He was 26, she was just 15. Together, they were a match made in hell.
Alvin Neelley was madly in love with Judith Ann Adams (later to become Judith Ann Neelley), the troubled daughter of a large family from Murfreesboro, Tennessee. No stranger to trouble himself, Alvin had been committing petty crimes and stealing cars throughout his young adult life. Not much else is known about Alvin Neelley's early life before his notorious crime spree, other than he was born in Georgia, where he would later die while behind bars.
Soon after meeting Judith, Alvin left his wife and three children; he eloped with her in the summer of 1980 and she became Judith Ann Neelley–a teen bride to a much older man. While she still hadn't fully recovered from the death of her father–an alcoholic who perished in a fatal motorcycle accident–it was ultimately meeting and marrying Alvin Neelley that would be Judith Ann Neelley's undoing.
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The two began a life of crime together, committing armed robberies as they traveled across the South. They slept in their car and the occasional motel room, mostly living on the run and stealing to support themselves, forging checks along the way. At sixteen, Judith Ann Neelley became pregnant with twins. This didn't slow down the crime-committing couple though, who continued their robberies well into Judith's pregnancy. A botched robbery at a Georgia mall briefly put the pair behind bars. While incarcerated, Judith gave birth to twins. Upon their release, Alvin Neelley and Judith Ann Neelley reunited—and their criminal actions took a turn for the depraved.
On September 25, 1982, Judith spotted 13-year-old Lisa Millican at Riverbend Mall in Rome, Georgia. She convinced the young girl to join her and Alvin at a motel in nearby Scottsboro, Alabama. Upon arrival, Judith and Alvin seized upon Lisa. Over the course of the following days, they raped and tortured their victim, before eventually murdering her.
On October 4, 1982, Judith targeted a young engaged couple named Janice Chatman and John Hancock. She claimed to be taking them to a party. In reality, Judith led the couple into the woods where Alvin was waiting. After shooting John Hancock and leaving him for dead, Judith and Alvin kidnapped Janice and brought her back to their Alabama motel room. They again tortured and then murdered their captive. Despite being shot, however, John Hancock had survived his attack. He was was able to report the crime to authorities.
On October 9, 1982, Judith Neelley was arrested. Alvin was apprehended a few days later. Though both were sent to prison, Judith Neelley was presented as the mastermind behind the killings. Alvin avoided the death penalty by pleading guilty to murder and aggravated assault. Judith was not so lucky. She was convicted of the murder of Lisa Millican and sentenced to death in 1983. The conviction made Judith the youngest woman to be sentenced to death in the United States.
After a lengthy appeals process, Judith Neelley's sentence was commuted to life in prison. She continues to spend her life in jail. Alvin lived out the rest of his days behind bars, dying in November of 2005.
True crime author Thomas H. Cook cracks open this twisted case in Early Graves. Drawing on police records from District Attorney Richard Igou and Investigator Danny Smith, he presents a gut-wrenching account of Alvin and Judith's relationship and their descent into darkness.
Read on for an excerpt of Early Graves and then download the book.
"Boney and Claude"
They were on the road again, this time headed south, toward Macon. It had been a wild few days. Several months before, someone had called them Bonnie and Clyde, but they’d agreed that they were more like a comedy version of that infamous couple. Later, they’d even come up with a new name for themselves, “Boney and Claude.” But now, after all they’d done in Rome, they were coming close to the real thing. Shootings, firebombings. That was one way to show people you weren’t joking anymore.
But there were other ways, too, and on the way to Macon they hatched a few new plans. In prison he’d been told that if you gave people certain kinds of shots, the cops wouldn’t be able to tell they’d been murdered, so they stopped at a drugstore and picked up a few diabetic needles and a bottle of Liquid Drano and Liquid Plumr.
Once on the road again, he kept his eyes on her brown Dodge as it cruised along in front of him. He liked his own car best, a red Ford Granada that he kept nice and neat. That was one of the differences between them. She was sloppy and unkempt, and her car always looked that way. That was one of the reasons he didn’t want to drive with her anymore. The other was the way she acted, nice at times, then cold, mean. It was as if she would say things just to tick him off. Then the air would suddenly get sharp, and the whole world would start to ache. Traveling separately, and yet together, was one way to keep the pain at bay. It was better to have two cars and just talk to each other over the Cobra CB radios they had installed in each of them.
Once in Macon, they stayed in another crummy little motel, the kind that smelled dank, as if there were pools of stagnant water under the floor. There were times when they hated it, but when that happened, they just moved on. That seemed to help a little, as if the movement, the endless heading down endless roads, was the only thing that relieved the tension that grew around them when they stopped. The road cut them some slack, but only for a while, only until they stopped again at the next motel, another one that looked the same, felt the same, had the same crummy furniture and dank wet smell.
During their first couple of days in Macon, they came up with lots of great ideas, but finally agreed on just one to start with. He sat on the bed next to her when she dialed the phone. When Mrs. Allen answered, she told her that her husband was beating her up and that she needed help. Then she asked Mrs. Allen if she would meet her at her motel. Mrs. Allen said she would drop by the next day at around 5:30. The couple laughed together about how easy it was going to be.
But Mrs. Allen was just the beginning, so the next day they rode around Macon looking for John Brownlee’s house, one of the security people from the Macon YDC. There was a plan to deal with him, too, but that would come later, after they’d finished with Mrs. Allen.
Then, suddenly, there was a hitch. At around five in the afternoon, someone from the YDC called to say that Mrs. Allen had had to go out of town and would not be able to come to the motel.
They suspected Mrs. Allen had lied, and so the next day they drove out to the YDC office and spotted Allen’s car. She’d not been called out of town at all. They shook their heads at what liars other people were.
Since Mrs. Allen had slipped by, they decided to go after Brownlee instead. They drove and drove, chattering incessantly on the CB until they found Brownlee’s house. Then they drove back to the motel and she called Brownlee up. She’d always known he had an eye for her, and so she spoke to him flirtatiously, using her hot-little-country-girl act. She wanted to meet him, she said, then she reminded him he’d once told her that if she were ever in town, he wanted to see her.
But Brownlee couldn’t meet her because he’d gotten married only a few months before. Maybe some other time, he told her, if he could bring along his wife.
After she hung up, they discussed a plan to drop her off at Brownlee’s house when no one was at home. She could go through the window and let her husband in. Together they could wait for the Brownlees to get home, then he could knock Brownlee out, wait until he came to, and rape his wife in front of him. He could do that to all the wives of the men at the YDC. Every one of them who had done bad things to his wife. Now he could do bad things to their wives. Rape and kill them. That would show them it was really payback time.
How Did You Do It?
[The] brown Dodge had moved steadily up the mountain, toward the canyon, then swung right onto a winding road, heading west until it passed under a net of power lines, then stopped a few yards beyond an isolated picnic area, a place for families to rest, eat, observe the high granite walls.
“So you pulled on down by the picnic tables,” Smith said. “And you and her got out of the car and there was some trees off to the right. Where were your children?”
“Asleep in the car.”
“Where was Lisa?”
“She was in the front seat, handcuffed to the door,” [Judith] Neelley said. “She stayed there while I got up and looked around.”
Igou had visited Rocky Glade, and it was easy for him to visualize the car there, its dusty grille edged into a grove of stunted pine. That Neelley’s children were sleeping in the backseat was harder to imagine. In her telling, they seemed always asleep. Had they never awakened to see the strange, frightened girl in their presence? Had they never wondered who she was, or why she trembled as she lay curled on the hard motel-room floor or sat handcuffed to the car door?
Perhaps they had slept through it all, he thought, but one child had been awake throughout, and he found himself focusing on her, a 13-year-old girl handcuffed in the car, silently watching as Neelley paced the area, large and looming in the distance, perhaps stopping here and there to lean cautiously over the canyon wall, glance down, then back up at Lisa, making dreadful calculations.
Igou knew what she was looking for, a place out of the way, with a sharp edge, a precipitous drop. But he wondered if Lisa had known that, too, as she sat in the car, listening to the little hissing breezes that seemed never entirely to abandon the canyon edge. Perhaps, instead, Lisa had tried to tell herself that Neelley was looking for something else, a place where she could safely let her go, or let the children play, or, much more simply, perhaps only a mountain flower to bring back to them, something soft and pretty to greet them when they woke.
But if Lisa had harbored such comforting hopes, they were quickly to be dashed.
“What happened after you went back to the car?” Smith asked.
“I told her to get out,” Neelley said. “And I took her over to the tree and I told her to lay down right there and I told her I was going to give her a shot to put her to sleep so I could leave and she wouldn’t know where I was going.”
Lisa did as she was told, Neelley continued, and while she lay on the ground, handcuffed to a tree, Neelley bent over her and gave her a shot in the left side of her neck, pressing down on the small black plunger, releasing a caustic drain cleaner, Liquid Drano, into Lisa Millican’s throat.
Igou closed his eyes slowly as he listened. He could almost hear her tiny moan.
The Liquid Drano hadn’t worked, Neelley went on, “So I got the Liquid Plumr.”
There followed another shot on the other side of the neck, but it didn’t work either.
Lisa continued to lie facedown on the ground, Neelley said. She was moaning softly and complaining that the shots were hurting her. Neelley administered another shot, this one in Lisa’s left arm, then, after a short interval, another into her right arm.
Neither of them worked, and so the next one went in to Lisa’s right buttock, and still another into her left buttock.
And still, it didn’t work.
“She said it was hurting,” Neelley said matter-of-factly. But Lisa was still alive, she added, the shots were not killing her.
Igou glanced toward the window. It was mid-October, but the cold outside the room seemed like nothing compared to the cold within it.
“Why did you think about Liquid Plumr and Drano?” Smith asked.
“ ’Cause it had lye in it.”
“So at this point, you’d given her six different shots,” Wetzel said. “Was she handcuffed at this point?”
“Do you know how long you waited to see if it was going to do anything?”
“The first one she was handcuffed ’cause I didn’t know what it was going to do,” Neelley explained. “I kept them on ’cause she might get violent.”
“About a half an hour,” Judy answered.
Igou felt his breath stop. Half an hour. Terror lengthens seconds into days. He could not imagine the eternity of half an hour.
“Did the shots have any effect?” Smith asked.
“She said they burned,” Neelley answered dully. “She said she was cold. She wanted me to give her a shirt and let her lay down.”
Lisa was burning, and she was cold, but she wouldn’t die. Because of that, it was time to take the next step …
Want to keep reading? Download Early Graves.
After Alvin Neelley and Judith Ann Neelley were apprehended for the murders of Lisa Millican and Janice Chatman, they were each sentenced to life in prison–Alvin in Georgia and Judith in Alabama, never to see each other again. Initially, they were both supposed to receive the death penalty until Alvin pleaded guilty, saving himself from that fate. Judith's death penalty was to be carried out since it was deduced that she was the mastermind behind the couple's gruesome crimes. However, three days before her death date, the governor of Alabama instead gave her a sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole. The governor's decision caused controversy and outrage–many believed that Judith Ann Neelley deserved the death penalty or at least life imprisonment without parole for her heinous actions. Despite this, Judith has never been approved for parole, being denied as recently as 2018. She continues to serve her sentence in Alabama, with another possibility of parole in 2023.
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