Sunday, June 3, 2012

Dalton, GA: Whitfield County killings draw back curtain on couple's secrets, jealousy

The night before Jessica Neal was found butchered in her Dalton, Ga., poolhouse, she texted her father, saying: "All hell is breaking loose."

But when Billy Miller asked whether he should come over, his 27-year-old daughter texted back: "No, no, I got it handled."

That was the last time Miller heard from his daughter, said his wife, Cindy. The couple found out the next day that she and her 69-year-old grandfather, Donald Shedd, had been killed, and that Jessica's husband of eight years, Adolph "Sonny" Neal, was the prime suspect.

On Friday, Sonny Neal, 49, was charged with two counts of malice murder in the May 24 slayings.

In the week since the killings, Whitfield County, Ga., authorities had given few details about what happened. Finally on Friday, Sheriff Scott Chitwood revealed for the first time that the two were stabbed and beaten to death.

Family members say that bare description doesn't begin to capture the horror of what happened to their loved ones. Seeing their bodies at the funeral home, they said it was clear that Jessica had been stabbed over and over again. Her grandfather had so many injuries he was nearly unrecognizable.

"He massacred my daughter, and it was worse on her grandfather," said Cindy Miller.

Family members say no one knew the real couple before May 24.

"They portrayed a fantasy existence," said Cindy Miller. "Their marriage was perfect, their home was perfect, everything was perfect."

Jessica, a pretty, tan blonde, was well-liked. She was studying to become a dental hygienist and was the face of Dazzle, the tanning salon and boutique that she owned with her husband. Sonny Neal worked every day inside the shop. He, too, had many friends, and he loved to make his adult daughter from a previous marriage laugh.

Many nights of the week, friends would see photos on social media or hear stories of the Neals partying at bars.

"He went everywhere with her," said Larry Crider, a friend who also cut grass for the couple. "He didn't like her to go to the bathroom without him."

The couple were 22 years apart in age. When they married, she was 19, he was 41. She was his "trophy wife," said Jessica's friend Ginger Mcdade.

Yet behind the facade, things were far from perfect. Both Jessica and Sonny were seeing other people and had been on the verge of divorce for months.

Cindy and Billy Miller never suspected major problems in their daughter's life. They wondered if the couple's portrayal of a perfect life was over the top, but they didn't know.

They didn't think anything was wrong until March, when Sonny Neal called Cindy Miller, saying Jessica had left him.

The Millers had recently moved from Savannah, Ga., to Dalton and were staying with their daughter and son-in-law until they made arrangements to open a new bar. He told them to get out.

After the split, the Millers tried to help their daughter, but she shut them out, saying she was fine, Cindy Miller said.

"She was going through a hard time, but she told us not to worry," she said.

Then on May 23, over lunch, Jessica told her stepmother she was going to divorce her husband, even though he had begged for another chance.

The next morning, she was dead, and Sonny Neal was nowhere to be found.

Police searched for a week but couldn't find him. On Thursday, acting on a tip that he had been seen walking down Highway 201 headed to Varnell, police captured him 12 miles from his house.

The sheriff said authorities believe Sonny Neal had a grudge against someone in the area where he was arrested, but Chitwood wouldn't say who that was.

Cindy Miller said her stepdaughter had a boyfriend. But she said Sonny Neal was also seeing someone else and he knew about his wife's affair.

"He had known that for a while," she said.

Mcdade said Jessica would tell her husband that she was seeing someone else and taunt him with it.

Police won't comment on motives in the killings or whether Neal may have had help eluding capture.

Jessica and Shedd were buried last week. Dozens of people wrote in Jessica's guest book how much they would miss her.

"Good bye pretty lady. You were one of the sweetest and kindest people I ever met," wrote a friend from Dalton.

Sonny Neal is being held in the Whitfield County Jail without bond.

His adult daughter, Miranda Buckner, says she will stand behind her dad.

When Neal was being driven away in a police car Thursday, television cameras captured Buckner yelling, "We love you and we'll support you!"

Friends of the couple wonder how someone they thought they knew could do what Sonny Neal is accused of doing. But they now see how possessive and jealous he was of his young wife.

"He has a very, very good personality," Mcdade said. "But behind closed doors everybody has a different side."

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