Her life was short and fraught with calamity. But in the end she said, “I don’t have regret one.”
What she did have was a scrapbook full of “And then there was the time . . .” memories.
Nina Neal was born in Houston in 1939.
In 1940 baby Nina and her parents were living with extended family on Harrington Street on the North Side. Her father was a mechanic for an oil company. But he was drawn to the bright lights and dark secrets of the street two blocks west:
“My daddy was a hell-raiser, and I grew up on the Jacksboro Highway, is what it boils down to,” Neal told Associated Press writer Mike Cochran in 1991. “I was Daddy’s favorite, and I got to go places with him because I wouldn’t tell on him.”
The mid-1950s brought two of Neal’s first “And then there was the time . . .” life events.
In November 1955 her father, who worked at the Lone Star steel mill near Daingerfield in east Texas, disappeared one night.
Three weeks later his body was found lying in water under scraps of steel in a slush pit at the mill.
Nina Neal said her father first had been thrown into a vat of coke acid.
“After that,” she recalled, “I set out to find out who killed him.”
Just sixteen at the time, she dropped out of high school and went to Daingerfield, where Texas Rangers were investigating her father’s death. She began her own investigation. Long after the death became a cold case for law enforcement, it remained a hot case for her. Finally, in 1985 she learned that a Fort Worth gangster whose name had been well known in 1955 had her father killed because he knew too much about Fort Worth rackets.
“As a result of his being missing, it put me in contact with a lot of people,” Neal said.
And all those years of investigation into her father’s death introduced Neal to the workings of law enforcement. As she attended night classes to finish high school she became a habitue of the courthouse, became skilled at ferreting out information in obscure legal documents. She mingled with judges and lawyers, cops and killers, prosecutors, pimps, and prostitutes, gamblers, bartenders, and career criminals.
Then, in 1956, at age seventeen she married one of those career criminals.
She met Odis Thomas Hammond one night at a dance hall. Hammond, twenty-seven, was a friend of rising country singer Willie Nelson, who lived in Fort Worth and performed on Jacksboro Highway.
Hammond was, she recalled, the “handsomest man I ever saw.”
Odis Thomas Hammond had begun his life of crime about the time his bride-to-be was born.
For aspiring private detective Nina Neal, being married to Odis Hammond was like taking a course in criminology.
Soon after they met Hammond was facing trial for murder after killing a friend in an argument over the earnings of a prostitute. He had just been arrested for violating parole in Illinois.
But Neal recalled that the murder charge didn’t lessen her attraction to him.
The two were soon dating, and by the end of the year Neal was pregnant.
Hammond was not opposed to marriage, but another man in Neal’s life was.
Neal’s experience in searching for her father’s killer had helped her get a job as an investigator with a law firm of several of the city’s best-known attorneys, including Doug Crouch, who planned to run for the office of district attorney.
Crouch feared that his chances of being elected would be damaged if voters knew that one of his investigators was married to a career criminal under indictment for murder.
So, Neal and Hammond were quietly married in Weatherford, and she left for California.
Crouch won the election. And when Neal returned to Fort Worth she found that Hammond had been seriously wounded, shot by a woman who accused him of stealing seventy-five cents from her.
The woman told the Star-Telegram that she was afraid of Hammond, aware that he was a pimp and had a reputation for beating women with coat hangers.
Later that year Hammond was charged with desertion for not supporting his pregnant wife.
The education of Nina Neal Hammond continued apace.
One night Hammond forsook his pregnant wife for a night of gambling with friends. Neal took exception.
She decided to kill him, she recalled. And she might have succeeded if police hadn’t intervened.
She chased Hammond across town and fired a shot or two at him as he jumped from his car outside the Sands Club on Jacksboro Highway.
No charges were filed in the shooting, but the tete-a-tete pretty much buzz-sawed the Neal-Hammond bonds of matrimony.
By that time Odis Thomas Hammond had been arrested sixty-eight times, the latest arrest being for the murder of a car dealer in Houston. Hammond and his co-defendant were facing the electric chair.
That year Neal’s divorce was granted, ending her at-home class in criminology.
“He killed a few guys,” Neal recalled to the Star-Telegram in 1988. “That’s the way I woke up to what life was all about.”
After a delay of almost three years, famed lawyer Percy Foreman got Hammond off with a sentence of thirty years, of which Hammond served less than half.
Because in 1971 he was on trial for murder. Again.
This time he was acquitted.
Seven years later Hammond was convicted of robbing a drugstore on Pennsylvania Avenue and sentenced to sixty years in prison.
Hammond claimed that he had been at home at the time of the robbery, a claim supported by the current Mrs. Hammond.
In 1961 Nina Neal remarried: ironworker Gary Carter.
The next year on January 31 Neal attended the funeral of her father-in-law.
On the day of the funeral she learned that
1. Her younger sister Nita had eloped.
2. Her mother had been killed in a homicide-suicide in the parking lot of the clinic where her mother worked.
After that tragic start to the decade, Neal spent the 1960s with Carter, who, she recalled, gave her “direction and stability,” even after he was permanently disabled in an industrial accident.
She continued to investigate for law firms. She also worked as a bartender, bookkeeper, welder, hand driller, and saleswoman.
“You can’t be a good PI without personal experience,” she recalled, “and doing all the things I’ve done and being all the places I’ve been was a positive experience.”
“I don’t have regret one.”
Neal and Carter divorced in 1970. The ensuing decade brought another marriage and divorce.
“Daddy told me don’t ever have anything to do with a non-drinking man,” Neal said of her third husband. “I ignored my daddy’s very good advice.”
Meanwhile the lawyers she worked for encouraged her to get her license to become a full-time investigator, which she did in 1985.
She founded her own company, Pyramid Investigations, and eventually employed a staff of five.
She had an office in Arlington but was just as likely to work out of the corner table of a bar on the North Side, a Winston 100 cigarette in one hand, a Miller Lite beer in the other, or out of the cab of her pickup, her rolling office equipped with the tools of her trade: a Mapsco street guide, a mobile phone, and a shotgun.
“It’s hard to nuke a moving target,” she said with an air of nonchalance that would have made Bogart smile.
Neal worked on two front-page crimes in 1989. She was hired by Judy and Norman Vaughn to hunt for Phillip Gray, a convicted murderer suspected of killing the Vaughns’ son Stewart and of running a check-forging racket in Tarrant County.
That same year Neal helped authorities search for Denise Dansby, who in May 1989 left Fort Worth for vacation in Florida and was never heard from again. Six months later Dansby’s skeletal remains were found twenty-five miles from where she had last been seen alive.
“Nobody’s been arrested,” Neal said in 1989, but she suspected that Dansby had been abducted by a serial killer who was preying on young women in Florida.
(As far as I can determine, neither crime was ever solved.)
By 1990, after five years as a private investigator the five-foot-three grandmother was making a name for herself.
“You can’t help but like her—at least until she gets mad at you,” Fort Worth homicide detective Danny LaRue said. “Then she’s a tiger.”
Another Fort Worth homicide detective, Larry Steffler, said, “She has a knack for finding information where other people couldn’t.”
In 1991 a national news magazine described Neal as “the bravest, toughest private eye in Cowtown.”
Tabloid newspapers called her the “Gumshoe Granny.”
Neal investigated mostly insurance fraud cases, product liability cases, worker’s compensation cases, will litigation, arson. She was hired mostly by lawyers. Most of her cases were routine.
Emphasis on “most.”
Among private eye Neal’s “And then there was the time . . .” incidents were the times:
A man pulled an Uzi on her during a stakeout in a murder investigation.
She had her “front teeth knocked out on Camp Bowie at three in the afternoon.”
She had “a fifty-five-pound boulder thrown through” her window.
She helped to bust drug labs in Johnson County and to arrest five members of the Bandidos motorcycle gang.
And then there was the time a satanist got a hold of her.
After forming Pyramid Investigations, Neal was investigating a truck-and-trailer insurance scam.
“This guy called and said he wanted to talk to me about a case,” Neal recalled in 1988. The man told her he was a fellow investigator, but “He didn’t say what case. But he turned out to be nice-looking and seemed well-to-do.”
She said the man drove her to a house and left her alone in a room that contained chains, a goblet, and books containing script she could not read. She would learn later that the items were used by satan-worshipers in their Black Mass.
When the man returned to the room, his demeanor had blackened from amiable to ominous. He grabbed Neal, tossed his head back, and howled like an animal. She broke loose and ran. He overtook her and beat her, breaking her nose and collarbone, blackening her eyes, and knocking out several teeth.
“I have never been afraid of anything or anyone,” she recalled. “I was terrified. He almost broke my neck.”
After throwing her on her face in the driveway, he picked her up, shoved her into his car, drove her back to her car, and ordered her out.
Neal stumbled to a nearby residence and telephoned police, who arrested the man for assault.
Neal later learned that her assailant had been hired to persuade her to drop the case.
“He wasn’t supposed to hit me—just scare me.”
And did she drop the case?
“Of course not,” she recalled. “We eventually got our client acquitted.”
Incidents such as these made Neal the epitome of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Neal became stronger. And shockproof. And unstoppable. And she came to see her gender as an asset.
“People will talk to women more than they’ll talk to a man,” Neal said. “Sometimes I think women are more determined to get at the truth and do something about it. Women say, ‘Uh uh, we’re not gonna let this go.'”
In 1991 one of the Gumshoe Granny’s final clients was a familiar face. The suspect had been jailed on charges of delivering a simulated controlled substance.
“It was a setup,” Neal insisted at the time. “My client is innocent.”
Odis Thomas Hammond.
Yes, the career criminal was back on the streets and back in Nina Neal’s life to further her education in criminology.
Neal may have gotten her former professor out that latest jam, but Hammond got into more mischief and went back to prison. He would die there in 1997 and be buried in Huntsville Prison’s Captain Joe Byrd Cemetery.
As for Nina Neal, she died in 1993. Upon hearing of her death, friend and fellow private investigator Wanda Rackard said, “I told her once after she got sick, ‘God doesn’t want you, and the devil won’t have you, girl.’ We laughed. Oh yeah, anybody who ever met Nina will remember her.”
The Gumshoe Granny is buried in the family cemetery at her home in Springtown.