The Five Deaths of Carmen McNeal

Her mutilated body was found
in the basement of a
Minneapolis apartment building.

Her killer was never brought to justice.

And a quarter century later,
the details of her life and death still
haunt five people she left behind.

This is her story in their words.

The case file tells this story: Just after midnight on Sunday, September 6, 1970, in the public housing projects off Olson Highway in North Minneapolis, the body of a 26-year-old woman named Carmen McNeal was discovered, face down and nude, in a pile of charred papers and trash on the basement floor of her apartment building.

She had been dead since early Saturday morning--nearly 24 hours. Her sternum was fractured. Her chest showed signs of hemorrhaging. Her left leg and hand had been burned to the bone. A pressurized aerosol can, a singed woman's wig, and an empty book of matches were found near the body. There was a laceration above her left eye, bruises and whip marks across her back, and a deep cut across the left side of her neck that suggested ligature strangulation--most likely done with a piece of lingerie that had been used to hang her from a ceiling pipe. It later broke under the weight of her 96-pound body, but a portion of the garment still hung there. The cement floor and a small furnace in the corner were smeared with blood, which was duly typed.

Upstairs on the kitchen table, police came across a handwritten letter that McNeal--the mother of two young children and the daughter of a sitting Minneapolis City Council member--had started and abandoned the night before. A man's comb lay just inside the front door, which was unlocked. The back door was locked, though the chain was not engaged. The door frame had been torn loose from the wall and a few small particles of plaster lay scattered across the tile floor that McNeal had scrubbed and waxed the night she died, suggesting a forced entry.

From there, the details turn sketchy. A neighbor reported hearing a knock on her door the night she died, but could not say exactly when. McNeal's 6-year-old daughter, Carrie, told the police she'd heard her mother crying in the middle of the night from her bed upstairs, but thought this might have been a dream. Several light bulbs that had been unscrewed from their basement fixtures were collected as evidence from the kitchen garbage along with two cigarette packs, but lab testing found no latent prints on any of the items. Detectives recovered a partial fingerprint at the scene, but it was never matched. A vaginal smear taken from her showed no trace of semen stains, but on August 31, just a week before her death, a warrant for "indecent conduct" had been issued at McNeal's request against a man who she claimed had broken into her basement window, come upstairs and raped her before molesting her daughter.

The evening before the murder, McNeal told her mother that, "I've gone too far--the last three months have been bad," and her mother later informed the police that "I'd never seen her so nervous as she was over [this man]." His criminal record showed an arrest the previous year for rape, and convictions for burglary, disorderly conduct, and assault. According to both the case file and the lead investigator at the time, the man in question had placed a call to the downtown police station from a pay phone not more than a block from McNeal's apartment just before dawn that Saturday, reporting that his wallet had been stolen. The same investigator also told the friend who found McNeal's body that this man's ID card was indeed found at the crime scene. He became the homicide unit's main suspect, but although he was arrested and taken in for questioning he was never charged with the killing. In fact, no one has ever been charged and the case remains open and unsolved to this day.

It's been said that memory plays tricks, on the dead and the living. That time fools the mind, mistaking fact for fiction and fiction for fact. What was once true is now remembered as a lie. What is now taken as accurate was once just a rumor. In the 26-year aftermath of Carmen McNeal's brutal murder, her friends, her daughter, her father, her husband, and the lead police investigator have turned what they know of the evidence and hearsay over time and again in their minds--puzzling at it, pressing it for meaning, trying to make from it a story that makes sense.

Detective Roger Montgomery, Minneapolis Police Department (retired 1991)

We had a suspect. You could say I knew who the killer was, if the suspicions and hunches of a detective who'd been doing homicides for several years means anything. There was a lot of circumstantial evidence, but maybe not enough to go to court and win. Plus, there were other factors--I can't really say what all, but they did bear on how we were able to conduct the case. I had some street information that this guy was going to give me an alibi--an alibi that I could break just like that. I went up to [the company where he worked]--a big corporation with what you might call a reputation to keep up around Minneapolis and even nationally. That's where we arrested him. The idea was to take him in for questioning, catch him off guard, shake him up. Unfortunately, that was my big mistake.

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