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Tehama gunman terrorized neighbors but eluded sheriff's deputies

Dale Kasler, Anita Chabria and Ryan Sabalow, The Sacramento Bee on

Published in News & Features

RANCHO TEHAMA RESERVE, Calif. -- Hours after a gunman attacked his school, FBI agents told Gage Elliott his father was dead. The 7-year-old boy didn't hesitate to name the killer.

"I know who it was," he said. "I know it was my neighbor."

Gage's neighbor was Kevin Janson Neal. That he was responsible for one of the deadliest mass shootings in Northern California history came as no surprise to anyone who lived near him in rural Tehama County.

Neal's violent meltdown on Nov. 14 left five victims dead, more than a dozen wounded and Gage's elementary school pockmarked with bullet holes. Neal, 44, died as well, of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. It was the culmination of a year's worth of terror that some in the community say could have been avoided if Tehama County Sheriff Dave Hencratt and his department had taken their complaints about Neal more seriously.

"Nobody had to die," said Joel Silano, a neighbor who called the Sheriff's Office about Neal. "The sheriff could have stopped this. Kevin needed help. ... Everyone in the area knew he was a problem."

A Sacramento Bee investigation, based on interviews, court records and Sheriff's Office dispatch logs, reveals a volatile neighborhood feud that mushroomed into mayhem. Despite a restraining order requiring him to surrender his weapons, Neal routinely frightened his neighbors in remote Rancho Tehama Reserve by firing guns in the air. At least nine people brought Neal's erratic behavior to the attention of the Sheriff's Office with few tangible results, The Bee found.

Hencratt, who is running for re-election, said his department did everything it legally could and was unable to do more because deputies lacked evidence and credible witnesses. He said these "he said, she said" situations between neighbors are typical and difficult to sort out.

"Human nature is we have to blame somebody, and so my department gets blamed for not doing enough. That's what it boils down to," he said. "I know that we did the best we could out there, not just during the incident but prior to it. ... You can't stop evil from doing evil things."

In the year leading up to his deadly rampage, the Tehama County Sheriff's Office logged 20 calls from Neal, his wife and their immediate neighbors as their dispute escalated. At least three other people living nearby called the Sheriff's Office about gunfire in the neighborhood, although dispatch logs don't identify the shooter. Research by The Bee also uncovered additional calls about Neal that apparently weren't logged or recorded by dispatchers -- including one from Neal's sister, warning about her brother's mental state.

Deputies who were called to Neal's remote neighborhood typically spent more time driving there than they did on the scene. One visit to the neighborhood last August, prompted by a complaint about Neal's gunfire, lasted eight minutes. Deputies handled some complaints by phone.

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