A series of five federal civil rights lawsuits filed this week against the Tehama County Sheriff’s Office allege that officials failed to protect area residents from a gunman who went on a rampage last November that killed five people and left a dozen others injured.
The lawsuits, filed in federal court in Sacramento, charge that Sheriff Dave Hencratt and Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston knew for at least 10 months before the bloodbath that gunman Kevin Neal was a danger to the community, but failed to take action against him or seize all of his firearms — even after a restraining order was issued that prohibited him from possessing weapons.
The lawsuits allege the department ignored warnings from at least nine people that Neal was violent and firing off shotguns or illegal assault rifles, and that when one woman called sheriff’s deputies to complain she was told “to mind (her) own business.”
“On the rare occasion the department did respond, the sheriff’s office would attempt to reach Neal by phone and give up if there was no answer,” the lawsuits say, “or visit the scene and if it was ‘quiet’ when the sheriff arrived, would not pursue it further, stating that they would have to witness shots fired, in order to do anything, even though Neal was not allowed to have a firearm or any kind of ammunition and his property was littered with shell casings, bullet holes and ammunition.”
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Johnston said Wednesday that the department expected the lawsuits to be filed, but added that officials had not yet been served with them and could not comment on the claims.
The allegations detailed in the lawsuit are similar to those uncovered by a Sacramento Bee investigation in April.
The suits, filed by the Redding law firm of Barr & Mudford LLP on behalf of relatives of those killed and survivors, seek damages for failure to train or supervise, negligent supervision, failure to perform mandatory duties and other causes of action.
The lawsuits stem from a violent outburst by Neal on Nov. 13, 2017, when he began his spree by killing his wife, Barbara Anne Neal, and hid her body beneath their motor home on Bobcat Lane in a remote area of the Rancho Tehama Reserve.
The next morning, Neal set out with four weapons and killed two neighbors, then drove to an elementary school and shot out classroom windows in an apparent attempt to kill a neighbor’s son, then killed two other people.
Neal, 44, shot himself in the head with a .45-caliber handgun as law enforcement moved in on him about 45 minutes after his rampage began, and authorities later said he had been building untraceable “ghost guns” in his garage.
Records later released to The Sacramento Bee through a public records act request showed deputies had been called to his home 21 times in the year prior to the killings, and the lawsuits say authorities had ample opportunities and evidence to stop him in the preceding months.
Neal, who family members have described as suffering from mental problems, was arrested on Jan. 31, 2017, and charged with assault with a deadly weapon, false imprisonment with violence and other charges. That arrest stemmed from his attack on two neighbors, Hailey Suzanne Poland and Diana Lee Steele.
A Tehama County Superior Court judge issued a restraining order and protective order that prohibited Neal from possessing weapons and allowed law enforcement to search his home, the lawsuits say, but Neal surrendered only one weapon.
The lawsuits say deputies subsequently failed to respond to numerous calls for help, including one in August 2017 when Steele called to say Neal was shooting a shotgun toward her home, the lawsuits say.
Despite that, the lawsuits say deputies did not use the restraining orders to search Neal’s home, even though “simply looking at the ammunition littering the property they claimed to have visited would have shown a violation of the protective orders.”
Steele, a former Sacramento nurse, and her son, Danny Elliott, were killed by Neal in the November shootings, the lawsuits say, and Neal then went to the school in search of Steele’s grandson.
“Neal ended up shooting a different six-year-old child at the school named A.H., a minor, in the chest and leg,” one of the lawsuits says. “The bullet is still lodged in his chest.”