Sylvia Neeley believed her Land O'Lakes neighbor was molesting her 12-year-old mentally disabled daughter. She said he even bragged that he could do it again. She told the authorities, but they never charged him with anything — even though one investigator said he may have done it. So, on May 24, 1998, Neeley pumped Arthur Danner full of bullets. Swimming in a haze of beer and Valium, she fired into his chest, then reloaded and took aim at his groin.
Thursday morning, she stood before a judge in Dade City, her last stop on her way to state prison.
"I'm very sorry for the crime I committed," said Neeley, 48, who wore a black suit and heels. "I just felt like no one was helping my daughter."
The price of Neeley's crime is separation from the daughter who still needs her.
Jenny, who is now 23 but still has the mind of a child, will have to live in a group home until her mother gets out in about five years.
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Neeley doesn't offer any excuses for what she did, but her life took a destructive course long before she confronted Danner.
She grew up in Tampa with three siblings and a single mom who struggled to provide. She dropped out of school after eighth grade. As a young teenager, she started using marijuana, then alcohol, then pills. By the time she was 15, Neeley had been everywhere from California to New York to New Orleans, hitching rides in the cars and truck beds of strangers.
"I always ran," she said recently. "It wasn't until years of being sober that I realized you take the same person with you."
Once, she said, a guy in a four-wheel-drive truck picked her up on Florida Avenue in Tampa, gave her beer, drove her to Morris Bridge Road and raped her. Then he dropped her at her boyfriend's house.
She worked as a stripper and a prostitute and has a history of minor arrests from disorderly conduct to DUI.
She had her first daughter at 17, and another 11 months later. The younger is married and raising three kids; the older is addicted to painkillers, her own four children scattered.
When Jenny was born, Neeley could tell she was different from her other girls. At 6 months old, the baby had several seizures and nearly died.
Jenny was diagnosed as high-functioning but developmentally delayed. She likes to fish and play cards and talks about having kids of her own, but she lacks the maturity of an adult and cannot care for herself.
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Arthur Danner was a friend and Land O'Lakes neighbor to Sylvia Neeley, whose last name then was Maraman. Danner became a father figure to a woman who had never had one.
But Neeley gradually grew suspicious of Danner, 73, who she says was obsessed with Jenny, heaping gifts on her and chastising Neeley for disciplining her.
In early 1998, a family friend told Neeley he walked into a troubling scene in Danner's mobile home: Jenny was on the floor. Danner was on a couch naked from the waist up; the rest of his body under a blanket.
Neeley reported the incident to state child welfare authorities and the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. The agencies investigated, but two months passed and no charges were filed.
Marilyn Loper, a counselor with the Department of Children and Families, told Neeley there was some evidence Danner may have abused her daughter, but not enough to press criminal charges.
"I said, 'It's likely. It's not 100 percent, but it's quite likely that he will indeed get away (with) it,' " Loper later testified at Neeley's trial. "So it's your job to make sure that he doesn't bother your child anymore.' "
In the meantime, Neeley said, Danner was harassing her with constant phone calls. One night, she couldn't take it anymore. She confronted him in his trailer, and when he admitted his acts, she said, she walked home and grabbed a .357-caliber gun that belonged to her ex-husband. Danner sat on the couch as Neeley, who had never fired a gun before, squeezed the trigger again and again.
She was drunk and stoned and doesn't remember much else.
Neeley was convicted in 2000 of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 years, but won a new trial on appeal. Two weeks ago she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of manslaughter, and on Thursday she was sentenced to 10 years in prison. She will probably serve about half that because of time credited from her previous conviction.
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Neeley moved Jenny into a group home in Riverview, near Neeley's mother's house, a few weeks ago. Jenny has her own bedroom with her name on the wall, stuffed animals from home and a metal replica of her Dalmatian, Perdita, who recently died. She can have visitors anytime.
Jenny says she hates her new home, but she understands why she's there and why her mother's going to prison. She remembers what happened.
"He used to touch me down there all the time," she said.
Neeley is as ready as she can be for prison. For the first time in years, she says she's clean. She had a new Bible with her when she went to prison Thursday.
The only part about going to prison that splinters Neeley's tough shell is the thought of her daughter, who can't keep track of days, going weeks without hearing from her mother.
As they visited earlier this week at the group home, Jenny was in a sullen mood. She rolled her eyes and gave her mother attitude as Neeley henpecked.
But when talk turned to prison, Jenny buried her face and clung tightly to Neeley's waist.
"You're a grown woman now, why you going to cry?" Neeley asked.
" 'Cause I know you're leaving," Jenny said.
Neeley stroked her hair and tried to stay composed.
"As long as I know you're okay, I'm okay," she told her daughter, and herself.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6245.