March 7, 2003 — I first heard about the WalMart shootout on the morning news, then read about it in the local newspapers. An ex-con with a long history of violence triggered a parking lot shootout at Ukiah’s WalMart Friday night that left one police officer wounded, a security guard stabbed, and the shooter dead.
Neal Allen Beckman, 35, confronted Ukiah Police Sergeant Marcus Young Friday night after Beckman’s girlfriend was arrested for shoplifting. As officer Young and the girlfriend sat in Young’s patrol car, Beckman approached with his hands in his coat pockets. Young ordered him to take his hands out of his pockets, which he did, but in one hand he had a big knife and the other a .38 Smith and Wesson.
Beckman continued to walk toward Young, firing five rounds at point blank range, hitting Young in the cheek, neck, shoulder and hand. Young was also hit in the chest, but his bulletproof vest no doubt saved his life.
The real hero of the day was 17-year-old police cadet Julian Covella, a Ukiah High School junior who ran from cover and out into the open to come to Young’s aid. Young, bleeding profusely while kneeling helplessly on the parking lot pavement, couldn’t draw his gun from the holster because one of the bullets paralyzed his shooting hand. Covella pulled the gun out of Young’s holster and placed it in his other hand.
Officer Young then fired three or four shots toward Beckman, who was trying to remove the loaded shotgun locked in Young’s patrol car rack.
Meanwhile, Beckman’s girlfriend was handcuffed in the backseat screaming bloody murder.
“Neal was hit in the head with one of the first shots,” she explained, “But he wasn’t dead, just shaking convulsively. He was about a foot from me. There was blood everywhere.”
When I first heard the name Neal Beckman it rang a bell, taking me back some twenty years to my teaching days in the Willits Unified School District. Beckman, Neal Beckman, I kept saying to myself. I knew he had been a student of mine, but I couldn’t picture him, or remember which school it was. So I did the math in my head. If he was 35, then twenty years ago, he was 15, so that would have been 1983 when I taught at San Hedrin, the continuation high school.
Needless to say, teaching and residing in a small town means you see your students and ex-students quite often, and occasionally read their exploits in The Willits News. None that I recall got scholarships to Stanford or Harvard, but over the years I have recognized a few names in the weekly Police Log.
There was a photo of him in the newspaper, but twenty years can change one’s appearance. The photo showed a balding guy covered in tattoos. His most prominent tats were the devil horns on his forehead.
I decided to call my old friend Ed Schuman, who taught both at the high school and with me at San Hedrin. I asked him if we had a Neal Beckman at San Hedrin, and he chuckled, “Yeah, you took his gun away.”
Then it all came back to me. It was 1983, out on the playground. Besides teaching English and a journalism class, where we put out The San Hedrin High Times, I taught PE. We usually played volleyball, basketball, or kicked the hacky-sack around. I even had a running class for a while.
Anyhow, one day Beckman, a young-looking 15-year old with long blond hair, barely over five feet tall, showed up at the end of PE class. I acknowledged him and he walked up to me with a smile and pulled a pistol out of his jacket. Not in a menacing manner, but more like he was proud of it and wanted to share this fun show-and-tell toy with his teacher.
I said, “Neal, you can’t bring a gun to school! Let me see that,” and he gladly handed it to me. I’m not a gun guy, so I don’t recall what kind it was other than a decent-sized pistol. I asked him if it was loaded, and he smiled, as if to say, ‘Duh, I don’t carry a gun if it’s not loaded.’
I told him I’d have to keep it until after school, then I would give it back. He agreed. (Just for the record, I really wasn’t planning to give it back, I just said that.) I consulted with the other teachers, and the next thing poor Beckman knew he was handcuffed and in the back of a Willits Police car. When the cops drove away, Beckman was said to have a big smile on his face.
Two years later I read that he and an accomplice knocked on the door of a local Willits resident, saying their car broke down and asked to use his phone. According to the victim’s son-in-law, “they stabbed him four times in the back, and when he was on the ground they kicked every rib in his ribcage and beat him over the head with a cane.”
During the trial the man died in the hospital, so they stopped the trial and were going to prosecute for murder, but he was just 17, so instead of trying him as an adult, they put him in a juvenile facility until he was 25.
“My wife and I kept going down to the parole board to stop him from getting out, and they did keep him until he was 25,” the son-in-law explained in a 2003 interview in The Ukiah Daily Journal, “but then they said, ‘Well, we kept him as long as we can’.”
The son-in-law added, “I’m glad they got him, though the whole thing could have been avoided if they had just done their job 18 years ago.”
POSTSCRIPT: If you can’t imagine what it would be like to have your 18-year-old daughter bring home a 35-year-old ex-con boyfriend with devil horn tats on his forehead and a .38 in his pocket, I recommend reading "Monica’s Walk on the Wild Side," an article by Bruce Anderson, editor of the weekly Anderson Valley Advertiser, in his and Mark Scaramella’s 2009 book, Mendocino Noir, a Collection of Crimes Large and Small.