Diane Tilly 2: A Detective Demystifies

Q&A with Homicide Detective Al Damiani
(“Transaction Failed,” Forensic Files)

Ronnie Neal and his daughter, Pearl Cruz, accepted the kindness of Diane Tilly and then robbed the educator in her San Antonio, Texas, home and killed her.

Diane Tilly left two adult children

Last week’s post detailed the tragedy and irony of that 2004 crime, which Forensic Files portrayed in “Transaction Failed.”

Puzzling. Today, I’d like to focus on the senselessness of the crime.

Ronnie Neal, 33, committed capital murder for household electronics, a few hundred dollars, and a six-year-old car.

And he seemed oddly unaware of the way police actually catch criminals, considering that, as a felon, he had plenty of experience with law enforcement.

Hat trick. For example, he made no attempt to disguise himself when trying to withdraw cash with Tilly’s ATM card at businesses he must have known had security cameras.

He had Pearl, 15, use the card, too. She wore a hat but did nothing else to hide her identity.

After the authorities apprehended the father-daughter team at a motel, Neal told the police quite a yarn about how he came into possession of Tilly’s 1998 Cadillac Fleetwood, .357 Magnum, bank card, and other property.

You don’t say. Neal was at a car wash, he claimed, when he spotted the sedan with the keys in the ignition and the engine running. The vehicle was already loaded up with easy-to-pawn possessions, so he just couldn’t resist hopping inside and driving away, he said.

In the glove compartment, Neal explained, he discovered Tilly’s ATM card, with the PIN number written on a piece of paper.

Detective Alfred J. Damiani

When he heard on TV that the beloved Robbins Academy educator had gone missing and authorities were searching for two people seen with her car, he set the vehicle on fire in a field so no one would mistakenly believe he was connected with her disappearance, he said.

I’m curious as to why Neal peddled such absurdity.

He was there. To find some answers, I turned to Alfred J. Damiani, who Forensic Files watchers may remember for his appearance on “Transaction Failed.”

As a homicide detective, Damiani worked to find Diane Tilly’s killers and win convictions against them.

Damiani, now a detective with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office Vehicle Crimes Unit ReACT in San Antonio, offered some insight into the Tilly case and also indulged my curiosity about his line of work.

Excerpts from our phone conversation on June 30, 2016, are below:

Were you shocked by this case?
It was disturbing but not particularly shocking.

My wife is an educator and my habit was to have her proofread my reports before I turned them in. She told me recently that she found it [the Tilly case] so disturbing that she had trouble sleeping.

Why was Ronnie Neal so reckless? 
He made some attempt. He told Pearl, “Don’t worry, the quality is so bad on the security footage that they’ll never be able to identify us.”

Pearl Cruz

Why didn’t Neal just clam up instead of giving police a story that could easily be picked apart?
He didn’t have a lot of choices because we caught him dead to rights on video tape using the ATM card on more than one occasion.

We caught him with her possessions, and he tried to pull a gun on us — the gun he stole from Tilly’s house. It was in his waistband and fell down his pant leg. Then we grabbed him and took him into custody. He had a second gun, which we found in his hotel room.

And the interview was more than meets the eye.

I sat down with this guy and talked to him and came to the conclusion that no helpful information was coming. At that time, we hadn’t found a body yet so I was still involved in trying to find an alive Diane Tilly and didn’t want to waste time with the guy giving a fabrication.

There was a real close time frame between the murder and when we had him in custody — around 24 hours — and that’s why we were still operating under the hope that it was an abduction and we still might find her alive someplace.

So I turned the interview over to some other detectives, and they got something from him down on paper. Sometimes it’s good to get a story down, even if it’s a fabrication. It helps for judges to see what a liar he is.

Did you believe his contention that he was mentally retarded?
I don’t think he was a genius but, no, I didn’t believe he was retarded.

That contention came up later, because he wanted to stay out of the death chamber.

This information didn’t make it into the Forensic Files episode, but once when Ronnie Neal was in county jail in the Houston area [in connection with an  earlier crime], he hatched a plan to have his sister bring him a TV set with a gun inside the back — this was before TV sets were so thin. The plan was that he would take the gun out, shoot a guard, and watch him die.

I felt a little bad for Annie Pine, Ronnie Neal’s mother, when she begged for his life. She seemed sweet. (I found some footage online of Annie Pine in court that didn’t appear on Forensic Files.)
I think there was more going on at Annie Pine’s house than we know. I don’t think she was the nice person she seemed.

The first time I met her I got a bad vibe off of her and she was incensed that we would be looking at Ronnie Neal in relation to this crime.

Annie Pine absolutely refused to cooperate with the investigation back when we still hoped to find Diane Tilly alive.

Diane Tilly, from her Waxahachie (Texas) High School yearbook, 1964

What about Pearl Cruz’s sentence? Forensic Files said she got 30 years, but I read that she’s already out.
Pearl Ann was as much a victim as anyone else. That doesn’t dismiss her behavior. She took an active part in this crime. But she was only 15 years old and she cooperated with the investigation, which is why the District Attorney’s office allowed her to have a life and walk out of jail. Otherwise, she would have been considered an adult and served the whole 30 years.

Did you feel Forensic Files’ portrayal of the case was fair and accurate?
Yes, they did a great job, especially considering the time constraints. There were two days of shooting and a lot of stuff going on.

Why did you stop working as a homicide detective?
I had one case after another of some really disturbing stuff. They say a detective has only so many homicides in him that he can deal with, and that everyone has a different body count.

One day, it just hit me, I don’t want to do this anymore. It was after the Tilly case and later some baby cases.

Could you put your cases out of your mind when you were at home?
To do homicide, you have to be completely involved — it’s not something you can forget. It was my life. Fortunately, my wife didn’t divorce me.♣

Next: A look at the 1997 murder of Stefanie Rabinowitz in Philadelphia.

Diane Tilly: A Texas Tragedy

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.

Diane Tilly

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, with so many teachers who who went into the profession primarily because they wanted a job with summers off or who paid attention to students who were naturally gifted (at gym and home ec, usually) and neglected the rest.

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.

Detective Alfred Damiani

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).

Ronnie Neal in court

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?

Next week’s post will provide an answer to that question and more, via a Q&A with Detective Damiani.  RR

Update: Read Part 2