On Wednesday, February 19, 1997, Susan Abernathy got home from work just before 6 p.m. As she walked through the front door of her Hercules, California, home, she called out to her husband and son, but her pet corgi was the only one who answered. He ran to the door to greet her. As Susan walked into the kitchen, she could tell something wasn’t right because all the cabinet doors and drawers were open.
The scene Susan saw as she walked from the kitchen to the living room looked like it was from a scary movie. Her bloody husband, Neal, and their 12-year-old son, Brendan, were lying on the floor. Susan screamed and ran out of the family home. She quickly got to a neighbor’s house and called 911.
The Hercules Police Department sent officers right away to the scene and confirmed that Neal and Brendan were de*ad. Susan was taken to the hospital by ambulance soon after the police arrived. She was in shock. The crime shocked the 17,000 people who live in Hercules, a small suburb of Contra Costa. Hercules didn’t have a lot of violent crime; this was the first and only double mur*der in the town’s history.
The crime was hard for detectives to understand. At first, they thought it might be a mu*rder-sui*cide, but this was quickly ruled out. They were found on the floor of the living room, face down, with their hands tied behind their backs. It looked like they were all put to de*ath by being shot once in the back of the head.
The fact that there were no signs of forced entry led police to think that Neal may have known the killer. However, they quickly learned that Neal and Susan often left the front door unlocked, even when they were home. This meant that anyone could have easily walked in.
Authorities began questioning everyone Neal and Susan were close to to find out if anyone had a reason to kill the father and son. Other detectives began looking around the neighbourhood where they lived in the hopes that one of the neighbours had seen or heard something strange around the time of the murd*ers. They went door-to-door and stopped every car that went by in the neighbourhood.
One neighbour said they saw an older model brown car with three men inside driving through the area that afternoon. However, police couldn’t find this car and weren’t sure if it had anything to do with the killings. No one in the neighbourhood said they heard any gunshots or other strange noises. It looks like the killer or killers were able to sneak into and out of the Abernathy house without being seen.
Neal and Brendan were not likely to have been killed. Neal graduated from Sonora High School in 1971. He then went to college and met Susan at the University of California at Davis. They dated while they were in college and got married after they graduated. When they bought their house in Hercules in 1984, Brendan was only three months old. They thought it would be a good and safe place for their family to grow up.
Sue and Neal both got jobs at Chevron after graduating from the University of California. But Neal quit in 1987 to try his hand at running his own business. He bought Pinole, California’s Precision Tune, an auto repair shop. Being able to spend more time with his family was one of the things he liked most about having his own business. When Neal had free time, he liked to read, act out historical events, and play strategy board games. When his son started to be interested in these things too, he was thrilled.
Brendan was 13 years old and very smart. He went to Pinole Middle School and was in the gifted and talented programme there. He won the school’s science fair three years in a row because he was so good at it. He was also a part of the People to People Student Ambassador Programme. He had gone to one of the program’s conferences in Hawaii the previous year. Not long before he was killed, he was thrilled to hear that he had also been chosen to attend that year’s conference, which was set to take place in Australia.
At first, the day of the mur*ders began like many other days in the Abernathy home. She got up early to go to work as a research chemist. Because it was a teacher in-service day, Pinole Middle School was closed that day. Neal missed work to be with Brendan. The twelve-year-old had two dentist appointments that day, one early in the morning and one later in the afternoon.
In the morning, Neal took Brendan to see the orthodontist. On the way home, they stopped at a fast food restaurant for lunch. During her lunch break at 12:15, Susan called home to let her mom know that everything was okay. After lunch, Brendan’s dad and son left the house again around 2:30 to go to his second dentist appointment, where he had some x-rays taken. Around 3:00 p.m., they left the office. Brendan had a business card with his next appointment’s date and time written on it.
It’s not clear what time Neal and Brendan got home from Brendan’s dental appointment in the afternoon, but Brendan’s card was found on the fridge by investigators. This made it look like everything was okay when the father and son got back to the house. The mur*ders did not seem to have been caused by an interrupted theft in progress.
It’s still not clear what happened in the minutes before the double mur*der. When Susan got home at 5:55 pm, Brendan and Neal were already de*ad, and the kill*er (or ki*llers) could not be found.
At first, it seemed like a theft might have been the reason for the crime, but detectives later ruled this out. They said it looked like the crime scene was set up to look like a theft, but not much was taken from the house. There were no scratches on expensive items like a $400 stereo. The only things that were missing were the family’s answering machine and a pearl and amethyst necklace that Susan wore on her wedding day. A lot of pawn shops were searched by detectives but none of them were able to find the necklace.
A letter from an anonymous person to the police a month after the mur*ders said they had first-hand knowledge of the crime. Authorities have never made public the full contents of the letter. All they have said is that the writer said the killer didn’t cry over the killings. Detectives have never been able to figure out who wrote this letter.
People in Hercules were horrified by the crime, and business owners were worried that a killer was still on the loose. Reporters talked to Pat Crane, the owner of a nearby video store, who said it was scary not knowing why the mur*ders happened. “Was it because he owned a business?” Feeling this way is not pleasant.
Investigators looked into Neal’s auto repair shop to see if his de*ath was connected to a failed business deal. They talked to all of his workers and found nothing fishy about any of them. They all said nice things about Neal and how he was a good person who was always willing to help else. Someone who worked there even said that Neal had given him money when he was going through a divorce and couldn’t afford food.
The workers said that Neal had never caused any problems for any of their customers. Rozell Simpson, the assistant manager, told a reporter that everyone who left the store was happy and that no one had ever complained.
Judy, Neal’s sister-in-law, said she couldn’t think of anyone who had ever had a problem with him because he was such a nice, gentle man who never said anything bad about anyone. He and Susan seemed to have a strong marriage, and they spent a lot of time with family. No one ever saw any problems between the two of them.
The case didn’t move forward much for weeks. Detectives said Susan was not a suspect, but they still hadn’t been able to figure out why the brutal crime happened. She was truly heartbroken when her husband and son died. She lived with friends for almost five months before finally moving back in with her family.
On the weekend of July 4, Susan moved back into the Hercules house. She called her move back an act of defiance. The person or people who killed her had already taken too much from her, she told the reporter, but she wasn’t going to let them take the home that her family loved so much. In order to take back the house and remember all the good times she had with Neal and Brendan, she held a casual house blessing.
It was clear that the case was going nowhere by the end of the year. There were a lot of ideas that detectives had about why Brendan and Neal were killed, but they couldn’t find enough proof to support any of them. Some people thought it might have been a drug-related m*urder because the two victims were tied up and shot in the back of the head. However, Neal and Susan had nothing to do with the drug world. Brendan and Neal might not have been the intended targets, but there was also no proof that anyone else in the nice neighbourhood was connected to the drug world.
Others said in whispers that there had been an affair or a love triangle, but there was again no proof to back this up. Some people were surprised when Susan remarried two years after the murd*ers to Neal’s old college flatmate. However, there was no sign that Susan and her new husband had been together before Brendan and Neal’s de*aths.
A few months after the murd*ers, Susan talked to a psychic to find out more about what happened. The psychic said that there were more than one person involved and that they were mad at Neal. It looks like Brendan was just a byproduct of the situation. Also, she said that one of the killers might have given Susan’s pearl and amethyst necklace to a girlfriend who didn’t know where it came from. As of now, detectives have not been able to prove or disprove any of these ideas.
Investigators haven’t said much about any possible clues the killers may have left behind. However, they did fingerprint all friends and family who had visited the Abernathy home in the weeks before the murd*ers to compare, so it’s likely that fingerprints were found at the crime scene. Some evidence was sent back for more advanced DNA testing in 2004, but it’s not clear if anything new was found.
Brendan Abernathy, Neal’s son, and himself were killed in February 1997. Neal was 43 years old at the time. The brutal double murd*er is still unsolved after more than 25 years. Detectives still don’t know why the killings happened, but they think that someone who wrote to the Hercules Police Station in March 1997 knows a lot about it. They hope that person will get in touch with them again. They are also still looking for a pearl and amethyst necklace that was taken from the house. The necklace may have been given away, and the person who got it may not know that it was stolen during a double mur*der. If you know anything about how Neal and Brendan Abernathy were killed, please call the Hercules Police Department at 510-799-8260.