Grandmother recounts boy's survival in Tehama shooting rampage
Hours after a gunman attacked his school, FBI agents told Gage Elliott his father was dead. The 7-year-old boy didn't hesitate to name the killer.
“I know who it was,” he said. “I know it was my neighbor.”
Gage's neighbor was Kevin Janson Neal. That he was responsible for one of the deadliest mass shootings in Northern California history came as no surprise to anyone who lived near him in rural Tehama County.
Neal's violent meltdown on Nov. 14 left five victims dead, more than a dozen wounded and Gage's elementary school pockmarked with bullet holes. Neal, 44, died as well, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It was the culmination of a year's worth of terror that some in the community say could have been avoided if Tehama County Sheriff Dave Hencratt and his department had taken their complaints about Neal more seriously.
“Nobody had to die," said Joel Silano, a neighbor who called the Sheriff's Office about Neal. "The sheriff could have stopped this. Kevin needed help. … Everyone in the area knew he was a problem.”
A Sacramento Bee investigation, based on interviews, court records and Sheriff's Office dispatch logs, reveals a volatile neighborhood feud that mushroomed into mayhem. Despite a restraining order requiring him to surrender his weapons, Neal routinely frightened his neighbors in remote Rancho Tehama Reserve by firing guns in the air. At least nine people brought Neal's erratic behavior to the attention of the Sheriff’s Office with few tangible results, The Bee found.
Hencratt, who is running for re-election, said his department did everything it legally could and was unable to do more because deputies lacked evidence and credible witnesses. He said these “he said, she said” situations between neighbors are typical and difficult to sort out.
"Human nature is we have to blame somebody, and so my department gets blamed for not doing enough. That’s what it boils down to,” he said. “I know that we did the best we could out there, not just during the incident but prior to it. … You can’t stop evil from doing evil things.”
In the year leading up to his deadly rampage, the Tehama County Sheriff’s Office logged 20 calls from Neal, his wife and their immediate neighbors as their dispute escalated. At least three other people living nearby called the Sheriff's Office about gunfire in the neighborhood, although dispatch logs don't identify the shooter. Research by The Bee also uncovered additional calls about Neal that apparently weren't logged or recorded by dispatchers – including one from Neal’s sister, warning about her brother's mental state.
Deputies who were called to Neal's remote neighborhood typically spent more time driving there than they did on the scene. One visit to the neighborhood last August, prompted by a complaint about Neal's gunfire, lasted eight minutes. Deputies handled some complaints by phone.
No documentation shows deputies checked on the welfare of little Gage Elliott, even though he was named as a "protected person" in the restraining order against Neal. Neighbors said they told deputies about screams coming from the vicinity of Neal's home, but there's no record that the Sheriff's Office flagged Neal's wife, Barbara Glisan, as a possible domestic violence victim. Glisan was apparently the first person Neal killed, her body buried underneath the floor of their disheveled trailer home the night before his other killings.
Silano and others in Rancho Tehama blame the sheriff. Jayne Vinson, who lives nearby and says she called the Sheriff's Office about Neal last October, remembers standing at the gates of the school in the immediate aftermath of Neal's assault, looking for her two grandsons. She said the boys are still afraid, and she is still angry.
“They ignored us, and now they have our blood on their hands and that’s a fact," she said.
‘Quiet upon arrival’
Family members say Kevin Neal was mentally ill and probably delusional. About a year before his deadly rampage, he became convinced that the Elliott family and their friends, who lived a few hundred feet away on a gravel road called Bobcat Lane, were running a methamphetamine lab on their property.
The first documented flare-up happened in the early morning hours of Nov. 13, 2016. Three deputies responded to a call about a physical altercation involving Neal.
Danny Elliott’s friend, Jessie Sanders, who was living in a trailer on their property, was helping his girlfriend Danielle Daniel look for a lost eyeglass case on Bobcat. Neal approached Daniel carrying a gun and flashlight, according to a Sheriff's Office report. An argument ensued, Neal hit Daniel in the face, bloodying her nose, and fired shots at her and Sanders. Neal acknowledged hitting Daniel but claimed self defense and told deputies that Sanders and Daniel were cooking meth.
Deputies recommended charging Neal with battery, but the District Attorney's Office declined to prosecute. The tensions on Bobcat Lane were just getting started.
Hours later, they were called back. Elliott's mother, Diana Steele, reported Neal was "shooting and yelling" from his yard. Deputies arrived 40 minutes later to find a seemingly peaceful scene, with no sign of Neal.
"Area was quiet upon arrival," the dispatch log said. Deputies knocked on Neal’s door but noted in their records, “attempted contact at the door with no answer."
Steele called again two days later. This time deputies found Neal. “Subject advised of the complaint and states he will no longer shoot at night and will cut down on shooting in the day time," the dispatch log said.
‘Like a war zone’
The afternoon of Jan. 31, 2017, Steele and Danny Elliott’s girlfriend, Hailey Suzanne Poland, were walking behind Neal’s property to collect firewood. Neal began yelling at them. He fired six shots with an illegally modified Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle in their direction, punched Steele and stabbed Poland in the stomach with a 10-inch knife.
Deputies arrested Neal on battery charges and confiscated the rifle. His mother in North Carolina posted bail, but a judge granted a restraining order soon after, mandating Neal stay away from Steele, Poland and the Elliotts, and relinquish any weapons. He turned in a handgun, court records show.
Neal didn't retreat from his aggression toward the Elliott family, however. His wife, Barbara Glisan, obtained a restraining order against Danny Elliott last August for threatening her and her husband with a gun – an allegation Elliott denied.
Neal and Glisan continued to press their claims that the Elliotts were running a meth lab.
Danny Elliott had meth in his system when Neal killed him last November; he had been put on probation in 2016 for a misdemeanor charge of possessing drug paraphernalia. But sheriff's deputies and Cal Fire officials said they never found evidence of a meth operation despite multiple visits to Bobcat Lane.
Meanwhile, Neal didn't stop firing a gun despite being ordered to surrender all firearms.
Neighbors said his shooting became a constant backdrop to life in the area around Bobcat Lane.
"Every other day, it was just ridiculous," said Johnny Phommathep, who lives nearby. "Sounds like a war zone."
During a six-month span after Neal was placed under the restraining order, Sheriff's Office dispatcher logs show neighbors called at least six times to complain about gunfire on Bobcat Lane or in the immediate vicinity. Neal is mentioned by name on three of the logs, although the reports don't make it clear if the callers – Steele and Poland – actually witnessed Neal firing a weapon.
The sheriff said he wasn't surprised to find after the Nov. 14 shooting that Neal still owned guns. Investigators believe Neal made at least one rifle out of mail-order parts.
"These guys and gals who are criminals, they know how to play the system, too," Hencratt said. "They know that if I have a restraining order against me, OK, well I have to turn in any guns I might have, but am I going to turn all of them in? No. I don’t think he turned them all in and he certainly didn’t turn in the ones that he was manufacturing. … But that’s not uncommon."
‘This guy’s nuts’
Silano and his wife, Nancy Cooper, who live on a hillside overlooking Neal's street, said Neal was an intimidating presence. Shortly after they moved to the area in 2016 he stopped by their house to show off a gun. Another time he screamed at them to "get the hell out of here" when they visited Bobcat to hire Danny Elliott for some handyman work.
But when they called the Sheriff's Office to complain about gunfire, they said, they were met with disdain. Silano and Cooper said their cellphone bills show they called for help 16 times in the year leading up to Neal's shooting rampage, but their names show up only three times in the Sheriff's Office's dispatch logs.
Cooper said a deputy who arrived at their home after one call told her "to mind my own damn business."
Silano said he didn't actually see Neal firing but knew it was him by the sound of the rifle. When he called to complain, one dispatcher told him deputies wouldn't show up unless he could provide a photo of Neal firing a gun, he said.
"You're too far away; we're not coming out without a photo," he said a dispatcher told him. Silano, who is disabled, refused the suggestion to step outside and snap a photo of Neal.
"I'm on a cane and this guy's nuts,” Silano said.
Jessie Sanders, meanwhile, said deputies threatened them with arrest if he and Danny Elliott continued to complain about Neal.
"Me and Danny were going to jail if the cops were called one more time," said Sanders, who has an extensive criminal record.
Vinson said she called 911 Oct. 27, when she and her daughter heard what appeared to be a vicious argument between Neal and his wife. Gunshots punctuated the screams and continued even after a deputy arrived in the area, she said.
But the deputy didn’t find the shooter, Vinson said.
“Police never followed up,” she said. “Absolutely not.”
A Facebook page that unofficially tracks Tehama County 911 activity logged Vinson’s call, and she provided The Bee with text messages her daughter sent her that night. But the Sheriff's Office said it had no record of Vinson's call.
Neal’s sister in North Carolina, Sheridan Orr, said she reached out to the Sheriff's Office last September, when her family was unable to contact Neal and she was convinced his mental illness was worsening.
She said she got no response. The Sheriff's Office said it had no record of Orr's call.
"It’s such a travesty because all the warnings signs are there," Orr said. "He's shooting hundreds of rounds every night; normal people don’t do that. … It's the thing I wrestle with every night. It could have been prevented. Kevin was out of his mind."
Hencratt declined to offer an explanation for the calls that weren't logged. In an email, the sheriff said his department had been "very transparent" and "provided records as requested."
"We have completed and closed our investigation. We are no longer responding to questions, allegations, rumors etc. regarding this matter," he wrote.
The Ranch’s bad reputation
Some residents of Rancho Tehama say sheriff's deputies were indifferent to their complaints because of bias against their community.
Known as "the Ranch" to locals, Rancho Tehama harbors a reputation for marijuana growing and general lawlessness. Current and former law enforcement officials say its sequestered location, about 20 miles west of Interstate 5, makes answering calls quickly difficult. And one said its perception as a haven for criminal activity makes some leery of responding.
"The prejudice is, everyone up here either grows pot or cooks meth or is on county assistance," said Phommathep, whose wife and three sons were shot and wounded by Neal last November.
Anjelica Monry, whose 6-year-old-son Alejandro Hernandez was shot twice by Neal at the school, agrees. “Basically they don’t really do much,” she said of sheriff’s response to the area.
“Rancho Tehama, they let them do whatever. … If people are shooting, to them it’s like it could be anybody.”
Hencratt denied that his deputies neglect Rancho Tehama.
“I would go the other way,” Hencratt said. “In the last three or four years, five years, Rancho Tehama has gotten more than its fair share of attention from law enforcement because we have this thing called marijuana now.”
Rancho Tehama was conceived as a retirement community in the late 1960s, but the wealthy urbanites meant to fly into the small private airstrip never materialized. Now, it’s home to about 2,000 working-class and poor residents spread across 11.7 square miles.
Businesses are few: a convenience store, coffee shop and post office, all near a community center run by the homeowners' association. Bus service into Red Bluff and Corning, the county's population centers, runs only a few times a week. About 43 percent of the residents live in poverty, according to census figures, and the median household income is just over $27,000.
Kevin Neal worked odd jobs; he and his wife lived in a trailer purchased for them by her parents on the East Coast in 2012 for $38,000. The property, which the Neals littered with battered cars, TV sets and other junk, became the eyesore of Bobcat Lane. Isolated even by Rancho Tehama standards, Bobcat is a cluster of tiny homes in a ravine surrounded by scrub-covered hills. Cell service is sketchy at best.
‘There’s no eyewitnesses’
Phommathep said Neal was smart about his shooting. He positioned himself where he could see deputies' patrol cars approaching from more than a mile away.
"We would witness the deputies come up, creep up, dim their lights," Phommathep said. "He'd stop shooting. There really wasn't much the deputies could do. They show up and there's no eyewitnesses." Phommathep said he never called the Sheriff's Office, fearing Neal would retaliate against his children.
Hencratt said deputies spent extra time in Neal's neighborhood, trying to catch him in the act, but came up empty.
"Our guys and gals have actually waited out there for (Neal) to come out," the sheriff told The Bee. "What typically (happened) is we go out there, it's all done, there's no more shots fired. There's nobody around."
Even with a restraining order forbidding Neal to own guns, Hencratt said there wasn't credible evidence to seek a search warrant or arrest him outright.
“We have to prove to a judge that there is no doubt that this person is firing a gun,” he said.
Asked if Danny Elliott or Diana Steele were credible witnesses whose testimony could have been used to obtain a search warrant, Hencratt was succinct.
“No,” he said.
Gage Elliott's maternal grandmother, Sissy Feitelberg, disputes Steele and Elliott weren't dependable witnesses. She said Steele was a nurse who worked in West Sacramento before retiring to care for her husband, who has dementia.
Steve Harper, a Red Bluff policeman who's challenging Hencratt's re-election bid in the June primary, said Hencratt's explanation doesn't hold up. "I've written search warrants for less than that," he said.
Kenneth J. Ryan, a criminology professor at Fresno State University, said the Sheriff's Office should have at least asked a judge for a warrant. "I think under the circumstances, I would let the court determine whether a search warrant would be advised or not," Ryan said.
‘My life is terrible’
Gage Elliott's mother, Cher, died unexpectedly when he was an infant living in Southern California. Eventually he went to live on Bobcat Lane with his father, Danny; Danny's mother, Diana Steele; and other family members.
"Gage was (Danny's) life after Cher passed away," said Cher's mother, Feitelberg. "Whatever Gage needed, he would do." Danny taught the little boy chess and drove him to school every day.
She said Gage was happy but increasingly aware of the feud with Kevin Neal. He was in therapy to deal with the stress and was no longer allowed to play in his front yard, she said.
The morning of Nov. 14, Gage had just been dropped off at Rancho Tehama Elementary School. Back on Bobcat Lane, Danny, 38, was in his front yard when Neal shot him to death. A 56-year-old neighbor who wasn't part of the feud, Joseph McHugh, was also killed. Steele, 68, ran out of the house and was killed as well.
Neal stole a truck from one of his victims and headed to the school two miles away, apparently intent on killing Gage. He shot and seriously wounded other neighbors at random. One woman, Michelle McFadyen, 55, was killed. A school secretary locked down the campus, undoubtedly saving the lives of Gage and others. But Neal still managed to spray bullets at the school, hurting several children, before fleeing. Alejandro Hernandez, Monroy’s son, was shot in the chest and leg.
Officers caught up with Neal and exchanged gunfire with him. The firefight ended when Neal killed himself with a shot above his left eye. He was cremated two weeks later and his ashes were scattered off the coast of Fort Bragg, as his family requested. His home has been demolished and the junk has been removed.
Monry said the bullet in her son's chest can’t be removed and may cause health problems as he grows. The incident has also left the family financially struggling.
Now 8 years old, Gage Elliott is living with his grandmother, Feitelberg, in Sacramento. When he first came, he was still scared Neal was after him, she said. That has faded, but, "almost every day, Gage says, ‘My life is terrible,'" Feitelberg said.
"It should never have happened," she added. "I don't know how it's being swept under the counter."