'A deranged, paranoid killer'
The gunman who rampaged through Rancho Tehama Reserve on Tuesday may have been targeting a specific child when he opened fire on the rural community’s elementary school – the 7-year-old son of a neighbor he had terrorized for months.
Neighbor Johnny Phommathep, who said he lives about 200 feet away from the house owned by gunman Kevin Janson Neal, said Friday he witnessed escalating violence and regular episodes of gunfire from Neal, directed at Neal’s immediate neighbors Danny Elliott and Elliott’s mother Diana Steele. The mother and son were among Neal’s first victims in the Tuesday rampage, culminating a dispute that had been going on for months.
In January, Neal stabbed Steele with a steak knife as she and her daughter-in-law were leaving their house, according to multiple sources.
“Kevin decided to stab Danny’s mother and ever since there has a been a blood feud,” said Phommathep. “He just went crazy from there.”
Phommathep said he believes Neal was headed to Rancho Tehama Elementary School to kill Danny’s son, Gage Elliott.
“The school wasn’t random,” said Phommathep. “He wanted the boy so bad … because he knows that is going to hurt Danny the most.”
Gage Elliott’s surviving grandmother, Sissy Feitelberg, said Gage also believes Neal was targeting him. When FBI agents told Gage his father had been killed, Feitelberg said his first response was, “I know who it is. It’s my neighbor.”
“Gage knew immediately,” she said. “He did say, ‘He came to the school to get me,’ and he’s probably right. … I have assured him that the bad man is dead and Grandma is going to protect him.”
Phommathep said that a few days before the rampage he heard Neal, 44, threaten to kill both Elliott and his son. He recalls hearing Neal make “a direct threat of killing Gage.”
Gregg Cohen, Tehama County’s district attorney, confirmed that investigators believe Neal headed to the school deliberately, although he said it isn’t clear if he was targeting Gage Elliott or an adult who works at the school.
“We had information that he was at least focused on the school for some reason, whether it was someone that worked there or Gage,” Cohen said. “He did not go to the school as a random act. There was some reason.”
Neal shot out windows and doors in the school but couldn’t get inside because the facility was locked down by teachers. No children died but several were injured, including Alejandro Hernandez, 6, who remained in stable condition Friday at UC Davis Medical Center, according to his cousin Aly Monroy. Hernandez was shot in the leg and chest.
Neal, who family members said was delusional, had accused several of his neighbors of running a methamphetamine lab and had called law enforcement to investigate them. Cohen said the allegations appear to be unfounded.
Feitelberg described Danny Elliott and Diane Steele as “fabulous people” and said Danny was “fun-loving but his priority was Gage.”
Danny was married to Feitelberg’s daughter Cher for six years. The couple lived with Feitelberg until Cher died six years ago in an accident.
Feitelberg, who lives in Sacramento, said Elliott and Steele had worked hard for her to remain close to Gage, and her grandson had his own room and visited often, with Diane driving him down every few weeks.
“They made sure … we kept the bond going,” she said. “Diane and I had become very good friends.”
Neal was arrested for the January stabbing on charges of assaulting Steele and another neighbor, Hailey Poland, who is identified in court records as Steele’s daughter-in-law. After Neal was bailed out of jail, Poland obtained a restraining order requiring Neal to stay away from Poland, Steele, Steele’s husband Bob, and Danny and Gage Elliott. The little boy is Poland’s stepson, according to court records.
But when Neal got out of jail, he returned to his house – and to his feud.
Feitelberg said she was aware of Neal but did not know why he was angry with the family. Steele had told her Neal had fired bullets at their house.
Phommathep said after hearing the death threat last week, he warned Elliott not to ignore it.
“I talked to Danny the next day and said, ‘Danny this is not a joke anymore,’” Phommathep said.
Phommathep said he also heard a disturbing exchange between Neal and Neal’s wife, Barbara Anne Neal, the day before Neal made the death threat against Gage and his father. He heard gunfire, and then her screaming at Neal for shooting her dog.
“You hear Barb scream, ‘Oh my God, why did you kill my dog?’” he said. He said he then heard Neal order his wife into the house.
Barbara Neal was apparently her husband’s first victim. Her body was found hidden beneath the floor of their home, and Tehama authorities said they believed she may have been killed Monday night.
Neal also targeted Phommathep’s wife, Tiffany. Tiffany was driving a 2009 Ford F-250 crewcab pickup with her oldest son, John, Jr., 10, in the front seat. In the back were 6-year-old Jake and 2-year-old Nikos.
Phommathep was dropping off a friend in Sacramento that morning. He had sent a text message to his wife just before the attack, asking what she wanted to eat when he returned. He began to worry when she didn’t respond.
By that time, Neal had likely begun his assault on the family, first bumping their truck from behind, causing Tiffany to slow down. Neal pulled up alongside her.
“They had direct eye contact and he pulled out a rifle,” said Phommathep. “She screamed at the kids, ‘Get down!’ He started shooting away. All the windows went out.”
Tiffany Phommathep tried to shield John Jr. with her body and took the brunt of the volley of shots, Phommathep said. She was struck four times in her left shoulder and once in her gut, with that bullet lodging in her abdomen.
Phommathep, a former military policeman in the Air Force, had taught his wife to shoot, and she had a permit to carry her Sig Sauer P238 .380. She used to wear it on her hip, but a 2015 California law mostly banned guns on school campuses, so Tiffany had the weapon locked in her glove box when she was driving to school. Despite her injuries, she managed to get it out.
“She said she had to cock the gun and it felt like a thousand pounds, and there was molten hot lead on her shoulder,” said Phommathep.
Neal kept driving toward Rancho Tehama Elementary before she could fire, but her ordeal was not over. Bleeding profusely, she told John Jr. to jump into the back to help his brothers. Not realizing he was shot twice in his leg, John did it. Jake had been shot in the foot. Nikos had been hit by debris that burned his neck.
Tiffany tried to flag down help, but cars passed her by, said Phommathep. She drove about a mile to the community gas station. Again, bystanders refused aid. Phommathep said one woman told her she was late for work and only had a two-seater, anyway. Another man said he would turn around and help, but then drove off.
Blacking out at times and unsure how badly wounded her kids were, she made the decision to attempt a five mile drive into town. Part-way there, she was able to flag down Tehama County Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston, who helped her.
“She is much stronger than me,” said Phommathep. “She thought all her kids were dead.”
Phommathep and his wife are both from Sacramento. He graduated from Grant Union High and works as a satellite television dish installer. She graduated from Sacramento High and works raising the kids. The couple moved to Rancho Tehama Reserve in the hopes of giving their children a more bucolic upbringing than their own, he said. The family lives on 2 acres and keeps chickens and the occasional cow.
“Me and my wife grew up in rough neighborhoods in Sacramento,” he said. “We enjoy the rural area.”
Tiffany Phommathep, 31, remains in the hospital in Chico, but is improving, he said. A bullet remains lodged in her abdomen. Phommathep said law enforcement officials would like it removed for evidence, but doctors aren’t sure if operating is medically the best move.
The boys are recovering and with family in Sacramento.
Johnny Phommathep said as his family heals, he wants to focus on what they did right that day – especially the bravery of John Jr., who helped his brothers and didn’t realize he was shot until he was inside the ambulance.
“That day they made me so proud,” said Phommathep. “They all worked together fluidly.”
Phommathep also said he was not surprised Neal was the shooter, given how he terrorized the neighborhood.
“He’s known as meth-head Kevin,” Phommathep said. “He has always been on my radar.”
Phommathep, 34, described Neal as very smart and savvy about the law. He said that despite deputies coming to the Bobcat Lane residence at least 10 times in recent months, Neal always managed to keep from getting arrested.
“He is a very intelligent guy,” said Phommathep. “So when he is shooting all this time, you’ll see the deputies roll up and the shooting stops. It’s almost like he’s timing their response. People think he’s just meth-head Kevin, but if you talk to him, he’s smart. …When the cops come, he turns out the lights and disappears. They have no warrant.”
“He knows the law so well he brags about it,” Phommathep said. “I don’t think the authorities were smart enough to play chess with this guy.”
Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston told reporters Wednesday that there was a history of domestic violence calls to the Neal home, plus complaints from neighbors about Neal firing weapons in the area. He said Neal was “not law enforcement friendly,” and never came to the door when deputies knocked.
Phommathep said the deputies recommended complaining to the area homeowners association about Neal’s shooting, since he wasn’t technically breaking the law. Phommathep said the association didn’t take the concerns seriously.
Rancho Tehama Association Board member Richard Gutierrez said in a prepared statement that the association is “investigating the suspect’s time in the community, and we’re aware that a number of complaints about his behavior or gun use were referred to the Sheriff’s Department.”
Phommathep said he doesn’t hold law enforcement or the Rancho Tehama Association solely responsible for not stopping Neal before the massacre.
“To be honest, it’s not just them,” he said. “The community should have been more aggressive about it.”
Phommathep said Neal didn’t live with his wife, whose maiden name was Barbara Glisan, all the time.
The last time Phommathep said he spoke to Neal was about a month ago when Phommathep asked him not to ride his dirt bike so fast near Phommathep’s kids.
“I said, ‘Hey, Kevin, stop,’” Phommathep recalls. “He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, man, I’ll slow down.’”
Phommathep said he also spoke to Barbara Neal about once a month. He said she was “a great person” with family in the area. But Phommathep had repeatedly spoken to her about calming Neal down, asking her to stop him from firing his guns in the middle of the night.
“She said she’ll see what she can do and the gunfire would stop” for a few days, Phommathep said.
Recently, he had noticed that she seemed uncomfortable and afraid when Phommathep brought up her husband.
“When I first met the couple she was good, then for the last couple months, she was terrified of him,” said Phommathep.
This is who was killed this week in Rancho Tehama Reserve
Barbara Anne Glisan Neal, 38. The wife of gunman Kevin Janson Neal, the Arkansas native was killed Monday and buried beneath the floor of their trailer home on Bobcat Lane.
Diana Steele, 68. One of the neighbors feuding with Neal, she was allegedly assaulted by him in January and was among the first to be killed in Tuesday’s rampage.
Danny Elliott, 38. Steele’s son who lived in the same residence, Elliott was also among the first killed Tuesday. Officials believe Neal then headed to the elementary school to kill Elliott’s 7-year-old son, Gage, but was unsuccessful.
Michelle McFadyen, 55. She was driving with her husband Troy in Rancho Tehama when Neal left the schoolyard, rammed their car into a ditch and opened fire. She died and he was badly wounded.
Joseph Edward McHugh III, 56. Exact circumstances and timing of his death remain unclear.
Kevin Janson Neal, 44. The gunman, he was killed by law enforcement about 45 minutes after the shooting spree began. Family members said he was delusional and neighbors said they’d complained for months about him firing guns in the area.
Source: Tehama County Sheriff’s Department, Bee research