August 1, 2014 at 1:00 am

Jackson County candidate did 33 years for murder, says he has changed

Tim O'Neill, 56, seen in 2007, was released from prison in 2009. (Michigan Department of Corrections)

Jackson— Tim O’Neill will be scrapping for votes Tuesday.

His own mother wouldn’t vote for him. More understandably, neither would the children of the man he killed.

O’Neill, 56, who is running for the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, served 33 years in prison for second-degree murder in 1975. He was released in 2009.

“Don’t judge me on what I was,” he said. “Judge me on what I am now. I’m a completely different person.”

It’s rare but not unprecedented for a murderer to run for office in Michigan. As recently as last year, Wantwaz Davis was elected to the Flint City Council despite a second-degree murder conviction in 1991.

The state doesn’t preclude most felons from seeking election once they’re released from prison. The exception is public officials convicted of fraud or similar crimes related to their public service.

The three children of Woody McComb wish the law was different.

They were 8, 6 and 3 when their father was killed by O’Neill. They now live in central Georgia.

“I don’t think it’s right,” said the eldest, Tina Nelson, 46, of Byron. “We grew up without a dad. He shouldn’t be in a position to run for anything.”

Closer to home, O’Neill’s adopted mother, Dolores Job, lives on the other side of Jackson so she can’t vote in his race.

She wouldn’t vote for him anyway, said her second husband, John Job. Phillip O’Neill, her first husband and Tim’s father, passed away.

“You don’t vote for people like that. You vote for the other guys,” Job said.

He said Dolores didn’t want to talk about the matter.

“She doesn’t want anything to do with him,” he said.

When O’Neill was born in Howell in 1957, his birth parents also didn’t want anything to do with him, according to a presentence report in Jackson Circuit Court.

They were migrant workers who neglected him so badly he was made a ward of the state. At 2, he was adopted by the O’Neills after they had taken in his newborn sister.

He acted primitively, preferring to sleep on the floor instead of his bed.

He was a problem from the get-go, a hyperactive child who was frequently suspended from school, in and out of juvenile facilities, and ran away from home when he was 15, Delores Job said in the report, which was contained in O’Neill’s court file.

“I was young and stupid,” said O’Neill.

During the 18 months he attended East Jackson High, he failed so many classes that he had accumulated only one-and-a-half credits. He was one of the biggest problems the school ever had, assistant principal Leon Hart said in the report. Despite his turbulent childhood, he had never been charged with a crime.

He joined the Army but was honorably discharged after two months. He was “incompatible” with military life, he said. He then bounced between menial jobs.

He was pestered to murder

When O’Neill was 18, he moved in with the McCombs.

The couple were friends of his wife, a former prostitute who had just left O’Neill for another man. He had been married seven weeks.

As soon as he moved into the couple’s attic, Louise McComb, 28, allegedly began trying to recruit him to kill her husband, O’Neill later told police.

She told him Woody, 31, was a nasty drunk who beat her and the kids, and wouldn’t let her leave him. She offered to share the insurance money with O’Neill, he told police, according to court records.

“She kept pestering me,” O’Neill told police. “I’ve been a wimp all my life.”

Two weeks after moving in, he loaded his Glenfield .22 semiautomatic rifle after Louise had retrieved it from a living room closet, he said.

While Woody was asleep on the couch, O’Neill shot him once in the back of the head.

The two put Woody into the back seat of his car and drove seven miles south of town, dumping him in a woods 30 feet from the road, O’Neill said.

Louise’s boyfriend urged O’Neill to call police. He did so and led police to Woody.

Woody was still alive when he was found, but died later that day at an Ann Arbor hospital.

Louise told police she wasn’t involved in the crime, that she had been folding laundry in the basement at the time of the 1 a.m. shooting.

She was charged with conspiracy but was acquitted by a jury. She declined to comment for this story.

O’Neill, who testified against Louise, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.

22 years of good behavior

O’Neill was a model prisoner, according to his 421-page prison file.

He obtained his GED, joined the Jaycees, worked the whole time as a clerk, cook or printer with excellent job reviews, and went the last 22 years without a single misconduct citation.

Still, incarceration was a series of frustrations.

For Christmas in 1979, his birth mom sent a vinyl coat to ward off the Michigan winter. It was the only thing she had ever given him.

Because there was no place on the garment to stamp his prisoner ID number, the facility returned the coat.

Rejected several times for parole, he got another chance in 2009.

In preparation for the Parole Board hearing, he was interviewed by a psychologist who said he seemed disconnected from the murder.

O’Neill said he was sorry but didn’t show it, Dr. Stephanie Eichenberg wrote in her 2008 report. She described him as distant and unable to relate to people.

“The lack of remorse is disturbing,” Eichenberg said. “For one reason or another, O’Neill appears to be an emotionally scarred individual.”

Asked about the report during the hearing, O’Neill said he has always had a trouble showing emotion.

“I’ve been sorry for what I’ve done ever since it’s happened,” he told the board.

Given his remorse, acceptance of responsibility and outstanding prison record, the 10-member parole board voted to release him.

McComb’s children, who didn’t know about the hearing, said they were upset they didn’t have a chance to address the board.

The Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office, responsible for alerting the family, said it couldn’t find its case file from 34 years ago. It then contacted the police, whose report on the crime listed McComb’s brother as the next of kin.

But the prosecutor wasn’t able to find the brother, said Susan Vogt, coordinator of the office’s victim rights team.

The Detroit News found the children last week through a digital database of public records. The victim’s son, named after his father, is the only Derwood McComb in the U.S., according to the LexisNexis search.

“He doesn’t deserve to be out living a normal life,” said McComb’s youngest child, Dawn McClendon, 42, of Byron. “We have feelings, too. We’re not just nobody.”

Spur-of-the-moment run

After his release, O’Neill met Christina Dain at a shelter, and they soon married. It was his fourth marriage, including two while he was incarcerated.

They had a son (he has two daughters from before he went to prison) and bought a house with disability money Dain received for a bad back.

O’Neill, who doesn’t work, is on long-term disability for emphysema.

His decision to run was spur of the moment, he said. A friend mentioned the board opening and he decided to try to fill it.

Beyond a vague notion of helping the poor, he’s not sure what he would do in office. He doesn’t even know what commissioners do.

Shy and soft-spoken, he was stunned when reporters asked about the murder.

“They just want to bring up the bad,” he said. “I just hope there are enough good Christian people out there who think I could so some good.”

When residents were asked about his chances of being elected, they were not kind.

“Running for office is a slap in the face to the victim, the victim’s family and all of society,” Jim Rockon said.

O’Neill has two opponents in the Democratic primary and, if he wins, would face a Republican in the general election.

His sister supports his campaign.

“He did his time. He is a different person,” Denise Steiner, 55, of Houston, wrote to the Jackson newspaper. She declined further comment.

O’Neill’s quiet election campaign grew even quieter last month when he stopped talking to reporters. He wasn’t comfortable with questions about the murder.

After an abbreviated interview with The Detroit News last month, he declined further inquiries.

He had planned to visit homeowners asking for their vote, but hasn’t felt strong enough, he said.

He hasn’t distributed any campaign signs or fliers.

In his neighborhood, the only symbol of the election is a resident’s yard sign for a candidate in a different race. The candidate is a police officer.

fdonnelly@detroitnews.com
(313) 223-4186