Sunday, May 27, 2018
Public safety

Passion burns in Hillsborough County Sheriff office's cold case pursuits

Every year, Cpl. Dale Bunten tucks a new Christmas card into the back of an overflowing three-ring binder. • The brightly colored cards seem out of place among the black and white law enforcement reports and diagrams spilling out. • But they're just as important. • The cards serve as a reminder that the victim featured in this nondescript plastic binder has a family: a widow searching for answers, two children who have soldiered on and two grandsons who won't grow up with a grandfather. • The question lingers nearly eight years later. • Who killed David Neel?

• • •

From the start, Neel's death puzzled Hillsborough County sheriff's investigators. There's no evidence Neel knew or provoked his killer. A motive is not entirely clear. And there haven't been a lot of clues.

It's one of more than 200 unsolved homicide cases in the county dating back to 1956, but at times this one feels different.

"This is one of those cases that you get that you truly feel like you have a true victim," Bunten said. "This is an innocent victim."

Getting to know Neel's family — his wife and card sender Debra Neel and their two adult children — has only strengthened Bunten's commitment to helping solve the crime.

Bunten, 51, has been on the case since the very beginning. On Sunday, March 6, 2005, Bunten was working as a detective when news came of an accident on southbound Interstate 75 near the entrance to Interstate 4. Florida Highway Patrol troopers responded initially, thinking it was a single-vehicle traffic crash. They called Bunten when they discovered the bullet holes.

Someone had shot Neel as he drove his blue and gray Ford F-250 toward the I-4 entrance. He died before his truck left the road and slammed into a tree.

The current theory: This was a road rage incident. But even that is only a partial explanation.

"There's so many questions. You try to say what could've happened," Debra Neel said, "but the answers are never there."

• • •

Cold cases is one of the departments Bunten supervises as a homicide corporal in the sheriff's Criminal Investigations Unit.

There are two full-time cold case detectives. It's not a glamorous job — nothing like what's shown on popular television crime shows — and a crime can't be solved in an hour.

"There's no drama," said Master Detective Greg Thomas, who is assigned to Neel's case. "It's a very long-term process for each and every case."

Despite being on the job for more than a year, Thomas, 38, has yet to solve a case. Though, that could change in coming weeks. Charges are expected to be filed in one of his 7-year-old cases soon, he said.

Detectives often spend much of their first weeks or months on a case reading the files. Neel's case has four binders full of information. Every time there's a new lead, even if it doesn't pan out, the information is added to the rest.

"You're talking thousands of pages of documentation and you're going to read through it all entirely," Thomas said.

That devotion pays off.

Name almost any one of the county's cold case victims and Thomas can recall details out of his head.

"He has to have a tremendous knowledge of all these cases going on at once," Bunten said, "to be able to shift gears to go from this one to suddenly different criteria on another case."

Detectives also have physical evidence, tucked away in storage, to go through. Depending on what they find, a detective has to decide whether new technology could benefit a case and interview witnesses again.

"That takes time tracking them down," Thomas said. "People move — Florida is a very transient state."

The job is often an exercise in self-management because not all of Thomas' time is devoted to unsolved homicides.

"Just because they're assigned to cold cases, doesn't mean they only work a cold case," Bunten said. "We do try to leave them alone, but Greg has been tasked with jumping the fence."

Already up to speed with Neel's case, Thomas now spends his time looking for similar incidents with the hope that something will connect him to a suspect.

Several road rage incidents caught the detective's eye in past years, but a closer look at the weapons involved revealed they were not a match to the one used in Neel's case.

• • •

Neel, who was 49 at the time of his death, worked as a security guard for the North Tampa community of Avila.

"He was a very supportive family man and loved his grandchild," Debra Neel said. "He wanted more, of course."

The couple had two children. Anne Hammer, 33, teaches a veterinary assistance program at Hudson High School and has two sons, 10-year-old Nicholas, who still talks about Neel, and 4-year-old Andrew, who never got to meet him. Joey Neel, 26, is recently engaged and works as an agriculture teacher across the street from his sister at Hudson Middle School.

On the day of his death, Neel left his Wesley Chapel home and headed toward the Plant City Strawberry Festival, where his daughter was showing livestock. It was something he helped her with every year.

A typically slow driver, Neel usually stayed in the right lane, as he did that day. He was not the type to drive aggressively.

Maybe his slow pace set someone off, Bunten said, or maybe he got in someone's way.

Detectives closed down the interstate for hours about three months after Neel's death so they could map out the crime scene. The results confirmed that the bullet must have come from a passing car.

Over the years, detectives have spoken to multiple people who recall seeing Neel's truck and maybe another vehicle. But that's where the progress ends. No one has been able to provide credible information on the shooter.

Regardless, Bunten and Thomas haven't given up.

Maybe someone else was in the car, Bunten said.

"Whether they were involved or whether they were too afraid to ever say anything, they still saw what happened, they know what happened," he said.

Or, maybe, the shooter has bragged about his role.

"We hope on the fact that a lot of people tend to talk," Bunten said. "The people that do come forward, frequently, are doing it for their own best interest. They are hoping to use it as a bargaining chip for some sort of consideration for whatever their own case may or may not be."

• • •

Debra Neel refuses to lose hope.

A Spanish teacher at Pasco High School, she has never remarried.

"It gets lonely sometimes by myself," she said. But, "it's still difficult to move on."

It's hardest when she has to drive past the location of her husband's death.

"I start to wonder why, what happened, what were his last thoughts," she said.

Keeping in touch with Bunten has helped. Besides the Christmas cards, she also sends him photos of her two grandsons and corresponds with him regularly through email. He calls whenever they're chasing a new lead, no matter how small.

She tries not to get angry about her husband's death. Every once in a while, she forgives the shooter. Other times, she takes it back.

But no matter what, she maintains hope that someday they'll find the person responsible.

"I'll never give up on that," she said. "Sometimes, that's all you've got."

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2442.

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