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Crime News Fatal Family Feuds

Ex-Brother-In-Law Shot Oklahoma Bar Owner, Submerged Body in Lake Over Bitter Grudge

Convicted killer Larry Nichols believed his mother died due to stress caused by his sister's divorce from Joe Neff, investigators learned.

By Joe Dziemianowicz

On May 14, 2009, a 911 call went out to sheriffs in Poteau, Oklahoma. Donald “Joe” Neff, 61, the owner of the local Long Branch Saloon, had vanished.

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There were signs of a possible kidnapping or homicide at his popular watering hole. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) became involved early on.

“There was blood all over the place. Chairs had been turned over,” former OSBI detective Clif Gann told Fatal Family Feuds, airing Saturdays at 9/8c on Oxygen.

Neff’s cowboy hat and car, about $2,000, and a spent 9mm casing were found at the bar, Gann added.

RELATED: Triple Murder Tied To Bitter Custody Feud Solved 21 Years After Victims Vanished

The Search for Missing Bar Owner Joe Neff

Calls to local hospitals turned up no reports of Neff. Officials looked to security cameras at the saloon for clues and found that the “whole recording system was gone,” said John Chaney, Chief of Police, Pocola PD.

Tom Neff, the missing man’s brother, recalled learning about the disappearance. “It wasn’t good,” he told producers. “And it wasn’t gonna be good.”

Investigators learned that Joe Neff was born and raised in Poteau. He and his wife, Shirley, had two daughters. “I always thought that they had the perfect marriage and then it turned sour in ’93 or ’94,” said his niece Jennifer Neff Price.

Following the divorce, Neff continued to provide financial support to his ex-wife, according to investigators.

Authorities questioned Neff’s employee and girlfriend who discovered the crime scene. She said that Neff removed the security camera system for repair a few days before he went missing.

That revelation suggested a possible inside job. “Not very many people knew that the equipment was out,” said investigator Dick W. Frye.

Joe Neff featured in Fatal Family Feuds Episode 106

The same employee shared that Neff and Shirley “were having some problems at the time of his disappearance,” said Gann. She didn’t have details on what caused the rift.

“It was quite common knowledge that Joe was Shirley’s bank,” said Frye.

Neff’s daughter, Marie, confirmed that her parents had been arguing. Her mother had asked her father to buy her a new vehicle, according to Gann. He refused but offered to pay for repairs on her old car.

Shirley admitted to officials that she wanted her ex to buy her a car but wasn’t that bothered by his refusal. “Not enough to do anything to Joe,” said Gann.

A day into the case, investigators learned that Neff’s home safe had been opened. “There were two crime scenes,” said Frye. “One at the Long Branch and one at Joe’s house.”

Officials couldn’t determine how much money or which documents were taken and further investigation turned up no fingerprints. Meanwhile, detectives learned that Neff kept the combination in his wallet.

Joe Neff's body found submerged in a pond

Joe Neff's Safe Burglarized

On May 17, Neff’s body was found by fishermen in a quarry pond 23 miles from the Long Branch Saloon. The property was owned by Melvin Sharp.

Investigators discovered that “the body was weighted down,” said Chaney, adding that Neff’s hands and feet were bound by zip ties and wire and his mouth was wrapped in duct tape.

Neff’s wallet containing $500 and his license was found. A search for shoe prints and drag marks came up empty. Police divers were unable to recover any evidence.

Sharp, who lived adjacent to the pond, told police that he’d given permission to the anglers to be there. He shared no further information.

Poteau residents were stunned to hear that Neff, a beloved and generous member of the community, had been murdered.

RELATED: Oklahoma Man Caught Shooting, Incinerating His Stepfather On Motion-Detection Camera

The medical examiner determined that Neff’s cause of death was a single gunshot to the left side of his head, said Gann. The autopsy showed that the kill shot was from a Ruger P89 9mm pistol.

Investigators looked for a motive. It didn’t appear to be a robbery because of the cash found at the bar and in Neff’s billfold, according to Gann. But they didn’t know if cash had been taken from the home safe.

Neff’s funeral took place in late May and was attended by throngs of people. Meanwhile police struggled to find any leads. The case stalled for months.

A year passed and in the meantime, Neff’s estate was divided. Shirley received a $17,000 annuity, while the rest was split among his daughters, according to Fatal Family Feuds.

Neff’s family hired Frye to investigate the homicide. A second dive at the pond was carried out in hopes of finding the weapon. Neff’s waterlogged phone and a tarp that may have been used in the crime were turned up, but no gun.

On Jan. 2, 2012, Shirley died. Around the same time, Gann, an OSBI cold case specialist, joined the investigation.

Second interview leads to break in the Joe Neff case

Gann began by reinterviewing witnesses, including Sharp. “During the interview,” Gann said, “Melvin tells us a man called Larry Nichols showed up at his house on May 14, 2009, the day Joe was killed.”

Larry Nichols was Shirley’s brother, and that raised a red flag right away. During that visit, Sharp had gotten a call informing him of Neff’s disappearance, according to Gann. Sharp shared that information with Larry Nichols, who quickly left. Before he did, he told Sharp not to tell anyone he’d been there that day, though there was no evidence that suggests Melvin Sharp was involved in Neff’s murder.

Investigators also learned that Larry Nichols and his wife lived on Sharp’s relatively remote property in the ’90s, so he was familiar with the area.

Although Larry Nichols had been a person of interest early on in the case, there wasn’t enough evidence to link him to the murder.  Now pieces of the puzzle seemed to be falling into place.

Bar Patron Suspected of Killing Joe Neff

Before detectives questioned Larry Nichols they sought to find out if he had a motive for killing Neff. They found that before the murder a bitter feud had started to develop between him and his ex-wife’s family. Part of the acrimony was caused by Neff's refusal to constantly hand out money. One of Neff’s employees reported overhearing an ominous fight between Neff and his ex-wife.

“Shirley stated that she could pay her brother $100 and he'd blow him away,’” said Chaney.

Investigators also discovered that Larry Nichols carried a bitter grudge against Neff. “He believed Joe was responsible for his mother's death because of stress that he caused with the divorce,” said Gann.

Investigators had a motive for murder, but they still needed a weapon. Through dogged detective work they discovered that Larry Nichols’ wife, Judith Swindell, had purchased a Ruger P89 9mm pistol from an area pawn shop.

When officials interviewed Larry Nichols, he claimed he sold that gun to Neff. Gann enlisted the Oklahoma Highway Patrol Dive Team for another search at the quarry pond.

On July 29, 2013, against all odds, diver Kevin Goldsby found a firearm in the murky water.  Ballistics analysis showed it to be the murder weapon.

Joe Neff's former brother-in-law charged with murder

On Aug. 8, 2013, Larry Nichols was arrested for first-degree murder and in May 2014, Larry Nichols was found guilty of Joe Neff’s murder. He was sentenced to life in prison. Less than a year later, he died behind bars from lung cancer.

To learn more about the case, watch Fatal Family Feuds, airing Saturdays at 9/8c on Oxygen.

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