In studying O'Neall's modus operandi, investigators saw that he has had considerable success at being able to obtain his victims from country and western bars, which he liked to frequent. Some witnesses described him as a compulsive liar and a braggart, while others said that he appeared complimentary and charming to women. He was portrayed as a heavy drinker, a cocaine user, and a Percodan abuser, and was known to take drugs orally as well as intravenously.
Background also showed that O'Neall was born on February 26, 1960, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His parents, Darrell and Christa O'Neall, resided in Colorado Springs, Colorado. O'Neall has two older brothers, Michael and Kevin, and one younger sister, Kristen. Since O'Neall's father was an Army career man, O'Neall consequently had traveled extensively in his youth. He was in Bad Tolze, Germany, until 1976, thereafter moving with his family to Fort Polk, Louisiana. The detectives discovered that he had been looked at as a suspect in sexual crimes in Germany and other locations where he lived while both living with his parents and while he, himself, served out a term of enlistment in the Army.
O'Neall attended high school in the Fort Polk area and later married his high school sweetheart, June Hodges. O'Neall has one son by June, Christopher O'Neall, born November 20, 1981. Christopher was being raised by O'Neall's parents while O'Neall was on the run, who legally adopted him after O'Neall ran afoul of the law, in Colorado Springs. Although O'Neall was not formally divorced from June, he had a common law wife who resides in Levittown, Pennsylvania. From that relationship another son, Jason, was born. Jason continues to live with his mother in Levittown. After O'Neall enlisted in the U.S. Army, he served for a short time in Bremerhaven, Germany. He was discharged on February 28, 1982. Thereafter, O'Neall returned to Colorado Springs and began his known criminal history.
At one point Detective Terry Wilson and the Pierce County Sheriff's Department asked the FBI's Behavioral Sciences Unit to develop a psychological profile of possible characteristics of their suspect, and the FBI complied. He fit their classic profile of a serial killer, and they theorized that he might have been acting out a fantasy that stemmed from his affinity for Louis L'Amour's westerns when he abducted and killed Robin Smith. Additional witnesses told the police that he frequently fantasized about living in the wilderness.
Because of O'Neall's captivation with Louis L'Amour's writing and because he had written several letters to the author, Pierce County authorities at one point asked author L'Amour for his help in their search for O'Neall, to no avail. Apparently L'Amour had never heard of O'Neall and had not been contacted by him. Also, as a result of the FBI's profile and O'Neall's fascination with the outdoors, the Green River Task Force also looked closely at O'Neall as a possible suspect in the Green River serial murders before ruling him out.
As their hunt for O'Neall continued, the investigators learned from witnesses that O'Neall actually knew very little about the outdoors despite the fact that he fancied himself a rugged outdoorsman. They uncovered information that showed that O'Neall claimed to have worked on a relative's horse ranch in Montana and often spoke about moving to Alaska, Montana, Colorado, or Canada, but they could find no trace of him in any of those states.
After moving throughout the Midwestern and southern states and living under a number of aliases throughout the summer of 1987, O'Neall's growing notoriety and suspected crimes got him a place on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. At one point he assumed the name "John Mayeaux," and found himself a new girlfriend in Tennessee. He lived with the woman for a while, and ditched her in Louisiana. He stole her car and fled to Lakeland, Florida, where he settled briefly. Following a high speed and eventual foot chase following a traffic violation, O'Neall was arrested on September 22, 1987. It was after his extradition to Louisiana that authorities learned his true identity, thanks in part to the astuteness of a rookie female officer who took the initiative to have his prints examined by the state Bureau of Criminal Identification in February 1988 after acting on a hunch that "Mayeaux" was a fictitious name. Investigators from the Pierce County Sheriff's Department, Bellingham Police Department, and the Oregon State Police promptly traveled to Louisiana to try and talk to O'Neall and to plan their strategy in the complicated cases they were investigating. However, he refused to talk to any of them.
Nonetheless, O'Neall was eventually extradited to Washington state, but not before Edna Smith put up a major fight to bring him back. Louisiana wanted to keep O'Neall until after his trial on the stolen car charges, but Edna wouldn't stand for it. She hounded the authorities at every turn, even sending letters and a petition to Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer until she got what she wanted: O'Neall's return to Washington to stand trial for Robin's murder.
At another point, Deputies Ed Troyer and Ben Benson videotaped an interview with O'Neall as part of a weekly public service show they were involved with on KMO Radio in Tacoma that was used to educate the public about police procedure. After waiving his Miranda rights and agreeing to talk freely, O'Neall acknowledged that he had murdered Robin Smith. He refused, however, to say anything about Wendy Aughe and Lia Szubert.
A short time before O'Neall's trial was set to begin, tragedy struck again when Larron Crowston, Robin Smith's fiance and the state's star witness against O'Neall, unexpectedly died from ingesting an overdose of prescription drugs and alcohol. Although Crowston's death was officially ruled an accident, Crowston, according to Edna Smith, never got over Robin's murder and "died of a broken heart," after more than a year of being depressed and despondent.