RANCHO TEHAMA RESERVE, Calif. – One of the first victims of a Northern California gunman told a judge earlier this year that she and her family lived in fear of him because he was violent and unpredictable, firing off guns at all hours and threatening her with “all kinds of perverted things.”
A sheriff’s deputy on April 1 handed Kevin Janson Neal a court order to stay away from his neighbor Hailey Suzanne Poland and her family, and barred him from possessing guns.
Records show Neal certified that he surrendered his weapons in February, but Tehama County Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston said they had recovered two illegal homemade assault rifles and two handguns registered to someone else.
On Tuesday, Neal shot and killed the 34-year-old woman before embarking on what authorities called a “murderous rampage” through a neighborhood in Tehama County about 130 miles (209 kilometers) north of Sacramento.
Neal killed five people and wounded at least eight others before sheriff’s deputies fatally shot him during a gun battle, Johnston said.
Several other neighbors had repeatedly reported that Neal was firing hundreds of rounds at his property.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Johnston initially said Neal “was not prohibited from owning firearms” but later acknowledged the protective order against him.
After being pressed by reporters on why police did not act when Neal was in clear violation of his court order, Johnston obliquely replied: “The law is only for people who obey it.”
Poland’s slaying underscored the difficulty of enforcing restraining orders when suspects ignore them, Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson said.
“Law enforcement often doesn’t realize it has a problem until it’s too late,” Levenson said.
Neal was arrested and charged with stabbing Poland and attacking her mother-in-law during a Jan. 31 encounter in their rural neighborhood. Poland filed for a restraining order a week later, writing in a plea to a judge that Neal “is very unpredictable and unstable … has anger issues.”
Tehama County district attorney Gregg Cohen said he sought a protective order for Poland and her mother-in-law after Neal’s release from jail on bail.
“Simply put, the victims were very scared of him,” Cohen said.
Neal was also known to have violent squabbles with his wife.
The gunman’s sister, Sheridan Orr, said her brother had struggled with mental illness throughout his life and at times had a violent temper.
She said Neal had “no business” owning firearms.
At a tense news conference Wednesday, Johnston conceded that neighbors had repeatedly complained about Kevin Janson Neal firing hundreds of rounds from his house.
Johnston said authorities responded to calls several times, but the 44-year-old Neal wouldn’t open the door, so they left.
“He was not law enforcement friendly. He would not come to the door,” Johnston said. “You have to understand we can’t anticipate what people are going to do. We don’t have a crystal ball.”
The evidence that emerged Wednesday, however, along with residents’ statements raised questions about whether lawlessness was occasionally tolerated.
The community is a sparsely populated area of rolling woodlands dotted with grazing cattle.
“There’s hardly any police presence out here,” said Dillon Elliot, who moved away in 2001, though his parents still live there. “Every so often you’ll see them if it’s super bad.”
He said his father, who was on the homeowners’ association board, was threatened in the late ’80s and early ’90s during a dispute with a neighbor and deputies never responded.
“It’s almost like they think we’re lawless out here and they just don’t care,” he said.
Police found the bullet-riddled body of Neal’s wife stuffed under the floorboards of their home in the rural community of Rancho Tehama Reserve. They believe her slaying was the start of the rampage.
Neal then shot two neighbors in an apparent act of revenge before he went looking for random victims at the community’s elementary school and several other locations.
During the rampage that lasted 25 minutes, Neal tried and failed to get into Rancho Tehama Elementary School, but fired into the school from the outside.
Six-year-old Alejandro Hernandez was in his classroom when one of Neal’s bullets came through the window and hit him in the chest.
His aunt, Rosa A. Monroy, said he was at a Sacramento hospital awaiting surgery on his foot. It’s not clear when they will operate on the more serious wound to his upper chest and right arm, she said.
“I just pray that we can all be strong together,” she tearfully told a crowd of dozens of people that gathered for a vigil to honor the victims on Wednesday night.
Elias reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Jocelyn Gecker, Janie Har and Olga Rodriguez also contributed from San Francisco.