Photo: Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office
Photo: Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office

30 years after saying wife committed suicide, man charged in her death

It took three decades for a Florida woman to finally ask her father the question that had haunted her: Did you kill my mother?”

>> Read more trending news

Yes, James Walter O’Neil admitted, according to authorities who arrested the 83-year-old Thursday and charged him with manslaughter.

O’Neil had said his wife, 50-year-old Verna Packer O’Neil, committed suicide on July 23, 1987, in suburban Lake Worth. But, according to an affidavit posted in court Friday morning, Judge Caroline Shepherd ordered O’Neil be held in lieu of $50,000 bond and, if released, be on house arrest. The judge said he could live with his current wife, who declined to comment as she left the court. On Friday, James O’Neil said he fired the gun accidentally as he took it away from his wife three decades ago.

Court records don’t say how long the two had been married but said they divorced in 1981 and remarried three years later.

According to the new sheriff’s affidavit, around 7:45 p.m. on July 23, 1987, deputies came to the O’Neils’ home and found Verna on a living room sofa and James “hysterical and hyperventilating, standing in the kitchen talking on the telephone with the 911 dispatcher.” His registered Taurus .357 Magnum revolver lay on the counter next to him.

Paramedics took Verna to the hospital, where she died at 8:20. 

O’Neil told detectives at his home, and later at sheriff’s headquarters, that the two argued over “her excessive drinking and the fact that she had burned their dinner.” He said they were on facing couches when Verna pulled the gun from under a cushion with her right hand and said, “I’m just going to kill myself.” He said he leaped up and grabbed her hand and at one point it was aimed at him and he let go. He said she moved the gun to her left hand and the two were struggling with the gun when it went off.

An autopsy from the time ruled Verna’s death as “undetermined.” After deciding the gun required too much trigger pressure to be fired accidentally, deputies declared the case a suicide. 

That’s how things stood for nearly 30 years. Until last fall. 

The affidavit said the daughter, who was 28 when her mother died, had believed all this time that James had killed her. 

On Oct. 28, the report said, she confronted James. She wanted the truth. That’s when James admitted he’d shot his wife. 

The daughter waited until Feb. 24 before going to detectives; the affidavit gives no reason for the delay. 

She told the detectives that, at that October confrontation, James had repeated how Verna had pulled the gun and threatened suicide. He said he got the gun away and told her “let me show you how it is done,” then pointed the gun and pulled the trigger. She said he told her it was an accident and pleaded with her to keep this as their secret. 

Later that evening, the daughter would tell detectives, James texted her, saying “I’m believing that you will sleep much better tonight. Love Dad.” She said she and her father traded several texts about his confession. 

Police then met on April 4 with O’Neil and his current wife, Doris, and told them the case had been reopened. James again repeated the details, but this time he said the gun went off as Verna handed it to him. 

“James stated if he barely touched the trigger on this gun, the gun would discharge,” the report said. “James was aware of this because he had fired that same gun several times and experienced the same sensitivity with the trigger. James could not explain why his finger was on the trigger when he took possession of the gun.” 

James told the detectives the two did not struggle over the pistol. He said he’d lied in earlier interviews because “he was afraid he would get into trouble.” 

Armed with the new details, the medical examiner changed the cause of death to “homicide.” 

On April 12, eight days after James had met with detectives, he was read his Miranda rights and was pressed again. He said he’d been “very angry” over the burned dinner. He said Verna grabbed the gun and threatened suicide. “No, you’re not,” he recalled saying. He said Verna handed him the gun, and as he took it, he recalled, he “might have said something like, ‘what are you trying to do? This is a gun. You’re trying to kill yourself.’” 

He said as he took the gun, he touched “the hair trigger” and the gun fired. He then also admitted to detectives his confessing to his daughter the previous fall. 

The report does not say why detectives waited another four months before arresting James O’Neil.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.