A Colorado man accused of killing and sexually assaulting an 11-year-old girl in Newport Beach in 1973 pleaded not guilty Friday to a murder charge, along with charges of sexually assaulting two children in Riverside County.
James Alan Neal, 72, is due back in court June 14 for pretrial hearing.
Neal is charged with murder while in the commission of lewd acts on a child younger than 14 and five felony counts of lewd acts on a child younger than 14, with a sentencing enhancement allegation for multiple victims.
Identifying Neal as the alleged killer of Linda Ann O’Keefe led investigators to tie the defendant to the sexual assaults of two girls in Riverside County, according to Orange County prosecutors. The two victims were assaulted in the 1990s and early 2000s, according to Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy, but he provided no other details and the criminal complaint was sealed.
Neal faces up to 82 years to life in prison if convicted as charged.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said he considered pursuing the death penalty for Neal, but legal research showed it was not an option.
“The murder occurred when the death penalty was deemed unlawful here in California,” Spitzer told City News Service. “I determined that even if I wanted to pursue the death penalty, it’s not available because of the year the murder occurred.”
Neal was booked into the Orange County Jail Monday, March 11. He was arrested in Colorado Springs about 6:30 a.m. Feb. 19 in connection with the strangulation death of Linda Ann, whose death made parents think twice about letting their children outside alone.
The Corona del Mar 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.
Newport Beach police last July mounted a Twitter campaign, releasing information about the killing to try to spur new leads in the case, which had stymied investigators for more than four decades. But Chief Jon Lewis last month said Neal’s arrest was due to “the latest in DNA technology.”
Investigators submitted the DNA collected from the victim to the Family Tree website and it gave them leads pointing to Neal. 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. 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 Friday.
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 Albert Layton Jr. to Neal, Spitzer said.