For more than four decades, the DNA sat on the top shelf of the Orange County Crime Lab – evidence the killer left behind on the dress of a Corona del Mar girl found strangled to death in a ditch in Newport Beach’s Back Bay on July 7, 1973.
For years, the abduction and slaying of 11-year-old Linda Ann O’Keefe haunted the Newport Beach PD and community.
Now, thanks to cutting-edge DNA analysis and genetic geneology techniques that were unimaginable back in the Nixon era, Orange County law enforcement officials have arrested a Colorado man they believe is responsible for the haunting slaying.
James Alan Neal, 72, was arrested in Colorado Springs just before 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 19, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer and Newport Beach Police Chief Jon Lewis announced at a news conference Wednesday, Feb. 20 at OCDA headquarters in Santa Ana. In addition to murder, Neal faces charges of kidnapping and committing lewd and lascivious acts on a minor under 14.
If Neal, who police say was living in Orange County and working in construction at the time of Linda’s murder, waives extradition proceedings, he could be in Orange County later this week to answer to special-circumstances murder charges that could have him facing the death penalty, officials said.
Neal’s arrest is the latest of several O.C. criminal cases that went cold for years until DNA and genetic genealogy techniques, combined with traditional crime-solving work, led to the apprehension of a suspect.
In mid-January, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department identified, after 31 years, a Jane Doe homicide victim, crediting new breakthroughs in investigative genealogy techniques.
Last year, Joseph DeAngelo was arrested on suspicion of being the notorious Golden State Killer. Evidence culled from a genealogy website matched a sample of DNA allegedly discarded by DeAngelo. For years, former OCSD Investigator Larry Pool worked tirelessly on the case.
Also last month, the OCSD announced the arrest of a man suspected of the 1995 kidnapping and rape of a 9-year-old girl in Lake Forest and 1998 rape of a 31-year-old woman in Mission Viejo. Again, authorities cited science using DNA and genealogy techniques for helping lead to the suspect’s arrest.
Stories are popping up regularly around the country about how modern DNA-related investigative techniques are leading to the arrests of cold-case murder suspects. A recent example is how a discarded napkin led police to a suspect in a 1993 fatal stabbing of a woman in Minneapolis.
“Through both traditional DNA and through genealogical DNA, we have every opportunity in the world to solve so many of these cold cases that we never had hope in the past of solving,” Spitzer said at the news conference. “And that’s a great thing for our community.”
IN BROAD DAYLIGHT
Linda disappeared while walking home midday from summer school on July 6, 1973. She was last seen talking to a stranger in a van near the intersection of Marguerite Drive and Inlet Drive around 1:30 p.m.
Her body was discovered the next day.
The DNA profile of her killer originally was entered into CODIS, the national DNA database, in 2001, but there was no hit, Spitzer said.
Last year, the NBPD, tapping DNA analysis service Parabon Snapshot, was able to come up with sketches of what the suspect may have looked like in 1973 and now, based on that DNA profile.
The release of those sketches coincided with a Twitter campaign created by the NBPD that told Linda’s story in her own voice – a modern-day policing method that increased public awareness worldwide about the child’s murder, but did not directly lead to Neal’s arrest, Lewis said Wednesday.
The break in the cold case came last month, when investigators got a hit on the geneology website Family Tree DNA that pointed them to Neal as the possible killer.
They conducted surveillance and traditional detective techniques and were able to obtain a DNA sample from Neal they say matched the DNA profile on the website, as well as DNA on Linda’s dress.
Spitzer declined to say whether Neal or a family member submitted DNA to the website. Neal grew up in the Chicago area and has siblings, Spitzer said. Authorities would not say whether Neal has children or is married, nor would they speculate on whether he may be a suspect in other similar unsolved crimes.
Spitzer said Neal went by the name James Allen George Layton when he lived in Orange County, and that he is believed to have left the region shortly after the killing. As a result of an unspecified incident in Florida, he changed his name to James Allen Neal, Spitzer said.
Spitzer, Lewis, and Newport Beach City Councilman Brad Avery all touched on the immense relief they feel at the arrest of a suspect in Linda’s murder – and the importance of never giving up on cold cases.
“We’re so proud of our police department,” Avery said. “We’re a little hardened today because times have changed, but back in 1973, this was a huge deal and it meant so much to the community and it was such a collective loss, and it was so difficult to reconcile that this case, as time went on, would never be solved. For this to happen (arrest) has been absolutely extraordinary for all of us.”
Lewis reiterated the importance of the NBPD remaining committed to victims of cold case homicides and to their families.
“We’ve never forgotten Linda or the tragic events of July 1973,” Lewis said. “This was the day that made parents in our community think twice before they let their children walk to school, walk out the front door right down the street, or play with their friends.
“Linda’s death changed the lives of the O’Keefe family forever,” Lewis added. “It rocked the community, and it took root in the hearts of the men and women of our police department. We never ever forgot Linda’s story.”
Sgt. Daron Wyatt of the Anaheim PD echoed that sentiment Wednesday.
Last year, Wyatt was the focus of the premiere episode of a new crime series that recounted his dogged pursuit of the killer of Cal State Fullerton student Cathy Torres, who was stabbed to death at age 20 on Feb. 12, 1994.
“The amazing efforts by NBPD reflect the importance of never giving up on cold cases and how emerging technologies are helping detectives solve crimes from decades earlier,” Wyatt said.
Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy will be prosecuting the Neal case.
Among the numerous attendees at Wednesday’s news conference was Stan Bressler, 79, a retired NBPD officer who helped work the case when Linda’s body was found.
Back then, Bressler recalled, supervisors at the scene lugged around portable phones the size of ammo boxes – an example of state-of-the-art technology used by law enforcement at the time.
Bressler was asked about his response when hearing about Neal’s arrest.
“Wow,” said Bressler, giving a fist pump. “We got him.”
Linda’s suspected killer outlived her parents.
She is survived by two sisters, both of whom live out of state. One is about a decade older than Linda, and the other is a couple of years younger.
Linda would have turned 57 on May 24.