Thursday, May 8, 2014

Tom Neal -- Detour (Part II)

By 1965, the 51-year-old former actor had seemingly pieced his life back together.  Married since June 1961 to third wife Gail, a 29-year-old receptionist at the upscale Palm Springs Tennis Club, Neal operated a modest, but successful, landscaping business in the desert town.  Long forgotten by movie fans, Neal once again became press fodder by committing another violent act ... this time with fatal consequences.  At 6:30 A.M. on Friday, April 2, 1965, Palm Springs police received a phone call from Neal's Beverly Hills attorney, James P. Cantillon, requesting that they meet him and his client at an intersection one block from Neal's house.  Neal led the group to his home at 2481 Cardillo Road where authorities discovered Gail peacefully stretched out on the living room sofa, partially covered by a blanket, dead from a single .45-caliber bullet wound behind her right ear.  The bullet exited Gail's left temple and was recovered from a sofa pillow beneath her head.  A spent cartridge was found four feet from the woman's body.  The gun was never found.  Neal was cooperative with authorities, but under the advice of Cantillon refused to make a statement.  An autopsy fixed the time of Gail's death between 2:30 P.M. on April 1 and 2:30 A.M. on April 2.  As the former actor sat in the Riverside County Jail in Indio without bound, detectives worked to fix his movements during that time frame.  The outlook for Neal looked bleak after investigators questioned Robert L. Balzer, the Buddhist monk owner of the Tyrol Restaurant in Idyllwild, a mountain resort in the San Jacinto Mountains behind Palm Springs.  Balzer, a friend of the Neals, told police that the former actor showed up alone at the restaurant early in the evening of April 1.  Neal looked a "little disturbed," and in the course of their conversation told him Gail was his "whole life and he could not live without her."  Neal concluded the frank discussion with the admission that he had shot his wife "in the head" with a .45-caliber pistol.  He was subsequently charged with first-degree murder and remained in jail pending trial steadfastly maintaining his innocence.

Following jury selection (three men, nine women), the Neal trial opened in Indio on October 19, 1965.  The prosecution's case against the former actor looked solid.  The motive -- Neal shot his wife while she slept because she was involved with other men and planned to divorce him.  Adding to Neal's "confession" to Balzer, a local real estate broker testified that on April 1 he had gone to the Neal house to deliver a letter of recommendation to Gail who intended to divorce her husband of four years and relocate to Los Angeles to seek employment.  The realtor was surprised to find Neal in the home since the couple was separated since January 1965 and the one-time actor had been living in Chicago.  Embarrassed, the real estate broker quickly left the home on Cardillo Road.  He was the last person except for Neal to see Gail alive.  Nine days after calling only eight witnesses, the D.A.'s office rested its case against Neal.  Seemingly outgunned by the prosecution, Neal was forced to take the stand in his own defense.  He told the packed courtroom the shooting was accidental.  As he argued with his wife about the other men in her life, Gail suddenly became angry, produced a .45-caliber automatic, and threatened to kill him.  The gun discharged accidentally as he attempted to disarm the hysterical woman.  As a rebuttal witness, the prosecution called Dr. Armand Dollinger, the pathologist who performed the autopsy on the dead woman.  According to Dollinger, Neal's account of the shooting was "unlikely" based upon the direction of the wound.  Three of Gail's co-workers at the Palm Springs Tennis Club testified that she planned to leave town after learning her husband was returning from Chicago.  Gail was terrified Neal would kill her when he learned that she had filed for divorce on March 11, 1965, citing physical cruelty as the grounds.  In the divorce papers, the 29-year-old receptionist accused Neal of threatening her with a .45-caliber automatic.  Present in the courtroom for at least one day was Neal's old flame, Barbara Payton.  The two exchanged glances, but did not speak.  Remarkably to most observers, jurors needed only ten hours after a six-week trial to find Neal guilty of the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter on November 18, 1965.  While awaiting sentencing, the star of Detour remained free on $2,750 bail.  Describing Neal as a "cold, deliberate" killer, Superior Court Judge Hilton H. McCabe imposed the maximum prison sentence of one to 15 years on the angry ex-actor on December 10, 1965.  There would be no probation.  Neal decried the sentence as a "railroad job" as he was hustled off to begin serving his time.  He was paroled from the California Institution for Men at Chino on December 6, 1971, after serving seven years.  Neal's freedom, however, was short-lived.  On August 6, 1972, the 58-year-old complained of heartburn prior to retiring to bed in his North Hollywood home.  The next day, Neal's 15-year-old son, Patrick, discovered his father's body.  The man with the violent past was pronounced dead from "natural causes" (congestive heart failure) by a fire department ambulance crew summoned to the scene.

Recommended Reading

Gilmore, John.  L.A. Despair:  A Landscape of Crimes and Bad Times.  Los Angeles:  Amok, 2005.

Lyons, Arthur.  "Killer Career - Actor Tom Neal."

Neal, Tom.  "Neal Relates His Version of Brawl."  Los Angeles Times, p. 2, September 17, 1951.

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