O.C. Woman Is Arrested in Toddler's 1976 Death
Investigation: Irvine woman's local confession about baby's injuries led to Illinois indictments, officials say.
By H.G. REZA and E.J. GONG
IRVINE — Police disclosed Friday that they had arrested an Irvine woman on charges of killing her adopted baby daughter 18 years ago in a case that authorities said only came to light when she told an Orange County social worker about it late last year.
Victoria Neal, described by Irvine police as a 44-year-old unemployed interior designer, was arrested at her Irvine home Thursday on the strength of Illinois indictments charging her with murder or voluntary manslaughter in the death of 1-year-old Danielle Christine Neal, who died Sept. 2, 1976, at a Peoria, Ill., hospital.
The child, who apparently suffered fatal injuries while being violently shaken, was of Korean descent and had been adopted by Neal and her then-husband, Glenn Neal. The couple, who have a 14-year-old daughter born to them, subsequently moved to Orange County and were divorced last year.
In a telephone interview Friday, Tazewell County, Ill., prosecutor Kirk D. Schoenbein said Victoria Neal admitted to abusing Danielle in a meeting that she and her husband had with an Orange County social worker in October, 1993. Schoenbein said the woman stunned the social worker by blurting out that she was responsible for the baby's death in 1976.
"It appears that she's been wracked by a guilty conscience all these years," Schoenbein said. He said that Neal told the social worker that she had difficulty dealing with crying children, but there is no evidence that her 14-year-old daughter was ever abused. The meeting with the social worker had been prompted by family problems related to the Neals' divorce.
The social worker reported Victoria Neal's admission to Irvine police, who forwarded the information to police in Morton, Ill., where the Neals lived at the time of the baby's death, Schoenbein said. Morton is about 10 miles from Peoria.
Illinois authorities reopened the investigation and were surprised to learn that Victoria Neal had admitted to a Wisconsin physician in 1980 that she had abused Danielle, as well as another Korean baby girl adopted by the couple in 1979. The second child was 8 months old when she was taken to a Toledo, Ohio, hospital in 1979 with a brain hemorrhage, Schoenbein said.
According to Schoenbein, Victoria Neal told doctors in both instances that the girls had been injured in falls. Hospital officials in the case of the second child suspected abuse, however, and reported the couple to state authorities. The child was removed from the Neals' custody, but they were never charged. The baby recovered from her injuries, Schoenbein said.
"In 1980, she made a statement to the doctor that she abused her first two adopted children because she couldn't handle it when they became fussy," Schoenbein said.
Despite the 1980 admission to the doctor, and evidence in 1976 that "Danielle's injuries were inconsistent with Neal's statements" to police, she was never charged until her arrest Thursday, the prosecutor said. He said he was "dumbfounded" that Neal was never charged in Danielle's death. In 1976, there was enough evidence to suggest that the child's death was not accidental, he added.
"Once we got the information from Irvine police, we looked at all the documents generated in the original investigation," Schoenbein said. "We had the police reports, X-rays and medical reports. We reviewed them and discovered that even then there was enough evidence of possible child abuse. I have no idea why she was never charged."
A coroner's report at the time listed the baby's cause of death as a head injury and edema, an excessive accumulation of fluid in body tissues. The child's body was exhumed last November and another autopsy was done, Schoenbein said. He declined to discuss the findings from the second autopsy. The girl was reburied, he added.
Neal was being held on $100,000 bail at Orange County Jail. A hearing is scheduled for Monday, when she will have an opportunity to waive or contest her extradition to Illinois.
According to Schoenbein, Victoria and Glenn Neal met with a county social worker last year because "their teen-aged daughter was having behavioral problems stemming from their divorce."
Glenn Neal could not be reached for comment, and authorities said Victoria Neal was in the jail infirmary and could not be interviewed.
Court documents showed that the couple were married July 8, 1969, and separated in July 31, 1992, citing irreconcilable differences. The marriage was dissolved in late 1993. According to court records, Victoria Neal was employed at a hospital at the time.
Irvine Police Lt. Sam Allevato said the couple's daughter was living with Victoria Neal at the time of her mother's arrest. However, court records filed on April 23, 1993, showed that Glenn Neal was awarded custody of the teen-ager.
At the time of the baby's death in 1976, Glenn Neal worked for the Campus Crusade for Christ at Bradley University and at Caterpillar Inc. in Peoria, officials in Illinois said. Victoria Neal did not work at the time.