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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 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...
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Editor's Note: This is the second part of a two-part series. You can read last week's installment at

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.

His lies were mind-boggling in their detail. Neal even had a photo album with pictures of his "mansion" in Las Vegas, a mansion he didn't own. He would cry, in a manly sort of way, over his beloved mother's death and vow to fight to win his little girl back from her "evil stripper" mother.

Bachmeyer's first impression of Neal was that he had an almost desperate need to be liked, whether it was by the guards, the police investigators -- even the prosecutors who were trying to kill him. But she felt his behavior toward her went beyond friendliness to flirting, testing, seeing how Bachmeyer, an attractive blonde, would respond.

"Hi, Miss Bachmeyer," he'd say when he saw her, smiling, twisting his head to make eye contact. "Don't you look nice today," he'd add, no matter how conservatively she dressed. If he heard that she'd been on vacation or had a few days off, he'd want to know how it went. To her, he came off as the sleazy guy at the bar -- the one with all the pick-up lines.

Neal knows them all. But on the tape, Bachmeyer hopes, the judges will see him as he really is. She pushes the "play" button. On monitors around the courtroom -- at the defense and prosecution tables, on the witness stand and in front of the judges -- Neal suddenly appears as he looked a year ago. Still in the orange jumpsuit, but with long hair and a dark goatee.

He begins the September 1998 interview by buttering up Zimmerman, the investigator who had talked him into giving himself up two months earlier, and Aceves, who is talking to him for the first time. "You guys have totally respected me the whole time I've been with you," Neal says. "That's another reason why I'm comfortable in talking with you, is because of how you have handled things with me during this time that we've been in this situation."

The investigators ask their questions. Neal answers some directly and takes off on tangents with others, his hands flying around like disturbed birds. Several times, he irritably insists on finishing a thought only he has much interest in. He ranges from complimenting the investigators on their insight, to warning them not to push him into discussing subjects he doesn't want to discuss, to thinly veiled threats, which he quickly backs away from. The interview follows no particular chronological order, offering up Neal's scattered thoughts.

On his state of mind as he planned the murders: "I'm very clear and calm...I was totally comfortable."

Was it like an adrenaline rush? "No, it wasn't an adrenaline rush there," Neal replies. "The adrenaline rush would come when I would kill somebody, like being a Highlander. [The Highlander is a television show in which the hero, an immortal who has been alive for hundreds of years, must fight other immortals who seek to absorb his life force.] You know how he feels when he just sits there and he kills somebody, and he raises his hand.

"I'm not being funny about it, I'm just saying that in order for me to deal with killing..." Neal searches for what he wants to say, "these three murders were not like that with me, okay? This was different to me, all right? Because I cared about them."

Do you say overall, Cody, that you're a very controlling person? "You know, I'm learning about that issue right now." One of Neal's sisters had told investigators that "nobody controls Bill," and he now acknowledges, "I think she's right on that. But I don't believe it was done in an evil sense."

It's just your nature? You like to take charge of the situation? "I'm a strong-willed person...I mean, if somebody has to make a decision, let it be me, because right or wrong, I'm going to make it. I mean, somebody has got to be a leader."

At another point, Neal talks about controlling people by molding himself to be what they want or need. "It's like you want a raise, you're going to have to look a certain way, do your job a certain way, smile at a certain person instead of saying, 'You stinkin' asshole' when you want to. Or you let somebody think you like them when you don't...I mean an illusion, taking advantage, finding a weak point in a human being -- you know, greed, get my own way."

On why he gave himself up and confessed: "I need prosecution, I need justice to be served, because I'm representing three dead well as a rape victim. I want justice to be served and the truth to be known so that people can get on with their lives."

On getting Suzanne, the rape victim, to the townhouse: "She came of her own free will on the understanding that what we were doing was legitimate. I mean, you know, if I had told her I'm going to take you to the house and I'm going to tie you down and I'm going to rape you and you're going to witness a murder, she's not going to go...I'm not being sarcastic with you at all, Jose.

"I just said, 'This is how I want you to do the surprise with Beth...You know, they always knew how crazy I was...and I don't mean crazy, I feel, in a bad way...I was always kind of like, fun, and I would do things people wouldn't seem to do, just partying and enjoying myself, do something different. And so part of that reason I believe she trusted me."

On his initial relationship with Candace Walters, whom he met in December 1997 at the Sheraton Hotel, where she was a bartender and where he often partied: At first they didn't have a sexual relationship, he says, but after she claimed to have been date-raped, he got a room with a hot tub and treated her to a bubble bath. Even then he refrained from sex, "trying to help her know that not all men are pigs, okay, even though most of them are, all right? That's just my opinion."

Eventually they had sex, he says. "But it wasn't like attraction sex to me. It was like me almost like a sexual slave saying, 'I'm going to do this. I'm going to do this woman just to give her what she wants to get her out of my life,' okay? But it just kept getting worse. She would not take no for an answer with me. It was almost like Fatal Attraction."

Walters started demanding that he repay the money she had loaned him. "She changed. Got mean. Candace started stalking me. I wasn't returning her telephone calls. I was partying. But she kept paging me and paging me. Then threatening me. Just following me -- that's a threat."

On his relationship with Rebecca Holberton, a longtime US West employee he'd met at a party on July 4, 1996: "Man, you got to meet this cowboy," Neal says a friend had told Rebecca. He claims they had sex at the party, and he moved into her townhouse on West Chenango Drive a month later. Four months after that, the relationship was no longer sexual. They still shared the same bed sometimes or he'd sleep downstairs. "We were just friends."

On his ability to cover his tracks: "I was good at covering things or putting so much shit out, pardon the French, that everybody that thought they knew me ain't even stinking close. They don't even know the first color of my hair...Now I'm growing a goatee. It's for escaping, you see. Just kidding."

He says he grew a goatee before, when his mother was dying in the cancer ward. "I said I wasn't going to shave my goatee until she was in the Lord's arms...So that's why I'm growing this, because I plan on dying. Chances are I'll be executed for this one, because I deserve to be."

On his jailhouse religious conversion: "You get in trouble and you go to God. Well, that's sometimes the only time that He's able to get through your thick skull, all right?"

On his mother: "My mother killed me, okay, period."

What do you mean, she killed you? "It's love," he says, and chokes up. "You've just got to not talk about my mom...Let me take a breath, okay? Do you mind? I'm sorry, I just, I don't have a lot of patience for a lot of emotion with all the weight that I got on me." After her death, he admits, he forged two checks against his mother's account and stole some of her jewelry -- because his siblings were trying to cheat him, he says. "My mother let me know that they were going to write my ass off as soon as she was dead. Meaning she was the only thing that was keeping the wolves away, these greedy little children she had. She asked me what things of hers I wanted. And I said, 'All I want is you, Mom.' And that's honestly what I wanted. I didn't want her money or her furniture. I wanted my mother living, okay?"

On how his mother would have reacted to the murders: "If my mother was alive right now, she would be there for me in a heartbeat. Now, she would not pat me on the back. She wouldn't dance and kick her heels. She would not say, 'You did the right thing, killing those people'...It would have probably killed her. But she would have still stood with me."

More on his relationship with Holberton: "Rebecca was the most gentle, loving, sweetest person you ever knew." He tries to tell Aceves that he stole about $20,000 from her, but when the investigator asks if that figure is really closer to $60,000, he admits "that might be right."

But he wants them to know, "I was never mean to Rebecca, never hurt Rebecca, never beat on her."

On what he did with Rebecca's money: "Used it for strip clubs and limo rides...I think the only month that I ever counted how much money I blew in one month was $22,000 at a strip club. Just like, poof. Now, how many people can live on that and keep throwing it away and just do it?"

On being a con man: "I'm great at business, whether you want to believe it or not -- marketing, sales, you know, bullshit, con...People are greedy, so I use that."

He brags that he'd throw money over the rail onto the dance floor at the Stampede. "And then some people would come...They'd look up and they'd see me there with some beautiful babes. See, people don't want to be down there picking...The smart ones don't want to pick it up. They want to have it to throw.

"People did that to me. They would throw it, and I'd say, 'I ain't bending over to pick that up unless it's a million dollars.' I'll go up there and watch the guy and find out how he did it, and I'll have my own money to throw, and that's what I did.

"And then when I would throw that money, it's like an investment. I would take a chance. I would throw this money, and a victim would come up, somebody that I could use, manipulate, get more money out of, you see?"

On why Walters had to die: "She got to Rebecca...Candace was not going to let up...She had already found out things that she shouldn't have found out, and she wouldn't let off. And I warned Candace if she kept pressing it, she was going to die, okay? And Candace wouldn't let it go, man. She wanted a piece of my ass."

On his demeanor in tight situations: "If somebody is angry, they don't care. They just hate you so much or want to get a piece of your ass, right, they're going to walk blind. That's why you shouldn't ever make a decision in anger, right, because chances are you're making the wrong one. You've got to be cool, you've got to be calm, you've got to be thoughtful."

On being raped by a sergeant in the Army when he was barely seventeen: "I was exhausted, and he told me I could finally lay down and go to sleep. And I was laying on my stomach, and I woke up to having him on top of me. And that's as far as I want to discuss it."

Neal also admits that he molested a young girl when he was twelve or thirteen and also having an affair with an older, married woman. He notes that Suzanne will be getting therapy "for a long, long time" for what he did to her and complains that opportunity was never given to him.

On whether he hates women: "Not that I am aware of. I mean, it's not in my conscious mind. A psychiatrist might say deep down I hate women."

Do you have a hatred towards men based on what's happened to you? "Oh, I did. My brother will tell you I hated homosexuals...I mean, with a passion."

On what he did to Suzanne: "She did not deserve to have anything happen to her other than she was an innocent...she was the most innocent one that I knew that could tell them: 'This is a warning -- don't fuck with me, all right? Don't open your fat mouth, okay? You better keep yourself quiet or you're going to die, all right?'"

On his state of mind when he murdered Walters: "I felt bitter in a way, but...I didn't use bitterness with that ax in my hand splitting her brain to execute her, right?"

On his relationships with women in general: "Look. I'm not a womanizer. I'm not here to use you sexually. I have feelings and care for you, but if you think I'm using you and just sleeping with everybody else, take yourself and your bad ass out of here. I'm not here just for a piece of ass. I'm here for somebody to love me and love somebody else, one on one."

On sex and rape: "There are no performance problems. It was always exciting for both of us. I was sensitive to them. I wouldn't ask them to do something they didn't like. But because of my experiences sexually, I could take them wherever they wanted to go and bring them back. I mean, I've been very open-minded with sex or I would have been a stinking rapist and raping women, you know, and murdering them like Ted Bundy, so to speak, all through the years.

"I raped a woman...If Suzanne was the only crime I ever did in my life, I would hope you would execute me for it. That's how I feel about rape, okay?

"It was so wrong. But I am not a rapist. I don't believe that I would ever rape another woman after the taste that I got on this issue, all right? It's something that I can never feel like I've washed myself enough, just like them. I know what it felt like for it to happen to me. I felt dirty all my stinking life."

On whether he was sexually stimulated by the murders: "No, no," he says, shaking his head. "That's the most off-the-wall question I could think of. But, I mean, I'm sure it's a good one in your business. First of all, murder and sex to me, I'm totally like, wow, man -- I mean, I never even considered they go together, other than rape, okay...It's not like I had a woody raising the ax up and killing them, all right? Waste another second on that, and you're spinning your wheels.

"I executed them. I wanted them to go as quickly as possible. It was not a sexual turn-on for me to kill somebody. I was not thinking of sex in any way when I murdered Rebecca, Angie or Candace. It had nothing to do with saying, 'Look, bitch, for all you other ones cheating on me in the past..."

On his choice of a murder weapon: "It had weight to it...I knew it would be enough to kill.

"It was not a vindictive act to get even, you see what I'm saying? It was not a malicious sexual act. It was to put them out the best way I knew how as quickly and as silently and as fairly as I could.

"In fact, I believe, even though I haven't yet experienced lethal injection, it was a lot more compassionate and fair to kill them like that. Even though it didn't look real pretty, it was instant, okay?" He raises his hands above his head and brings them rapidly down. "Meaning, boom, dead. And if they weren't dead and just throbbing, so to speak, they sure as hell weren't thinking about the pain."

On the manner of his attacks: "I knew where I had to hit them...Where I was going was right dead center in the top of the head at first blow."

Always from the back? "Always from the back. See, I didn't want these people to know what was coming, because they were good people...It was a mercy thing. It was, like, not wanting them to suffer. The paper said I tortured them, okay? I mean, if I wanted to torture them, I could have sat there and, I mean, I could have done all kinds of things."

On reports that he'd killed pet animals: "The only hamster that I ever did kill was when I was older," he says, in response to a nephew's story that he'd bitten the head off a hamster as a teenager. "It was a friend's pet, and I reached in to pet him and it bit me...I didn't like meanness, ever. I'd had enough done to me. To protect myself, I went boom, like that, and killed him," he says, indicating he punched the hamster.

Did you ever abuse any cats or dogs? "Well, hell, yeah." But not the way his brother had reported him going into a barn and "pitchforking" his pet cat "because I felt like it...That was either poor memory or a lie to make me look worse than I was.

"Damn right I pitchforked that cat, all right?...I went in there and was going to pet the cat because I like animals, I always have. I pet them. I went over to pet him, and this cat just tore into me. And my temper when I was young...I grabbed this fork, and I just pitchforked this thing...I mean, it's like they put animals to sleep for biting somebody. I mean, what's the difference? It attacked me, I defended myself, I killed it -- simple as that."

A girlfriend's cat used to "attack" his feet when he was sleeping, he says, and he warned her that if the cat kept it up, "I was going to kill it. I don't never like anybody -- and this is after I got out of the service -- messing with me when I'm sleeping. Wake me up too sudden, you could expect -- I mean, I would consider killing you." Then the cat jumped on him again, so he grabbed his nunchakus and "tracked it down to the kitchen and killed it. And there was blood everywhere, man...I told her to clean it up and went back to sleep.

"I had a dog that bit me one time, and I killed him, too. And then I had a puppy that bit me that I killed." The puppy "was mean. It was just like something was wrong with him."

How did you kill him? "I punched his brain in...just, boom."

On his siblings: "They're jealous. I was [Mom's] favorite...Now they're all stinking lying, what's new? Just like they want the electric chair to just get rid of me finally. Get what I deserve, right?"

More on why Walters had to die: "She did not try to directly blackmail me with money. But she did threaten to go to the authorities and want me and my time -- what I took as physically, sexual time, or relationship time. And my look at it was: Time was money as well as my life. It was something personal. I had already been raped when I was younger and molested...and this is not disrespectful to Candace, but I did not want to give myself physically to her."

Yes, he was angry with her over her demands for the money. "But that's not why she died. I was angry with her because she wanted something out of me I didn't want to give to her, and that was my And then I asked her for some help with some money. She was real kind about it and gave it to me." But then she started "badgering" him about repayment. "It's like, man, if I'm going to be a whore, let me get paid for it."

On why Walters loaned him the money: "Because I let her know that I needed some money for some stuff regarding my little girl as a way to touch her...and also some trouble I was in in Las Vegas regarding borrowing money from somebody."

And who was that from? "That was from nobody. It was a scam."

On lying: "You got to remember one thing: Even a good liar makes mistakes and forgets things."

On "mercy killing" Holberton because he'd ruined her financially: "I was trying to spare Rebecca the nightmare that her financial world might be coming to a close...Not that she was totally going to die...just her financial stability, because she worked all her life to have that...She was greedy; she wanted to retire from the phone company." But she had about $40,000 worth of taxes due that August, he says, and "Rebecca was going to wake up to this $100,000 nightmare and never be able to pay it back until she was 65...She was going to be buried. She was going to be a slave. And, you know, I grieve over that."

On urinating on Walters after he killed her: "Yes, I did it, twice...It was, like I said, the ultimate humiliation...I just whipped it out, and it was basically around the shoulders and head. I just urinated on her because, you know, 'Lady, you're gone. My life is gone. Rebecca. Angie...Careful where you dig. Okay?' It was my way of also saying, 'Don't. I've had enough, people. You're backing me into a corner...It was like an Oriental martial arts thing, or an Indian thing. I mean, I hope somebody pisses on me when I'm gone, all right?"

On why he needs to be kept separate from the rest of the inmates: "An inmate was beating on my stinking door. I just photographed him in my head, just like, 'I'll remember you forever. And as soon as I'm out of this door and I'm within striking distance, I'm going to kill you...I've had enough.'

"If I can murder something I love, what am I going to do to some bastard that I don't love or have any respect for? I'm going to tear him up. Then you're going to know what torture is.

"And that's why I have the ultimate respect for Jefferson County. You listened. Thank you. Disrespect me and abuse me, and then you're going to see it's like I'm two people, all right. The good and the bad, and then it gets real ugly."

On who "deserves" to die: "Nobody does. I don't even believe Ted Bundy deserved to die...or even me. But justice is justice. The difference between them and me was that I was judge, jury and executioner all in one, okay?...But I gave fair warning."

On how calm he was during the killings: "I'm more agitated right now than I was then...It was like a normal, relaxed state. I wasn't angry to where I said like, 'Fucking bitch...boom.'"

On feeling remorse: "I felt remorse the whole way. For all three. For everybody."

On knowing what he was doing: "I just totally knew where it was going. I knew, when it came down to it, I would not hesitate. It was just, boom."

On why he didn't use a gun: "I didn't want to put a gun to their head or a shotgun to the back of their head and blow their head off, I mean, because of the neighbors, you know. And then I'd had to kill the next-door neighbor and the painter and...It's like if the neighbor would have come over, I'd have killed the next-door neighbor. I would have just gone ahead and went on a real killing spree. I mean, you guys would have had to pump a bunch of lead in me, all right?"

On Angela Fite's estranged common-law husband and Neal's promise to kill him for her: "Mike Kelly was going to end up killing her. She knew it...They had a very violent relationship. I was going to do it for love: 'Nobody's going to mess with you.'" He says he was going to kill not only Mike, but his brother and father, "and if his mother was around, I'd probably have killed her, too."

On claiming that he was a bounty hunter and a hitman: "It was all just an act, playing a part...Bundy put it in a good way. And not that he was an idol, but there was certain things that he did that were close to me. He said that the more you practice it, you were like an actor, an illusion, that you sold somebody that you were somebody that you weren't.

"That the more he practiced lying or acting the role, the better he got and the more natural he became.

"I don't believe that I believe my own bullshit...That's why I had an argument with mental health...They kept saying, 'Do you hear voices?' No. Nobody told me to do it. I'm just a stinking liar, okay?"

On promising a house for Angela and her two children: "She wanted to live better. She wanted the money." But he warned her: "You talk about the house, I'm going to kill you. You're going to die, period." When Angela betrayed his trust and told others, she had to die.

On how "gentle" he was with Suzanne: "I mean, you know, her and I held hands while I was sleeping...I know she wanted me to stay with her." He told her not to look at the body a couple of feet away. "It was to keep that edge on her of control so that she didn't lose her cookies and draw attention. I did not want to kill anybody else.

"I wanted Suzanne to be the one that made it out alive and the one that was going to send me to the chair. I wanted a living witness, so to speak, as a warning to everybody else to don't fuck with me, I've had enough. Time out, because then I'm going to lose it, and I haven't lost it up to this point."

More on Ted Bundy: "I related with Bundy in a lot of ways. Not because he was a mentor with me...I was better than Bundy would have ever been, okay?...I'm not meaning that bragging, but I've had this killer in me all my life, and I've depressed it."

On his plans to kill more people: "There was going to be at least thirty more people I was going to get within a three-day period. I had them lined up ready to go, and there was no doubt I could have got them all. And every one of those people, I knew." A lot of them were his supposed friends at Shipwreck's and Fugglies. "It was going to be a wipeout thing. Make sure they're all there, and go in and kill every last one of the son-of-a-bitches who was there...

"Like it comes in Revelations, Revelations 8:6, about this pale horse, and on it was a rider, and his name was Death, and Hades followed him. That's me, okay?"

On whether he "disassociated" during the killings: "If I had done that, I wouldn't have been able to hit the mark with that ax like chopping wood. I knew that I could not slip with that first stroke...I had that thing in my hand not even maybe one second, two seconds before it was in her brain and she was dead."

On his fourth wife, Jennifer: "She has never let me see my little girl. And I have tried over and over again to see her. She is a liar. She has always punished me, Jennifer, for thinking I had cheated on her. She doesn't deserve to be with me. I want to be free to do my shit."

On the brutality of the murders: "I wanted no way out. I wanted this picture to be so horrendous that society would not let me get off, okay, because I don't deserve to get off. Not for one murder, not for two, not for three, not for raping Suzanne."

On his feelings since the murders: "My conscience had always bothered me...and that touched me, because I knew I still had one. That gave me hope rather than being so cold and cruel and saying, 'Hey, fuck it, man, it's just a bunch of dead bitches'...I've cried many times in my cell after these murders.

"Hell, last night I cried for over an hour on what little I've been able to see in my mind again...Rebecca's little head sitting under that blanket, looking so precious; Candace looking so studious and trusting as much as she could; the lady that I really love, Angie; poor little Suzanne.

"I'm able to deal with it, not because I'm insensitive or cruel or a demon or evil. I'm hanging on for the ones that died. I'm hanging on for Suzanne. I'll be all right."

On his rage: "The rage is there. Don't fuck with me. And I don't mean that as a threat...Santa Claus is coming to town, motherfucker, and you ain't going to like who shows up. You can't run, you can't hide, nothing... Fuck with me and give me a reason to get out of here, and I'll find a way."

On his kitten's reaction to the murders: "I loved that little kitty. But after Rebecca died, her little tummy would not come off that floor. She knew I was a killer. It was like she definitely knew that I had it in me, because cats are -- what do you call them -- a predator. She recognized a bigger predator.

"And that's what I was: A predator is something that stalks, calculates, is committed to a kill...knows when to spring or jump. That would describe me, as well. I turned into a calculating predator to finish what I had committed myself to going through with."

When at last the tape ends, the courtroom is silent. Stunned, perhaps numbed. Through much of the eight hours, Neal sat listening to himself, shaking his head back and forth like others in the courtroom. Bachmeyer hopes the tape clears the contrast between the man who can discuss extremely graphic violence without flinching in September 1998 and the contrite, "I've found Jesus" defendant who delivered his own opening statements.

He says he loves animals, yet he pitchforks a cat and punches in the skull of a "mean" puppy. He claims to have been raped and haunted by the trauma of it, yet he rapes the most innocent girl he can find. He says he loves Rebecca, Candace and Angie, yet he robs them, dupes them into thinking he's got a surprise waiting for them, then splits their skulls open with an ax.

William Cody Neal was right about one thing, Bachmeyer thinks. He's certainly a predator -- if not "better than Bundy," then out of the same mold.

The prosecution closes its case with "victim impact" statements from the families of Rebecca Holberton, Candace Walters and Angela Fite.

One by one, family members make their way to the witness stand. They recall how each victim met the killer who sits a dozen feet away. The promises he made. The vulnerabilities he exploited.

Then they tell of how they knew before it was official that something was horribly wrong. And of the anguish they have felt since the murders were discovered.

Rebecca Holberton was the first to die. A 25-year employee of US West, she'd moved to Lakewood from Oregon in 1995, leaving her ex-husband and family behind. Her mother, who has Alzheimer's, hasn't been told about her murder; she still asks her other daughter, Debbie LaComb, why Rebecca doesn't visit or call.

After the murders, fellow workers described Holberton as an exemplary employee who "would show up for work with a big smile on her face every day." She had circled July 5 on her calendar, because she was to begin a new job with the company that Monday. But by then she'd already been dead five days.

Rebecca Holberton's ex-husband, Rodney, an airline pilot, remembered her as filled with joy and warmth for others. "She always had a smile on her face. I mean, she was a kind, gentle person."

But there were problems. Rebecca's former sister-in-law, Tammy, had remained one of her best friends. In September 1997, Tammy and her husband had met Rebecca and Cody Neal in Las Vegas; she thought Neal was a "moocher" who was living off Rebecca.

Neighbors said Holberton did not return greetings and kept to herself, even covering her windows with brown paper. Co-workers, when they reported her missing, told the sheriff's department they were worried because she had suffered from depression -- a depression other friends claimed was a result of realizing she'd been ripped off by Neal. She had told one co-worker that she was ready to get Neal out of her life.

On the witness stand, Debbie LaComb reads the first of several letters that Tingle had asked family members to write as though addressing the deceased.

"Dear Rebecca," Debbie begins, "I want to tell you how much I love you. I'm sorry I never really told you that before. I miss you so much. I even miss the arguments we used to get into sometimes. I miss talking to you about Mom and the funny things she does.

"She asks about you quite often, wondering where you are, but I don't tell her...I have your ring. I wear it all the time. It makes me feel close to you, like you are with me...

"It makes me so sad to think of how awful your life must have been those last few months. So full of pain and sorrow. I wish you would have told me what was going on...maybe, in some way, I could have helped.

"You will always be with me. I will see you again in another place, a happier place free of pain and sadness."

Holly Walters takes the stand to talk about her mother, Candace. The only child of a single mother, "I was fortunate to have a mom who spent a lot of time with me," she says. "We were extremely close. The older I got, the closer we got."

Candace and her husband had divorced soon after moving to Colorado 26 years before, but they had remained friends. When her father died and left her a small inheritance of a few thousand dollars, she'd used part of it to buy her ex a household full of furniture, since he'd left everything behind for her and Holly after the divorce. "She was the most generous person I knew," he said.

On the witness stand, Holly recalls how she and her mother enjoyed going on almost daily walks on Green Mountain. "Her dreams were simple: a house and a dog and as much free time as possible to enjoy her hikes." She had been working as a bartender at the Sheraton Hotel for many years when she met Cody Neal shortly after Christmas 1997. He was very charismatic and caring...sitting with her all night after work, just talking in a booth. He invited her to a New Year's Eve party. "He was renting a whole floor at the hotel," Holly says.

The relationship got "fairly intense fairly quickly," which was unusual for her mother, who'd last been in a committed relationship several years before and had said "she was going to stay away from men." Holly pauses, then looks at Neal. "I wish she had."

Holly was concerned about this man with all the tall tales and a seemingly endless supply of money. But her mother was "happier than I had ever seen her." She genuinely cared for Cody and was worried about his battle to gain custody of his daughter.

Holly wasn't supposed to know about the promises Cody was making to her mother. "He was very explicit about that," she says. But when she learned about her mother's loans to Cody, she suggested that they try to find out more about him.

The last time Holly saw Cody, they had both just arrived at her mother's apartment. "He gave me an extremely warm hug. He was in a very, very good mood," she says, again looking at the defendant until he looks away.

Tingle asks her to read her letter. "Dear Mom," she begins, "There is so much I want to say to you, so many things I want to share. And I am hoping that this letter finds its way to you somehow. I have been struggling to find a reason for all that has happened, and why it was you that had to be taken from me. Of all the people in this world, I will never understand why someone who loved life so very much and had so much to offer had to be the one to fall.

"My life has been changed forever, and words can never convey how very much I miss you. I miss your laughter, your smile, your warmth. I miss the comfort your hugs once brought me. I miss the walks, the conversations, the silence we shared on Sunday afternoons when all we needed was each other's company. I miss sharing my life with you.

"In the silence of my quiet moments, I try and remember each detail of our lives together and the details of you as the person that you were. I listen for the sound of your laughter in my mind, the tone of your voice. I imagine your bright blue eyes and your tender touch... although it often brings me to tears, the memories are bittersweet.

"When I walk, I try and take familiar paths that we once walked together, remembering the conversations, the happiness I felt at that time. I feel the breeze and wonder if you are there with me still, if you can feel me trying to hold on to you.

"I want you to know that I haven't forgotten all that we experienced together...or all that you taught me. From the simple things like roller skating and cooking to the important things like how to treat others, to live my life as full and as passionately as possible, and to take advantage of each moment I have here on this earth. I am still learning from you, and I ask myself each day if I am doing things like you would have wanted, to take my time with people and try and send love out to those less fortunate.

"Although I can hardly imagine bringing a child into this world at this point, I know that one day I will. I regret that my child will not have a grandmother to love, and God knows I could use your guidance. But I will do my best to teach my child who you were and what you were about. The beliefs and morals my child will learn are yours, and so a piece of you will be passed on, and my love for you will be shared. I love you, Mom. You were -- you ARE -- the best Mom I could have ever been blessed with. I hope I can make you proud and that you are up in heaven right now, smiling down on me."

It is not in her letter, but Holly has one more thought as she ends and looks at Neal. "I never thought that someone who meant so very little to me could take so much from me."

Tara Brewer, the sister of Angela Fite, now climbs into the witness box. Turning cold eyes on the defendant, she describes how Angie's murder took away her "zest for life" just three weeks before her impending marriage.

"She was always happy," she says of her sister. "All she wanted was a nice, healthy home for herself and her children. And someone to care for her, love her and treat her with respect."

Angela's estranged husband, Mike Kelly, had been abusive, arrested for domestic violence. So Angela had left him and was working as a dental assistant when she met Cody Neal. Shortly into the relationship, he was promising her the home she wanted for her children.

After her murder, a family spokesperson asked that the public remember that "Angie and the other victims were innocent of any wrongdoing...Angie simply put her trust in the wrong person, as apparently did the other two victims, which resulted in this senseless tragedy." The spokesperson noted that a trust fund had been established for Angela's two children: Angela Fite Memorial Fund, Norwest Bank Southwest Plaza, 8500 West Bowles Avenue, Littleton.

Now, on the witness stand, Tara says she met Cody once and was not impressed. She thought he was full of bullshit. But her sister believed him "because she wanted all that so bad."

At one point, Angela had mentioned that she thought Neal was going to ask her to marry him. But toward the end, she was ready to get away from him. "She said, 'I'm about there,'" Tara recalls.

As she testifies, Tara frequently faces Neal -- but he can't hold her gaze. He wipes at his eyes when she recounts when Mike Kelly told Angela's five-year-old son, Kyle, that Cody Neal had killed his mother. "No," Kyle had cried. "No, he was my friend. He bought me a bear."

Tara is followed on the stand by Angela's mother, Betty Von Tersch. Her daughter was a straight-A student and "a good little girl." When she asked Angela to meet the mysterious new man in her life, who said he'd been a "hitman" for the mob and "only went after bad guys," her daughter had said he wasn't ready to meet her family yet.

On July 4, Angela had been happy. The next day, she told her mother, Cody was going to show her "the surprise he had for her." It was the last time they ever saw each other. Several days later, she realized something was wrong when the babysitter called and said Angela had not picked up Kyle and two-year-old Kayla.

Angela's family first heard about the Lakewood murders from press reports. It was unclear who had died; there were so many rumors. She hoped that her daughter would call soon and say, "You'll never believe what happened, but I'm okay.'"

But that call never came. "Everybody handles it a little differently," Angela's mother says. "Everybody hurts a little differently. I've cried almost every day for a year and two months." Kyle cries, too. Kayla, too young to grasp what happened, toddles around the house, hugging pictures of Angie, picking up a toy telephone to call her mother "in heaven."

Betty also has written a letter to her daughter, to "My Dearest Little Angel Angie.

"I miss you so much. I wish I could physically just see you and talk like we used to, hold you and let you know that everything will be okay, even if only for one minute. When I learned of your death, a darkness prevailed over me for many months and at times reoccurs. When Cody took your life, he also took a huge part of me that can never be replaced. At that point, my life changed forever.

"Every day, I try to accept the fact that you are gone and you are not coming back. Some day, after time, I think that peace will come to me. I cannot accept the tragedy that happened to you. No one deserves to die the way you, Candace and Rebecca did. Not one of you girls wanted to die. You did not have the chance to make that choice.

"I do know in my heart that even though we have had those beautiful memories of our happy times, life's hardships and struggles and the darkness and gloom of a gruesome tragedy, that the love and bond between a mother and daughter never dies.

"The loss of a child is the most painful experience a mother will ever endure...There are a lot of missing pieces to this whole thing that I still do not understand and may never, until I see you again. Please give me and everyone in our family the strength to understand this so we can someday have a normal life again.

"For the rest of my life and even beyond, I will do everything I can to love, protect and care for your babies, Kyle and Kayla. I love them as much as my own children. It breaks my heart to know your children will grow up without their mother. They have been deprived of the love, hugs, kisses and comfort of their mom. Your family is giving them that for you with all we have to give.

"Sweetheart, you never deserved what happened to you. You were a person who had a heart of gold and cared about people. Unfortunately, this awful thing did happen and now we all have to deal with what lies ahead...I love you sweetheart. My heart and soul are with you every minute of each day. I miss you so much."

With that, the prosecution rests its case.

William Lee "Cody" Neal's defense is short. Like a real lawyer, he calls each witness to the stand, asks each to "state your full name and spell your last name."

The first is Byron Plumley, Neal's spiritual advisor since August, when he called and expressed remorse for his actions. "But I can only say what I've seen and heard."

Neal has "what you call 'surrendered' to God and the judgment of this court," says Plumley, who has attended most of the hearing. "Your defense is rooted in what you believe that God is asking you to do," he tells the defendant, and that includes not cross-examining the government's witnesses or objecting to prosecution evidence or testimony.

All men have the spark of the divine in them, Plumley concludes. "I believe that you have the spark of the divine in you as well," he says to Neal, but only time will tell if his "transformation" is a permanent one.

The rest of Neal's witnesses are Jeffco investigators and guards who are called to testify regarding his behavior. Courteous and forthcoming, never threatening.

One of those called to the stand is Aceves. Neal asks him if, "knowing me" from their interactions, he would say that Neal "fits the description" of the man who committed the murders.

"No," Aceves acknowledges, looking as though he'd rather have his teeth pulled than be there.

Does Aceves believe that Neal has killed other people?

"Based on information from you?" the investigator replies. "No...but we don't know for sure."

Soon Neal has called his last witness. It's Friday afternoon, and he asks the court for the weekend to think over whether he will testify. Judge Woodford grants him the time.

On Monday, Neal announces that he's decided not to testify. It he did, the prosecution would have the right to cross-examine him. He would like to make a statement of allocution, however, one not given under oath or on the witness stand -- and one not open to questioning.

During this allocution, Neal essentially repeats his opening statements, noting that he lived up to his promise not to cross-examine the victims' family members or other prosecution witnesses. He acknowledges that his crimes deserve no mercy, but says he wants to live so that he can "serve God in prison."

"How could anyone have mercy on someone like me?" he asks. "To those three beautiful women that I ruthlessly murdered, I gave no mercy, or they would be here today. So I find it difficult to ask that of this court. The man that did that deserves none."

But he is not that man anymore, William Neal says. "My heart was stone, and only God can change a heart."

Tingle rises from his seat for his closing arguments. "Mr. Neal stated in his opening that when he committed the brutal, heinous murders of Rebecca Holberton and Candace Walters and Angela Fite, that on some level it was like casting a stone into a pond, that the ripple effect touched the lives of everyone.

"In retrospect, that stone was more like a bombshell and those ripples more like tidal waves. People have not been merely touched by the heinous murders that Mr. Neal committed. People's lives have been shattered, their futures have been destroyed.

"It is not merely enough to say that they have been touched, or that there is pain, or that there is suffering."

Tingle looks at Neal, who is listening carefully, leaning forward and glancing up at the judges. "I stand before you this morning with an impossible task," the prosecutor says. "That is, to adequately summarize how the defendant's vicious slaughter of innocent women has impacted the family, has impacted this community, and to describe the magnitude of the loss of life for Rebecca Holberton and Candace Walters and Angela Fite.

"All too often in this business, this sometimes horrible business that we are in, we begin to distance ourselves from what has truly happened from the real human impact...We sit here in the courtroom, a sterile environment, removed by many months, yet we try to, through the evidence, recall what happened, and we try to understand the impact of those crimes...I have struggled and struggled to try to find words that adequately somehow relate what has happened in this case, and I can't."

Instead, he asks the judges to recall the words of the victims' family members. Dear Rebecca, I want to tell you how much I love you. I'm sorry I never really told you. We love you and miss you. We will never forget you...Mom, there is so much I want to say to you, so many things I want to share. I am hoping that this letter finds its way to you somehow. There is no bond so sacred as a mother and daughter share...My dearest little angel Angie, I miss you so much. I wish I could physically just see you and talk like we used to, hold you and let you know everything will be okay, even if only for one minute. When Cody took your life, he also took a huge part of me that can never be replaced.

And what do Neal's own words and actions say about his character? That's one of the aspects that the judges must base their final ruling on. "He talked so calmly months later," during his interview with Aceves and Zimmerman, "about how with each swing, Rebecca's head got 'sloppier and sloppier.'"

On July 1, Neal gave Holly Walters a big hug. "He was in a great mood as Rebecca Holberton lay dead in the living room of her townhouse."

On July 3, with Candace Walters dead only a few hours, Neal is in such a good mood that he playfully asks Beth to marry him. "That someone can play a practical joke, hours after committing two savage murders...Does that say something about his character?

"Mind you, the defendant is good. He is good. Able to convince Rebecca Holberton, Candace Walters, Angela Fite, Suzanne of unbelievable things."

Pointing at Neal, Tingle says, "He knew Kyle and knew Kayla, and he murdered their mother."

He places the photograph of Angela, still taped in the chair, back on the overhead. What does it say about the character of a man who forced Suzanne into oral sex just inches from the body of a dying woman? he asks.

The prosecutor plays excerpts from Neal's confession. "I was better than Bundy would have ever been...I had a killer in me all my life...

"A pale horse, and the rider is Death with Hades following. That's me."

Tingle cautions the judges not to believe Neal's assertions that he has "turned back," as he likes to quote a Turkish philosopher. "Those words have no meaning coming from him. He is a manipulator of the highest degree, a schemer, a con artist of unequaled ability.

"He does not deserve your mercy. Your compassion should be reserved for his murder victims...The death penalty is justice. To be merciful and not impose the death penalty is wrong, for to be merciful to the cruel is to be indifferent to the good."

Tingle takes his seat. Judge Woodford asks Neal if he wishes to make a closing argument. The defendant listens to Canney, his advisory counsel, then shakes his head. "I said what I wanted to say in allocution."

And that's it. That's the strategy that Neal would not reveal to anyone. That's the end result of all those telephone calls, all that time in the law library, those stacks of death-penalty materials.

Woodford announces that judges will render their decision on Wednesday, September 29. The court is adjourned.

During deliberations, the three judges find that the state had proved all of its aggravators, with only minor deviations. They then reject all of Neal's mitigators. More than that, they spurn everything Neal had to say for himself.

For starters, they don't believe his claim to have been sexually assaulted. "Given William Neal's pattern of habitual lying, the panel questions the accuracy of these events," they write in the court order that will be handed down with the final sentence.

They doubt his remorse. "William Neal is so self-absorbed that his capacity for remorse is questionable."

Nor are they impressed that Neal chose not to cross-examine family members in order to save them further anguish. "The panel discounts such concessions given the overwhelming evidence, pre-arrest statements and self-serving post-arrest confessions."

Even his religious conversion "is suspect, given the timing."

In fact, they throw Neal's words back at him. "William Neal referred repeatedly to his religious conversion and cited the Bible during his allocution, requesting mercy and forgiveness. The panel also recalls that William Neal used the Bible in his statement to police: 'It's Revelations 8:6, about this pale horse, and on it was a rider, and his name was Death, and Hades followed him. That's me, okay.'

"William Neal claims to be a changed man and, therefore, requests mercy. William Neal cannot point to the past as a basis for mercy but asks the Panel to trust him in his promise toward the future. This Panel is unwilling to do so. The Panel relies upon the past as the best predictor of the future. William Neal's plea rings hollow in light of his past deceits and evil deeds.

"All three murder victims in this case were warm, loving, caring individuals. Each, in their own way, was in a vulnerable position at the time they met and began to interact with William Neal. It is clear William Neal chose them in large measure precisely because of their vulnerabilities.

"All three murder victims came from close-knit families. They shared close bonds. The impact of this murderous slaughter on the families has been enormous. Their grief is immeasurable, and their loss incalculable. An integral part of each family member has been taken from them and can never be replaced. All have suffered tremendously. Beyond all of this is the fact that one day Angela Fite's two children will learn the brutal way in which their mother died and, at that time, will have to deal with this horror yet again."

For perhaps the first time in his adult life, Neal's words have failed to move their intended audience. He is revealed, in his own words, as "just a stinkin' liar."

he Jefferson County courtroom is packed on September 29.

As he and the two other judges take their seats at the dais, Woodford says he will not be reading the 36-page findings of the panel. They are there only to announce the verdict.

Neal's eyes are fixed straight ahead at the panel, his hands clasped in front of him. As judges Martinez and Meyer stare down at the defendant, Woodford quickly announces that "the only penalty for the brutal, needless killing visited upon these kind and lovely ladies is death."

Neal doesn't react. A single, collective shout -- "Yes!" -- comes from the family section of the gallery. Although he says he knows this is an "emotional issue," Woodford admonishes the crowd to be quiet. And then, a surprise: The lights blink and the courtroom goes black. The deputies move quickly to surround their prisoner. Just as quickly, the lights come on. William Cody Neal will not escape his fate.

Randy Canney, the defendant's advisory counsel, stands in the hallway after the verdict. He believes Neal is mentally ill, delusional, and shouldn't have been representing himself. "I don't know if Cody is so wrought with guilt that he felt he had to represent himself. It may be part of his mental illness." The day before the death-penalty trial, Canney had attempted one last time to raise the issue of competency. He'd had Neal's sister Sharon, the only sibling still talking to him, call in her testimony. Her brother "goes from being rational to incoherent in the same conversation," she'd told the judge, and he'd claimed he was "possessed." But Woodford had rejected Canney's argument, and the trial had gone forward with Neal representing himself.

A few minutes after court is adjourned, the victims' families meet with the media. They thank the prosecutors and investigators "for their commitment and sensitivity" and express their feelings over the outcome.

"This brings some closure, but it does not bring back my mom, Angela or Rebecca," Holly Walters says.

"This is not going to be over for us for a very, very long time," adds Wayne Fite, Angela's father.

They all plan to attend Neal's execution. "To the end," says Wayne. "To the end," Holly repeats.

William Cody Neal has a way of making even his victims' survivors feel guilty. Some of them will have to live with that heartache, as well as their loss.

In the months before her murder, Wayne had pushed his daughter away because she would not get out of an abusive relationship with Mike Kelly. And then she found much worse: Cody Neal.

Mike Kelly, who had testified that he had never loved anyone as much as Angie, will also have to look at himself and ask why Angie had to look for love and safety in the arms of another man.

Holly Walters knows she will spend the rest of her life wishing she had looked harder into Neal's life. But her mother was very selective about the men she got involved with -- and she was so happy.

"My mother was an extremely trusting person who gave a lot of herself in relationships and expected a lot in return," Holly says later. "I think she was tired of being alone, and he offered her the moon. He had a charisma she found irresistible.

"But it was never about the money...the really outrageous numbers he was throwing out only happened in that last week. For none of these women was it about the money. It was everything to do with his presence and the way he communicated."

For her, the hardest part of the trial was listening to Neal on the tape, describing how "cute and studious" her mom looked sitting on the chair. "Until he bashed her head in. Most people don't equate 'cute and studious' with wanting to murder somebody."

While many of the victims' family members and even the victim's advocates considered Holly Walters the rock -- strong, upbeat and always looking out for everybody else -- she says she got her strength from Suzanne. The night before she was to testify, she couldn't get through the letter she had to read. But on the witness stand, Holly thought of Suzanne's courageous testimony -- what she'd survived in order to be there -- and got the strength to go on.

She had lived for the day when she could confront Neal "and verbalize what he had taken from me," Holly says now. "I wanted to look him in the eyes and try to understand the person behind them. I had found it difficult to think that he looked at my mom with those same eyes when she felt so much love for him."

Like many other family members and friends of the victims, Holly is adamant about getting one point across: Neal picked intelligent, attractive women for his targets, and he was a master at finding out where they were vulnerable.

"These women had dreams and hopes," she says. "He offered them a glimpse of a future."

Canney, a well-respected attorney on both sides of the aisle, says he's troubled that the judges weren't "painted a fuller picture of Cody's life." Had he been allowed to take a more active role, he would have brought in "people who have good things to say about him...It's not like for the past three or four years he's been an absolute con. He can be a nice guy. He was a good businessman. He's a very engaging man.

"Why, when he was 42 years old, did he suddenly do this horrible thing?" Canney wonders. "While he may not have been the most law-abiding citizen, he had no criminal record. In looking for answers, you have to hope that there's some good in everybody, an explanation for the bad...I don't believe in abject evil. I think there's a reason."

Bachmeyer, who had been troubled by Neal-inspired nightmares, has been left emotionally "flat" by the trial, she says. "There's no joy...Maybe a sense of satisfaction that the families got justice, but I can't say I'm happy. That's not the right word."

"I hope it gives the families some closure," Tingle adds. "But it's not over for them. This will drag on for years. As for myself, my biggest emotion is that I'm glad it's over. It seems like for the past year, I've been walking around day and night with a big dark cloud hanging over my head. I hope it goes away now."

Both prosecutors wonder if there are other bodies buried in Neal's past. The question haunts investigators as well.

There are four other women who can attest to the damage William Neal has done: his former wives. Although they survived their marriages, they still bear scars.

The first wants to stay far away from anything concerning Neal.

The third wife told Jeffco investigators that Neal was "very controlling" and tried to separate her from her family and friends. He told her about his first two wives and how he was the victim of their lies and infidelities. She knew that inside, Neal was "full of rage"; he had once pushed her against a wall and choked her.

The pair finally separated in November 1990, the day Neal told police that she was suicidal. She was plenty angry but far from suicidal -- and she never went to the "loony bin," as Neal told his fourth wife.

Still, she blamed herself "entirely" for the breakup. And when Neal left, he took more than her heart. He took a cash advance on her credit cards totalling $9,000 and another $1,500 out of her savings account. But because they were still married at the time, she never could recoup her losses. It made one of his favorite sayings resonate all the more: "Anybody stupid enough to believe me deserves to get fucked."

She had warned the investigators that Neal was such a good con, she was afraid he could beat the system on even this case. "I just knew I would see Bill's name in the headlines some day," she told them.

Jennifer, the fourth wife, stayed in touch with Cody's family even after he told her to stay out of his life. That's how she heard when he was arrested for the murder of three women.

For all she had been through with Cody, she just couldn't believe that he would kill. When she went to see him in jail the next day, he cried and choked over his words as he told her how much he missed and needed her.

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

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

It made Jennifer ill to hear how he'd sucked in Candace Walters with that story about wanting custody of their daughter. Of the two years between their daughter's birth and their divorce, if Jennifer totaled every day, every hour, every minute Neal spent any time at all with their child, it would have amounted to "maybe two months," she says.

"All the photographs I have of him and her, he has this expression of 'Hurry up and get it over with.' Only when he was in public and trying to impress people did he ever act like she was his."

Jennifer has met a young man closer to her own age, not particularly well-schooled in romance but absolutely dedicated to family life. Together they are raising her first child, his from a previous marriage and a baby that's theirs. They live in a little house, where Jennifer is a stay-at-home mom.

She couldn't be happier...except for the fear that Cody will find a way to get at her from prison. The fear is so great that she hardly lets their daughter out of her sight.

"She can't go to friends' houses. I won't even let her go on field trips, and that's sad," she says. "I won't take her to a babysitter except for my mom, and she's a bad-ass biker bitch who would tear Cody to pieces."

Karen was Neal's second wife. She'd been sitting on the front porch of her home in Tennessee when her husband came to the door and told her there was a telephone call about Neal.

When she found out what had happened, Karen fell to her knees, gagging. Guilt rose up around her like the stench of her vomit. She remembered Neal's threat to "fuck over every woman in my path." She'd thought he meant he'd ruin women financially and emotionally, as he done to her. Never had it crossed her mind that he would kill a woman.

Now she knew she'd been blind to the real man beneath charmin' Billy.

Over the next few weeks, Karen begged God to forgive her for not watching Bill, not warning other women to stay away from him. She'd think of a hundred ways she should have killed him when she had the chance -- and then ask God to forgive her for wishing Bill dead.

She, too, was afraid. If he'd killed these women, maybe he'd come after her. He was in jail, but he had always known how to find her and what she was doing from a thousand miles away. And he'd always seemed to know everybody and how to get them to do anything.

Karen hadn't heard from William Neal for years, and suddenly she was getting a lot of hang-up calls from Colorado. Three rings, and then no one on the other end of the line.

Finally, one of Bill's sisters put Karen in contact with Jennifer. Somehow, together, they found the courage to keep each other sane.

Listening to Jennifer, Karen recognized that Bill had used the same tricks, and probably used them on every other woman he'd ever met. First came the charm -- the bubble baths, the rose petals, the extravagant gifts, the promises of a bright and shiny future. Then the obsessive jealousy and accusations of infidelity. And the other women.

That's why, despite her fear, it became so important to Karen to let the families of Neal's victims know this behavior wasn't new. He didn't suddenly snap. He'd been building toward this -- if, indeed, this was his first act of murder, and she had her doubts about that -- for a long time.

"The thing that made these women so wonderful, trusting, loving, were the things that made them targets. He found things in all of us that he could exploit. I just hope someday to be able to convey to the families that it could have been any woman in their daughter's and mother's shoes. None of us were stupid.

"He's just the con artist from hell. There was nothing they could have done to stop him from picking those women. If he wanted them, he was going to get them."

She wonders if he ever loved her. Whether the creature hiding behind that smile and those blue eyes was even capable of love.

"All I know is that life, and love, is not about bubble baths and rose petals," she says. "Be careful, and if you ever run into a man named William Lee Neal, turn and walk away."

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