When investigator Shannon Byers arrived at the bloody scene in Ray Neal’s apartment in Lawrenceville last week, she quickly determined the 61-year-old died of natural causes.
Byers had been with the Gwinnett County Medical Examiner’s Office for two years. She purportedly reasoned that the blood — found on the bed, the bathroom walls, and on the shower curtain — was a manifestation of Neal’s health issues catching up to him. Liver disease, poor clotting, and lots of coughing.
She missed what are now believed to have been stab wounds on Neal’s neck.
And now, as Gwinnett police try to figure out who killed Neal and why, Byers is out of a job. Officials confirmed Monday that she had resigned.
“I think she should have been terminated,” said Michelle Smalls, the sister who first found Neal dead on July 20. “I don’t think she should’ve gotten the opportunity to resign.”
Attempts to reach Byers on Monday were not successful.
Most death investigators in the state have little in the way of medical training and are not required to be certified. Most of their learning is on the job.
That job, Gwinnett County Chief Investigator Eddie Reeves said, is to be the on-scene eyes and ears for the county’s medical examiner — to determine if there are any initial signs of trauma or foul play, or the need for further investigation like an autopsy.
If none of the above applies, investigators may turn a body over for a funeral home or other entity to handle.
That’s what Byers did in Neal’s case — and a representative from Byrd and Flanigan Funeral Home was preparing to take Neal’s body from the home on Lexington Avenue when they noticed the holes in his neck.
Had that not happened, the subsequent autopsy that determined the holes to be stab wounds and the current homicide investigation may not have happened.
Reeves said investigators occasionally miss or misinterpret things while working at a scene. But he didn’t recall “a case on this level” ever having happened in his 17 years in Gwinnett.
He said Byers was “regretful of the decision that was made at the scene.”
Gwinnett County police, meanwhile, said Byers’ error has not jeopardized their homicide investigation. The agency is soliciting tips in the case at 770-513-5300 or 404-577-TIPS.
Smalls said she has no idea who would want to kill her brother, who left behind three adult children.
Neal was buried Saturday.
“He was loved,” Smalls said. “And we sent him away loved.”