The screaming and gunfire coming from Kevin Neal’s blue mobile home last week was so disturbing that Jayne Barnes-Vinson called the Tehama County Sheriff’s Office to complain.
“I heard a man and a woman screaming, like fighting, and the man was shooting off rounds like an automatic gun. So I was scared,” Barnes-Vinson said.
Deputies arrived, she said, but told her they could not pinpoint the source of the gunfire.
Neal’s penchant for firing off guns and threatening neighbors was well-known in this rural corner of Northern California even though he was barred from having any guns in his possession.
In February and again in March, a local court had ordered him to turn in all of his weapons as part of a temporary restraining order granted to residents in this rural area of Northern California who claimed Neal was harassing them. Court records show that neighbors continued to complain about gunfire and other problems with Neal for much of the year.
This week, Neal went on a rampage, killing five people in a series of shootings that included spraying bullets at an elementary school filled with children. He was later killed by sheriff’s deputies.
Key Rancho Tehama shooting locations
Gunfire terrorized isolated community
Authorities in Tehama County are now facing questions about whether more could have been done to make sure Neal was complying with the order.
Residents said the gunfire coming from Neal’s trailer was a constant part of life in the community, and it was even reported to the county court that issued the restraining orders.
“Kevin has not obeyed my restraining order at all…. He has not surrendered any of his guns. And repeatedly still harassed me,” neighbor Danny Elliott wrote to the court in September.
Tehama County Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston said deputies tried to investigate the report of gunfire but said Neal managed to evade questions from law enforcement.
“I am aware of incidents where neighbors reported shots coming from that residence. Every time we responded, we would try to make contact with Mr. Neal,” Johnston said. “He was not law enforcement friendly. He would not come to the door.”
At least twice, Johnston added, deputies put Neal’s home under surveillance hoping they could catch him.
“That didn’t happen,” he said.
Neal did turn in one gun to authorities this year in response to the court order. The two handguns officers found on Neal after his rampage were registered to someone else. The rifles he used had been hand-assembled and had no registration records, Johnston said.
The isolated subdivision of Rancho Tehama, planted among the hayfields and cattle ranches originally to attract retirees, is home to a mix of long-term residents and newcomers from bigger cities, low-priced mobile homes, dirt roads and tall fences shielding not-yet-legal marijuana grows.
In this quiet setting with limited law enforcement resources, Neal’s behavior stood out. His fights with Elliott were well-known.
“In the middle of the night, they’d get into screaming matches,” said neighbor Johnny Phommathep. At one point, Neal “said, ‘I’m gonna kill you, and when your boy’s at school, I’m gonna kill him, too.’ ”
Phommathep said it seemed like Neal was baiting the Sheriff’s Office, “testing their response time to see how fast they come.”
From his house, Phommathep would see deputies coming up the road in the middle of the night, trying to sneak up to Neal’s house.
On Tuesday morning, Phommathep’s wife, Tiffany, was driving her three boys, ages 10, 6 and 2, to school when Neal opened fire, critically wounding her. Neal also killed Elliott.
A long war with neighbors
For more than a year, Neal had been at war with neighbors, according to interviews and court records.
A judge in early February granted Elliott’s girlfriend’s petition for a temporary restraining order commanding Neal to stay away from her and her family after Neal allegedly stabbed her and hit her mother-in-law. The judge finalized the order in March.
Another judge in October issued a second order protecting Neal and his wife, Barbara Glisan, from one of those same neighbors whom he accused of manufacturing methamphetamine and firing guns over his house.
The orders automatically included bans on the possession of firearms for three years and were entered into the statewide criminal records system.
Court records show Neal also faced multiple felony charges, including accusations of second-degree robbery, assault with a deadly weapon, negligent firing of a firearm, battery and false imprisonment by violence.
A criminal complaint alleges that on Jan. 31, he assaulted a neighbor with a knife. No details of the incident are in the court file, but it does contain another protective order that also required Neal to surrender any firearms.
Some legal experts said officials could have responded more forcefully to the neighbors’ shooting reports, especially given the fact that Neal was facing criminal charges.
“I’m surprised there was not more action done. If the suspect is criminally charged in court, is accused of violence … there’s usually some action by the district attorney or law enforcement,” said Dmitry Gorin, a criminal defense attorney and former Los Angeles County sex crimes prosecutor.
He said authorities could have sought a search warrant to look for weapons inside Neal’s trailer.
“It’s really a decision by a judge based on multiple complaints by a neighbor. Is there enough to go on the property?” he said.
Former Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley agreed that a search warrant might have been an option.
“I’m not going to suggest they’re missing anything. Sometimes there’s a system that’s overwhelmed and they can’t do everything,” he said. “It’s just a lack of resources and it’s a matter of prioritization.”
Barnes-Vinson, who reported gunfire at Neal’s home last week, said the violence this week left her stunned.
“We’re all scared. We’re traumatized,” she said. “My heart is so broken that they jeopardized my school.”
She said Rancho Tehama is a good community filled with good people — but its isolation is always a risk factor.
“That’s the thing about out there,” she said. “You could kill somebody out there, and nobody would know. It is a good community, don’t get me wrong, but it is remote.”
St. John reported from Rancho Tehama, and Serna, Branson-Potts and Vives from Los Angeles.