ROBY — Neldon Neal, wanted for murder, eluded capture for nearly two months in the thick forest of south-central Missouri, often hiding for days inside a hollow tree.
At times, police searched just a few feet away, unaware the 60-year-old suspect was inside the tree. His freedom ended Saturday, when a group of officers came upon Neal in the woods outside of Winnipeg, Mo. He had a handgun but was arrested without incident.
“It’s a load lifted off of me,” Texas County Sheriff Carl Watson said. He led the manhunt that at one point included 100 officers.
Neal is accused of fatally shooting his wife, Judy Lewis, 51, on March 13 in Roby, about 60 miles south of Rolla. Authorities don’t know what prompted the killing. The couple lived in a dilapidated trailer. He was unemployed.
Neal grew up in the area around the Mark Twain National Forest. Authorities knew they were in for a struggle to capture him.
Working off a tip, about 20 officers went into the woods Saturday, about 1 1/2 miles from the nearest road. Neal was found under a rock overhang about halfway down a bluff overlooking the Gasconade River. Police said he had two tarps, a sleeping bag and a supply of food and clothes. One of his adult sons was found at the hiding spot and also arrested. The sheriff said the son won’t likely be charged.
Authorities are investigating whether two other men helped Neal. Four women have already been charged with hindering prosecution for allegedly buying him food and beer and giving him a tent and a sleeping bag.
The women also said Neal was holed up inside a hollow tree shortly after the shooting. Deputies had come close enough to Neal that he could see their badges, they said.
Neal’s capture brought relief to people in Roby.
“Everybody is happy. Everybody is relieved,” said Jeanie Huff, a clerk at Walt’s gas station.
Watson said he’s ready to move on.
“It’s been a long two months, I tell you,” the sheriff said.