POTEAU — Slayings have mounted in Le Flore County at an unusual rate this year, but none has puzzled investigators more than the death of a popular bar owner whose body was retrieved from an old mining strip pit May 17 in a remote area near Pocola.
The abduction and ensuing three-day search for Joe Neff ended with the opening of yet another homicide case — the fifth of six since Jan. 1. Yet so far there are no suspects or apparent motives in Neff’s death. There are only questions and nightmares. "The unknown keeps me awake at night,” said Shawna Martin, 33, the younger of Neff’s two daughters. "I can’t even remember the last time I slept. The unknown drives me crazy. "Who did this? And why?” Martin and her sister, Marie Pitchford, are haunted by the death of their father. Old conversations replay in their minds. Pistols lay at their bedsides. And nearly everyone they think of is a potential suspect. "It’s terrible,” said Pitchford, 37. "We had over 1,000 people at Dad’s funeral, and I remember thinking, ‘Is his killer in the crowd?’ Maybe it was somebody he knew.” Neff, 61, owned the Long Branch Saloon, a popular bar tucked in the woods off State Highway 59 between Poteau and Heavener. The bar offered patrons a refuge for drinking, dancing and socializing, and Neff an excuse to hang out with long-time friends. Neff decorated the bar after his favorite Old West saloon, even down to the swinging wooden doors he handcrafted for the entrance. On Sundays, he fed his patrons for free with big pots of chili and soup. "I liked Joe,” said Bruce Curnutt, Le Flore County sheriff. "I never had a problem with Joe. He ran a nice, clean operation. No drugs, no fights ... just a clean operation.” Then death walked through the front door. A friend called police May 14 after discovering a lot of blood, Neff’s straw cowboy hat and his cigarette lighter in the bar, Curnutt said. Neff could not be found. Soon, hundreds of Neff’s friends and relatives were scouring the nearby woods. The search lasted three days in Poteau, the Le Flore County seat wedged against the picturesque Poteau Mountain and Poteau River. "We were covered in mosquito bites and knee-deep in the swamps,” Pitchford said tearfully.
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