CALIFORNIA – Neal Forrest King came to California to make his fortune in the burgeoning illegal marijuana trade. Seven months ago, the 24-year-old former Texan disappeared like a puff of smoke.
March 26 was the last time Jeanette Tully, King’s girlfriend of six years, saw him.
“It’s so painful, and I don’t think the pain will ever go away,” Tully told The Huffington Post. “I’m 25, and I was ready to spend rest of my life with him. Our love was true, honest and pure.”
King’s mother, Gayle King, described her son’s disappearance as inexplicable.
“Neal was a kind person and an amazing son,” she said. “That’s just how he was. He had strong family values. Family for him was everything.”
Gayle King and Tully speak of Neal in the past tense. For them, there is little hope he is still alive. The circumstances of his disappearance do not suggest otherwise, and both are unwilling to invest their emotions in false hope — a dividend that rarely pays out.
The whys and wherefores of King’s disappearance are rooted in the secret life that he led — a road he embarked on three years earlier, when he left Texas and traveled to California’s Central Valley.
“He lived in Austin and [was] taking the basics at Austin Community College,” Gayle King said. “He has always struggled with ADHD, so school was really hard for him.”
Despite that difficulty, Gayle King explained that her son was extremely intelligent and was able to hold conversations on pretty much any topic.
“He was not doing real well in school, so when he received [a] $30,000 [settlement] from a car accident, he said, ‘I’m going to California to start a business,’” his mom said. “That was his startup money.”
Tully said she went with Neal King to California, along with another of King’s friends named Richard Cho. Upon arrival in the Golden State, the trio purchased a house on 12 acres of land.
Gayle King said she didn’t know her son planned to capitalize on the West Coast’s exploding drug trade. Chico, Oroville and the surrounding areas were to be the hub for his marijuana enterprise.
According to police, enterprise was no exaggeration.
Butte County Sheriff’s Detective Jay Freeman said Richard Cho was Neal King’s equal partner in business. The two men were among scores of traffickers who flourished in an exploding marijuana trade, Freeman said. While some traffickers try to take advantage of California’s medical marijuana laws, those laws do not give carte blanche to cultivate pot and sell it on the black market.
“Even though California allows people to grow and use marijuana for medicinal purposes, it’s illegal to sell marijuana or even give your marijuana away,” Freeman said. “Any trade or sale of marijuana is illegal.”
People “move out here [because they] see the opportunity to make a lot of money in a short period of time,” Freeman said. “It’s pretty enticing for a young kid to grow marijuana and make a hundred thousand in a couple months. In Neal King’s case, that’s how he started.”
Within three years, Neal King and Cho amassed nearly a dozen properties. Some allegedly were for growing pot. Others were bought and sold for real estate profit, according to police.
Neal King had a disarming smile. Friends and family described him as “charismatic.” In California’s illegal drug trade, he quickly went from college dropout to a leader in what police said was a sophisticated and highly profitable drug-smuggling operation.
The operation “kept getting bigger and bigger every year,” Freeman said. “They were buying more property and would grow a large amount of marijuana on various pieces of property and would transport that marijuana to Texas and double their profits.”
The detective said that a pound of marijuana in California has an approximate street value of $1,000. In Texas, the same amount may net upwards of $3,000.
Freeman said he estimates King’s operation was dealing in “tens, if not hundreds, of pounds a month.”
King’s mom, who said she didn’t learn of her son’s business until after he disappeared, said she was flabbergasted by the scale of the operation.
“I had no idea,” Gayle King said. “They were apparently bringing in quite a bit [of money] a month. Plus, they were improving the properties — putting in irrigation and all these things. It was profitable, and in total, they had, like, 60 acres in different places.”
Neal King’s growing operation and property deals played a large role in his disappearance, according to police.
One of the connections Neal King made was Donald Cheatham Jr., owner of Amazon Garden Supply in Oroville.
“Neal would go into Don’s shop quite often to purchase supplies,” Tully said. “He was the go-to person in the area for setting up farms.”
According to court documents, King, Cho and another man, identified as Carl Von Bargen, formed a company called Anything Green Inc. in 2012 and purchased a commercial property in Oroville. Von Bargen later told police that he sold his stake in the property to King and Cho when he found out that Cheatham would be leasing the property.
During the spring of 2013, Cheatham allegedly struck a deal with King to purchase the property. Police said witnesses told them the property was to be exchanged for 160 pounds of marijuana.
“They completed half the deal. Don gave him 80 [pounds] and was going to give him another 80,” Tully said.
Neal King’s business relationship with Cheatham increased tensions with Cho in the days leading to King’s disappearance, Tully said. She said Cho accused King of entering into deals with Cheatham without his knowledge.
On March 24, Cho flew from Sacramento to Texas.
“Richard said he did not feel safe and did not want to be here anymore,” Tully said.
Meanwhile, Tully said King told her that Cheatham had been giving him the runaround on finishing the property deal.
“He said this was going to be the last deal he was going to do with Don,” Tully said. “He told me Don was not professional and not a person he would do business with again. I know this was not exactly a professional business, but Neal treated it like one. What he did in three years was amazing. He wanted to finish this last deal and not work with Don again.”
Gayle King said she believes her son made a lot of money and was planning to get out of the drug business altogether.
“I kept asking him to come home,” she recalled. “He said, ‘Mom, I’m almost there — almost ready to come back to Texas — but I’m not quite ready yet.’”
Time apparently was not on King’s side.