I started writing to Judith Neelley in 2005 after I learned of her story by chance. It was while I was researching the case of Christa Pike who, at age eighteen was the youngest woman on death row.
I stumbled across the book “Early Graves” by Thomas Cook. It is the story of Judy and Alvin Neelley and the crimes they committed. The cover blurb shouted out “Shocking True Crime- The Youngest Woman Ever on Death Row” – and I was hooked. I ordered a used copy from Amazon and devoured it in twenty-four hours.
I learned Judy was born thirty minutes from me and had attended the same elementary school as the children of several of my friends. The book covered the couple’s life of crime with the emphasis being on Judy. I also read about how reed thin Judy brutalized and abused her 280-pound, and by all accounts, charmer of a husband. Apparently Judy, was able to coerce Alvin into committing rape and murder both with her and without her. I pondered this for a while.
While I read the book I pictured the scenarios that may have taken place. Nothing was ringing true to me. Something was still unresolved for me. It was partly because I couldn’t quite believe that something so evil could have been bred in my own little corner of the world. But it was also because of a memory that kept recurring.
Over and over I would get flashes of my mom filing her fingernails to sharp points before donning my brother’s bicycle and riding ten miles to the home of my dad’s mistress.
I thought maybe Judy wasn’t such a monster. Maybe something similar happened to her as I watched happen to my mother that day.
Like most abused women my mother was a quiet, modest grandmother whose whole life was her job at the local Whirlpool factory. My aunt tells stories of her as a vivacious, beauty queen, riding in parades and attending parties. I never got to know that woman. She wasn’t my mother.
My mother was a damaged, fragile shell.
My father beat the crap out of her with sickening regularity. The Christmas Eve when I was twelve I peeked down the hallway to see him pull a handful of hair out of her head that was as big as a kitten. It was the first time I’d actually seen any violence between them. Usually I was awakened in the night by screams and arguing. I would cower under the covers and try to make sense of what I was hearing. It was always muffled, scary, and indecipherable. Morning would find mom quietly nursing her coffee and balancing her Marlboro with its inch long ash on her purple, fat lip.
My brother and I would look at each other over our cereal bowls and wonder just what the hell had happened during the night.Our damaged family dynamics changed shape the night my mom rode those ten miles to town.
My dad had this bony, black haired mistress who would call our house all night long. She would drive around our house late at night and shine her headlights in the windows. Our two-year-old baby brother would howl and my parents would fight. Dad would get mad and storm out. He would go from one woman to the other leaving a trail of madness behind him.
One spring morning full of this particular madness my mother came unglued. She sat on the couch all day filing her nails to sharp daggers and painting them with a thick acrylic paint. She stewed in that black funk all day and when evening came she jumped on my brother’s bike and rode 12 miles to town.
She told me later that her intentions were to end that chapter of her life. Her goal when she left the house was to end the madness and the ass whippings it brought with it by any means necessary. When she got there she called daddy and the woman out and pounced on her. My mom lost her mind that day. She had been beat down so many times that she snapped. She made dangerous choices based on irrational, anxious thoughts and violent circumstances.
By anyone’s accounts my mom was a genuinely sweet woman who would hurt no one, unless my dad was in the mix. Because that was such a fact of life in my world I began to apply that line of thought to Judy. I could easily see my mother losing it and doing something similar to what Judy did. Especially if she thought it would save her an ass whipping or at least post-pone the last deadly one.
Perhaps madness had overtaken her as well. I wondered if it was possible that Judy was also just a damaged, shell with so many cracks it just became easier to fall apart than hold it together.
Survival of the fittest. Kill or be killed.
I wanted to know her.
I needed to know her.
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