Four nights before Letitia Davis was beaten, raped and set on fire in a park near Wichita State University, the man charged in the attack was transferred from the Sedgwick County Jail to a work-release center. Two days before the crime, he left the work-release facility and didn’t return.
Now, Davis’ fiance, Marty Bell, wonders why Cornell McNeal, the man charged with her murder, had not been kept in jail. McNeal had been accused of pummeling another woman, his 52-year-old neighbor, nine days before the Fairmount Park violence, a crime that shocked the city.
“He shouldn’t have been out,” Bell said.
McNeal’s neighbor and her son say police didn’t act as if they took her allegations against McNeal seriously.
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Police Deputy Chief Hassan Ramzah said Friday, “We take all incidents of this type seriously.” In the neighbor’s case, he said, officers responded to the call, documented the injuries and made a report. If a person wants to pursue charges in such a case, it’s up to them to contact a night detective and request an appointment to review elements of the case and determine whether charges can be supported, Ramzah said.
The neighbor said the officers never informed her that she had to call a detective. She did not hear from police again, she said, for nearly a month, until this past Wednesday or Thursday, when a detective asked her if she wanted to pursue charges against McNeal. She said she wondered why it had taken so long, and the detective told her the case had just come to his desk.
In the past seven years, McNeal has been accused of striking women in the face or on the head, stalking them or threatening them, but was never convicted of more than minor crimes, Wichita Municipal Court records show. Now, the 26-year-old faces capital murder and rape charges in Davis’ death and remains in jail on a $1.25 million bond.
The park attack occurred around 11 p.m. Nov. 14: A resident across the street from the park heard someone scream for help, and the resident’s boyfriend found Davis near the park tennis court, down on the ground, in a ring of flaming grass. The 36-year-old Wichita mother was nude, bleeding from the head and suffering from burns on more than half of her body. Flames spread from her and scorched the turf, branding a serpentine scar across a park nestled in a historic neighborhood just south of the university campus near 17th and Hillside. The horrific crime prompted WSU and police officials to hold a safety meeting on campus to reassure students and staff in the days before an arrest. On Thursday, WSU president John Bardo called for a task force to study safety issues in the neighborhood around the university.
The alleged attack at the neighbor’s occurred the night of Nov. 5: Her 911 call sent police to her house in the 2700 block of North Battin Court, two doors from where McNeal lived. Later that night, police booked him into jail – not for the alleged battery of the neighbor but because he was wanted on a warrant for failure to appear in court in a child-support case.
At 8:30 p.m. Nov. 5, according to a police report, the neighbor told police that the suspect “punched and kicked” her, “causing visible lumps.” An EMS crew responded, photos were taken and the suspect was contacted. The police report classified it as a battery.
“Prosecution desired” is how the Nov. 5 police report ends.
To what extent police pursued the case is not clear.
What’s also not clear is how much longer McNeal might have remained in jail if he had been charged with battery or some other crime against his neighbor, and whether the case would have been handled as a misdemeanor, which usually allows someone to be released from jail soon while facing possible charges.
‘He barraged me’
If the potential criminal case involving the neighbor seemed to get no traction, what is clear from court documents is that a civil court case the neighbor filed against him moved right along. On the day after the alleged battery, the neighbor filed a detailed Petition for Protection from Stalking Order against McNeal. Such a petition is a civil court case separate from the criminal court system.
She became the fourth person to file a protection from abuse or stalking petition against McNeal in Sedgwick County, court records show.
The neighbor wrote on the form that after McNeal spoke obscenely to her that night, she turned to retreat into her house and “he barraged me” with “strikes to the back of head, face, & kicks to my body.” After the attack, he came to her door and asked her to come out again and began “to speak sexual dialog such as let me see your (specific body parts),” she wrote, adding, “told me I must be a man when I didn’t respond to him.”
She also wrote, echoing what the police report said, that she “pressed charges against him.”
And she added this: “He lives 2 houses down from my home. Randomly rings door bell expecting me to visit w/him at least four times out of the wk. Concerned for my safety!!!”
The woman told The Eagle that after McNeal struck her, he was holding onto what looked like a small, half-empty whiskey bottle and said, “I’m not dealing with no police.”
She took his words as a threat and said that’s why, after she called 911 and officers came to her home that night, she first told them, “I don’t want any trouble.” The officers then persuaded her to press charges, she said, and she told them about the perceived threat.
For security reasons, she asked that her name not be used.
Although the woman sought charges, police never followed up with her, she said.
That same night, after hearing what happened to his mother, her 28-year-old son came to her house expecting to see police investigating. But no officer was there. The street was quiet. He was upset, he said, worried about his mother’s safety with McNeal living so close. Later that night, his mother called police to see what they were doing with McNeal – she didn’t know at the time that he was being booked into jail on the child-support warrant – and when the officer called back, the son could hear him on the speakerphone talking to his mother.
The son heard the officer tell his mother: “He (McNeal) denied everything you said.”
That prompted the son to take the phone and ask the officer, “So you’re telling me there’s nothing you can do to keep my mom safe?”
“Well, she can always move,” the officer replied, according to the son.
“I was taken aback,” the son said.
The woman said the officer’s words added to her injury. “It was an insult, and it made me feel less safe,” she said, in the house that has been her home for 17 years.
The same day she filed for the protection order, the day after the alleged attack on her, District Judge Terry Pullman signed a temporary protection order telling McNeal to stay away from his neighbor and setting a Nov. 20 hearing. McNeal received the protection-from-stalking papers while in jail on the child-support case.
On Nov. 10, four days before the park attack, McNeal was put into a work-release program, according to Sheriff Jeff Easter. In court documents over the years, McNeal consistently wrote that he was unemployed. While in work release, he was supposed to try to get a job and report back to the work-release facility.
On Nov. 12, McNeal didn’t return to the work-release facility, and an arrest warrant was issued Nov. 13, court documents show.
The next day, Davis was attacked in the park.
Five nights after the attack, after an exhaustive investigation and repeated appeals to the public for help in solving the crime, police arrested McNeal on the block where he and his neighbor lived. Davis, who was treated in a hospital burn unit, died eight days after the attack.
A ‘hot-tempered guy’
Davis fiance, Bell, said the alleged assault on the neighbor sounds to him like an “aggressive battery” that should have kept McNeal in jail.
“That was a violent crime,” Bell said.
Bell, 59, said he and Davis had planned to marry in March. About two hours before the attack in the park, he talked to her on the phone while he was at work. She was upset that night, he said, after an argument with a friend and was walking home from the friend’s house on a route that took her through the park, where she and Bell had gone during warmer weather for talks.
According to neighbors, McNeal walked everywhere. He lived within about a 10-minute walk of Wichita State.
He regularly gave blood to a plasma center near Central and Hillside, said Kim Nguyen, who is one of McNeal’s neighbors and knew him because she had worked at the plasma center.
He had a reputation at the plasma center for being a “very hot-tempered guy,” said Nguyen, 21. McNeal would cuss if he had to wait in line, she said.
History of minor crimes
McNeal was a 2006 graduate of East High School, a district spokeswoman confirmed.
Over the years, McNeal was repeatedly accused of relatively minor crimes, Wichita Municipal Court records show. But he appears to have no record of more serious criminal convictions or to have spent time in prison. Mark Rudy, one of McNeal’s public defenders in the capital murder case, said he knows of no felony convictions against McNeal. Rudy said he couldn’t comment further.
A man who answered the door at the home where McNeal lived with relatives told an Eagle reporter that he couldn’t talk about McNeal.
The Nov. 6 petition filed by the neighbor marked the fourth time since 2007 that someone sought a protection from abuse or stalking order against McNeal, Sedgwick County court records show.
In July 2013, one of McNeal’s relatives filed a petition saying McNeal drinks “daily and becomes disorderly” and damages others’ cars and houses. The case was dismissed when neither party appeared in court.
In August 2012, a woman filed a protection-from-stalking petition against him, saying she was “tired of him coming to my house in the middle of the night, harassing us. I’m beginning to think he going to try and hurt someone there particularly my daughter.” McNeal denied the allegations, but a judge found against him and issued a protection order.
In July 2007, a Wichita woman seeking a protection order against McNeal accused him of threatening “to hurt me at my job because I refuse to go back out with him.” After he called and threatened her, she wrote, someone threw a large rock into her home through a window. A judge granted a protection order.
The park attack was not the first time McNeal has been accused of committing a crime at or near Wichita State. In January 2010, prosecutors charged him with misdemeanor theft, accusing him of stealing $200 from the Rhatigan Student Center at WSU in November 2009. He pleaded guilty to criminal trespassing and was put on six months’ probation. A judge ordered him to get a drug and alcohol evaluation and follow its recommendations.
From 2005, when he was 17, until 2013, when he was 25, McNeal was convicted in 23 cases including tampering with auto, disorderly conduct-offensive language, obstructing legal process, begging for money, driving while revoked, battery, violation of protective order, possession or control of marijuana/hallucinogenics and unlawful restraint, city court records show.
In the incident involving McNeal begging for money, according to the criminal complaint, he was at Douglas and Washington just after midnight in September 2010, in the city’s entertainment district.
The case where he was found guilty of using offensive language involved an encounter in September 2012 in the 300 block of North Emporia. According to the criminal complaint, the victim alleged that McNeal said that “If he caught me outside without my dog I was gonna get it.”
McNeal used a phrase that refers to rape, the complaint said.
In another case, in February 2009, a woman accused McNeal of punching her in the eye with his fist “for no known reason,” according to a domestic violence complaint filed in the Municipal Court. The charge was amended from battery to disorderly conduct, and he was found guilty.
When he hit her, the complaint said, he asked her, “Do you think I’m going to kill you?”
That was more than five years before McNeal was charged in the park attack.
Now, after what McNeal’s neighbor alleges he did to her, the woman’s son said it still doesn’t make sense that police apparently didn’t consider it a severe crime.
“She very well could have died that night,” he said.
“I feel like what happened to that poor woman (in the park) could have easily happened to my mom.”
Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or firstname.lastname@example.org.