A Giver Is Taken Away
(“Transaction Failed,” Forensic Files)
Diane Tilly answered a knock at her door one night and found 15-year-old Pearl Ann Cruz, who told a story about car trouble and asked to use the phone. Tilly, 58, knew Pearl because she had at one time hired her father, Ronnie Neal, to do yard work.
Once inside, Pearl pulled a gun on her and let Neal in through the side door of Tilly’s house in the Alamo Heights area of San Antonio, Texas.
Although the exact sequence of all of the events is unclear, by the end of the night, the 33-year-old Neal had raped Tilly, threatened to kill her cat if she wouldn’t give him her PIN number, taken a swig of Scotch from a bottle on her kitchen counter, used her ATM card to steal $400, loaded possessions from the house into Tilly’s car, driven her to a field, and shot her to death.
Then, Neal dialed up Pearl’s mother to announce he had come into some money and suggest the three of them go shopping.
Generosity meets depravity. “Transaction Failed” — which told the story of the November 22, 2004, murder of the beloved school teacher — is one of my Top 2 favorite episodes of Forensic Files because it’s rich with difficult truths and compelling characters.
Out of all 400 episodes of the series, “Transaction Failed” portrays the most vivid collision between a high-functioning admirable human being and the most miserable lowlife imaginable.
Tilly co-founded Robbins Academy, an alternative school for kids who had problems learning or were otherwise troubled, and was also the lead teacher there. Forensic Files showed brief footage of an interview with one of the students.
The teacher everyone deserves. “Most students don’t talk to teachers about their personal problems, but almost all the students talked to her about theirs,” a boy named Alex Rivard said on camera.
Tilly was called a miracle worker for the way she engaged hard-to-reach kids and helped improve their self-esteem.
While watching the episode, I couldn’t help but think of my own 12 years of public education. I had a number of teachers who went into the profession primarily because they wanted a job with summers off or couldn’t think of anything else to do. There were also those who paid a great deal of attention to students who were naturally gifted and ignored the rest. (Gym and home economics teachers tended to fall into this category.)
As such, it was beautiful to hear how Diane Tilly cared about making her students’ lives better.
Worst father ever. Ronnie Neal, on the other hand, was in the habit of ruining lives. In a series of San Antonio Express News articles about the crime, reporter Karisa King revealed disturbing facts that weren’t mentioned on Forensic Files.
According to King, at the time of Tilly’s murder, Pearl Cruz was pregnant with her father’s child, and he sometimes earned extra money by prostituting her out to older men. He gave her cocaine and alcohol.
One of the articles also mentioned that Pearl’s mother, Elisa Stanley, had children with a number of different men and that Pearl was the only one who was biracial, and not entirely accepted by the others because of it.
(Links to the San Antonio Express News series no longer work, but I found one story reproduced on a Canadian website.)
Predators among us. Pearl’s life underscored another sad truth: As much as we like to think that everyone has a chance to succeed in the U.S.A., there are still kids like her out there who face lottery-like odds.
(In fact, in a letter written to the San Antonio Express News, Diane Tilly’s daughter, Allison Tilly Carswell, expressed frustration that the articles missed an opportunity to examine how child protective services could have better served someone like Pearl and thus prevented the tragic events.)
The case also is a reminder that there are people who identify kindness as a weakness to be exploited. Tilly had once given a swing set to Neal and made an effort to connect with Pearl by complimenting her on her nail polish, according to “Transaction Failed.”
Conspicuous trail. After the murder, Pearl admitted that she and her father had started planning their crime after first meeting Tilly. They noticed that Tilly had a lot more than they did and wished to steal it.
As painful as the case was to contemplate, it was fairly straightforward to convict, according to Alfred J. Damiani, then a homicide detective with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office.
“We could have thrown away three-quarters of the evidence and still gotten a conviction,” Damiani said during a phone interview on June 30, 2016.
Police arrested Neal and Pearl in a motel parking lot after they were spotted with Tilly’s car and security footage showed them using her ATM card at a Shell station.
They found Neal’s fingerprint on the Chivas Regal bottle in Tilly’s house.
Daughter relents. Neal said he had nothing to do with Tilly’s disappearance and told the police a preposterous story about how he came into possession of her things (more about that next week).
After 10 days in custody, Pearl decided to cooperate with the investigation, and led police to Diane Tilly’s body.
Sentenced as a juvenile, she received 30 years. Her father got the death penalty.
While in prison, Neal created an online profile in which he proclaimed his innocence and fondness for poetry. He also crafted an (unsuccessful) escape plan in which he told a prospective accomplice to let him be “the brains” in the plot.
Homicide detective’s story. At the same time, Neal claimed to be mentally retarded in the hopes of avoiding lethal injection by the state. That ploy didn’t work. Neal committed suicide in jail in 2010.
The final reason that I’ve watched “Transaction Failed” at least five times is that it raises intriguing questions about the mechanics of the case. For example, why did an experienced criminal like Ronnie Neal — he had prior robbery convictions — submit to police questioning instead of clamming up and calling a lawyer?
Update: Read Part 2, a Q&A with Homicide Det. Al Damiani, who helped convict Diane Tilly’s killers