Debra Neel hasn’t lost hope.
It’s been eight years since her husband was shot and killed while driving on Interstate 75 in a case that received widespread media coverage at the time. Although investigators have received a number of tips over the years, they’ve never arrested a suspect.
David Neel of Wesley Chapel was on his way to the Florida Strawberry Festival in Plant City to show support for his children who were showing cattle at the event. The 49-year-old was driving south on I-75 when his Ford pickup truck left the road and crashed into a tree.
Florida Highway Patrol troopers investigated the crash as a traffic accident until they found a bullet hole in his truck door and realized he’d been shot by someone in a passing vehicle.
Debra and David were married for 28 years. He was a security guard in the Avila neighborhood in Tampa, and she taught at Pasco High School.
“You can’t give up hope to maybe find the person that did it ... get ’em off the streets,” she said.
Debra Neel remembers waiting for her husband at the Strawberry Festival the day of the accident — March 6, 2005 — and eventually calling to find out where he was.
“We always kept in contact,” she said. “Whenever I called him on his cell phone, he would answer right away.”
His phone went to voice mail, so Debra kept calling. When her call went through, a detective answered the phone. The man told her an officer was being sent to speak with her about her husband.
“I asked, ‘Is he OK?’ and they said, ‘A detective’s coming.’ ”
When she heard that, she knew. “I said, ‘He’s dead, isn’t he?’ ”
In June, the Neel family announced a $25,000 reward for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of the suspect. Neel said the family decided to offer a reward in hopes that someone with information might see the reward as an incentive and come forward.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office spent months investigating and following tips. Deputies shut down the interchange of I-75 and I-4 and tried to recreate the crash. Electronic billboards were placed along the interstate.
According to Cpl. Dale Bunten, who was one of the first investigators on the scene, the sheriff’s department still follows up on any leads that come in.
“After a while, when you get to a point of we’ve been there, done that, tried that, you have to wait for some information to come forward,” he said.
Bunten stays in contact with the Neel family.
“We don’t have a lot to work from,” he said. “They realize that, but they still like to keep in touch.”
He said sometimes the process is as simple as investigating similar crimes in the area. When a 47-year-old man was shot in July while driving on I-75, Bunten thought of Neel’s case. The suspect was arrested two days after the shooting, and investigators later determined it was a case of mistaken identity.
Neel said she didn’t think the cases were related, especially because there were people who witnessed the July shooting.
“With my husband’s case, nobody actually saw anything,” she said.
Bunten said the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office has more than 200 unsolved homicides dating back to 1956, and he still believes the cases can be solved. Simple details can come to light and give investigators something to run with, he said.
“There’s always that person that can come forward and blow this thing wide open with a simple, ‘You know, I remember hearing this guy talkin’ about something,’ and it goes from there,” he said.
David Neel was a family man who would help anyone in need, Debra Neel said. In the aftermath of the shooting, she said, the biggest question was why someone would want to kill him.
“That’s the type of man he was,” she said. “He just loved his family.”