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Murder victim remembered for friendship, strength

Audra Gamble/The Holland Sentinel • Aug 24, 2018 at 11:00 AM

PORT SHELDON TWP. — Sherri McNeal’s hands were muscular and always covered in cuts and bruises. Taking care of five horses, running her own business and working on her cars kept her busy, just the way she liked it.

Now her 17-year-old son, K.C. McNeal, is left to take care of the horses, the vehicles and their house, all while he finishes his senior year at West Ottawa High School.

Sherri was found dead at her home in the 15000 block of Barry Street in Port Sheldon Township early in the morning of July 24. Police believe Sherri was shot by her husband, Mike McNeal.

According to the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office, Mike then attempted to kill himself, but survived a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the face. He has been charged with open murder and is in custody at the Ottawa County Jail.

In the 10 days leading up to her death, Sherri was staying at the home of close friends Claudia and Jim Pavlinik in Holland. Claudia met Sherri and her husband when she joined Sherri’s gym, Transform Fitness, five or six years ago and the couples quickly became fast friends.

“She spent 10 days here, but she’d go on dates with Mike, she’d go back and forth to her house,” Jim said about Sherri’s last days. “There was strife with their marriage and they both needed time to heal. We believe she found peace within herself here.”

The Pavliniks said they never saw the McNeals fight in front of them and saw no indications of domestic violence or serious issues.

“In every marriage there’s good times and bad times, but maybe Sherri had a little more bad times,” Jim said.

The Pavliniks certainly never expected the McNeals’ marriage to end in an attempted murder-suicide.

“Not in our wildest dreams,” Claudia said. “They didn’t have arguments at our house or anything like that. They were little lovebirds. I got a text from her at 12:09 Tuesday morning and everything seemed fine.”

Less than a week before her death, Mike had taken Sherri to Saugatuck and re-proposed to her, giving her a ring she never took off. To the Pavliniks, things seemed to be on the mend in the McNeals’ marriage.

Court proceedings for Mike will take many months, but in the meantime, K.C. is going to have to pick up the pieces and graduate from high school without either of his parents.

The day after his mother’s death, K.C. wrote a message to her on Sherri’s Facebook page: “To my outstanding mother, words cannot describe how much I loved and still love you,” he wrote. “I hope you are doing OK up there with all the friends, horses and Gram. I will make you proud and become the man you always knew I could become. Thank you for all you’ve taught me and all of the memories me and you have shared. RIP mom.”

In a written statement to The Sentinel, K.C. repeated that Sherri was a wonderful parent.

“She was strong through it all and never gave up on anything,” he said. “She was the best mother you could ask for.”

Sherri, 53, was raised in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula by her grandparents, after her mother left when she was 2 and her quadriplegic father died when she was 9.

Eventually moving to the Holland area, Sherri opened Transform Fitness gym after struggling with her weight for a long time. The gym was a former oil change business that Sherri revamped by herself after losing over 100 pounds.

“She built it from ground zero,” Jim said. “She wasn’t in it for the money, she wanted to help people. She wanted people to be healthy. She didn’t want members, she wanted friends.”

Sherri built a tight-knit community at Transform Fitness and was always chatting with the gym’s members, even long after they said they needed to leave.

“The joke Sherri always had with me was that she’d keep talking even when it was time to go and I’d start to drive off,” Claudia said. “She said if she had more to say, she’d just run behind my car and keep talking.”

The gym was sold before her death, but Sherri’s five horses are still in the care of K.C. The horses — Sh’bang, Fortune Cookie, Selah, Rain and 2-year-old Piper — were like Sherri’s other children.

“Her horses were like family members, she loved them,” Claudia said.

Claudia and Jim were present for the birth of Piper, Rain’s daughter.

“They’re her kids, but now they have become a big burden,” Claudia said. “Some people have offered to buy grain and hay, but they need a place that will feel like where they came from.”

Sherri would often ride her horses bareback and in Tulip Time parades without a bridle, using only her body to control them in big crowds with unfamiliar noises. Claudia said it was Sherri’s dream to eventually open a horse therapy farm to help physically and mentally disabled people.

Among Sherri’s other loves in life were caramel lattes with three extra shots of espresso, raspberry pie, her 1969 Camaro, her black Duramax truck, ’80s music and what she called “fru-fru” drinks, Claudia said. She called her close friends her “chosen sisters,” and would cook mountains of food when she went camping with friends and family.

“She used to say, ‘I can outdrive, outrope and outwork any man,’ and that was true,” Jim said. “Her dream was always to serve other people and make them feel good.”

The Pavliniks hope to host a memorial service for Sherri in October. But right now, their focus is on helping K.C., who is staying with an aunt and uncle in the area so he can finish his senior year at the same school.

K.C. said he wants to get a job so he can keep two of his mother’s horses, then maybe move to the Upper Peninsula where his great-grandparents and mother’s friends live.

“We just want to give K.C. a good start, and he has a good network of people around him,” Jim said. “He’s not alone. He is surrounded by people who want to make sure he is successful in whatever he wants to do.”

With his father facing up to a life sentence in prison for murder, Claudia said K.C. is going to be faced with bills for medical care, house and car insurance, and other expenses. To help offset those costs, Claudia set up a GoFundMe page for K.C.

“K.C. is going to be faced with thousands in bills and if we can get a little bit of help, that adds up,” Claudia said.

K.C. has visited with the Pavliniks since his mother’s death and they said he has started to open up about what happened. Both a lawyer and a counselor have been assigned to K.C. throughout the criminal proceedings.

“He knows what happened — he’s well aware of that,” Jim said. “His father allegedly killed his mother and he’s trying to deal with that. There’s a lot of resentment, a lot of hate, but we hope he maybe someday can find forgiveness. It’s not going to happen overnight.

“We all have a lot of good memories of Sherri that will never fade.”

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