A Colorado man was behind bars Wednesday on suspicion of killing and sexually assaulting an 11-year-old girl in Newport Beach in 1973, with authorities saying DNA technology helped them track down the 72-year-old suspect decades later.
James Alan Neal was arrested about 6:30 a.m. Tuesday in Colorado Springs in connection with the strangulation death of Linda Ann O’Keefe, who lived in Corona del Mar, Newport Beach police Chief Jon Lewis said.
The girl disappeared while walking home from summer school on July 6, 1973, and her body was recovered the following morning in a ditch in the Back Bay area. Police said she was last seen standing near a man in a blue or turquoise van.
Lewis credited “the latest in DNA technology” for helping crack the case that stymied investigators for more than four decades.
“We have never forgotten Linda or the tragic events of July 1973,” Lewis said at a news conference announcing the arrest, noting that the victim’s photo had long been displayed in the offices of his department’s detectives as a daily reminder of the unsolved case.
He said the girl’s death changed the community, making parents think twice about letting their children outside alone.
Neal has been charged with murder with special circumstances alleging kidnapping and lewd acts on a child. District Attorney Todd Spitzer said the suspect could potentially face a death sentence if convicted, although there is some question about whether capital punishment could be applied in the case given the date of the killing and the laws that were on the books at the time.
Newport Beach police last July mounted a Twitter campaign, releasing information about the killing to try to spur new leads, but that was not what led to Neal’s arrest.
Investigators submitted the DNA collected from the victim to the Family Tree website and it gave them leads pointing to Neal, Spitzer said. From there, police put the defendant under surveillance and collected his DNA and matched it to the evidence collected from the victim, Spitzer said.
The police tweets detailing the last hours of Linda’s life included photographs from the crime scene and a newly created “snapshot” of the suspect that was put together by scientists at Parabon NanoLabs. The tweets concluded with a video that included interviews with the detectives who have worked on finding the girl’s killer through the years.
Newport Beach police last year hired Parabon, a Virginia-based DNA technology company specializing in a process using genetic material, to build a sort of composite sketch of the suspect at 25 years old and how the killer might look Wednesday.
It is not known whether Neal — whose arrest in Colorado Springs was described by Lewis as “unremarkable — will fight extradition. If not, he could be brought to Orange County within the next several days.
Neal moved to Southern California with his family from Chicago, Spitzer said, and was a construction worker at the time of the crime. He moved to Florida soon after the killing, but after an unspecified criminal incident there, he changed his name from James Allen George Layton to Neal, Spitzer said.
Stan Bressler, who retired from the Newport Beach Police Department in 1993 and continued as a reserve officer there until 2000, was on hand for the news conference announcing Neal’s arrest.
Asked to describe what he thought when he first heard the news, he said, “Wow, we got him.”
Bressler, who was in on the initial search for the girl, said her death had a powerful impact on the community.
“We just didn’t have things like that in Newport,” he told reporters. “It was a shock to everybody.”
Newport Beach City Councilman Brad Avery agreed.
“For those of us who were there in 1973, we’ve never forgotten this,” Avery said, adding that times then were “simpler.”
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