SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Over two years after a Northern California man shot multiple school children and killed his wife and four others, a federal judge on Tuesday said officers potentially botched opportunities to arrest or disarm the shooter.
Siding with victims and families suing Tehama County on civil rights claims, U.S. District Judge Troy Nunley ruled a jury should decide whether sheriff’s deputies had probable cause to suspect gunman Kevin Neal had violated a restraining order.
“Whether defendants violated this duty is a question for the factfinder,” Nunley’s 31-page order states. “Plaintiffs have pleaded sufficient facts to allege probable cause that Neal had firearms in violation of the restraining order including: the neighbors’ various reports of Neal shooting; visible ammunition on Neal’s property; and Neal’s alleged statement to an officer that he had been shooting but in a safe manner.”
The morning after he murdered and dumped his wife’s body under their mobile home, Neal killed two neighbors, stole their truck and headed toward a nearby elementary school. On the way, Neal fired indiscriminately while driving through Rancho Tehama Reserve, an unincorporated community approximately 135 miles north of Sacramento, killing two more people.
The 44-year-old gunman opened fire on seven different sites — including an elementary school — before he ended the shootout with law enforcement by shooting himself in the head from the driver’s seat.
Following the November 2017 incident, Tehama County Assistant Sheriff Phil Johnston said it appeared Neal was “randomly picking targets.” Fortunately, no children were killed — the incident started before classes began, and the sheriff’s department credited school officials with taking quick action to lock down the campus.
The department says Neal was wearing a bulletproof vest and that they recovered a semiautomatic rifle and two handguns that weren’t registered in his name.
Over the next year, victims filed seven federal lawsuits against the county, claiming the sheriff’s department neglected to enforce a restraining order that could have prevented the incident.
Earlier in 2017, a judge ordered Neal to surrender his firearms after he was arrested for allegedly attacking his neighbors.
In lawsuits filed in the Eastern District of California, the plaintiffs claim the sheriff’s department knew Neal was shooting guns from his property and should have obtained a search warrant. They say spent ammunition littered Neal’s property and that neighbors even complained about gunshots just three weeks before the mass shooting.
The sweeping lawsuits, which have been combined, accused the county, the department and Neal’s estate of over 20 total claims, including failure to enforce the restraining order, negligent training, failure to provide speedy medical care to shooting victims and public nuisance.
Instead of confiscating the weapons or arresting Neal, the victims contend the department reacted with incompetence.
“On the rare occasion the department did respond, the sheriff’s office would attempt to reach Neal by phone and give up if there was no answer, or visit the scene and if it was ‘quiet’ when the sheriff arrived, would not pursue it further, stating that they would have to witness shots fired, in order to do anything, even though Neal was not allowed to have a firearm or any kind of ammunition and his property was littered with shell casings, bullet holes and ammunition,” the plaintiffs stated in their complaint.
In subsequent briefs, the county moved to dismiss the lawsuits as being built on a “mountain of conjecture and speculation,” claiming it wasn’t responsible for Neal’s murders.
“When law enforcement investigated the calls they did not find probable cause to search [Neal’s] house or arrest him,” the county countered. “No one could have predicted that he would later go on a murder spree.”
While Judge Nunley on Tuesday dismissed most of the plaintiffs’ claims, their attempt to hold the county and sheriff accountable will proceed.
“This is a case grounded in tragic circumstances,” the judge wrote.
Neither the Tehama County Sheriff’s Department or plaintiffs’ lawyers at Barr and Mudford of Redding, California, responded to a request for comment.