Catholic Sentinel/Ed Langlois
Becky McBrayer holds photo of her family.
Catholic Sentinel/Ed Langlois
Becky McBrayer holds photo of her family.
At least once a year, Becky McBrayer phones Oregon State Penitentiary to inquire about her brother, Joseph O’Neil. So far, she’s been unable to get herself to visit.

Joey, youngest sibling in an Irish Catholic family, murdered his mother Timmie O’Neil and stepfather Craig Stumpf in 2006 in the halcyon retirement community of Charbonneau. McBrayer, 39-year-old program manager at St. André Bessette Parish in Portland, has spent her 30s healing.  

A successful political campaign organizer in her 20s, McBrayer moved back to Portland in 2005 and was running a successful election bid for Oregon Supreme Court Justice Virginia Linder.
The murders changed her course. It soon became clear that faith mattered most in her life. Instead of being angry at God, she needed God more.

McBrayer began attending daily Mass at All Saints, St. Stephen and Holy Cross churches. Otherwise, she says, she would have despaired. She wears a crucifix around her neck.

She took a job at St. Francis Dining Hall, which gives meals and a kind welcome to people who are homeless. In 2013, she was offered the post at St. André Bessette, which also serves people those on the streets.

“I can’t change what happened,” says McBrayer, who has become an ardent opponent of the death penalty. “But I choose to move on and live a meaningful life.”

With a loving firefighter father and a devoted mom who never missed a soccer game, the five O’Neil kids ran as a pack in the woodlands around their Corbett home, building forts, playing make believe. All attended All Saints School and Central Catholic High. They called themselves “a team.” Becky was the lone girl, a tomboy. Meanwhile Joey, the youngest, became increasingly odd and mysterious.

McBrayer recalls nearly every detail of April 7, 2006. She and her brother Andrew drove to Charbonneau — a district where few people lock their doors — to check on their mother and stepfather, who had taken in Joey.

Earlier that week, the distraught 25-year-old man had stabbed his girlfriend’s dog and wandered to Becky’s place with a knife wrapped in newspaper. She fed Joey and bought him new clothes. She urged him to stay away from his girlfriend. McBrayer told Joey she loved him. He called her “a good sister.”

The plan was for Timmie and Craig to help find a hotel for Joey. But instead Craig decided to invite Joey to their home in Charbonneau, despite Timmie’s reservations. Joey had threatened her in the past but this time Joey promised Craig, “I’ll be good.”

The last time Becky saw her mother was outside the Charbonneau house two days before the murders. Timmie wanted to discuss the next steps for helping Joey. Becky, exhausted from working with her brother all day, asked to postpone the conversation. It was the first time Becky and her mother had used the term “mentally ill” when speaking of Joey.  

When Timmie and Craig did not answer calls, Becky and Andrew rushed down. Once inside, Becky headed up the stairs, but did not turn the corner into the hallway. She felt a weight in the air, which struck her as “lingering evil.” Her brother did proceed, and saw blood, but could go no further. Eventually police found Timmie, 55, upstairs and Craig, 60, on the back porch. Each had been stabbed 17 times after a struggle.

“I know who did this,” McBrayer told police. “His name is Joseph Raymond O’Neil, and he’s my brother.”

Police soon found Joey at the hospital, where he had been brought after trying to stab himself to death at Lents Park in Southeast Portland.

That night, McBrayer went to stay with another brother. With a friend by her side, she lay awake weeping all night. In the backyard, her brothers sobbed, drinking beer and throwing the bottles against a shed.

Not only did McBrayer lose her mother and stepfather, but in the next few weeks she watched as prosecutors argued for her brother’s execution. At the time, her other brothers liked the tough talk, wanting vengeance for their mother. Now, they think differently. “They would have no opportunity for forgiveness or reconciliation with my brother if he had been sentenced and killed,” Becky says. “Families need time.”

Eventually, Joey accepted a plea deal and is serving life in prison without parole. McBrayer realizes that, had it been a death penalty case, it would be ongoing, like the 34 death row cases now slowly moving through the courts.  

McBrayer says the death penalty costs too much, much more than life imprisonment, and that resources should be redirected into crime prevention, support for murder victim survivors and mental health treatment.  

She’s a member of Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. She spoke yesterday at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Lake Oswego at an event on the death penalty.

McBrayer is angry at her brother but that alternates with deep sadness for him. When she thinks of him, she recalls something Sister Helen Prejean of “Dead Man Walking” fame once said: “We are better than the worst thing we have ever done.”