Obituary: The Chief – Neil J. Purcell Jr. Has Passed Away  

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February 12, 1940 – November 25, 2023

By Danielle Purcell  

It is with great sadness we announce that our beloved father, grandfather and friend, Neil Purcell Jr., has passed away peacefully in his home of a broken heart after the passing of his best friend, the love of his life and wife of 54 years, Michelle Ann.  

Neil Purcell was born on Feb. 12, 1940, to parents Doris Marie and Neil Johnson Purcell Sr. and passed away peacefully on Nov. 25. Neil grew up in a loving family of five kids, including three sisters and one brother. At the tender age of two, Neil’s family moved to Balboa Peninsula in 1942, setting the stage for his remarkable journey. 

Neil’s educational path took him through Newport Elementary, Newport Harbor High School and Orange Coast College before earning his bachelor’s degree from the University of Redlands. Neil planned to major in theology at the University of Redlands and become a minister. Neil got the bug to become a police officer when he was 18, about a month after graduation from Newport Harbor High when Neil had an encounter with an armed burglary suspect that was loose on the Peninsula.

Neil chased the suspect after finding him hiding in a bayfront summer home outdoor shower stall. The suspect pointed a gun in Neil’s face, stated a few choice words and then took off running. All this time, Neil was yelling for someone to call the police.

The suspect broke into a home, opened the front door and extended his arm, holding a gun. An officer yelled to Neil to get down, which he did, and then there was an exchange of fire between the suspect and the police. Several bullets passed over Neil as he hugged the brick porch. Neil ran over to a police officer, and the suspect fired at a motor officer, who returned fire and hit the suspect in the shoulder. The suspect gave up and surrendered. Neil was taken to the police department on 32nd Street and interviewed by a detective. Chief John Upson thanked Neil for his efforts and then proceeded to ream him a “new one.” This incident changed Neil’s career path forever. 

On Feb. 12, 1961, Neil’s 21st birthday, he was sworn in as a reserve police officer by none other than Chief Upson. In May of 1964, Neil became a regular officer and was assigned to a “cover unit.” On Aug. 3, 1964, Neil and four other officers started their first day at the Los Angeles Police Academy. Every day at the academy was like a dream to Neil. Neil became a little nervous as graduation day approached because the other four officers had been cut with two weeks to go. Needless to say, graduation day, Oct. 23, 1964, was a glorious day for Neil. Neil enjoyed his first four years. He worked Beat One for two years, rode a three-wheeler motorcycle for a year, and was then assigned to the F-Unit for over a year. 

In August 1968, Neil applied for a job at Laguna Beach Police Department and was hired. The first couple of months were pretty tough on Neil. No one believed that he would just leave NBPD and come to LBPD. They even accused Neil of being a snitch. This all changed in time, though, which was a story in itself.

Neil was appointed as a narcotic detective in March 1969, promoted to sergeant in September 1970, remaining in narcotics. He was then promoted to lieutenant in October 1973 and captain in September 1975. Neil graduated from the FBI Academy in 1975 while captain of the LBPD. Neil was appointed chief of police in January 1981, retiring in March of 1997, as the longest-serving chief of police in LBPD history. Neil was in books and a movie and was named “Super Cop.” 

During his career, Neil was involved in many high-profile cases, including the arrest of Timothy Leary for the famous LSD, also known as Orange Sunshine. Purcell led the investigation, resulting in Leary’s capture and extradition to the United States. Leary, who had previously been fired from Harvard University and had become a fugitive from justice, was arrested by Neil and other law enforcement officers on a highway in Laguna Beach after they found marijuana and LSD in his car. Neil and the other officers received commendations for their actions in apprehending Leary. The arrest marked a significant victory in the government’s efforts to curb the use of LSD, which was considered a dangerous and illegal drug at the time. Laguna Beach was home to Timothy Leary in the late sixties. Former president Richard Nixon called Leary “the most dangerous man in America.  

Neil was deeply committed to community policing and worked to establish programs like the Citizen’s Academy and the Police Explorers to build better relationships between law enforcement and the public. Neil was a well-respected police officer who served on the Laguna Beach Police Department for over 30 years and quickly became known for his dedication to the job and commitment to the community. Neil was a real-life hero and dedicated police officer. Neil was known for his exemplary service, leadership and bravery, and he received numerous commendations, including the Medal of Valor and a medal for saving a life during his time on the force. Neil was also known for his commitment to public safety and his willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty to protect and serve the community. He is known for the slogan that he added to police cars: “Proudly Serving our Community.”

Two years after retiring, Neil was asked by the City of Anderson, in Shasta County, Calif., if he would be their interim chief of police. Neil was there for one year until a police chief was appointed. During that year, Neil initiated, planned and coordinated the largest methamphetamine investigation in the history of northern California and, with the assistance of the California Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement and 75 uniform officers from four other counties, conducted a raid of a one-block apartment complex resulting in several arrests, and most importantly, the closing of the complex. In April 2002, Anderson’s city manager called Neil and said that the new chief did not work out and asked if he’d consider returning as police chief for a longer period. They worked out an arrangement so as not to interfere with his retirement. Neil was at Anderson Police Department for four years, ending his tenure in May 2006.

Neil married the love of his life, Michelle Ann, on July 20, 1969. Neil and Michelle moved to Laguna Beach in 1969, where they raised Michelle’s children, Deanna, Cary and Danielle. Neil and Michelle were known around town for being in love and the kissing couple. You could see them walking on Forest Avenue daily during their lunch breaks, always holding hands and kissing. After Neil retired, Michelle and Neil moved to Big Sky, Montana, where they built their home on the Gallatin Gateway. While their home was being built, Neil was offered a job in Anderson, where he worked for a few years as police chief. While in Anderson, Neil shut down a historical amount of crystal meth labs. Neil returned to Montana, where they spent 20 years. They loved their life raising Gypsy Vanner horses on their ranch. Neil loved to fly fish, and Michelle loved to cook. Then, Neil and Michelle moved back to Laguna Beach to be with family. After a couple of years, they moved back to Anderson, where they spent two more years enjoying retirement on their ranch, raising horses, dogs, chickens and a cat. Neil and Michelle moved back to Laguna in 2021, where they spent the rest of their lives.   

Neil is preceded in death by his beautiful wife and love of his life, Michelle Ann, his parents, his three sisters, and his oldest daughter, Tina, who passed away in 2002. Neil is survived by his brother, David and daughter Lisa; stepchildren, Deanna, Cary and Danielle, along with 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. 

Neil’s family is immensely proud of his many accomplishments and the legacy he has left behind. They are grateful for the countless lives he touched and his positive impact on the world. Neil was a devoted husband, a loving father and a loyal friend. Neil left behind a legacy of outstanding service and dedication to the people he served, and his unwavering commitment to his community will always inspire those who knew him. 

Dad, you were our example of how to put in a hard day’s work without complaining, how to keep going without quitting, how to take life as it comes and how to make every day count. I could fill a book with all the reasons I’m proud and thankful, but the values you lived by are the best things you ever gave us. Thank you, Dad, for making Laguna one of the safest and most beautiful cities in the world.  

You will never be forgotten, forever in our hearts.   

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1 COMMENT

  1. The passing of Neil J. Purcell Jr., affectionately known as “The Chief,” marks the end of an era and leaves a significant void in the community he served with dedication and distinction. His leadership and commitment to public service have undoubtedly left an indelible mark on those who had the privilege to know him and work alongside him. The Chief’s legacy will continue to inspire current and future generations, reflecting his unwavering dedication to the betterment of his community. As we remember Neil J. Purcell Jr., we celebrate his life’s contributions and the positive impact he made, a testament to a life well-lived and a career marked by integrity, compassion, and excellence.

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