Decades after saying wife committed suicide, dad charged in her death

Jack Phillips
By Jack Phillips
August 13, 2017US News
Decades after saying wife committed suicide, dad charged in her death
This Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017, made available by the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office shows James O'Neil, 83. O'Neil's daughter confronted him last year where he admitted fatally shooting her mother 30 years ago. Authorities changed O'Neil with manslaughter. (Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office via AP)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Sharon McGee never believed her father when he said her mother accidentally shot herself to death while threatening suicide 30 years ago.

So late last year, she confronted her father, James O’Neil, and demanded the truth. Her father told her a story vastly different than the one he told her — and detectives — decades ago.

According to court documents, O’Neil told his daughter her mother was threatening to kill herself. She pulled out a gun and he wrested it away from her. Verna O’Neil then said she wanted to die and her husband responded: “Let me show you how it’s done” and pulled the trigger.

McGee kept her father’s confession a secret for several months before going to police earlier this year, according to court documents. On Thursday, O’Neil, now 83, was charged with manslaughter. He was released Friday on $50,000 bail.

His attorney, Michael Salnick, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

According to an arrest affidavit written by Palm Beach County sheriff’s Detective Paige McCann, Verna O’Neil died on July 23, 1987, from a gunshot to her face. She was 50.

James O’Neil told investigators that night that he and his wife had been arguing over her excessive drinking and his burnt dinner. He told them she was sitting on the couch when she pulled their handgun, a .357 Magnum, from beneath the cushion. He jumped on her to try to pull the revolver away and in the ensuing struggle it went off, killing her.

Sheriff’s investigators classified her death as a suicide. It remained that way until McGee went to the sheriff’s office in February.

She told detectives she was 28 when her mother died and had never believed her father’s story. Last October, she said, she confronted him. He told McGee he had wrested the gun from her mother and then asked his wife what she wanted, according to court documents. He told McGee her mother replied that she wanted to die, so he said, “Let me show you how it’s done.”

He told McGee he pried back the hammer, pointed the gun at her and pulled the trigger, but insisted the shooting was an accident, according to court documents. He told her to keep it a secret, sending her a text message that evening, “I’m believing that you will sleep much better tonight, Love Dad.”

Four months later, McGee went to the sheriff’s office.

During two interviews with McCann in April, O’Neil told the detective that after threatening suicide, his wife had handed him the gun without a struggle. He said as he held it, the gun went off accidentally. He told McCann the gun had a hair trigger, meaning it could fire with a light pull, but tests performed in 1987 showed the gun required normal trigger pressure to fire.

McGee did not return a phone message left at a number listed for her.

The Associated Press

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