He was 26, she was just 15. Together, they were a match made in hell.
Alvin Howard was madly in love with Judith Ann Neelley, the troubled daughter of a large family from Tennessee. No stranger to trouble himself, Alvin had been committing petty crimes and stealing cars throughout his young adult life. Soon after meeting Judith, Alvin left his wife and three children; he married Judith in the summer of 1980.
The two began a life of crime together, committing armed robberies as they traveled across the South. A botched robbery at a Georgia mall briefly put the pair behind bars. While incarcerated, Judith, who was pregnant, gave birth to twins. Upon their release, Alvin and Judith reunited—and their criminal actions took a turn for the sinister.
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 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 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.
[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.
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