Lisa M. Neily is the daughter of the late David Neily, whose remains were found in May 2020, and whose cause of death remains unsolved. Lisa’s brother Ryan, and their father, lived on James Denoyer’s horse ranch in Westport, where David Neily was last seen. A letter from Lisa was published in the May 11, 2022 AVA, pleading for help in solving her father’s case. Like many in Mendocino County, I followed the seizure of Denoyer’s horses by Animal Control in December 2005 with great interest.
At that time, I was writing the monthly newsletter for the Redwood Riders riding club in Redwood Valley, and in that capacity, I had received the initial email asking for volunteers to help with the seized horses, and all the subsequent emails detailing the auction sale of the horses, and Denoyer’s horse abuse trial. The trial ended in a hung jury and there was no retrial.
Separate from the horse abuse allegations, Bruce Anderson published a shocking article on August 1, 2007, ‘Where Are They Jimmy?’ pointing out that two men had gone missing from the same property where the horses were seized. One of them was David Neily and the other was Donald JC Cavanaugh (whose remains have not been found).
Q: To get an idea of your family background, your dad had 5 children with two different women?
A: His previous wife Alice had three children Brad, Scott, and Darla. My mother Betty had Ryan and me.
Q: Where were you born? Did you grow up with your dad around?
A: I was born in Santa Cruz. Dad and Mom divorced when I was 8. Ryan moved in with Dad after high school.
Q: How often did you normally see him?
A: After my parents divorced when I was 8, I didn’t see him much. But once Mom got settled as a single mom, I saw him more, but not much.
Q: Did your mother remarry?
A: When I was in 6th grade Mom married Howard Hayes. She went through a divorce from him when I was a senior in high school. So, I decided to go into the Army.
Q: What is your education, work history, marriages?
A: I served 9 years in the Army, 3 active, 6 reserve. Then I went to college and received a BFA in graphic design. I was married in 1994. Divorced in 2004. Married again in 2005. Lillian was born 2006, and Landon was born 2010. His middle name is David, after Dad. Unfortunately, Dad never knew I was pregnant with Lillian before he went missing. I didn’t have the chance to tell him.
Q: Did your dad ever “disappear” from your life prior to 2006?
A: Not really. He would get off his meds. Police would pick him up, admit him to a hospital. Then he would call family to pick him up. It became a pattern.
Q: Were you close to your father?
A: I wasn’t close like Ryan. But Dad gave me all his belongings many years before 2005, when I got married for the second time. He trusted me. I have drawings by him throughout the years. I wear a ring he made and gave me on my 16th birthday. I never take it off. He made one for Mom, which I plan to give my daughter on her 16th birthday. I feel I was close to Dad in a different way than Ryan.
Q: Did you actually live in Mendocino County when your dad was here?
A: I did live there for three months after I went through a divorce in Southern California in 2004. Ryan suggested I move in with him [in a trailer on Denoyer’s property in Westport], so I did. I was there from October 2004 to January 2005. I was there when Dad was there. I bought him clothes for Christmas 2004. While I lived with Ryan, one of Denoyer’s horses fell off a cliff onto the road. There was an electrical fence but Denoyer wouldn’t fix it. I remember, I think it had to do with a battery. Ryan screamed but he told me to not come up the hill to see it.
Q: What did you do while you were there?
A: I attempted to get work but it was really a dead-end place for me. So, I moved to Colorado because my step sister lived there.
Q: What were your impressions of life on the Denoyer property? How many trailers or houses were there?
A: My brother’s trailer was the only trailer that I saw on the property. Further up the hill was a barn where Denoyer lived. I never walked up the hill to see it. At one point, around Christmas 2004, Denoyer took Ryan, Dad and me out to dinner. Denoyer seemed normal at the time, nothing stood out. Ron Baumeister lived on the property and he seemed scary to me. He was unkempt, nervous and twitchy.
Q: Did Ryan discuss with you the trip to Illinois with Denoyer to pick up Denoyer’s uncle, Donald Cavanaugh and the horses?
A: He mentioned it after the fact, and it’s described in detail in his notarized statement to Ms. Houston [Deputy DA who prosecuted the horse abuse trial], which I have a copy of.
Reporter’s Note: Ryan’s notarized statement of March 24, 2008, which he sent to Assistant DA Katherine Houston after the trial ended with a hung jury, and in advance of what he thought would be the retrial, offers incredibly detailed evidence of the horse abuse and the elder abuse of Cavanaugh. Here is an excerpt from his cover letter.
“Attached is my statement about what I saw regarding James Denoyer’s handling of his horses, his treatment of his uncle, JC Cavanaugh and the events surrounding the disappearance of my father, David V. Neily. I have written this because no one took a written statement from me, not even the Sheriff’s office.”
Not only did the Sheriff and the DA seemingly ignore Ryan’s offer of believable eyewitness testimony, he was turned away from the courthouse during the horse abuse trial, prevented from entering the courtroom. This is verified by court records, in this excerpt from Judge Ronald Brown’s Minute Order of July 18, 2007. “Attorney Turer informs the court that Mr. Neely [sic] is in and around the courthouse and states his concerns for the record.”
Q: How did the disappearance of your dad affect your life?
A: It just kills me every day that Dad never knew I was pregnant with Lillian. But I made sure my son had his middle name, David. Dad would have loved my children so much. It really breaks my heart when I think about it. That is why I have so needed someone help to tell my story because I get too upset.
Q: How frequently had you been in touch with your dad in the year prior to his disappearance?
A: It was off and on with phone calls. But the last time I saw Dad was at my wedding, July 22, 2005 in Colorado. Dad gave me away, along with my stepdad Lou. Before that Dad was in Mendocino County with Ryan.
Q: After you moved out, did Ryan ever tell you he was afraid for his own safety? Was he worried about your father’s safety?
A: He was worried about his safety after Dad disappeared. Ryan had moved away from Denoyer's property. Dad had moved to Albion prior to his disappearance, but had gone back to Westport to retrieve his things. After not hearing from Dad, Ryan went to Westport to check on him. Ron Baumeister told Ryan that Dad had driven away, but Ryan saw both of Dad’s cars there, and Dad’s dog, Justice. This made him suspicious and he filed a missing person report.
Q: How did you find out your dad was missing?
A: Ryan called me. But he didn’t file the missing person report right away because our dad had previously gone off and we didn’t hear from him. But he would normally get picked up by sheriffs and he would call family to pick him up.
Q: What did the Sheriff’s office do during the missing person search?
A: Sheriff’s Lt. Crabb emailed on July 28, 2006 that four search teams from the Bay Area with cadaver dogs had searched Denoyer’s property without a hit. My theory is that maybe the dogs didn’t find him because Dad was actually moved to where his remains were located. Gunshots were heard. Did the Sheriffs search for bullets with a metal detector? And they only searched Denoyer’s property. They did not search the BLM land next to his property. Crabb’s email said there had been no activity on Dad’s bank account but that checks were being deposited to his credit union account. He spoke to a person living on the property, I believe this was Baumeister. Crabb wanted to bring him in for questioning using a CVSA (voice stress lie detector). I don’t think this was ever done. Ron Baumeister passed away in June 2020.
Q: What did you do during the search (first few months)?
A: When Dad disappeared, I was 8 months pregnant with my first child. It was then Ryan and I told our step brothers and sister about Dad, and that it when it all went to hell!
Q: What do you mean it went to hell?
A: After my stepbrothers got involved, both they and the Sheriff’s Department stopped communicating with me. The step siblings did not want to say that foul play was suspected. The Sheriff’s Department told us to vote among the siblings on who the family point of contact should be. Brad, Scott, and my stepsister Darla out-voted Ryan and me because it was 3 against 2, even though they had not been as close to Dad as Ryan and I had been. Brad became the contact person for the Sheriff’s Department. Brad and Scott came to Mendocino County to take possession of Dad’s vehicles.
I wanted the vehicles released to Ryan, not to my stepbrothers, and put in storage so the family could look through them. I would have liked to have Dad’s eyeglasses and newspaper that were found in the car, as keepsakes. I asked the Sheriff’s Department for an itemized list of what was in the vehicles several times, but have never received one. When Ryan filed the missing person report, he was never asked by the Sheriffs to view the contents of the vehicles, which may have provided clues. The vehicles were released to Brad and Scott in September 2006. No finger prints were ever taken because the Sheriffs said the vehicles were exposed to the elements too long before they were seized.
Dad didn’t have a will. But he trusted me with all his belongings, but that didn’t seem to matter with the Sheriffs. I held the pink slips to his vehicles that were released to Brad and Scott, although the pink slips were not in my name. Ever since Brad sent Dad’s ashes to me in December 2021 he hasn’t cared about the investigation, as far as I know, he hasn’t contacted me since.
Q: What communications did you receive from the Sheriff’s office?
A: Ryan filed a missing person report on May 24, 2006 in Fort Bragg with Officer Michael Davis. I find it odd that the Sheriff’s Department never asked Ryan about Donald Cavanaugh, who went missing from the same property in March 2005, when Ryan reported our dad missing in May 2006. The case bounced around a lot. After Officer Davis, it was turned over to Officer Walker, then Detective Robert Crabb, then to Detective Schnitzius, then to Sgt. Gregory Van Patten, then to Detective Whiteaker, then to Detective Joseph Comer. Detective Sgt. Luis Espinoza, Detective Alex Johnson, Deputy Sergio Ochoa and Lt. Shannon Barney were also involved. None of them were able to determine what happened to my dad. My dad’s case should have been a priority because he needed his medication (lithium).
Note: On July 20, 2006 Detective Crabb sent Lisa an email asking her to call him about her dad’s case. Investigators described Denoyer as a person of interest in the Cavanaugh and Neily disappearances. On August 7, 2006, three months after the missing person report was filed, Crabb emailed to Lisa “I am not going to make any attempts at contacting the property owner, James Denoyer. From past experiences with him, I know he will not cooperate the least bit.” A year later Crabb responded to Lisa’s request to obtain a copy of the police report by email: “It is the policy of the Sheriff’s Department not to release any reports from an open active investigation. I will be unable to fax the reports to you.” Lisa said she obtained the report when she reminded him of the Freedom of Information Act.
Q: After the horse abuse trial ended with a hung jury, you reached out to the District Attorney, Meredith Lintott when you heard that she had decided not to retry the case.
A: On September 1, 2008 I sent an email to Meredith Lintott to complain about the performance of Katherine Houston and questioning Lintott’s decision not to retry the case, as I’d read in the Ukiah Daily Journal. I pointed out that my brother Ryan had sent a notarized statement to Ms. Houston in March 2008, containing firsthand knowledge of specific details that could be used in a retrial. He was not a lost witness. I wanted to know why he wasn’t called as a witness in the first trial.
Note: Here is an excerpt from Lisa’s email to DA Lintott:
“What upset me most is the following paragraph [from the news article], which is not true
According to DA’s reports, the deal was reached after the District Attorney’s office decided that a retrial of Denoyer would be no more successful than the first because witnesses had been lost and no new evidence had come to light.”
Even David Neily’s ex-wife, Betty Shapiro, sent a letter to Ms. Houston in February 2008, criticizing her handling of the first trial and offering advice for how to handle the retrial. On March 1, 2008, Betty wrote to the California Department of Justice, which replied on March 10, telling her to contact local law enforcement. The family contacted the DOJ in the first place because they felt local law enforcement had not helped them.
Q: When you realized there would be no retrial, what then?
A: On October 4, 2008 I sent a request to the Mendocino County Grand Jury, asking them to investigate the ineptitude of the District Attorney’s office in mishandling the horse abuse trial.
Note: Here are portions of Lisa’s request:
“Several citizens called into Houston’s office to express their opinions several times that my brother Ryan should be called to testify… No reply or explanation was ever sent or said.”
Lisa also questioned why the missing person’s case has been shuffled through the hands of so many detectives.
“We have learned the hard way how the short-staffed Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office has a high turnover rate because of low pay. This is pretty much the excuse we have been given ever since our dad became missing in April of 2006.
There are no words to express the overwhelming frustration and sadness we all feel at the Denoyer horse abuse case and my dad’s case. I feel that the longer this goes on, the more difficult it will be to ever find any answers, or my father.
If someone had read Ryan’s statement, Denoyer would not have gotten away with it.
The Neily family wants justice and closure. We ask for an investigation of the alleged misconduct of the authorities listed above in the Denoyer horse abuse case. Because this case is connected to the missing persons cases of David V. Neily, my dad, and Denoyer’s uncle, JC Cavanaugh.”
The Grand Jury foreman responded on November 10, 2008:
“The Mendocino County Civil Grand Jury has no jurisdiction to consider complaints about the Courts or criminal matters. As such we cannot consider your complaint…”
Years later, after filling out online petitions, Lisa received this response on July 26, 2013 from the Constituent Affairs Office of Governor Jerry Brown: “The decision making authority for the matter you describe rests entirely with the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors and the Mendocino County Grand Jury. Governor Brown values your perspective… We encourage you to continue working with your local representatives to see that your concerns are addressed.”
Lisa emailed Deputy Lorenzo on April 9, 2013, asking for updates. She asked whether they had ever interviewed the neighbor Thad, who reported hearing gunshots at the time her father disappeared.
Lisa contacted the Sheriff’s Department in 2020, asking them to look into the online comments to the Where Are They Jimmy article and the Websleuths.com Forum. There were quite a few specific allegations made by online commenters that could have been followed up by investigators. She also asked that Denoyer and his girlfriend Rebecca Warda be interviewed again by law enforcement.
Q: When your dad’s remains were found in May 2020, how did you find out?
A: Not until a year later, after his remains were identified in November 2021. Which I question. They had dental records and DNA from Ryan and me. Why did it take over a year to ID him? The Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department never asked Ryan or me for DNA. We provided it voluntarily in 2008 in Colorado and it was entered in the CODIS system, an FBI database. My understanding is that standard protocol for missing persons cases is to ask for DNA from the family 30 days after the report is filed.
Q: Did the Sheriff’s office communicate with you about the discovery of the remains?
A: They called Scott, then he called Brad (eldest). Scott (second eldest) called me when I was working as substitute teacher. Scott could not answer my questions. So I ended the call. And had to end my substitute job that day and go home and call the Sheriffs. It was one of the worst days of my life.
Q: Regarding the Sheriff’s Press Release, dated November 13, 2021. It states that your father’s remains were found near the 15000 block of Branscomb Road. That’s near the intersection of Wilderness Lodge Road. It is more than 10 miles from Howard Creek Road in Westport, yet the press release says 3.5 miles. It also says your father disappeared from Albion, not Westport. You said you requested to review it prior to it being released to the public. Who did you talk to?
A: I spoke to Detective Sgt. Luis M. Espinoza. I asked to read a draft before it was released, but was not given that opportunity. The press release was sent to the media with errors that were never corrected. By leaving the incorrect mileage amount in the press release (3.5 miles v. the actual 10-mile distance) from Westport to the place where his remains were discovered, it could make people believe the theory that he walked off and got disoriented. No, his remains were found over 10 miles away and there is no way he would have walked that far without his dog, Justice.
Q: The Sheriff’s office was contacted on May 7, 2020 by a private forester who said his employee found what was believed to be human remains. In the same document it says the Sheriff’s office located “partial human remains.” The remains were sent first to James Wood, forensic dentist [and current California Assemblman], then a sample was sent to California Department of Justice DNA laboratory, then the remains were sent to Chico State University’s Human Identification Laboratory. Did you speak to anyone who participated in the identification process?
A: I communicated with Jim Wood via Messenger to try and get information because the Sheriff’s office was not answering my questions. Wood texted back that he only performed the specific task for the Sheriff’s Department and is not involved in communications with next-of-kin. He suggested I hire a private attorney.
Q: The press release says no evidence of trauma was identified or observed. Yet there were only partial remains. Who knows what kind of trauma may have been on the remains that weren’t located?
A: Yes, how can they say no evidence of trauma in the press release?
Q: It says your father was reported missing on July 24, 2006, but it was actually earlier that he was reported missing.
A: The newspaper found in his vehicle was dated in April 2006. Ryan went to the ranch to look for our dad, prior to filing a missing person report. He filed the missing person report in May 2006. He found my dad’s dog and vehicles. Ron Baumeister told him my dad left the property. Dad would never have left his dog behind. Why didn’t the Sheriffs interview the neighbors? I asked them to, but was told they needed first and last name of parties to interview. Why couldn’t they knock on neighbors’ doors without me providing the complete names? Also, there were reports of gunshots late at night around the time my father went missing. Did the Sheriffs ever follow up on that? I want to subpoena the case files. We haven’t had any celebration of life, because I want the ashes tested.
Q: What sort of tests do you think should be performed on your dad’s ashes?
A: DNA, then paternity. There is a lab in Colorado where I can send them.
Q: So you question whether these are actually your father’s remains? Why?
A: Because I don’t trust the process so far and I don’t trust that the Sheriff’s Department investigation was accurate.
Thank you, Lisa.