I live about 30 minutes from where Judy Neelley was raised and lived her life before Alvin. I was especially curious as to how someone from my little corner of the world could turn into a rapist and murderer. I visited her old neighborhood, talked with her family and the people who remembered her. I yearned to talk to Judy herself. I felt a kinship with her, but I was also curious as hell. I wondered what she had to say about the events leading up to her incarceration. I knew I was taking a chance that she would even want to tell her story to me. I was surprised when she wrote me back.
Judith Ann Adams Neelley was born in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. What is now a thriving metropolis, virtually indistinguishable from the bright lights of Nashville, was nothing more than a wide spot in the road when Judy came into it.
Murfreesboro ate, drank, and slept Nashville in those days and made its living off the city’s back. Around every corner was a “Grand Ole’ Opry” liquor store or a Loretta Lynns’ Country Kitchen. Not one day would pass without a denim-clad, star eyed, country singer complete with battered guitar sauntering across town in their slow, easy way. The lower rents and living expenses made the forty-five minute commute to Nashville appealing for many people. New faces came in and out of town so quickly a stranger could blend in and make a home for himself easily. And they did, in droves.
Judy’s childhood was as desperate and dead-end as the town that borne her in 1964. She and her four siblings lived with their parents in one rusty trailer park after another. She was a long, lean child that always seemed a little out of place in her own skin. Her arms a little too long, legs too skinny and teeth that stuck out; pale and gangly Judy was teased mercilessly. It didn’t bother her much though. She could rush home to her father who thought she hung the moon and told her so. At home she wasn’t a stick thin, awkward nobody but a beautiful princess.
“Sometimes I wake up from a deep sleep and smell my dad. I don’t know what it is but there are times I wake up and that mixture of Pabst Blue Ribbon and Viceroy hits me in the face the same as if he were standing in the room.” Judy wrote in mid 2004. Although a borderline alcoholic he honored his family commitment and worked one construction job after another in a city that was growing by leaps and bounds.
Sadly, Judy’s father was killed in a motorcycle accident when she was nine years old, which would be the first of many events to alter her life. Without his financial support Judy and her four siblings learned to live with what little their mother could provide in the 1970's rural south. Jobs were plentiful but low paying and scarcely enough to feed a family of five. “We ate a lot of fried potatoes, cornbread and pinto beans.” Judy wrote in late 2005. “But I’d give anything for real country corn bread right now.”
Judy attended Kitrell Elementary School, which looks today much like it did then. A short span of brick bordered with drab beige gutters that sits relatively unchanged in the midst of the rich, green pasture that surrounds it. The only other building nearby is the deserted Kitrell Fire Hall across the street, with its weed-choked gravel drive and faded whitewash sign. “She was always real smart,” said Dottie, Judy’s older sister. “She kept to herself but was like any other kid her age. She didn’t like chores and would rather be off reading or sitting high in a tree, watching the dirt road.”
Once Judy’s father died, her mother lost focus on her children. Her mother became promiscuous, bringing home strange men at least four nights a week Nor was her mother particularly selective about her partners, as court records show she was arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a teenage boy during that time.
“The kids were a quiet bunch,” recalls Mary Stalls, a neighbor at that time. “You’d see them playing in the yard with each other but not so much with any other kids. You hardly ever saw any adults, unless it was late at night.”
Judy met Alvin Neelley when she was fifteen and he twenty-six. Known back home in Georgia for being a baby-faced charmer, it took him less than three weeks to talk Judy into hitting the road with him. Marriage seemed a perfect escape from the meager existence her mother was able to provide for her, so the pair ran away after Judy’s mother refused to allow them to marry. Alvin gave her everything she had been missing since her father’s death. The attentions of a seemingly loving man, if not food, shelter and clothing that wasn’t someone else’s hand me downs. Alvin cared about her and was interested in her. For the first time in what seemed like a lifetime she was someone’s number one.
The two were soon inseparable and those that knew them took to calling them “Bony and Claude” because their actions and appearance so resembled the notorious Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Petty burglary and two-bit check scams were easy to pull if it meant being able to eat every night. They seemed blissfully happy. Constantly moving from one city and state to another kept them from getting caught and a life of petty crimes soon progressed into armed gas station robberies and gunpoint muggings to finance their on-the-move lifestyle.
Eventually, the couple was picked up in Georgia on check fraud. Both served jail time but Judy, who was pregnant with twins, voluntarily took most of the blame. Alvin explained to her that at the age of 18 her sentence would be much lighter than his. He told her how easy doing time would be for her and that may have been true had Alvin allowed it. Instead, he wrote her letters detailing his interactions with other women, taunting and baiting her with his conquests. She would write return letters full of threats she vowed to take out on Alvin’s temporary replacements for her. He kept her stoked and ready. Alvin’s lesson of the day: you have to fight for what’s yours.
Soon the twins were born and Judy experienced unconditional love for the first time in her life. She tried to make each motel a little like a home. She would set snapshots of the kids around the room, sometimes picking up toys and clothing for the children at thrift stores and yard sales. If a check scam went particularly well Alvin would allow her to buy new outfits for them. She loved to dress them in matching garments; one blue, one pink.
Things could have appeared normal until the new started to wear off and Judy realized Alvin was no knight in shining armor. Her dream rescue on the back of Prince Charmings horse was more like a desperado pillaging the village youth. “I can't remember when it started really. It seemed like it was all of a sudden but looking back on it I see it was gradual.” Judy explained in an early 2006 phone call. “He'd get real moody and if I asked why or said anything he'd yell at me and tell me that me and the twins were holding him back. He'd talk all about how much he could be without us. He would tell me ten times a day that killing us would be doing us all a favor. I believed him after a while.” She quickly became Alvin's whipping post and learned that a life with an unsatisfied Alvin was a life of pain and degradation. To please Alvin meant one more day of life without a beating, molestation, or depravity. Together with Alvin she killed at least two women after forcing them to sexually satisfy him.
“I can clearly remember the day the killing started.” Judy told me in one early 2006 phone call, “We had been driving around for about two days. He wanted beer and I couldn't get anyone to cash this check we had. He got frustrated and started to hit me in the head with his fist over and over. He was screaming at me and I was yelling. The kids started to cry then. Hurting me always made him excited sexually so he grabbed my head and shoved it into his crotch. I couldn't breathe and my lip busted open on his zipper. He told me that as soon as the kids went to sleep I was getting fucked. I started to cry because I know what that means. He was telling me he was going to rape me and beat me until I passed out. Then he could climax. I was begging him not to, to please let me heal one more day from the last time. I had a bite mark on my breast that was still swollen and bled easily. The kids were starting to cry again so he pulled my face close to his and pointed to a bunch of girls walking through the parking lot. He told me he would make me a deal that night. It was me or one of them.”
The girls were from The Ethel Harbst Home for Neglected Girls in Georgia. They were on a day trip to the mall. Judy followed them until they began to stray off in pairs and threes. Two of the smaller girls broke away together and Judy approached fourteen-year-old Lisa Ann Millican.
“I started to talk to her. I asked if her name was Sarah Miller. That always worked with the robberies. You act like you might know them and they will talk to you.”
Eventually Judy lured Lisa to her car with promises of partying and alcohol. The two went to a motel room that Alvin had rented a few hours earlier. Alvin and Judy waited until the twins were asleep. Plying Lisa with alcohol, Alvin made a pass at her. She refused it and demanded to leave the room. Enraged, Alvin savagely beat the girl, punching and strangling her until she complied. The couple spent the next two days raping and beating the girl in front of their children. In between the individual assaults, Lisa was forced to sleep on the floor, handcuffed to the bed to prevent her escape. Eventually it was decided that Lisa had to go.
Judy took her to the edge of a sequestered canyon deep in the Alabama wilderness. She walked quietly with Judy, obviously resigned to her fate. Stoic, she stopped and sat when Judy told her to.
“I had 6 syringes full of Drano that Al fixed and put in a plastic baggy. I put one in her neck and told her to sit still. I got a sick feeling watching the sharp point make a dent in her skin. The dent filled with a speck of blood and then it was gone. When I was pushing in the plunger I could see that her skin was bubbling under it. She was crying and whining but just a little. I thought she would die right away and I waited for her to jerk and thrash around but she didn't. When she touched her neck her fingers made a print in her neck that wouldn't go away, like when you touch a memory foam mattress or something. I waited for a while. I don't know how long. But she wouldn't die so I did it again and again. I kept thinking I was supposed to be doing her a favor but I was causing her so much more pain. I only knew that if she didn't die soon Al would find us and maybe kill us both or rape her more. Her skin was melting and bubbling. It was turning gray and smelled weird and so I loaded the .38 and shot her two or three times. A real peaceful look came over her face then and I felt better. I rolled her to the edge and then pushed her over."