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Family Loyalty Leads To Double Murder In Rural South Carolina Town
“When somebody comes out of the blue from nowhere and kills someone, that causes fear in the community,” George Debusk, Horry Co. Senior Assistant Solicitor, said in the latest episode of Snapped. “It wasn’t a random event. This was a family affair.”
How far will a family go to keep a dark secret?
Connie and Billy Ray Brown met in the spring of 1991, when Johnny Nealy introduced his coworker, the 38-year-old Billy Ray, to his 16-year-old daughter. Despite the 22-year age difference, Connie eventually married Billy Ray.
Connie’s brother, Jamie Heath, shared with Snapped that his parents both drank, and he and Connie had ended up in foster care for two years. After meeting Billy Ray, Connie quickly moved in with him to avoid her own home life. The couple ultimately had three young children together: Billy Ray Jr., Tanner, and Matthew.
In 1999, Connie’s parents divorced and her father moved into a trailer on the Brown family property.
“When I’d go to visit, it was a happy life,” Heath told Snapped. “Kids were happy playing with their toys, it was just a normal life it seemed.”
That all changed with a 911 call to send help to 1280 Olive Drive in Green Sea, near Myrtle Beach, on June 21, 2000, just before 11 p.m.
Horry County Police found Johnny Nealy and his daughter outside. Nealy told officers that two men had broken into his daughter’s trailer, and attacked and assaulted her husband.
“What they saw when they went in was a very bloody crime scene,” said George Debusk, Horry Co. Senior Assistant Solicitor. “There was blood all over the place. There were trails of blood throughout the house. So, they knew something was terribly wrong.”
Police said Billy Ray was found dead on the floor next to the bed.
“You could visibly see a lot of blood and trauma to his body,” said Jamie Debari, Horry Co. Police Lieutenant.
The body of a second man, Ronnie McDowell, was found dead in a hallway bathroom. Connie told officers McDowell was Billy Ray’s friend who had been crashing on their couch.
Both men had been beaten and stabbed, and their throats were cut, according to police.
“This was a stabbing, and stabbings are bloody,” Debusk said. “And there were bruises consistent with being hit by a stick.”
As police talked to the children about what happened, they began to feel something was off. Billy Ray Jr., 7, told police he was asleep in the living room when the attack began.
“He told me he woke up to screaming. Billy says his mama told him that two men had come. Billy said he didn’t see the men,” Debari said.
5-year-old Tanner told a similar story.
“He stated that his mama told him that two men came in to rob Daddy,” Debari said. “He also said that Mama told him they had knives. It was a little odd that both children were telling me information that their mother had told them.”
Connie, meanwhile, told officers she went to bed that night and woke up at about 10:30 to a knock at the back door and a loud commotion.
“She said two people came in and assaulted her husband,” Debari said. “One was striking Billy with a stick, wearing all dark colors and a face covering.”
As McDowell tried to intervene and stop the attack, she told police she grabbed the children and went to her father’s trailer. Johnny Nealy eventually made the call to 911.
And then came a surprising revelation to police. Connie recognized one of the attackers: She said it was her brother, Andy Nealy.
“When somebody comes out of the blue from nowhere and kills someone, that causes fear in the community,” Debusk said. “It wasn’t a random event. This was a family affair.”
Connie told police there was also a man with her brother, who she believed was one of his friends.
“It did strike me as odd because Connie indicated that Andy and Billy Ray were the best of friends,” Debari said.
When police searched for Andy Nealy’s vehicle, they found it just over the North Carolina border at Jodis Washington’s home. Washington and Melba Nealy — the mother of Andy and Connie — were in a relationship. Officers also found Renee Young, Andy and Connie's sister, at the home.
Young told police she’d been with Andy at home since 8 the previous night, and Washington said he’d been asleep since 9 p.m.
But when officers spoke to Melba Nealy, a motive for the murders emerged. Recently, Connie had told Melba and Young that Billy Ray had been beating her and the children.
“Melba advised that upon learning this information, that Andy and Renee said that Billy Ray ‘needed an ass whooping,’” Debari said.
Police believe this set in motion the violent events of June 21, 2000.
“There had been prior instances of abuse that Melba was aware of between Billy Ray and Connie,” Shannan Dapiran, a friend of the family, told Snapped. “But when Melba found out that the children were being abused, she was very upset. She said it was bad enough that Connie was being abused, but now you’ve put an innocent child into it. This is a family that isn’t going to take crap from you. They’re going to fight back.”
Bits and pieces of what happened began to be revealed to police. Melba said she and her two children, Andy and Renee Young, as well as her boyfriend, Jodis Washington, all went to the Brown home. After Connie answered the door, Melba told police, Billy Ray came outside. Andy hit him with a stick, then Washington allegedly cut Billy Ray’s throat with a knife before the group left — a different story than what Connie and her children told.
Andy Nealy then claimed the plan was only to beat up Billy Ray, and that he didn’t know Washington would slit Billy Ray’s throat, even though the group brought a kitchen knife with them.
Andy also told police he brought a large stick with him, into which he’d carved the words “Nealy Power,” that he used to hit Billy Ray.
Police said Andy’s story matched up with Melba’s, and both matched up with the physical evidence and blood spatters at the scene.
“Ronnie McDowell wasn’t supposed to be there,” Debusk said. “He had just been forced from his own home because of a domestic violence situation, so he couldn’t stay there. He went to stay with his friend Billy Ray.”
McDowell was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“With the commotion going, Ronnie McDowell awakens from the couch, and goes to the door to see what’s going on,” Debari said. “Andy tells him, ‘This doesn’t concern you,’ and Ronnie tries to intervene.”
Officers said McDowell then tried to run down to the bathroom to get away, but Washington and Andy allegedly chased him, and then beat and stabbed him.
“They had to deal with a witness that they hadn’t expected,” Debusk claimed.
Meanwhile, Billy Ray was still alive even after his throat was slashed, and officers said he tried to get to a gun kept in his bedroom.
“Billy Ray is able to drag himself into the living room, where he is bleeding profusely, and somehow gets into the bedroom, where Jodis and Andy stab him,” Debari alleged.
Although Andy and Melba Nealy had confessed to parts of that night, Washington and Renee Young were on the run from police.
Washington eventually turned himself in. And when officers finally tracked down Young, she alleged all four went there with the intent to kill Billy Ray Brown — but she also claimed Connie Brown played a role in the murders as well.
“She told us that Connie was the reason it happened,” Debusk said. “She was the one that asked them to do something about Billy Ray.”
Young told police Connie knew the plan when she opened the door that night.
“The plan was to kill Billy Ray,” Debusk claimed. “The attack was planned for that night. Renee and Jodis did at one point draw a map of Billy Ray’s house. Connie knew it was coming, and she was part of it, to lure Billy Ray to the door.”
For cooperating with police and testifying against Connie Brown, Melba Nealy, and Jodis Washington, Young took a plea deal and was sentenced to 30 years at Leath Correctional Institute in South Carolina.
Andy Nealy also took a plea deal to avoid trial and was sentenced to life without parole at McCormick Correctional Institute in South Carolina.
Melba Nealy was sentenced to 35 years at Leath Correctional Institute for her role in the murders.
“I think it’s extremely important for people to know that this family was not your typical family,” Dapiran said. “They are extremely close-knit. They truly thought that they could help Connie in this situation — they were doing her a favor.”
Jodis Washington was found not guilty by a jury.
“His attorney basically said Renee was lying,” Debusk said. “He convinced the jury that Renee had lied about him being present. She was trying to push the blame outside the family.”
Connie Brown maintained her innocence as she went on trial in June 2002.
“Our theory of the case was that Connie just wanted to get ride of Billy Ray,” Debusk said. “It seems mostly this is a crime to get rid of an inconvenient husband.”
In September 2002, a jury found Connie guilty and sentenced her to life in prison without parole at Leath Correctional Institute — the same prison housing her mother and sister.
“I never would have thought Connie was capable of guiding them, or even allowing that to happen to the magnitude that it did,” her brother, Jamie Heath, said. “it could have been prevented, just by her leaving Billy.”