The BackStoppers honors and remembers Det. Willie Neal, Jr. who gave his life serving our community.
Det. Neal was shot and killed in the line of duty while performing an undercover operation, leaving behind his wife and two young daughters.
23 years later, the St. Louis Post Dispatch recounts the details of Det. Neal’s ultimate sacrifice for our safety.
Please continue below to read the article published today on stltoday.com.
Thank you for your support that continues to help the family of Det. Willie Neal today and in the future.
Jan. 29, 1997: Remembering St. Louis County officer killed in the line of duty
By Bill Bryan
When St. Louis County Police Detective Willie Neal Jr. was fatally shot, it was not by the drug dealer but by his friend. This was our report on what happened two days after Neal was shot on Jan. 29, 1997.
The two undercover narcotics detectives pulled their white Ford Mustang alongside a liquor store on Natural Bridge Avenue Wednesday afternoon for a routine drug buy.
Just last week, one of the detectives had obtained some cocaine from the same street-smart dealer in Jennings. Within a couple of minutes, though, one of the detectives lay dead and the life of the other would be changed forever.
St. Louis County Detective Willie Neal Jr., 29, was fatally shot in the side, not by the drug dealer, but by his friend.
The friend was trying to shoot the dealer, later identified as Collis Lee, after Lee had pulled a pistol on Neal during the drug transaction.
“The (surviving) detective is devastated,” said an officer close to the investigation. “He’s hurting.”
Neal and the other St. Louis County officer, whom police did not identify, had been close friends. They weren’t officially partners but were working together on this drug deal.
“They went to the (police) academy together,” said an investigator.
At a news conference Thursday, St. Louis County Police Chief Ron Battelle’s voice was choked with emotion as he professed “unwavering support” for the surviving officer.
“His actions were in accordance with the way he was trained. He performed with bravery and courage. He did everything he could to protect his partner.”
In Battelle’s view, “Detective Neal was murdered by the suspect (Lee).”
Battelle said the two friends were outstanding officers. “Now one is dead, and the other has to live with what he did. We’ll give him the support he needs.”
Lee, 20, was arrested about 4 a.m. Thursday hiding at a cousin’s house in the 2600 block of Whittier Street. He was caught with the help of the caller-ID on his mother’s telephone, police said.
Police went to Lee’s mother’s home, in the 5500 block of Belridge Court in Jennings, looking for him. Lee was called on his beeper, and he returned the call from the cousin’s house.
Lee was charged Thursday with felony murder – a charge that can be filed when a person is killed during the commission of a serious crime even though the suspect didn’t commit the killing.
Police said Lee has a lengthy arrest record, and they described him as street savvy. He spent most of 1994 in St. Louis County Jail while awaiting trial for robbery; he later pleaded guilty to a weapons charge in exchange for the time served.
Lee has a tattoo of a teardrop beneath the corner of his right eye. In gang lore, such a tattoo means that the person has killed someone.
But detectives said they were unaware that Lee ever committed a murder.
On Jan. 23, Lee allegedly delivered cocaine to Neal in the 2600 block of Tyrrell Drive in Jennings. Lee was charged with that offense on Wednesday night, as dozens of police officers were fanning across areas of St. Louis and surrounding northern municipalities looking for him.
Wednesday’s deal was going to be Neal’s second transaction with Lee.
Police gave this account:
Neal picked up his friend, and the two met Lee in the 5900 block of Natural Bridge in St. Louis about 4 p.m. Wednesday. It’s not uncommon for narcotics detectives making drug buys to cross into other jurisdictions.
Lee told Neal to meet him behind the liquor store.
Neal parked near the rear, got out and met Lee, who had walked over to the Mustang Neal drove and looked over Neal’s friend.
Neal and Lee then walked a few yards away to a spot behind the building. Moments later, Neal’s friend looked out the car window and saw Neal with his hands up in the air, as if he was being robbed.
Neal’s friend jumped out of the car and hollered that he was the police. Lee, standing near Neal, turned and fired a shot at the detective, who returned several shots of his own. One of them struck Neal.
Neal then staggered to his car and collapsed. Neal and his friend talked for a short time before he died, cradled in his friend’s arms.
Meanwhile, Lee ran to a nearby Chysler LeBaron driven by a woman. They were last seen heading east on Natural Bridge toward Goodfellow Boulevard. Police are still searching for the woman.
Lee isn’t talking, but some investigators believe that he pulled a gun on Neal because he had figured out that he was a police officer.
Neal was not wearing a bulletproof vest.
Neal had been a police officer for six years and had been doing undercover work for the last three. Funeral arrangements for Neal were incomplete Thursday. He is survived by his wife, Jennifer, and two daughters, 6 and 8.
“Being a police officer is a dangerous job, and it’s unfortunate that it takes a death of an officer to show just how dangerous it is,” said St. Louis Police Chief Ron Henderson.