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May 12, 2011 | 12:00 a.m. CST
When William Paul Neeley smiles, his big salt-and-pepper mustache twitches, and his startling blue eyes radiate kindness. His hands are worn and weathered from years of landscaping under the Texas sun. At 6 feet 4 inches, he’s a tall man but walks with a slight hunch that looks painful and betrays his experience with hard labor. Neeley doesn’t fit the stereotype of a scary murderer. But on March 13, 1994, after his youngest daughter, Charlie Neeley, then 16, told him that his former friend Tony Michael Terrell raped her when she was 12, he borrowed a .22-caliber pistol from his friend Ed Mackey and killed Terrell.
He remembers that night from an observer’s standpoint: watching from above as two smaller figures sparred in the dark. His once uncontrollable fury became a dull numbness that ebbed into a strange calm. When Neeley left his home in Holt’s Summit a few hours later to meet Terrell, he wasn’t nervous or shaking. His movements were slow and deliberate. With a phone call, he lured Terrell to Missouri Furniture, where Neeley worked in Jefferson City, with the promise of a crisp $100 bill and all the furniture they could steal and carry out of the back door. When Terrell showed up, Neeley confronted him and asked him to confess. Terrell denied everything. Neeley pulled out the gun. He told Terrell to pray for forgiveness while he prayed for forgiveness for what he was about to do. Terrell refused, and Neeley shot at him — six times in the head, chest and back.
As he fired the weapon, Neeley thought about the pain Charlie was going through and how it was partly his responsibility for bringing Terrell into his home. He felt no mercy until Terrell tried to escape around a corner and collapsed. Seeing him suffer triggered a brief flash of compassion. He didn’t want the man to die slowly, so he fired two more bullets into Terrell’s head. As he stood there holding the emptied gun, all Neeley could think about was that Terrell was gone.
On March 15, 1994, Jefferson City, police found Mike Terrell’s bullet-riddled body. Neeley planned to turn himself in that night, but not before enjoying one last steak dinner at a local restaurant with friends. It wasn’t crowded that night, just a few old-timers in baseball caps who were bathing in the glow of the flickering television mounted above the bar. He followed their gaze to the screen. There was a picture of Terrell on the news with a caption that read, “Body found behind Missouri Furniture store. No suspects at this time, but believed to be drug-related.” He knew if he turned himself into the sheriff now, people might never know the truth behind his crime.
Instead, he called Bob Groothand, who was then manager of Jefferson City station KRCG-TV, and arranged to surrender on-air in order to state on the record that his actions were motivated by a desire to protect his daughter. His televised confession in 1994 drew worldwide attention. Barbara Walters interviewed him on 20/20, he appeared on Oprah, and his case was featured on Inside Edition, Court TV, BBC and Nova.
When people heard Neeley’s story, they rallied behind him. He thinks the publicity changed everything, including his sentencing. “The court and the jury had mercy for me,” Neeley says. “They only filed second-degree murder when it could have been first.”
On Nov. 18, 1994, he was sentenced to 10 years in a medium-security prison, but good behavior got him out after seven. Neeley remembers being deeply depressed at the beginning. He missed his family and regretted not being around to help Charlie. It didn’t take him long to learn a few things about his new life. “Everything’s about respect in prison,” Neeley says. “You adapt after seven years to that life. You realize there’s nothing you can do for anyone on the outside; there’s nothing anyone on the outside can do for you. I had to make that my world.”
He committed himself to leaving prison a better man. He read books and spent time in prayer. He didn’t care whether people forgave him as long as God did. But forgiving himself was harder to do. For the first year and a half, he forced himself to write a 304-page memoir. He hated reliving his crime over and over, but writing about it was therapeutic. He also answered every letter he received while in prison.
A woman named Marissa Lyndsey persistently wrote to him, then started visiting from Texas and found that they shared similar business interests. She wanted to start a landscaping company; he had experience with landscaping and wanted to leave Missouri far behind. After seven months and four face-to-face visits, she proposed, and they married in 1999, two years before his release. It was far from a traditional romance. “I wasn’t in love with her,” Neeley says. “I wasn’t physically attracted to her. But I loved her mind, her belief in God and knowledge of scripture, and I loved her willingness to start a business and work hard to get it going.
When he was released in 2001, he moved in with Lyndsey. Starting a new life was exciting but scary. After all the strength she gave him in prison, he was desperate to please her. He plowed, planted and shoveled 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week while she sat in the house. Neeley suspected that she only married him as a cheap source of labor. After eight years, he’d had enough of his wife and Texas. “We had a confrontation,” he says. “I said ‘Bye’ and moved back to Missouri.
Because he couldn’t afford a lawyer for the divorce proceedings, Lyndsey walked away with 90 percent of everything, including the business. Her son took Neeley’s job and his 2003 Dodge pickup. He had to start over again.
That wasn’t easy in Jefferson City’s recession-stricken economy. Until April of this year, he couldn’t find an affordable place to live, so he bounced around from his mother’s and brothers’ homes. His job possibilities are few. He has applied at filling stations, car dealerships, construction companies, furniture stores and other various sales jobs. So far, he has received no job offers.
He never lies on job applications. When the form asks if he’s ever been convicted of a crime, he writes, “Yes, but may I please talk (about it) at the interview?” When he explains his criminal past to prospective employers, no one ever laughs at him or gives him the cold shoulder. Some of them tell him he did the right thing, but none of them offer him a job. Neeley admits his defeatist attitude often gets the better of him, and he won’t even bother to turn the application in once he has filled it out. He has already made up his mind that employers won’t call him back.
Persistent negative thoughts, depression and anxiety have plagued Neeley since his release. Certain situations, such as rowdy crowds, trigger a sense of panic.
Wherever he goes, he worries he’ll run into friends and family of Terrell. A social life is one thing he hasn’t tried to rebuild. His friends before prison were bad influences, and he has no interest in forming new friendships. He’d rather spend time with his family.
They’ve always stayed on his side though his crime affected all of their lives. Charlie has found it especially tough to pick up the pieces. She had her first child at 16. She named the second one Paul Allen after her father, but the baby died of an infection at six weeks, before Neeley could ever meet him. She had three more children but lost touch with her father and family. At age 32, she is now in jail in Vandalia for violating her DUI probation. He misses her every day and regrets not being able to see his grandchildren.
When he gets depressed, Neeley tries to focus on the bright spots in his horizon. The Jefferson City Housing Authority leased him an apartment for $50 a month, which he can afford even without a job. His girlfriend of two years, Monica Mackey, recently became his fiancee. She’s known him 25 years, since long before his crime and subsequent sentencing. Even with his demons, she knows he’s a good person. Although they haven’t set a date, Monica is the biggest part of Neeley’s support system, the one who keeps him smiling. “As far as I’m concerned, I feel like I’m married now,” he says.
Neeley says taking justice into his own hands wasn’t worth the damage it did to his spirit, his family or his life. If he could take it back, he would undo the murder and all the pain it caused Charlie, focus on her rehabilitation and let the courts sort out Terrell. But he can’t. He focuses on the days ahead, one a time, each one as likely as the next to present him with new opportunities.