February 19, 1997

What We Know So Far

Here's what is known to-date about the murders. Most of this information was culled from the Contra Costa Times (CCT). Other information has been gathered from Susan, Neal's wife and Brendan's mom, and from friends of the Abernathy family.

On February 19, 1997, Neal Abernathy had taken the day off with plans to spend it with his son. Brendan, age 12. Neal and Brendan made the rounds of various appointments during the morning, including the orthodontist. Susan at work had talked to Neal at home on the phone in the middle of the day. At the time of that phone call, things appeared perfectly normal at the Abernathy house. But when Susan came home from work, she found the door into the house ajar and Neal and Brendan murdered execution-style in the living room, tied up with electrical tape and shot in the back of the head.

Police early on stated that the murder scene may have been doctored to look like a robbery (CCT, 31 Dec 97). An heirloom amethyst necklace was stolen from the house (CCT, 13 Feb 00; CCT, 25 Feb 00). That necklace once belonged to Susan's grandmother. There was also no sign of forced entry into the house (CCT, 31 Oct 97). The police also hypothesized that the murder may be the work of more than one gunman (CCT, 22 Feb 97). The Hercules Police would be happy campers if they could find two people: the author of an anonymous note sent to the police several months after the murders, and an anonymous caller who phoned a local church twice about the murders, both of whom may have information related to the crime (CCT, 22 May 97, CCT, 25 Feb 00). The note was actually rather rude, stating: "regarding the Abernathy shootings in Feb., there are no tears," signed by "someone who knows." Unless I missed something new, the most recent CCT article related to the murders is dated 31 March 2007, and presents a ten year overview of the case to date. This same article misquoted me in a very embarrassing way, which did not leave me feeling very happy.

One of the strangest aspects of the Abernathy murders is the potential link to a spyware software scandal that made all kinds of headlines in Canada. In 1998, one of the players in the scandal and a former Hercules resident, Michael Riconoscuito, contacted the Hercules Police and claimed that Neal's and Brendan's murders were related to the Canadian software scandal. At the time, Riconoscuito was in jail for a drug conviction - though he claims he was framed. He was interviewed by the Hercules PD but nothing has ever resulted from whatever he said to them.

While the Abernathy case appears to be cold and getting colder, the Hercules PD is still chasing leads as they come up. For instance, in 2002, some previously untested material evidence was sent to the then-just-opened State of California Crime Lab in Richmond, CA. One of the main purposes for the new crime lab is the examination of evidence, especially DNA, from cases like the Abernathy murder in danger of going cold.

What We Don't Know But Wish We Did

There's lots we don't know, the most obvious being the identity of the murderer or murderers. Motive is the other black hole for most of us who knew Neal and Brendan. There are other data gaps that are bothersome. There was no evidence of forced entry so who was it that afternoon that Neal opened the door and let them in? And where were the dogs, the terrible, fierce and protective corgies? If you had ever met those corgies, always wary of strangers and ever so protective of Brendan, I think you would wonder too how someone got into the house and murdered Neal and Brendan without trouble from the dogs. The whole bit with the mystery phone call and the beligerant mystery note is rather disturbing, even if the note and call turn out to be a cruel hoax. The results of the 2002 DNA sampling are unknown - and so are the results of the autopsy, whose results have not been made known even to the Abernathy family.

There are usually reasons why a case appears to have gone cold. First, it is not in the interests of an investigation to let the cat out of the bag as far as evidence is concerned before trial. Often, a piece of evidence is deliberately withheld from public scrutiny because it is something that only the murderer can know. Such evidence can be used to trip up a suspect in interrogation - a standard police technique, essentially a variation on giving someone enough rope to hang themselves with. There are other reasons not to disclose evidence. Spilling evidence too early can cause a suspect to flee, prompt a suspect to destroy undiscovered evidence, or cause a suspect to commit violent crimes against potential witnesses or criminal accomplices.

Another factor that effects the disclosure of evidence is insuring that the accumulated evidence is sufficient to gain a conviction. Before someone can be arrested and brought to trial, there has to be a convincing opus of physical evidence pointing to the murderer(s). If a crime scene is too thin as far as evidence is concerned, it's doubtful that a DA will want to risk a trial because of the double jeopardy dilemma. It is not unknown for law enforcement personnel to be certain that a particular suspect is guilty, but that's not good enough to win a conviction in court. A successful prosecution requires that there is sufficient and supportable evidence to lead to a conviction.

I'm sure the cops and government prosecutors want to solve this case as badly as the friends and family of Neal and Brendan, but being in the dark about the progress of the investigation doesn't help at all to mitigate the frustration we all feel.