A 72-year-old Colorado man has been arrested in the 45-year-old cold case rape, kidnapping and murder of an 11-year-old girl in Newport Beach, California. Linda O’Keefe was killed in 1973 while walking home from school.
James Alan Neal was arrested February 19, 2019, in connection to her death, prosecutors announced at a press conference. The Orange County District Attorney’s Office said Neal was identified as the suspect in O’Keefe’s murder through a genealogical DNA database.
He has been charged with murder with special circumstances, kidnapping during the commission of a murder and lewd and lascivious acts on a child under the age of 14 during the commission of a murder. Neal would have been 27 at the time of Linda O’Keefe’s murder and about to turn 28 on July 28.
Neal lived in Orange County at the time using the name James Alan George Layton, which he later changed to James Alan Neal. Jail records show he has also used the aliases James Albert Lyton, Allen George Gilstrap and James Albert. Neal has been married for several decades, is a retired construction worker and a great-grandfather. He moved to Monument, Colorado, from San Jacinto, California, in 2015. He lived with his wife there.
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office said Neal was identified as the suspect in O’Keefe’s murder through a genealogical DNA database. Neal left DNA at the crime scene, police said.
Advances in technology that allow investigators to enter DNA taken as evidence into public DNA databases to look for matches has led to arrests in several cold cases, most notably in the Golden State Killer case. A nurse was arrested in the 26-year-old murder of a woman at an Alaska college campus last week after his aunt submitted DNA to a genealogical site. Authorities have not released details about the DNA search that led to Neal’s arrest, including which of his family member’s DNA was matched with the evidence from the scene.
“As the Orange County District Attorney, I am committed to protecting the community. My office will never forget about cold cases,” District Attorney Todd Spitzer said in a statement. “Our hearts go out to the victim and the victim’s family in this case, having to endure decades without answers. We will make sure that the defendant is fairly and justly held accountable in a court of law.”
The prosecutor’s office said, “The Orange County District Attorney’s Office would like to thank our law enforcement partners, the Newport Beach Police Department, Orange County Crime Lab, Federal Bureau of Investigations, Colorado Springs Police Department, and El Paso County Sheriff’s Department for their assistance and commitment to this investigation.”
Here’s what you need to know about James Neal, the suspect in Linda O’Keefe’s murder:
1. Linda O’Keefe Vanished While Walking Home From Summer School on July 6, 1973, & Was Found Strangled to Death in a Brushy Area a Day Later
Newport Beach Police have been investigating the cold case murder of Linda Ann O’Keefe for several decades and District Attorney Todd Spitzer praised the commitment detectives had to solve the murder. In July 2018, on the 45th anniversary of her murder, police launched a social media campaign to highlight the case and attempt to gain new leads and information.
Linda was an 11-year-old resident of Corona del Mar. She was walking home from summer school on July 6, 1973, when she was abducted and killed. Her body was found one day later in the Back Bay area, but her killer was not found during the initial investigation.
Linda had last been seen talking to a stranger in a van around midday near the intersection of Marguerite Drive and Inlet Drive, Newport Beach Police Chief Jon Lewis said at Wednesday’s press conference. “Linda never made it home that afternoon. Linda’s family checked with friends, with neighbors, but no one could put their mind at ease. They searched the neighborhood and her path home from school to no avail.” Her mother then called police and reported her missing. Authorities searched throughout the night and her body was found in a ditch along Back Bay Drive the next morning.
Police said Linda had been strangled. Investigators then turned to a search for her killer. “For 45 years the Newport Beach Police Department continued to search for Linda’s killer,” Lewis said. “Generations of investigators worked on her case. We never gave up.”
District Attorney Todd Spitzer said a DNA sample was recovered from the victim, but when it was previously run through CODIS, the national DNA database, there were no hits. “Innovations in science and technology,” and the willingness of detectives to use all available means, led to the break in the case, Spitzer told reporters.
He said after the indication that James Neal could be a suspect, police used “surveillance and other traditional detective techniques,” to “get additional DNA which resulted in the corroboration of the DNA from the victim’s body to the DNA sample that the suspect left in a particular location during surveillance activities.” Spitzer said additional information would be unveiled later in court.
Chief Jon Lewis said in addition to the public awareness campaign on social media, investigators also reignited traditional “good old-fashioned police work” and turned to the “latest in DNA technology. 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. Simply put, our investigators had our lead. Which brings us here.”
Lewis said Neal, now 72, was arrested in Colorado Springs on Tuesday, February 19, about 6:30 a.m. “for the murder of Linda O’Keefe.”
The chief said, “Newport Beach Police Department is committed to the victims of cold case homicides and to their families. We have never forgotten Linda or the tragic events of July 1973. This was a day that made parents in our community think twice before they let their children walk to school, walk out the front door, bike down the street or play with their friends. Linda’s death changed the lives of the O’Keefe family forever when this little girl was taken from them. It rocked their community and took root in the hearts of the men and women in their police department. We never, ever, forgot Linda’s story.”
Lewis thanked Linda’s family, friends and schoolmates who never gave up hope and “everyone around the world who was touched by Linda’s story. … And thank you to everyone who has worked on this case over the years, many of whom are here today. It’s because of you James Neal is now in custody.”
Spitzer said the murder “rocked” the Newport Beach community for more than four decades. City council member Brad Avery said at the press conference, “We’re so proud of our police department, not that we haven’t been all along, but today is something and it shows their resolve over the years.”
Avery added that it was a “simpler” time when Linda was killed. “We are a little hardened today, but back in 1973, this was a huge deal. It was such a collective loss and it was so difficult to reconcile that this case, as time went on, would never be solved.”
Lewis said a sketch was released last year using a DNA profile that was separate from the process that was used to identify Neal as the suspect. That was a way to generate what the suspect could have looked like based on the information they had at the time, Lewis said. The hit that led to Neal came after the sketch was released.
“These detectives were utilizing every technique that was available to them at the time,” Spitzer told reporters. “The DNA sample from the victim had been put into both the CODIS system and the FBI system and there were no hits. We can now take DNA upon the arrest of certain felonies, but these laws did not exist at the time.”
The charges carry the minimum of life without the possibility of parole, but the death penalty is a possibility, Spitzer said. He said they cannot discuss details of the investigation, including whether Neal is cooperating with detectives. The criminal complaint has been filed under seal and will be unsealed at a later date, Spitzer said.
He said the genealogical databases are a “pointer system” that lead detectives toward a potential suspect and require additional investigation and traditional police work to confirm. Police received a DNA hit that pointed detectives toward Neal in January 2019 and investigators used that information to locate him in Colorado and through surveillance and other techniques, gather DNA directly from him. That DNA was then compared to the DNA from the crime scene “and there was a match.” That occurred within the last weeks before his arrest.
Spitzer said police will also be working to ensure there are no other victims connected to Neal. He added, “We’re not going to put out any information about whether there are or aren’t additional victims. I don’t want to be generic, but individuals who engage in sexual activity against minors tend to have certain indicators of a predatory nature. I’m not saying that is the case here, but we’re going to explore every single indicator. I want to know if there are any other victims and I want to be able to use that potentially as evidence in the case in terms of the appropriate punishment. That is a very important issue.”
2. A California Native, Neal Who Has Been Married Since 1977, Has 4 Daughters, 15 Grandchildren & 11 Great-Grandchildren
District Attorney Todd Spitzer said James Neal, then James Layton, grew up in California. His family had moved to Orange County from Chicago. Spitzer said he had siblings. He left the area shortly after the murder, Spitzer said.
“We definitely know he resided in the area and he has roots in the area,” Spitzer said. “So it’s not as if he was arrested, DNA was collected in Colorado and everybody was like ‘what is his connection to Southern California and Newport Beach. He absolutely was placed here at the time of the commission of this crime.”
According to public records and social media profiles, James Neal has lived in Colorado since 2015 with his wife. He previously lived in San Jacinto, California. Neal has gone by the name Jim Neal, according to Facebook.
Neal and his wife were married on December 3, 1977, more than four years after O’Keefe was killed. His wife is originally from Anaheim, California, according to her Facebook page.
Neal’s wife wrote on Facebook, “Married 40 years have 4 daughters, 15 grand children 11 great grand children ..YHVH has blessed us.”
It is not clear if all of his children were biologically his or became his children through marriage.
His wife’s Facebook page showed several photos of Neal with his daughters, his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren, along with his wife and other family members. One photo shows him walking his daughter down the aisle at her wedding in 2010. Recent photos show him holding young children, apparently his great-grandchildren.
According to public records, Neal and his wife lived at a home in San Jacinto, California, in Riverside County, that they owned from 1997 to 2015. They previously lived in Hemet, California and in Winchester, California, which are
both also in Riverside County.
It is not clear when Neal moved back to California from Florida.
Neal’s family could not be reached for comment about his arrest by Heavy and have not spoken publicly about the news. His wife deleted her Facebook profile shortly after the Orange County District Attorney held his press conference.
Neal does not appear to have any social media profiles of his own.
3. Neal Worked in Construction & Filed for Bankruptcy in California in 2014 With His Wife, Listing His Income as Social Security Checks
Public records show that Neal worked in construction. He once owned a company called James Neal Construction.
The company was based in San Jacinto.
Neal and his wife filed for bankruptcy in 2014 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in the Central District of California in February 2014, according to online court records. At the time, Neal was retired and both he and his wife listed their monthly income as being from Social Security.
Neal was listed as having an “ongoing medical condition,” but details of that condition were not provided in court documents.
4. He Changed His Name After an ‘Incident’ in Florida & Has No Apparent Criminal Record in Recent Years Other Than Traffic Offenses
James Alan George Layton changed his name to James Neal after an “incident” in Florida, the district attorney said at Wednesday’s press conference. He did not provide any other details about that incident and why it led him to change his name. He moved to Florida after the murder and changed his name then, but it is not exactly clear when the name change occurred.
Spitzer said he could not discuss details of the Florida incident or Neal’s criminal record. He said prosecutors would release that information as the case moves forward.
Investigators from California are still in Colorado investigating, police said.
While it is not clear if he had a previous criminal record while using his other name, public records do not show any convictions for James Alan Neal in recent years other than traffic violations.
Neal had traffic cases in Riverside County in 2008, 2011 and 2015, but details of those cases were not immediately available. He was born in 1946, and is listed in jail records as being 6’2″ and weighing 225 pounds.
“We unequivocally believe, and the reason that criminal charges were filed, that Mr. Neal did this beyond a reasonable doubt,” Spitzer said. “We are very, very confident based upon the DNA that Mr. Neal both should be charged with murder as well as the kidnapping and the allegations of sexual assault.”
Spitzer said it is believed Neal acted alone and there are no other suspects.
5. Neal Is Being Held Without Bail at the El Paso County Jail in Colorado on Fugitive From Justice Charges
James Alan Neal is being held without bail at the El Paso County Jail in Colorado on two counts of being a fugitive from justice, according to online records. He is being held there pending extradition to Orange County, California, to face the charges in Linda O’Keefe’s murder.
A preliminary court hearing was set for February 20 at 1:30 p.m. local time in El Paso County, Colorado, jail records showed. Neal was arrested unremarkably and without incident, authorities said. He was arrested by the Colorado Springs Police Department.
Prosecutors are not sure if Neal will waive extradition. If he does, he could be back in Orange County to appear before a judge as soon as this week, the district attorney said. But if not, it will be a “prolonged deliberation.”
It is not clear if Neal has hired an attorney who could comment on his behalf. His wife and family could not be reached for comment by Heavy about his arrest.
District Attorney Todd Spitzer said at Wednesday’s press conference, “For 45 years, the Newport Beach Police Department never gave up. The detectives dogged this case. The community made sure that justice would be secured.”
Spitzer said it can be expected that more cases will be solved with DNA advances.
“I think we can all expect and we are starting to expect as a society that some of these old cases are being solved,” Spitzer said, asking the media to not take any cold cases for granted. “Every single time we solve a cold case, we have an absolute duty to continue to pursue these cases until we can bring a resolution.
He added, “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. And that is a great thing for our community. And I am very, very proud of the Newport Police Department.”
Spitzer called the case “bittersweet,” noting that when Linda was killed, he himself was only 12. “When I was a kid I went to a funeral for one of my cousins. And he died before his mom did,” Spitzer said. “And I think there’s a little axiom for those of us who are parents or have loved ones. No child should predecease a parent. And yet, this victim, her parents both died before we could bring this good news to them.”
Linda O’Keefe is survived by her two sisters and Spitzer said both have been notified about the arrest. Chief Jon Lewis said it is “difficult news” for the family to receive. “Yes this case has been resolved, but it yet it’s a reminder of what happened. So it was a difficult conversation. On one hand, we were grateful that we could have that conversation and provide them with some closure.”
Linda’s sister, Diana Scheifen, took to Twitter to react to Neal’s arrest. She tweeted, “They caught the SOB who killed my sister Linda O’Keefe. … I’ve been waiting for 46 yrs for what I’m gonna see today. The SOB who behind bars.”
In other tweet she wrote, “I’m definitely going through the emotions since yesterday happy, sad, angry etc… It’s crazy I feel like is this really happening. Open old wounds my parents should have received that phone call from police dept. I’m just waiting to see this SOB behind bars. … I’ve been waiting for ever seems like it 46 yrs to be exact. For an answer to who ever took her life. Every year on the anniversary of her death I’d call the police department that way someone was on top of it? It finally paid off.”
She added in a tweet to the Newport Beach Police, “Thx u so much for your hard work with catching my sister Linda Ann O’Keefe killer.”