Police arrest suspect in Wagon Wheel theft

An alleged armed robbery at the Wagon Wheel on Ocean Drive last week wasn’t a robbery at all, but an inside job, Homer Police said in a criminal complaint filed at the Homer Court on Sept. 10.

Police charged Tommy Lee Neal, 19, with third-degree theft and making a false report, both misdemeanors. Neal was the male clerk at the Wagon Wheel who reported the robbery at 1:42 p.m. last Thursday, police said. Police arrested Neal about 10:30 a.m. Thursday morning at his West Bayview Avenue rental.

At Neal’s arraignment on Thursday afternoon, Homer Judge Margaret Murphy entered pleas of not guilty on both charges. Murphy set a $1,000 cash performance bail for Neal and ruled that because of his low income he was eligible for a court-ordered attorney.

“It is very egregious,” assistant District Attorney Amy Fenske said at Neal’s arraignment. “This is not a crime we see very often. It’s pretty extreme.”

In charging documents, police alleged Neal made up the story about an armed robbery and took $716 from the Wagon Wheel cash till himself. Neal used some of the man to pay rent, police said.

None of these events that Neal described happened, police said:

• A man in an Oakland Raiders hoody did not brandish a gun and take money from the till;

• A blonde woman in a white sedan with bronze trim did not pick up the man, and

• The white sedan did not exist and did not make a screeching getaway on Ocean Drive.

According to a complaint by Homer Police Officer Larry Baxter, at 1:42 p.m. Sept. 4, Neal made a 911 call of an armed robbery. In an interview with police, Neal said a man in an Oakland Raiders hoody came into the store, bought a piece of licorice and then pulled out a gun and demanded money from the till. Neal also described a blonde woman in the getaway car with a beaked nose and pockmarks on her face who appeared to be “methed out,” Baxter said. Police and Alaska State Troopers searched the Homer area for the suspect white sedan, but could not find any cars matching the description.

As the investigation continued, police began to poke holes in Neal’s story.

In his complaint, Baxter said he and Homer Police Sgt. Lary Kuhns didn’t find any tire acceleration marks in the Wagon Wheel’s gravel parking lot. A cash register transaction stamp showed the last purchase before the 911 call, $1.32 for licorice, had been made at 1:30 p.m., 12 minutes before Neal made the 911 call. Video footage from nearby Ocean Drive businesses showed no white sedan leaving the Wagon Wheel around the time of the reported robbery.

Neal also had said he was on the phone with a woman at the time of the alleged robbery and set the phone down without disconnecting. Police contacted the woman and she said she didn’t hear anything said between Neal and the alleged robber.

Police talked to Neal’s landlord, who said Neal owed $650 in rent which was due on Sept. 5. On Sept. 6 Neal left a partial rent payment of $550 in small denomination bills under the landlord’s welcome mat. Police seized the money and said the combination of bills was consistent with what was taken from the Wagon Wheel. The landlord also told police Neal usually paid rent with large bills.

Baxter wrote in his complaint that Neal told him he paid his rent by selling some game consoles to a local man. That man said he hadn’t purchased anything from Neal or his girlfriend, Baxter wrote. Neal’s girlfriend, who also lives with him, said they had paid the rent with money they had saved, about $300. When told Neal had paid $550 in rent, she said was surprised that Neal had more cash on him than he should have, Baxter said she told him.

Police on Sept. 10 got an arrest warrant for Neal and apprehended him at his apartment.

In court on Thursday, Neal appeared confused about his arraignment and the legal process. Neal said he didn’t want to talk to an attorney and later asked if he could be released on house arrest. He also asked questions about what pleading “no contest” meant. Murphy explained that this meant not contesting a charge but also not pleading guilty to it. Murphy appointed Neal state-paid counsel anyway and advised Neal to discuss how to get released with his attorney. Murphy told Neal that if he could not make bail he could apply for release to a third-party custodian.

When Murphy asked Neal if he was employed, he said, “I was.”

“Not anymore, I take it,” Murphy replied.

Murphy ordered Neal not to have contact with the Wagon Wheel. She set a date of Nov. 10 for his next court appearance.

Neal has no prior arrests or convictions in the state of Alaska, Fenske, the assistant district attorney, said at the hearing. Fenske noted that before Alaska law was changed several months ago, the threshold for felony theft had been lower than its current amount of $750.

In a press release, Homer Police said they extended their gratitude to the businesses and citizens who called in tips regarding the investigation.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.