Springfield's best confession-getter just retired
A confession, police say, is the most important piece of evidence in a murder case.
Not DNA. Not witnesses. Not the murder weapon.
In Springfield, colleagues say there was no one better at drawing out admissions than Sgt. Allen Neal.
"He was a chess player, not a checker player," said Maj. Kirk Manlove, who worked with Neal for more than 20 years. "He really was a strategic interviewer. He knew what was needed to determine what took place during a crime."Earlier this month, Neal retired from the Springfield Police Department after 25 years on the force, the last eight of those years as the supervisor of the Violent Crimes Unit.
Since 2007, the year Neal took over as supervisor of the homicide squad, Springfield police have cleared 83 percent of the homicides in the city. That's 20 points higher than the national average.
When someone was killed in Springfield, it was Neal's phone that rang. It was his family that didn't see him for the next 48 hours.
Neal said he loves the rush of investigating a murder, but he is looking forward to a slower lifestyle in his next career.
How to get a confession
Earlier this week, Neal explained to the News-Leader his strategy for interrogating a suspect accused of the most heinous of crimes, and it's not as sexy as you might think.
Neal said he doesn't get his techniques from Jimmy McNulty, Frank Columbo or Sonny Crockett.
"It's not like TV," Neal said. "Interview and interrogation was probably my favorite part of the job. There’s something about going into an interview room and trying to get someone to admit to doing some terrible crime and tell us the facts of it."
Neal said Step 1 of interrogating a suspect is to gather as much information as possible and enter the interview room knowing some facts.
Step 2 is to treat the suspect — whether a career criminal or a scared kid — with respect.
Step 3 is to get out of the way.
"A lot of times there is awkward silence in an interview," Neal said. "People aren't used to being confronted about whether they committed a serious crime. A lot of times we have to give them time to process that and then respond accordingly.
"A good interviewer will learn to have those pauses and learn to listen."
Step 4 is to be patient. One of Neal's interviews, he said, lasted 14 hours before the suspect finally confessed.
25 years with Springfield police
Neal grew up in Batesville, Mississippi, and spent the first few years of his law enforcement career with the Panola County Sheriff's Office.
He joined the Springfield Police Department in 1991 and held a variety of roles during his 25 years here, including specialized detective work investigating thefts, drugs, robberies and homicides.
Neal also served as president and vice president of the Springfield Police Officers Association during a contentious time between the city and the police union.
Neal said he had the most fun working in the narcotics unit. It was during that time that he went undercover to help investigate the Chicago Boys case.
The investigation took down an organized and violent gang from Chicago that was distributing crack cocaine in Springfield in the early 1990s. More than 30 people were indicted in the distribution ring.
Police Chief Paul Williams has said the work of Neal and his colleagues on that case is a big reason why Springfield does not have a serious gang problem today.
In the homicide unit, Neal helped investigate several big cases.
He was heavily involved in the case of Hailey Owens, a Springfield 10-year-old who was abducted and killed in February of 2014.
Neal also helped crack the 1982 killing of Tammy Smith. Neal was involved in the investigation that eventually saw two people charged 20 years after Smith's death.
Not a perfect record
As many families as Neal has been able to comfort with news that a killer had been caught, he still leaves behind many unsolved homicides.
The most high-profile of those unsolved cases is the Three Missing Women case involving the 1992 disappearances of Sherrill Levitt, Suzie Streeter and Stacy McCall.
Neal said police are up to about 30,000 pages of documents in that case and more than 5,000 leads they have followed.
"I have a lot of interviews and a lot of work into that case, and we’re still not to a conclusion," Neal said. "It would have been nice to have been able to solve that as a group prior to retirement. Hopefully in the near future that will be solved."
All good investigators, according to Neal, have an almost relentless drive to work and solve crimes, so leaving with some unsolved homicides is tough.
"That is probably the hardest thing to deal with in our work," Neal said. "You feel the pressure of solving those, and you feel like we need to solve all of them. Leaving the department with a few cold cases open, I won’t call it regret, but you wonder if there was anything we could have done to solve those."
Cop looks for more family time
For the past 20-plus years, Neal has been on-call 24 hours a day.
He said he is not sure what he will do in his next career, but he is looking for something with a more flexible schedule than homicide investigator.
As he considers some employment opportunities, Neal said he is looking forward to spending this time off with his wife and eight children — who range from first grade to sophomore in college.
The six youngest children in the Neal household are special needs orphans that Neal and his wife adopted from China. He said he and his wife felt called to bring a child back from China — and then to go back for five more.
"We felt like we could provide a family for them and structure and love for the kids," Neal said.
Whatever career Neal chooses next, it won't match the adrenaline rush or satisfaction of sitting across from a killer in a small room and getting him to break.
"I don’t know how many people can say they spent the last 25 years doing something they really, really enjoyed," Neal said. "There’s some good feelings at the end of your career when you feel like you were in the right area at the right time."
Manlove, Neal's colleague, said the police department is losing a big asset in Neal, but his influence can be seen in the detectives who worked under him for the past few years.
"It was a really unique style that he had, and it got better with time," Manlove said. "I think there are a lot of good detectives who will be able to step into his place because of working with him."