Kevin Janson Neal and his wife lived at the end of the road, at the bottom of a ravine, in a battered baby-blue trailer home with a front yard full of broken-down cars, abandoned television sets and assorted other trash.
The only way inside: a makeshift wooden gangplank leading to the back door. Described as delusional by family members, Neal draped a giant metal awning across the front of the house as if to armor himself from the outside world.
“It’s about paranoia, I think,” said Gregg Cohen, the Tehama County district attorney.
Neighbors said Neal turned unpaved Bobcat Lane into a nonstop nightmare. He taunted them, fired guns at them and then called law enforcement to accuse them of running a methamphetamine lab – a charge that appears to have been unfounded, according to Cohen and other law enforcement officials.
Never miss a local story.
Then he unleashed his hellish worldview on the rest of Rancho Tehama Reserve. On Monday he murdered his wife, Barbara Anne Neal, and buried her beneath the floor of their home. The next morning, wearing a military vest and wielding a collection of semi-automatic rifles and handguns, Neal embarked on a 45-minute shooting spree that terrorized the entire community. He killed four more people, including two neighbors.
He shot up Rancho Tehama Elementary School and injured seven children in what a neighbor told The Sacramento Bee likely was an attempt to kill the 7-year-old son of one of his dead neighbors. Shortly after he left the school, he was shot to death by law enforcement officers.
The rampage left Rancho Tehama residents struggling to make sense of what had happened to the place they call “the Ranch” – a remote hamlet of about 2,000 that started out as a retirement community in the 1960s but in recent years had become infected with a dark subculture of illegal marijuana growers.
Stephen May, pastor at Rancho Tehama Community Church, said the community southwest of Red Bluff has “a good heart” but drug use has left an imprint.
“There’s some homeless people up here. There’s some people who are mentally ill up here. Unfortunately, marijuana has taken its toll,” said May, who moved here three years ago from Iowa. “I hate to say it, but I think the long-term marijuana use really caused an environment of totally no motivation. People aren’t motivated to do much here. There’s not a lot of jobs up here, either, so if they’re going to get a job it’s going to be off the Ranch.”
It’s hard to find anyone in Rancho Tehama who wasn’t affected in some way by Neal’s rampage. The rear window of May’s pickup truck was shattered by gunfire as it sat parked in front of the tiny church. Carol McKarson, 78, recalled that she was taking her son a mental health treatment center that morning when they came across one of Neal’s victims, a dead woman lying by the side of the road.
“It’s changed since when I first moved here,” McKarson said a couple of days afterward, struggling to hold back tears. “There’s more people that’s coming in that are not very nice.
“My son lives in Sacramento. … He told me, ‘Mom, I think you need to get a gun.’ I said, ‘What?’ He said ‘to protect yourself.’ I said, ‘Scott, it’s not that bad. This has never happened here before. I’m sure it does happen in other places.’”
Census figures show 43 percent of Rancho Tehama residents live beneath the poverty line, and Neal and his wife were clearly struggling financially.
The couple moved to the area from the Raleigh, N.C., area about a decade ago and bought a home in 2010 on Wagon Wheel Drive for $90,000, according to county real estate records. They defaulted on their mortgage and lost the home to foreclosure. Then, in 2012, records show Barbara’s father, George Glisan, bought them their last home, on Bobcat Lane, about a mile and a half south of the Wagon Wheel residence. Purchase price: $38,500.
Kevin, 44, and Barbara Glisan, 38, were married last May in a civil ceremony at the Tehama County clerk’s office.
Neal’s mother, who lives in North Carolina, told the Associated Press that she posted bail when her son was arrested in January on charges of assaulting two neighbors. Family members told The Sacramento Bee that Neal, 44, who had struggled for decades with mental illness, was reduced to odd jobs. His uncle said Neal had mechanical skills and made some money fixing up old cars and selling them.
When a reporter visited Neal’s home Thursday afternoon, the property sat unguarded and unprotected. Neal’s handiwork was strewn across his yard, in the form of five cars parked randomly and in various states of disrepair. Several had their windows shot out. Four flat-screen TVs lay on the ground, along with car tires, a weed-whacker and a pile of empty soda cans. A metal garage, its door flung open, was filled with a table saw, pieces of stationary bikes and assorted other spare parts.
Court records show Neal surrendered a handgun to a dealer in Red Bluff as part of a restraining order issued by a judge in February after Neal was bailed out of the county jail. Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston said Wednesday that the firearms Neal used in the rampage were illegally manufactured by him at his home, and were unregistered.
One of the victims of the January assault, Hailey Suzanne Poland, obtained the restraining order after Neal continued harassing Poland and other neighbors. Among other things, Neal contacted Cal Fire and accused the neighbors of cooking methamphetamine, according to Cohen, the DA. The order required Neal to stay away from Poland and four other people, including the 7-year-old boy and two of the people who were killed Tuesday: Diana Steele and Danny Elliott.
Neighbors said they complained repeatedly to the Sheriff’s Department about Neal firing weapons at them. They said sheriff’s officials largely turned a deaf ear.
“They told us, quit whining about it,” said Jessie Sanders, 39, who lives on Bobcat Lane and suffered a minor bullet wound in the melee at the school. “The cops said, ‘Can you prove it?’”
Johnston, at a press conference Wednesday, said his department didn’t ignore complaints about Neal’s behavior. Deputies responded to calls about gunfire but Neal was “not law enforcement friendly” and would never come to the door when deputies knocked. The home on Bobcat Lane was placed under surveillance twice, to no avail, he said.
As for Neal’s complaints about his neighbors cooking meth, they appeared to have been fiction. Cal Fire was contacted nine times since mid-February by someone at Neal’s address, mainly for general complaints about smoke but also for allegations of meth being manufactured, said agency spokesman Scott McLean. He said there was no evidence of any illegal activities.
Cal Fire “came in and searched the whole property,” Sanders said. “There’s nothing to find.”
Community leaders said they’re aware of Rancho Tehama’s reputation as a drug haven and have been laboring to clean the area up.
“Parolees, people on probation, they seem to be attracted out here,” said Don Bird, who retired here from Sacramento in 1998. Bird said law enforcement officials seem to be getting a handle on the problems, though.
“There’s more good things here than bad things,” said Bird, 82, who helps with the Rancho Tehama homeowners’ association.
Bob Williams, a county supervisor who owns a ranch a few miles from Rancho Tehama, said the county has banned outdoor marijuana cultivation. It has also begun cracking down on illegal pot irrigation wells and arranged cleanups at garbage-strewn properties.
“I’ve known people in this community for 30-plus years,” Williams said. “I’ve got a lot of friends out here. They wanted their community back.”
Even those who felt Neal’s wrath said Rancho Tehama is a good place in spite of what happened Tuesday.
“It’s a nice place,” said Sanders, who’s lived his in Rancho Tehama his whole life. “The rumors aren’t true. This is a community.”