Nearly half a century after a local girl was abducted and killed, authorities have arrested a suspect in connection to a cold case that shocked the community.
The combination of DNA technology, an online genealogy database, and traditional police work led Newport Beach Police Department investigators to take James Alan Neal, 72, into custody this week for the 1973 kidnapping and murder of 11-year-old Linda Ann O’Keefe.
NBPD and the Orange County District Attorney’s Office announced the arrest and filing of charges against Neal at a joint press conference Wednesday.
For 45 years, police continued to search for her killer, said Newport Beach Police Chief Jon Lewis. O’Keefe’s photo hangs in the department as a reminder.
“Generations of investigators worked on her case,” Lewis commented. “We never gave up.”
Hundreds of people worked on the case in one way or another over the years, he added, from the initial officers who were on the scene in 1973 to the cold case investigators more recently.
Retired NBPD Officer Stan Bressler was one of the first patrol officers on the case and was on hand Wednesday for the announcement.
It was a great feeling when he heard about the arrest, Bressler said, and it’s a bit emotional.
“I always hoped,” her killer would be found, Bressler said.
The city and Newport residents are incredibly proud of the local police department, Councilman Brad Avery said on Wednesday. It shows their resolve, he added.
“For those of us that were there in 1973, we’ve never forgotten it,” Avery said.
It was a collective loss for the community, Avery commented.
“It was so difficult to reconcile that this case, as time went on, would never be solved,” Avery said. “So for this to happen has been absolutely extraordinary for all of us.”
Neal was arrested at his home in Colorado Springs, Colo., at 7:29 a.m. local time without incident, Lewis explained. Investigator are still on the ground and working the case in Colorado, he added.
Neal, who went by the name of James Albert Layton, Jr. in 1973, is charged with murder with two special circumstances for kidnapping and lewd and lascivious act on a child under the age of 14.
Authorities sent out a press release and 1970s photo of Neal on Thursday seeking additional witnesses who may have seen Neal around the time of the murder.
Later, “as the result of an incident” in Florida, he changed his name. OCDA Todd Spitzer would not go into detail about what the incident was.
Neal is being held in Colorado. If he waives extradition he could be back in California within a week, Spitzer explained.
He is facing life without the possibility of parole. The death penalty may be considered, Spitzer noted.
Spitzer said officials won’t comment on what, if anything, Neal has told authorities.
Based upon the current evidence, everything indicates he worked alone, Spitzer confirmed.
The OCDA didn’t specify, but also didn’t rule out, if there were any additional victims as of yet. When an arrest is made oftentimes others feel safe to come forward, he noted.
Individuals who engage in sexual activity against minors tend to have certain indicators of a predatory nature, Spitzer said, although he wouldn’t comment on whether or not that was the case with Neal.
Authorities will look into the possibility of additional victims or other crimes during the investigation.
A DNA sample was collected off of the victim at the time of the murder, Spitzer explained. It was submitted into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) in 2001, but there was never a hit.
“That sample remained in the system for a long period of time,” Spitzer said.
Detective used every method available as technology progressed, he continued. They recently submitted the sample to genealogy websites and in January finally got the break they were searching for, a “pointer indication” on Family Tree DNA that directed them to Neal. Spitzer wouldn’t comment on whether it was a familial or direct match.
Authorities used “traditional, good old-fashioned police work,” along with innovative investigative techniques, including the latest in DNA technology, Lewis said.
“Our investigators used forensic DNA testing and an online genealogy website to identify the suspect’s DNA as being consistent with DNA left at the crime scene,” Lewis said. “Simply put, our investigators had a lead.”
As a result of surveillance and other traditional detective techniques, authorities were able to get additional DNA “that the suspect left in a particular location during surveillance activities,” which resulted in corroboration of the original DNA collected.
Neal lived in Orange County in the 1970s. His connection to OC has been corroborated, Spitzer confirmed. Neal’s family had moved from Chicago when he was young and he grew up here, Spitzer explained. He left the area shortly after the murder.
O’Keefe was abducted while walking home from summer school in Newport Beach on July 6, 1973.
After classes ended that afternoon, she started her walk home. She was last seen talking to a stranger in a turquoise or blue van near the intersection of Marguerite and Inlet drives.
The young girl never made it home, Lewis explained. Her family checked with the school and friends, but no one had seen O’Keefe.
She was officially reported missing that evening, making the call that every parent dreads, Lewis said. A massive community-wide search began.
Her body was discovered in the Back Bay the following morning. She had been strangled.
Bressler, who worked for NBPD from 1963 until 1993 and then took over the explorer program in 1997, said that things like this just didn’t occur here, it was shocking, Bressler said.
“Newport was a quiet little town,” Bressler said. “Everyone in the community was affected by it.”
The investigation and search for the murderer began, but eventually the case went cold.
O’Keefe’s parents have since died. Her two sisters are still alive, Spitzer confirmed. Authorities have already contacted them and informed them about the arrest.
“We have never forgotten Linda or the tragic events of July 1973,” Lewis said. “It rocked the community and it took root in the hearts of the men and women of the police department.”
It is a case Bressler has never forgotten, he noted, and thinks of from time to time.
“It’s always there,” Bressler said.
Last July, on the 45th anniversary of her abduction and murder, NBPD shared O’Keefe’s story in her own voice through a series of tweets. Evidence, including photographs from the original investigation and a new Parabon Snapshot (technology that uses DNA phenotype) of the suspected killer, were included throughout the event.
The social media campaign not only raised public awareness, but it also brought the community together, Avery commented.
Never take these cold cases for granted, Spitzer commented. They can still be solved, he added. The case of the notorious Golden State Killer was also solved through genealogical DNA website.
“We have an absolute duty to continue to pursue these cases until we can bring them to resolution, irrespective of how old they are,” Spitzer said. “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 hoped in the past of solving, and that is a great thing.”
*Editor’s Note: An earlier version of the story indicated Neal previously went by the name of James Alan George Layton, authorities have since corrected their information, stating he previously went by the name of James Albert Layton, Jr.*