(Editor’s note: Doni Chamberlain contributed to this story. Photos by Steve DuBois.)
One week ago, on Nov. 14, a gunman’s rampage lasted 45 minutes and left a trail of death, injury and destruction over eight crime scenes, including the Rancho Tehama Elementary School.
By the time 44-year-old Kevin Neal was finally stopped – fatally shot by officers – Neal had killed five people and injured 18.
Among those killed was Neal’s wife. Among the injured was a 6-year-old boy, shot while inside his classroom.
Today, the Rancho Tehama community still hurts. During a pair of weekend vigils, citizens and supporters alike gathered to mourn and begin the process of healing. They asked that the public keeps its focus on the victims.
I drove to the Rancho Tehama Reserve Sunday in hopes of learning more about Neal’s victims, and understanding more about how something so horrific could have happened.
Rancho Tehama is 45 miles from my Redding home. It’s much closer as the crow flies, but there’s only one way into the small community. The Ranch is quite isolated in a rather hilly location.
There is only one way in, and one way out, and that’s via Rancho Tehama Road. There are a few other roads, but I was told they require four-wheel vehicles.
I did get some clarification on the tragedy, but not on all the victims.
I also got to meet Jessie Allen Sanders, the man who’s been called a hero that day at the elementary school for putting himself in danger to help save lives.
Sanders seemed like an open guy who talks as if he has a positive outlook on life. He introduced me to another hero from that day, Coy Ferreira, a father who scooped up a terrified child from the playground’s open space, away from the spray of gunfire and into the safety of his daughter’s classroom
Despite Ferreira’s quick actions, he’s tortured by the wish that he‘d been the one shot, not a 6-year-old little kid.
I also spoke with two men who live directly across the road from the school where the gate is located, which Neal eventually smashed through with a car.
Another young man, Dale Dykes, showed where Neal was shot and killed by officers, just a short distance down the road from where Sanders lives.
Dykes also showed where Michelle Iris McFadyen was killed on the side of the road.
As I drove throughout Rancho Tehama, I stopped and talked with random people like David, the step-brother to Danny Elliott; step-son of Diana Steele, both of whom were killed. I spoke with Sander’s sister Tina, and a man named Jose, uncle of the 6-year-old boy shot while he was at school Tuesday, huddled on the floor, too afraid to move from the danger of his classroom to the safety of a teacher’s storage room.
Jose shared some good news: His nephew was recently released from the hospital.
The five killed by Neal were 38-year-old Barbara Ann Gilsan (Neal’s wife), 38-year-old Danny Lee Elliott, and his mother 68-year-old Diana Steel (Neal’s neighbors, two doors down), 56-year-old Joseph Edward McHugh III (Neal’s next-door neighbor), and 55-year-old Michelle Iris McFadyen.
The injured included six adults and six children. The six injured adults were 31-year-old Tiffany Nai Phommathep, 43-year-old James Wood, 20-year-old James Wood II, 34-year-old Francisco Gudino Cardenas, 47-year-old Troy Lee McFadyen, and 39-year-old Sanders, whose bravery helped save many lives at the elementary school. In addition to those injured by bullets, six others were injured by shattered glass.
This is an especially complicated story made even more complicated by eight crime scenes. Not everyone who lives in Rancho Tehama knows exactly what happened. The result is multiple stories, many of them second- and even third-hand; some of them conflicting.
What I’m reporting here today is what I saw and heard during my visit.
One of the most illuminating conversations was with Sanders, someone who provided vital details and left me with an understanding that goes straight to the heart of the story: a possible motive.
Sanders explained that he and his young son used to live with friends Diana Steele and her son Danny Elliott. Steele and Elliott lived two doors down from Neal, who murdered the pair last Tuesday.
Elliott was Sanders’ best friend, so it was emotionally difficult for Sanders to speak about Elliott as he shared some background.
Sanders said that while living with Elliott and Steele, there were several confrontations between his housemates and Neal. Sanders recalled a pivotal incident. Neal was outside, beating his wife Barbara Gilsan. Sanders said he tried to intervene and stop Neal, but that Neal’s wife actually got upset with Sanders and told him to mind his own business. Sanders said he told told both Gilsan and Neal that he could mind his own business if they’d take it inside, but he couldn’t watch a man beating a woman without trying to stop it.
Sanders said that encounter started a feud, and that over time, “bad blood boiled”. Sanders said that he and Elliott were both threatened by Neal at various times, as were both of their young sons.
Sanders said Neal actually shot guns toward them on several occasions, but Neal would lie and say they’d been shooting at him. Tensions escalated. At one point, Elliott asked Sanders to move out, because he believed Sanders’ presence inflamed the feud, and the situation needed to calm down. Sanders moved out.
On the morning of the shooting, Neal went to Elliott and Steele’s house. According to Elliott’s stepbrother David (who requested we not publish his last name or photo), the gate was open, making it easy for Neal to get onto their property.
David said Neal then hid behind some trees and shot Elliott and Steele when the pair came outside. David said that after Neal murdered the mother and son, Neal killed their neighbor, Joseph Edward McHugh III, then stole his truck before driving down the road, shooting at cars and homes as he made his way to Rancho Tehama Elementary School.
It’s been reported by various media that at some point during Neal’s shooting rampage, he rammed the stolen truck into a car on the road. When the couple inside the car got out and tried to run for safety, Neil shot them. Troy McFadyen was injured, and his wife Michelle McFadyen was killed.
Coy Ferreira and Sanders both said they saw Michelle McFadyen’s body off to the side of the road. They could see where she’d been shot.
Sanders said that seeing Michelle’s body was the hardest thing for him to deal with, even after being involved in the school shooting. Both Ferreira and Sanders also saw Troy McFadyen, shot in the leg, sitting on the road beside his deceased wife.
News media reported others who were shot by Neal as he drove to the school, such as Tiffany Nai Phommathep, shot four times in the shoulder while driving in her truck with her children passengers, some of whom were also injured by Neal’s bullets.
Word around Rancho Tehama was that nobody would stop for Tiffany when she sought help, probably because they thought the woman must have been associated with something bad to have been shot, and they didn’t want to get involved. This angered Sanders. He said the woman actually had to drive out of the Ranch and was on Rancho Tehama Road trying to get to a hospital. Finally, help arrived for her when law enforcement drove up Rancho Tehama Road toward the Ranch and they saw that Nai Phommathep was in need of help, and took care of her and the children on the side of the road. (Rancho Tehama lacks a police or sheriff’s department, and, for that matter, a medical facility.)
At the elementary school, Ferreira was walking his daughter to her classroom before 8 a.m. He said they first stopped at the office because his daughter always liked seeing Sara, the secretary, before going to class. Ferreira said that about 7:57, about two minutes after the father and daughter had left the office, they heard shooting.
Ferreira said that when secretary Sara heard the shots she immediately put the school on lockdown. He heard his daughter’s teacher, Miss Nelson, yelling loudly for all the kids to get inside “NOW!” By then it was about 7:58 to 7:59 a.m.
But before everyone could get inside, Neal crashed the truck into one of the school’s side gates that’s always kept locked. The truck became stuck in the gate. At that point, a little girl around the age of 5 was so paralyzed with fear that she was unable to move from the playground. Ferreira ran onto the playground, picked up the little girl and rushed her into the classroom.
Meanwhile, directly across the road from the school’s gate through which Neal had just crashed, lived friends and neighbors Johnny Wythe and “Uncle Chuck” Bruehl. Wythe lives in a small camper trailer next to Bruehl’s place.
Wythe said he was in his camper with Sammy, Bruehl’s dog, when he heard gunshots, something he said is common in this region, and not usually a cause for alarm.
This time, however, Wythe noticed that the gunshot sounds were coming up the road, toward him. That seemed strange, so as the sound of gunfire intensified, Wythe grabbed the dog and fell to the floor. When the gunshots subsided Wythe got up, only to fall back to the floor when the shooting resumed. During this time, Bruehl was oblivious to what was happening outside. He was watching television, and didn’t hear anything until the gunman was trying to leave. At that point Bruehl said he went out front and heard a lot of gunshots – “a crazy amount of shots fired” – as he saw Neal trying to free a truck from the gate.
Bruehl said Neal had an AK-47, and he and Wythe were both wondering where the cops were. They watched Neal release the truck from the fence and then speed off, firing more gunshot rounds as he left.
Shortly before the shooting started, Sanders’ sister Tina had just dropped her son off at Rancho Tehama Elementary School. As she drove away, she heard something – a gunshot or a firecracker. The sound startled her, but she couldn’t identify it, so she wasn’t worried.
I spoke with Tina. She told how, as she drove up the road toward home, she saw her brother Sanders walking along the road. She was about to ask him if he needed a ride when the siblings heard heavy gunfire. Tina said that in her gut she knew the location of the gunfire. She told her brother she thought someone was shooting at the elementary school. Sanders got into his sister’s car and the pair rushed toward the school.
According to Ferreira, at that moment, Miss Nelson was ushering children into a storage room in the back of her classroom. He said that three students remained hiding beneath desks, too terrified to move. One of children was the 6-year-old boy who would eventually be injured by gunfire. Also in that classroom was Elliott’s young son.
Sanders and Ferreira both said that when Neal rammed the gate, John, the school’s custodian/bus driver, peeked around the corner toward the shots. Neal saw the custodian and started firing at him, but Neal’s gun jammed. That gave the school a few more critical seconds to go into complete lockdown mode.
Ferreira recalled that at one point, he wanted to know the location of the shooter, so he ventured a look out the window. He felt relieved to not see a shooter anywhere in the quad. What he failed to realize was Neal had walked up the ramp and was near the school’s door. Miss Nelson yelled at Ferreira to get away from the window. Ferreira said that as he started to move away from the window, shots rang out, bursting through the glass and passing through the wall beneath the very windows he’d looked through seconds earlier.
Two of the shots hit the 6-year-old boy in his chest and leg. Ferreira said he grabbed the boy and ran into the storage room.
As Ferreira told this part of the story, he was so overcome with emotion that I didn’t feel comfortable asking more about what happened in the storage room.
Ferreira did say that when Miss Nelson called 911, she got a busy signal. After a couple of more tries Nelson finally got through and was told 911 was getting a lot of calls. Ferreira said that the teacher tried to get the dispatcher to understand that she was calling from the school, the location of the shooter, but the 911 dispatcher hung up on her.
Ferreira said he thought the shooting lasted about 20 to 25 minutes. Wythe thought it was about 10 minutes.
Either way, during the shooting Tina drove her car up to the school with Sanders as people were rushing away, telling them to get out of there.
Sanders said he jumped from car while it was still rolling. He told Tina to go home so she wouldn’t get hurt. He said the look of fear in his sister’s eyes was frightening. Her son – his nephew – was a Rancho Tehama Elementary School student.
When Sanders ran into the schoolyard, he saw Neal across the quad, firing his weapon and spraying classroom windows and walls with bullets. Sanders said he and Neal made eye contact, and realized they knew each other. Sanders said he was furious when he saw who it was; that Neal was the shooter trying to kill kids.
Sanders said that the first thought that went through his mind was that if the cops had done their job in dealing with Neal following several violent episodes in the past, he wouldn’t be there with guns trying to kill children.
Sanders felt enraged, and shouted to Neal to shoot in his direction, hoping to distract him from the kids. Sanders assumed Neal was at the school trying to make good on his threat to kill Sanders’ son, and the son of his friend, Eliott. But what Neal didn’t know was Sanders’ son had switched to another school.
Worried about all the kids, and in a rush of anger, Sanders said he ran into the quad toward Neal, who was shooting in Sanders’ direction. Sanders said Neal had a smile on his face when he saw Sanders, and that Neal looked determined to kill him, almost as if he were happy Sanders showed up at the school, saving Neal the trouble of having to find Sanders and murder him later.
As Sanders ran toward Neal he said he could see bullets bouncing everywhere. He said he saw flashes before his eyes with memories of his life – the good things he’d done, and the bad. Jessie said it was the type of experience people talk about when they’re dying.
As Sanders tried to reach Neal, Neal ran to the stolen truck, firing the whole time at Sanders.
Sanders said that Neal was wearing a bullet-proof vest that had magazines attached to the front of it. He said that as Neal emptied a magazine, in a matter of seconds, he could set the rifle over a magazine on the vest and the gun was reloaded. As Neal ran to his truck, still firing at Sanders, Sanders said he figured Neal was trying to get to his truck so he could run Sanders over. It wasn’t until Neal got back to his truck that one bullet grazed Sanders’ right forearm.
Everything happened so fast that the details in those moments are sketchy for Sanders, but he said that in retrospect he thinks another car tried to ram the stolen truck, which may have caused Neal to drive away.
According to Bruehl and Wythe, as Neal drove down the road from the school, he was still firing several gunshots.
Rancho Tehama’s small private airport runway is between the school and where Sanders moved in with his mother after Elliott asked him to leave for the sake of their safety.
After Neal sped off in the truck, Sanders raced from the school and across the airport runway to his mom’s place.
Some media reported that police believe Neal went home after he left the school, and took off in yet another stolen vehicle.
Some believe that it was during that time period that Neal shot the McFadyens and stole his last vehicle from Jonah Bongcayo after chasing him with gunfire.
According to Sanders’ sister, Tina, when Neal got close to the school again, he crashed the vehicle he was driving into another vehicle just a short distance down the road from Sanders’ mother’s home.
Law enforcement arrived and a shootout ensued. Neil’s life and rampage ended in a barrage of gunfire.
Sanders said he ran from his mom’s house over to the scene to see what had happened. He was promptly arrested because officers had heard that Sanders was at the school. Sanders later surmised that when officers saw him, they erroneously thought he may have been a second shooter.
Officers grabbed Sanders and made him take off his shirt, shoes and socks. They tried to get him to remove his pants, but he wasn’t wearing shorts and refused to remove his jeans. Sanders was then handcuffed and put into a squad car. He was driven down by the gas station at the entrance of the Ranch where he sat inside the car for an hour.
Finally, someone informed the officers they’d arrested the wrong guy; that Sanders was the hero from the school, which sorted everything out. Sanders was released.
As soon as he could, Sanders put in a call to Elliott to let him know they got Neal, not knowing his best friend was dead, killed by Neal.
It was Elliott’s father who broke the news of his son’s death to Sanders.
Elliott’s father has dementia, and has to be reminded a few times a day that his son and his wife are dead.
Sanders said that Elliott’s young son is now an orphan, since the boy’s mother died a few years ago. Because Eliott had listed Sanders on school forms as the person to call in case of an emergency, after Sanders was released by officers he was notified to pick up Elliott’s son from the community recreation center where the kids were bused from the school after the shooting.
David, Elliott’s stepbrother, said that his fatherless step-nephew is now living with the boy’s maternal grandmother. He also said that a double funeral would be held for his stepmother and stepbrother Friday in Sacramento.
Sanders, a father himself, said he was moved to tears one day last week when his son – the one Neal may have driven to Rancho Tehama Elementary School to kill – got onto a school bus and shouted, “My dad’s a hero!”
I arrived at Rancho Tehama Sunday morning, and I left that evening.
I talked with many people that day. The more I heard, the more I learned about this isolated place surrounded by barren hillsides that less than 1,500 people call home.
It’s the kind of place where most drivers wave to other drivers, even to me, a stranger in their town.
It’s a place with so few public services that the volunteer fire department is the most official entity.
It’s the kind of place where the crack of gunfire is normal, with the assumption that it’s probably just harmless target practice.
However, some citizens complain that in addition to the rampant gunfire, it’s the kind of place that has a troubling amount of illegal pot growers and drug dealers, which brings with it a whole other set of problems.
More and more, it’s also the kind of place where some residents no longer feel safe, and are no longer surprised when they leave their homes to return to find them broken into and/or vandalized.
I spoke with Jim, the husband of Sara, the quick-thinking school secretary who put the school on lockdown. Jim works at the gas station in town.
He showed me a bullet hole in the roof of Sara’s car. I was going to take a picture, but didn’t have my camera on me. I went to my car, got my camera, and was distracted by the town flag I saw flying at half staff across the road.
So I walked over to get a picture. Then I started walking around the area taking pictures as that location is the entrance to the small community.
By the time I walked back to the gas station, Jim had gotten off work and was gone. So I didn’t get a picture of the bullet hole in the roof of Sara’s car.
The damaged school gate has been replaced.
Windows have been fixed and bullet holes in the walls have been patched. The kids will return to school on Mon., Nov. 27, after Thanksgiving break.
The community will try to move forward. Some people may consider moving away.
I met one man who lives in a hill-top home surrounded by beautiful vistas. He said that mostly, folks keep to themselves; that’s just what people do. Because it feels mostly peaceful where he lives, he’ll stay.
But clearly, there’s a part of Rancho Tehama that’s anything but peaceful. It’s the kind of place where a man with a history of violence can beat his wife in his front yard, igniting a deadly feud when he’s asked to stop, or take it inside. And then that man can even threaten to kill his neighbors, and eventually make good on his threats, and then some.
Sanders and Ferreira both expressed frustration that the mass murder that happened in their community exactly one week ago was not just senseless, but preventable. They said Kevin Neal had a violent history. They said everyone knew it, including law enforcement.
Sanders said that the night Neal murdered his wife Neal called the pizza place where his wife worked and said that if management didn’t let his wife come home, he’d come down and kill everyone in the place.
Meanwhile, one man described how there are basically “five bad guys” in Rancho Tehama, though he knew better than to identify them by name.
Some people might find bitter comfort knowing that one name is permanently off the list: Kevin Janson Neal.
If you are a victim of domestic violence or know of someone who is a victim, there is help. Contact 1-800-799- Safe (7233); Alternative to Violence Red Bluff 530-528-0226; One Safe Place Redding 530-244-0188; Shingletown 530-474-1910; Catalyst in Chico, 530-343-7711, or Oroville 530-532-6427.