On Thursday afternoon, Bill Neely was in the middle of his favorite subject -- how to properly and efficiently punish bad guys -- when he got the call. A few "uh-huhs" and a couple of "I sees" later, Neely, the top prosecutor in Spotsylvania County, softly replaced the telephone receiver.

"He's there in their jail as we speak," Neely said. There was no need to explain. "He" was sniper suspect John Allen Muhammad. "There" was a cell 53 miles north of Neely's office.

"The feds don't mess around," Neely said, running a hand over the top -- the smooth part -- of his head.

Left unsaid in the quick call from James A. Willett, a Prince William County prosecutor, is that Neely will now be on the sidelines when it comes to prosecuting Muhammad and the second suspect, John Lee Malvo. It is now very unlikely that they will be tried in Spotsylvania for the two shootings that terrorized the county last month, although Neely has charged them with capital murder.

"It was a unilateral decision," Neely said. U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft said the decision to prosecute Muhammad in Prince William County and Malvo in Fairfax County was made based on which jurisdictions had "the best law, the best facts and the best range of available penalties."

William F. Neely, 50, an independent, has been commonwealth's attorney in Spotsylvania for 14 years, serving as a part-time assistant for six years before that. He is known as a tough prosecutor and even tougher negotiator. He has prosecuted hundreds of felony cases, from a rapist who left his victim to die in the trunk of her car to a star high school quarterback who fed a bucket of marijuana-laced brownies to his classmates.

But Neely the tactician understands the other counties' advantages of size and experience in prosecuting the sniper cases. "Nobody in Virginia is upset about it. I can't speak for Maryland or D.C.," Neely said.

Gary Jackson, vice chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, said he was "very curious to find out how that decision was made" -- and confident that Neely would have done "a fine job."

"It would have been a tremendous drain of resources and personnel, but we suffered mightily," he said.

If Neely questioned the decision or felt snubbed, he did not show it. That's not unusual, his colleagues said. Journalists or jurors searching his eyes for a hint of doubt often go away disappointed.

That wasn't always the case. His first job after graduating from Emory & Henry College was as a social worker, not the usual training ground for law-and-order advocates.

"It was the '60s and '70s, and I had stars in my eyes," Neely said. He said he was influenced by his grandmother, an ardent New Dealer -- but social work was hardly a good fit for him. After being sued -- unsuccessfully -- for cutting off a client's welfare checks, Neely changed careers. With a law degree from the University of Richmond, he returned to Spotsylvania as a part-time prosecutor.

Born in southwestern Virginia, Neely had first arrived in Spotsylvania in 1966, when he was 15 and his father was hired as the county schools superintendent. Today, Neely and his wife, Vickie, a teacher, live on Brock Road on land that has been in her family since before Gens. Lee and Grant put the neighborhood on the map. The couple have a daughter, Sarah.

Neely was elected the county's first full-time prosecutor in 1988. He said the gap between that job and social work is smaller than might be imagined. "I'm still trying to do good, trying to help people learn accountability. I am amazed at how many former clients I have prosecuted since," he said, a smile creeping between his bushy mustache and beard.

In his outer office is a framed newspaper article about tough sentences meted out by Spotsylvania courts and juries. "This is a conservative area with bedrock values," Neely said. "If they find you guilty, they will punish you."

But this is no hang-'em-high jurisdiction. According to state data, sentences in Spotsylvania in the last four years conformed to state guidelines 70 percent of the time. An additional 15 percent of sentences were less severe than those recommended, and 15 percent were more severe -- similar to sentences statewide.

In his only capital murder trial, Neely prosecuted Michael Anthony Morris two years ago for the sexual assault and murder in 1990 of Nancy S. Seay, a mother of two and secretary for the county Chamber of Commerce.

Seay, 46, was beaten, sexually assaulted and choked with her pantyhose, but medical examiners believe that she died of heatstroke while she was trapped for hours in her car trunk on a 91-degree day. Scratch marks inside the trunk indicated how desperately she tried to free herself, prosecutors said.

The jury recommended two life sentences plus 40 years instead of the death penalty. Seay's husband, Harris Seay, praised Neely for his handling of the case.

"He's a very caring person, not only for us, but for the community as a whole, trying to get justice done," Harris Seay said. "I have no complaints. We would have liked to have had a more severe penalty, but the jury decided that."

Neely said he considered asking for the death penalty in the case of a taxi driver who was shot in the head. But he said the victim's widow wanted quick justice, not the years-long effort of a capital case. Neely said he took some criticism for that.

Before the sniper shootings, Spotsylvania made national headlines for the abductions and slayings of three young girls in two separate cases, Sofia Silva and sisters Kristin and Kati Lisk. The man later confirmed as their killer, Richard Marc Evonitz, committed suicide after being cornered by Florida police this summer.

But in 1997, Neely had charged someone else in the killing of Silva, based on circumstantial evidence and hair samples. The charges were dropped after the lab work turned out to be wrong. Neely said a forensic scientist -- who has since changed careers -- might have made the mistake after identifying with the victims too closely.

Attorney Phillip Sasser Jr., who represented the mistakenly charged man, said Neely called him at home at night as soon as he found out the error.

"I've had several murder cases against him, and he's very meticulous, very capable," Sasser said. "He's got an excellent rapport with juries; he's himself and doesn't try to grandstand."

Neely said the checks and balances worked in the Silva case, and he remains confident that the death penalty is administered fairly in Virginia. He said he would not hesitate to push for it in the future.

"If it doesn't deter others," Neely said, "it sure as hell deters that defendant."

Spotsylvania County Commonwealth's Attorney William F. Neeley has filed capital murder charges against the two suspects in the sniper shootings in his jurisdiction, but understands that he will not get to try them because Prince William and Fairfax counties have been given precedence.