PRINCETON — At 3, Aubrey Neel is a little girl whose smile lights a room and warms the hearts of her family.
With eyes that look like Kayla’s and hair growing long like her mom’s, Aubrey’s aunt, Amanda Bailey, said this week that the little beauty is growing into a tiny version of her, but Aubrey lost her mom when she was only 18 months old.
She’ll only know her Kayla through smiling photos and memories passed down in family folklore.
Kayla Christian Neel died Dec. 28, 2014, in a Roanoke, Va., hospital, of injuries inflicted when Michael Neel Jr., shot her in the face while she sat outside her parents’ home in Bluewell, after she and Dakota Walls took Aubrey to visit the Holiday of Lights in Bluefield earlier that evening. Kayla was only 21.
Neel faced trial on charges of first-degree murder, attempted murder, malicious assault and wanton endangerment for his actions in August 2016, but the jury was unable to reach unanimous verdicts on the murder and attempted murder charges, after defense attorneys Ryan and William Flanigan argued that he didn’t know until that evening that his wife was planning to move out of their marital home and leave the relationship completely.
Rather than face a re-trial on those charges, Neel entered a guilty plea to the two charges, provided the state not oppose a recommendation of mercy on the murder conviction. The deal was struck earlier this year, and Mercer Circuit Judge William Sadler sentenced Neel Monday to life with mercy on the murder charge, 3 to 15 years on the attempted murder of Dakota Walls, 2 to 10 years on the malicious assault charge and five years each on three wanton endangerment convictions.
All told, Neel’s sentence will total 28 years, and he received credit for the 819 days he has served since he turned himself in the night of the shooting on Dec. 16, 2014. At 27 now, Michael Neel will be in his 50s before he is eligible for parole, and Bailey vowed she will be on hand for his first parole hearing.
In the meantime, she’s planning to spend her time making sure Aubrey knows what a special lady Kayla Neel was during her brief life and what a special guardian angel she will have during her whole life.
“We talk about her mommy every single day. She is a mini version of Kayla, and she talks about her mommy a lot,” Bailey said, in the wake of the sentencing.
More than anything, Bailey said said she hopes Aubrey carries Kayla’s love with her throughout life.
“I hope that when Aubrey grows up, she knows that her mommy loved her more than anything or anybody else in the whole world and that if there was anything she could do to be here with her that she would absolutely do it,” Bailey said.
— Contact Tammie Toler at email@example.com