VARNELL — Zachary Wade said he got an “adrenaline rush” when he saw Adolph Ray “Sonny” Neal — accused of killing Neal’s wife and her grandfather on May 24 — walking quickly and attempting to hide under a willow tree behind the Dollar General store here on Thursday.
“I was looking around because I knew that was the area where they were looking for him,” said Wade, 18, who was riding with his mother to the store to get a gift card. “We had just crossed the (Highway 201) bridge (over the railroad tracks) and I saw a man with a red shirt and blue jeans on walking in the field toward the train tracks. He was trying to hide under that tree so we turned around and he was right there by the tree. I knew it was him.”
Wade said he made the call to 911 at 12:50 p.m. and within minutes officers were at the store.
“He was kinda moving a little fast, but he didn’t seem like a guy who just killed two people — he didn’t seem like he was in that much of a hurry — but he was moving faster than normal,” Wade remembered.
He said when Neal came out of the field, hands cuffed behind his back and “surrounded by around 15 cops,” he appeared to have no emotion.
“His lips were closed and he looked rough, like he was sick,” Wade said. “I heard he was dehydrated. But he was walking straight ahead like he had a goal in mind. He looked very nonchalant.”
Authorities had been searching for Neal for a week for the alleged murders of Jessica Neal, 27, and Don William Shedd, 69, at their Green Springs Road home in the Dawnville community. “Be on the lookout” alerts were issued regionally and nationwide. Neal was taken into custody around 1:10 p.m.
“Whew, they just got him,” said Greg Ramey, an agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) in confirming the arrest moments later. “In a nutshell, (the Georgia State Patrol) and local police officers were back up in the area this morning doing a real heavy patrol ... a passerby saw somebody crossing the road fitting the description. They concentrated their search to where that was. Somebody spotted something, said it looked like legs running across a field. They drew it in a little tighter and were able to apprehend him without any confrontation.”
Varnell Police Chief Lyle Grant was contacted after scanner chatter revealed a suspect was “in custody.”
“I’ve got him in my hands,” said Grant. “I gotta get him out of this field.”
Lyle said Neal was on the railroad when he was apprehended.
“He didn’t have anything on him when we got him,” he replied when asked if Neal had any weapons. “We got a tip from a citizen that it was a man in a red shirt and he was running, so we headed that way.” The cause of death for Jessica Neal and Shedd has not been released by the state crime lab, and the Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office is not saying what weapon or weapons were found at the scene of the killings.
Ramey said the groundwork was laid for Neal’s arrest Wednesday afternoon and overnight into Thursday morning.
“I think last night’s work did what it was supposed to do, keeping him to that area,” he said of officers cordoning off a perimeter of about a mile from where Neal was spotted by a couple in a car — Dia and Gilbert Chastain — near the intersection of Highways 2 and 201. “This is really a cooperative effort, all the law enforcement ... we had 75, probably 100 folks, in there (Wednesday) night ... citizens were made aware of it (and) you guys were helping from the media standpoint. It was one of those things that happened the way it was supposed to happen. Everybody pulled together and did what they were supposed to do — great work on everybody’s part.”
Dia Chastain said she was “relieved” when she heard of Neal’s arrest.
“They asked me if I was sure it was him,” she said of the search that began around mid-afternoon on Wednesday. “I told them I was 100 percent sure, that I saw him all the time down at the (Dazzle) tanning studio (owned by the Neals on Cleveland Highway). I sure wouldn’t get 150 officers out there in that heat for nothing.”
Death penalty case?
Neal was taken to Hamilton Medical Center with “environmental injuries (from) trees (and) brush,” said Sheriff Scott Chitwood at a press conference two hours after his capture. Capt. Rick Swiney of the sheriff’s office said Neal was also suffering from dehydration when arrested and whether or not he would stay at the hospital overnight was an “hour by hour” determination. He added that officers were posted at the hospital.
More than a dozen law enforcement and judicial agencies converged on Varnell by late Wednesday afternoon, with as many as 200 officers searching the woods and providing security near the intersection of Highways 2 and 201, said Daniel Sims, special agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation office in Calhoun.
“He looked like he had sustained injuries that you would see from someone who was outdoors for a prolonged period of time,” Sims said of Neal’s appearance. “I don’t know how many days he was out in the elements, but he was out long enough to affect his entire body.”
Chitwood said he was “very proud” that Neal was in custody and noted the tip from a “passerby” led to officers from the Varnell and Cohutta police departments, and the sheriff’s office, converging behind the Dollar General store, where a command post had been set up Wednesday afternoon. Law enforcement was “maintaining a presence” in Varnell on Thursday and responded quickly to the tip, he said.
“The investigation doesn’t lend me to answer at this point whether there was a second individual that actually helped him in his fugitive status ... of course, we haven’t had an opportunity to interview Mr. Neal yet,” Sims said.
District Attorney Bert Poston, who has met with detectives in the past week and was also at the command post in Varnell on Wednesday, was asked on Thursday if this could be a death penalty case.
“That is a question that is way too early to ask or discuss,” he replied. “Once we’ve got a completed report from the sheriff and GBI, and sit down with the victim’s family and all that, we can start talking about that — to determine, one, if it qualifies legally and, secondly, if it would be appropriate or not. It’s not something we would want to speculate on until we get to that point in the process.”
Poston was asked what some of the criteria are in asking for the death penalty.
“There are certain statutorily set aggravating circumstances that have to be present for a case to qualify for the death penalty,” he explained. “One of those is when a murder takes place during the course of another capital felony. So any double murder potentially qualifies under that theory. I really wouldn’t want to say much more beyond that. We’ll have to sit down and look at the full investigative file. It’s just too early to have that discussion.”
Agencies involved in the search for Neal:
• Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office
• Cohutta Police Department
• Conasauga Judicial Circuit
• Dalton Police Department
• Georgia Bureau of Investigation
• Georgia State Patrol (and GSP air/helicopter)
• Gordon County Sheriff’s Office
• Hayes Correctional Facility/Georgia Department of Corrections (K-9 unit)
• Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit
• Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force
• Murray County Sheriff’s Office
• Varnell Police Department
• Walker County Sheriff’s Office
• Whitfield County Emergency Services
• Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office