LADDONIA — The last time Hubert McNeely saw his nephew James alive, the young man was visiting him in Columbus, Ohio, and going on about a scheme to sell drugs with his new friends from Missouri.
James McNeely said he, his friend Chad Harvey, and Chad's father, Chester "C.J." Harvey Jr., planned to buy and sell drugs that Chester could transport around the country in his big rig, Hubert McNeely said. As Chad waited outside in the car, Hubert McNeely said he told James it was a stupid idea and made the 20-year-old promise not to go through with it.
About a week later, police knocked on his door to say James had been killed in Missouri, Hubert McNeely said. They asked him to identify his nephew's body, which was found stripped and frozen in the abandoned trailer of Chester Harvey's truck.
"When he refused to help, he was worthless to them," Hubert McNeely said, speculating that James had backed out of the plan. "We figured he knew too much."
Prosecutors have not disclosed a possible motive for James McNeely's slaying. But they have charged, or are seeking to charge, nearly the entire Harvey family with murdering McNeely. They say Chester, Chad and Chester's wife, Angela, told detectives they held McNeely against his will for two days, and that they beat, kicked and threatened him in the basement of their Laddonia home on Dec. 18 before Chester suffocated him with a plastic bag while Chad and others strangled him with wire.
Angela Harvey and two younger children, ages 16 and 14, have been charged with first-degree murder, and prosecutors have asked a judge to upgrade charges against Chester and Chad to first-degree murder as well. Three other men — Darrill Lynn, 45, of Farber, and Jackie Moss, 44, and Robert Allen, 52, both of Vandalia — have been charged as accomplices with kidnapping.
No drug charges have been filed in the case, and prosecutors have not indicated that they suspect any of the defendants are dealing drugs.
In court documents that accompanied the charges, the only thing that hints at a possible motive was something Angela Harvey allegedly told a state highway patrol investigator: that two days before the killing, she, her husband and Lynn discussed "how McNeely needed to be taken care of so he couldn't come back and harm them."
James McNeely, or "Bo Bo" as he liked to be called, grew up in foster and group homes, and on the streets, his relatives said. His father was convicted of stomping a toddler to death and sentenced to life in prison, and his mother lost custody of — and interest in — her children, they said. James didn't finish high school and had a son during a brief marriage. He recently had been crashing on the couches of relatives and acquaintances and looking for a way to support his boy.
Prosecutors have not said how McNeely and the Harveys came to know one another, but McNeely's aunts, uncles and grandparents said he lived a drifter's life and met Chester Harvey in Florida while Harvey was hauling frozen foods on his rig through the state.
McNeely was invited to the Harvey home and became friends with Chad, celebrating Thanksgiving with them this year. He told relatives he had joined Chester and Chad Harvey on a couple of runs and wanted to learn truck driving.
Tiffany Tice, who lived with the Harveys last year to help care for their 9-year-old son who has kidney disease, said she witnessed one incident involving McNeely that gave her pause. She said she overheard him screaming at the boys and slapping one of them for refusing to do his chores.
But McNeely and Chad Harvey seemed to become quick friends, and Chad Harvey accompanied McNeely on his road trip to visit relatives in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky the week before his death.
McNeely's relatives said he spoke of the drug dealing plan at each stop. His aunts in Lovely, Ky., said Chad appeared annoyed when McNeely spoke of the plans and where the Harvey family lived.
"When Bo started sharing that information, Chad changed. He grew withdrawn. He wasn't happy he was saying that stuff," Kelley McNeely said.
"We knew something was wrong. The boy hit (James) with his elbow when he was telling us about the truck driver," said another aunt, Shirley McNeely.
Attempts to get comment from the Harveys or the other defendants in the case have been unsuccessful. Audrain County Sheriff Stuart Miller would not allow The Associated Press to interview Chester, Angela and Chad Harvey at the jail, and they did not respond to written requests for interviews. Their attorneys, Justin Carver, Leecia Carnes and Tony Mansala did not return phone calls.
The younger Harvey children charged in the case were being held in a juvenile facility, and their attorneys, Jeff Rosanswank and Kathryn Benson, declined to comment.
Lynn declined to comment and his attorney, Don Gerard, did not return a phone message. And court records do not indicate attorneys have been assigned to represent Allen and Moss, who do not have listed phone numbers. Allen's father, Pete Allen, declined to comment.
The discovery of McNeely's body, a subsequent armed standoff between Chester Harvey and police, and the ghastly accusations leveled against the family have baffled the residents of the northeastern Missouri grain town of Laddonia.
Tice, the nanny, said she didn't believe the family was capable of violence.
"They're awesome," said Tice, 19. "If they had one shirt, they would give it to a complete stranger. They're incredible people who have been through a lot."
And Bill Rhodes, whose house and yard were used by SWAT teams during the Dec. 22 and 23 standoff, called it "a convoluted, screwed-up mess."
He described Chester Harvey as "a bit of a redneck, but a really nice guy," and Angie Harvey as too "submissive" to have played a key role in the killing.
"Did (McNeely) hurt Angie or one of the kids?" Rhodes asked. "Somewhere along the line, the family snapped."