away, William "Cody" Neal was instructing three hostages on how he wanted them to contact the police regarding the murders of Rebecca Holberton, Candace Walters and Angela Fite. But as Neal made his plans, Jefferson County sheriff's deputy Michael Burgess was already headed to the townhouse on a welfare check. Holberton's co-workers had called the sheriff's office, worried because she hadn't come to work for several days.

A nine-year veteran, Burgess wasn't expecting trouble when he knocked on the door. No one responded and the door was locked, so he went to the sliding glass door out back. Like all of the windows in the townhouse, the door was covered with paper. He opened the door a crack and called out. No answer. He slid the door open further, began to enter and then stopped in his tracks, "overwhelmed by a sense of evil."

"I saw what appeared to be a body, mummy-shaped, wrapped in plastic," Burgess testifies at Neal's death-penalty hearing last month. "I could also see a woman's leg, duct-taped to a chair."

"What were you thinking and feeling?" prosecutor Charles Tingle asks. That sort of question would normally elicit an objection from a defense attorney arguing over its relevance. But Neal is representing himself and raises no objections throughout the proceedings. He just sits there waiting for Burgess's answer while his "advisory counsel," Randy Canney, remains slumped in his seat.

"It was one of those scenes where you know you just don't want to be there," Burgess says. "A wave of evil hit me. It looked like a torture chamber where somebody had suffered. I knew I needed to get help."

Jose Aceves, the sheriff's lead investigator on the case, is called to the stand to identify parts of the crime-scene video for the three-judge panel. The filthy, cluttered room with dirty dishes and trash...The body shape in black plastic. A piece of skull with bloody hair still attached...Candace Walters beneath a blue blanket on the floor...The white plastic patio table with its ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts next to a white plastic patio chair that faces another chair -- the chair where Angela Fite still sits, held to the seat with duct tape but bent over at an impossible angle, her eyes open and staring out of her blood-matted head.

Tingle nods when the detective finishes his testimony. He knows what Burgess and Aceves have been dealing with the past two years. He sees the scene all the time, waking and asleep, and wonders if it will ever go away.

The fourth day of the trial is devoted to the videotaped interview that Neal gave Aceves and fellow Jeffco investigator Cheryl Zimmerman on September 14, 1998. It's nearly eight hours long. But when Judge Thomas Woodford asks if an excerpted version can't be played instead, prosecuting attorney Chris Bachmeyer insists on the full confession.

The prosecutors don't want anyone -- say, an attorney from the state public defender's office -- coming along later, claiming that the excerpted tape made Neal look worse than he was and using it as the basis for an appeal. And showing the whole thing is fine with Bachmeyer, who thinks the full version gives a more complete picture of Neal: his animation, his ability to control conversations, his constant attempts to manipulate the investigators.

The 41-year-old Bachmeyer has spent the past couple of years working domestic-violence cases for the Jefferson County District Attorney's Office. It bothers her that to the public, Neal's victims might appear gullible, witless for believing his outlandish stories and going off to slaughter like sheep. She knows the victims were all intelligent, caring women. They did not engage in behavior that put them at risk: They didn't hang out with gangs, they weren't prostitutes or drug addicts, they didn't go out with strangers.

Cody Neal was no stranger to these women. He was a friend, a confidant and a lover.

The victims' survivors gathered in this courtroom demonstrate that they were good mothers, good friends and very much loved. But the women were also vulnerable to a sweet-talking con man...Cody, in his cowboy hat and boots, telling his wild stories, tossing money around like a millionaire. But more important, saying all the right words that seemed like answers to their dreams.

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Steve Jackson