Neal Forrest King came to California to make his fortune in the burgeoning illegal marijuana trade. Seven months ago, the 24-year-old former Texan disappeared like a puff of smoke.
March 26 was the last time Jeanette Tully, King's girlfriend of six years, saw him.
"It's so painful, and I don't think the pain will ever go away," Tully told The Huffington Post. "I'm 25, and I was ready to spend rest of my life with him. Our love was true, honest and pure."
King's mother, Gayle King, described her son's disappearance as inexplicable.
"Neal was a kind person and an amazing son," she said. "That's just how he was. He had strong family values. Family for him was everything."
Gayle King and Tully speak of Neal in the past tense. For them, there is little hope he is still alive. The circumstances of his disappearance do not suggest otherwise, and both are unwilling to invest their emotions in false hope -- a dividend that rarely pays out.
The whys and wherefores of King's disappearance are rooted in the secret life that he led -- a road he embarked on three years earlier, when he left Texas and traveled to California's Central Valley.
"He lived in Austin and [was] taking the basics at Austin Community College," Gayle King said. "He has always struggled with ADHD, so school was really hard for him."
Despite that difficulty, Gayle King explained that her son was extremely intelligent and was able to hold conversations on pretty much any topic.
"He was not doing real well in school, so when he received [a] $30,000 [settlement] from a car accident, he said, 'I'm going to California to start a business,'" his mom said. "That was his startup money."
Tully said she went with Neal King to California, along with another of King's friends named Richard Cho. Upon arrival in the Golden State, the trio purchased a house on 12 acres of land.
Gayle King said she didn't know her son planned to capitalize on the West Coast's exploding drug trade. Chico, Oroville and the surrounding areas were to be the hub for his marijuana enterprise.
According to police, enterprise was no exaggeration.
Butte County Sheriff's Detective Jay Freeman said Richard Cho was Neal King's equal partner in business. The two men were among scores of traffickers who flourished in an exploding marijuana trade, Freeman said. While some traffickers try to take advantage of California's medical marijuana laws, those laws do not give carte blanche to cultivate pot and sell it on the black market.
"Even though California allows people to grow and use marijuana for medicinal purposes, it's illegal to sell marijuana or even give your marijuana away," Freeman said. "Any trade or sale of marijuana is illegal."
People "move out here [because they] see the opportunity to make a lot of money in a short period of time," Freeman said. "It's pretty enticing for a young kid to grow marijuana and make a hundred thousand in a couple months. In Neal King's case, that's how he started."
Within three years, Neal King and Cho amassed nearly a dozen properties. Some allegedly were for growing pot. Others were bought and sold for real estate profit, according to police.
Neal King had a disarming smile. Friends and family described him as "charismatic." In California's illegal drug trade, he quickly went from college dropout to a leader in what police said was a sophisticated and highly profitable drug-smuggling operation.
The operation "kept getting bigger and bigger every year," Freeman said. "They were buying more property and would grow a large amount of marijuana on various pieces of property and would transport that marijuana to Texas and double their profits."
The detective said that a pound of marijuana in California has an approximate street value of $1,000. In Texas, the same amount may net upwards of $3,000.
Freeman said he estimates King's operation was dealing in "tens, if not hundreds, of pounds a month."
King's mom, who said she didn't learn of her son's business until after he disappeared, said she was flabbergasted by the scale of the operation.
"I had no idea," Gayle King said. "They were apparently bringing in quite a bit [of money] a month. Plus, they were improving the properties -- putting in irrigation and all these things. It was profitable, and in total, they had, like, 60 acres in different places."
Neal King's growing operation and property deals played a large role in his disappearance, according to police.
One of the connections Neal King made was Donald Cheatham Jr., owner of Amazon Garden Supply in Oroville.
"Neal would go into Don's shop quite often to purchase supplies," Tully said. "He was the go-to person in the area for setting up farms."
According to court documents, King, Cho and another man, identified as Carl Von Bargen, formed a company called Anything Green Inc. in 2012 and purchased a commercial property in Oroville. Von Bargen later told police that he sold his stake in the property to King and Cho when he found out that Cheatham would be leasing the property.
During the spring of 2013, Cheatham allegedly struck a deal with King to purchase the property. Police said witnesses told them the property was to be exchanged for 160 pounds of marijuana.
"They completed half the deal. Don gave him 80 [pounds] and was going to give him another 80," Tully said.
Neal King's business relationship with Cheatham increased tensions with Cho in the days leading to King's disappearance, Tully said. She said Cho accused King of entering into deals with Cheatham without his knowledge.
On March 24, Cho flew from Sacramento to Texas.
"Richard said he did not feel safe and did not want to be here anymore," Tully said.
Meanwhile, Tully said King told her that Cheatham had been giving him the runaround on finishing the property deal.
"He said this was going to be the last deal he was going to do with Don," Tully said. "He told me Don was not professional and not a person he would do business with again. I know this was not exactly a professional business, but Neal treated it like one. What he did in three years was amazing. He wanted to finish this last deal and not work with Don again."
Gayle King said she believes her son made a lot of money and was planning to get out of the drug business altogether.
"I kept asking him to come home," she recalled. "He said, 'Mom, I'm almost there -- almost ready to come back to Texas -- but I'm not quite ready yet.'"
Time apparently was not on King's side.
PHOTOS OF NEAL KING: (Story Continues Below)
On the morning of March 26, Neal King went to Cheatham's Oroville home to collect the remaining 80 pounds of marijuana for the property deal, police said. King met briefly with Cheatham, according to police, and the two agreed to finalize the deal at 11 a.m.
"He came back and seemed like everything was fine. He did not seem scared or anything," Tully said. "I asked him if he needed me to follow him -- he always had someone follow him when he picked up weed -- and he said, 'Not yet.'"
Tully said Neal King left for the meeting just prior to 11 a.m. When he failed to return that night, she became concerned and drove to Cheatham's house. When she got there, she said she saw King's vehicle, which was registered to Cho, parked out front. Assuming that everything was okay, she went back home to wait for her boyfriend.
By the next morning, Tully's concern had turned to fear. King was not answering his phone, and he had not checked in since the previous morning. Tully said that she returned to Cheatham's house and saw that King's vehicle was still parked out front. She said she saw Von Bargen working on a fence outside the home. He directed her to a motor home where he said Cheatham was staying.
"I knocked on the door and, sure enough, Don was there," Tully said. "He did not come out and talk to me. He wouldn't even open the door. He was talking to me through the wall. He said he had not seen Neal all day. He said they had some business to do and if I saw Neal to tell him he was looking for him."
Tully reported Neal King's disappearance to Chico police. The case was ultimately transferred to the Butte County Sheriff's Office, which did not start actively investigating until after the Easter holiday.
"Because she reported him [missing] to another agency, that further delayed time," Jason Hail, a spokesman for Butte County Sheriff's Office, told HuffPost.
When authorities questioned Cheatham, they said he told them that he and King had gone in his pickup to conduct a business transaction in Berry Creek, about 20 miles northeast of Oroville, on March 26. Cheatham told investigators that he and King parted company when he dropped him off near the Oro-Quincy Highway.
Cellphone records indicated that King's phone was within an eight-mile radius of Berry Creek on the night of March 26, police said.
The location where Neal was supposedly dropped off is "basically in the middle of nowhere," Tully said.
Tully is not the only one suspicious of Cheatham's story. Detective Freeman said Cheatham is a "person of interest" in King's disappearance.
"He's admitted to being with Mr. King on the afternoon of his disappearance, but his story as to what happened that afternoon is very different than what we believe actually happened," Freeman said. "We’re not sure [about the motive], but we believe that it had to do with [King's] involvement in his large-scale marijuana operation."
On April 2, officials with the Butte County Sheriff's Office searched Cheatham's residence. Authorities said they found 120 pounds of marijuana, $59,000 in cash and a stolen .38-caliber revolver.
Two days later, Cheatham surrendered to police after allegedly attempting to give away his pickup to a couple in Shasta Lake City. The couple told police Cheatham gave them the keys and title to the truck. Authorities took possession of the vehicle and had it towed to Butte County for forensic examination.
Donald Cheatham and his wife Jennifer were charged in the Butte County Superior Court on felony counts of cultivating marijuana and possessing it for sale. Donald Cheatham was also charged with receiving stolen property in connection with the revolver.
The Cheathams pleaded not guilty to the charges. Von Bargen posted Jennifer Cheatham's $80,000 bail, Chicoer.com reported. Donald Cheatham also has been released. According to Hail, charges in the case go to trial sometime next month.
Contacted by HuffPost, Donald Cheatham declined to discuss Neal King's disappearance. He expressed concern about the way in which he has been portrayed by local media.
"That's been the problem," Cheatham said. "There is no reason for anything like that. Don't get me wrong, I'd really like to [speak with you], I just don't know at this point what's the best method of going about that, given the situation that's been imposed on everybody."
Cheatham said that he would discuss HuffPost's request to interview him with his wife and call back. He has yet to do so.
Neither Richard Cho nor Carl Van Bargen responded to requests for comment from The Huffington Post.
According to Freeman, his department has been in contact with the men, and they have been "fairly cooperative in the investigation."
He added, "It is an open and active investigation. I have been getting information on an almost weekly basis. I cannot discuss the details, but we are continuing to receive information and investigate."
In addition to Neal King, the fortune he had allegedly amassed in California is also missing.
"It was profitable, and that's why it's so confusing," Gayle King said. "I went up there to go through his things, and everything was bare-minimum. It was shocking. There was a lot of money missing."
For now, there are more questions than answers.
"Neal would not have just left. He wouldn't do that," Tully said. "I don't have any answers, and that's the worst part. I just want to have peace. I want to have a funeral for him and say goodbye. It's so hard not knowing."
Neal Forrest King is described as 5-foot-11, 130 pounds with green eyes and red hair. He was last seen wearing blue jeans, a light green long-sleeve thermal shirt and brown hiking boots. Anyone with information is asked to contact the Butte County Sheriff's Office at 530-538-7434. King's family has created the "Missing Neal King" Facebook page to help raise awareness.
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