DALTON, Ga. — There are multiple sides to Adolph "Sonny" Neal, those who know him say.
There's the man shackled in the red jumpsuit on Tuesday, who admitted he butchered his wife, Jessica, and beat her 69-year-old grandfather Donald Shedd to death.
Then there's the side that his family, friends and attorneys say was the real Sonny. A man who was well liked, well respected in the community, who loved his adopted daughter and his wife. "We love him," said a couple who wouldn't give their names as they walked out the courthouse. They said Neal and their son were best friends growing up.
Sonny Neal pleaded guilty in a packed courtroom at Whitfield County Superior Court to two counts of murder and was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole.
His attorney, Marcus Morris, said Neal had been taking Xanax after his brother died of cancer and was drinking, too, when last year he committed one of the goriest killings the county has ever seen.
Morris said in the courtroom that if the 50-year-old man hadn't been drinking and popping pills on May 24, 2012, his wife and her grandfather may still be alive.
But don't be fooled, Jessica's family said. Neal, who co-owned a tanning salon, called Dazzle, with Jessica, was not the man everyone else thought he was.
Neal was controlling, jealous and obsessed, said Jessica's dad and stepmom, Billy and Cindy Miller. He may have been abusive to his wife, who was 22 years younger than him, they said. But they didn't find out the truth until it was too late.
He was sweet and charming when Jessica met him, said her mother, Donna Patterson. But then everything changed.
"He's a charismatic, narcissist sociopath," she said. "He turned into a controlling monster."
It was May 24 when the Neals' adopted 9-year-old daughter found her grandfather dead in the kitchen, prosecutors said. She ran to a neighbor's house and they called 911, said Conasauga Circuit District Attorney Bert Poston said.
That's when police found Jessica stabbed to death in the pool house.
Neal then led police on a weeklong manhunt until he was found 12 miles from his house in the woods in Varnell, Ga.
Because the families' 9-year-old granddaughter is the witness who found her grandfather, she would have had to testify at a trial, family members said. She would have had to face her father and talk about what she saw.
They decided the best option was to go along with a plea deal and let Neal admit what he did.
After Whitfield County Superior Court Judge William Boyett sentenced Neal, family members said they were relieved it was over.
"The death penalty would have had my granddaughter on the stand," said Cindy Miller. "We did this for [her]."
When it was Neal's turn to speak he declined.
But before he was led away, his attorney told the audience: "He is very sorry for what happened. This wasn't a person who just decided to go kill two people."
Instead Neal quickly left the courtroom without looking back, as his family and friends held each other and cried.
Joy Lukachick is a crime reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing down ...
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