Crime & Courts

Broken cellphone, DNA led to arrest in Fairmount Park attack

Cornell Antoine McNeal
Cornell Antoine McNeal Courtesy of Sedgwick County Jail

A broken cellphone found in Fairmount Park last month after a 36-year-old woman was raped, beaten and burned – as well as DNA evidence gathered in a 2010 sexual assault case – led police to a suspect in the case, Cornell A. McNeal, according to a probable cause affidavit filed in McNeal’s capital murder case.

Wichita crime scene investigators found part of the damaged Kyocera flip phone while scouring the north side of the park, 1647 N. Yale, where Letitia Davis was attacked and set ablaze late on Nov. 14, the affidavit says. In a search for its owner, a Wichita police detective gave the phone’s electronic serial number to Cricket Communications, which returned an address of 1137 N. Parkwood for the phone’s subscriber.

McNeal and two of his sisters lived at the address in the past, the affidavit says.

A sexual assault evidence collection kit conducted on Davis after her attack yielded evidence that led to McNeal, too; the DNA gathered from Davis’ body matched a swab taken from McNeal after he was implicated in a 2010 sexual assault case, according to the affidavit.

The details of why police arrested McNeal in connection with the brutal, random attack emerged Friday afternoon after a Sedgwick County District Court judge ordered the affidavit unsealed in response to requests for the document by local news media, including The Eagle.

Police have said Davis was walking through the park when she encountered a man who attacked her around 11 p.m. Nov. 14. A woman living across the street heard screams for help, and her boyfriend found Davis lying nude, bloody and on fire in a ring of flaming grass near the park’s tennis court.

Davis was taken to a hospital in critical condition with head wounds and burns covering 55 percent of her body but was unable to give many details of the assault because of the extent of her injuries. She died eight days later.

Five nights after the attack, following an exhaustive investigation and repeated public appeals for help, police arrested McNeal in the 2700 block of North Battin.

He remains in Sedgwick County Jail in lieu of $1.25 million bond.

Police to date have disclosed few details about what led them to the 26-year-old McNeal, who is charged with capital murder, rape and arson in connection with Davis’ death and with arson in the garage fire at 1658 N. Erie that same night.

The probable cause affidavit was one of two unsealed in Wichita capital murder cases Friday by District Judge Ben Burgess after hearing objections from defense attorney Mark Rudy.

The other affidavit unsealed after Friday’s hearing was in the capital murder case of 20-year-old Steven W. Edwards, one of two men accused of fatally shooting a couple, Martha and Godofredo Moreno, in their home at 642 S. Ida on Oct. 16.

Probable cause affidavits are used by law enforcement to support the arrests of suspects and to help prosecutors determine whether criminal charges will be filed. The documents had been sealed in Kansas for years but, under a recent change in the law, those filed on or after July 1 can be opened by request unless attorneys or the court object to their release.

Lyndon Vix, an attorney for the local news media outlets that opposed the defense’s motions to close the affidavits in the cases, said Burgess “ruled the way I think he should’ve.” Vix called the cases a “good test of the statute.”

Rudy, a public defender appointed for both McNeal and Edwards, could not be reached for comment Friday evening.

“It’s the first test (of the statute) that I’m aware of in Sedgwick County, and I believe that the judge correctly read the Legislature’s intent and found that there had not been a case made for closing up the affidavits,” Vix said.

Other details about Davis’ attack included in the affidavit in McNeal’s case include:

A woman told police she loaned a pink-and-white lighter to a man outside of Kirby’s Bar, in the 1700 block of North Holyoke, the evening of Nov. 14. The man, she said, “walked away without returning her lighter.”

When interviewed, McNeal admitted to police that he borrowed the lighter from the woman outside of the bar and may have spoken with “random people” but “denied any contact with a female in the park.”

He told police that left his father’s house in the 2600 block of North Chautauqua after sundown Nov. 14 and “walked around to clear his head” but that “he didn’t have sex with any woman” that night. Describing the route he took, McNeal said he walked through the area of 16th and Erie – an area where a detached garage on the southeast corner of 16th and Erie was set on fire around 11:30 p.m.

McNeal also acknowledged to police “that he had been in the park several days prior (to the attack) and stated that he broke his Kyocera flip phone and left it on 16th St. North by Fairmount Park.”

“When confronted with the information that genetic evidence on the victim could be contributed to Cornell he replied that it was not him and repeated that he had not had sex with anyone in the park that Friday evening,” a Wichita police detective wrote in the affidavit.

According to the affidavit, Davis told the man who found her lying on the ground amid fire that “they were trying to kill me.” She later told firefighters who responded to the park fire that she had been raped, beaten and set on fire by one person that she did not know.

At the hospital, she vaguely described her attacker to Wichita police but fell unconscious and was unable to give any further details.

Davis died of complications from the burns, the affidavit says. The coroner ruled her death a homicide.

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amyreneeleiker.

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