DNA leads to man’s arrest 46 years after murder of 11-year-old Linda O’Keefe: ‘We have never forgotten Linda’

Newport Beach Police
Newport Beach Police

(NEWPORT BEACH, Calif.) — A man has been arrested through DNA and genetic genealogy in the decades-old cold case killing of 11-year-old Linda Ann O’Keefe, who was strangled to death in Southern California in 1973, authorities said.

O’Keefe was last seen alive on July 6, 1973, as she walked home from summer school, the Newport Beach Police Department said. Her body was found the next day — but decades went by without an arrest.

O’Keefe’s suspected killer, James Neal, who lived in Southern California in the 1970s, was arrested this week in Colorado where he had been living, said Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer, who was 12 himself at the time of the murder, at a Wednesday news conference.

Neal worked in construction at the time of the crime, officials said. He left California after the alleged killing and went to Florida where he changed his name, officials said.

DNA recovered from O’Keefe shortly after her death was put into the Combined DNA Index System — the law enforcement database known as CODIS — but there was no hit, Spitzer said.

Through genealogical DNA, though, investigators corroborated the DNA from O’Keefe’s body and the DNA obtained from the suspect, according to Spitzer. The genealogical hit came in January, officials said.

It is not clear if Neal, 72, will waive extradition, Spitzer said.

“We have never forgotten Linda,” Newport Beach Police Chief Jon Lewis said at the news conference.

O’Keefe’s parents have since died, Spitzer said, but her sisters have been notified about the arrest.

The novel investigative technique of genetic genealogy takes an unknown killer’s DNA from a crime scene and identifies the suspect through his or her family members, who voluntarily submit their DNA to genealogy databases. Since April 2018, genetic genealogy has helped identify more than two dozen suspects.

This allows police to create a much larger family tree than using CODIS, said CeCe Moore, chief genetic genealogist with Parabon NanoLabs. Parabon has worked on the majority of the cold cases cracked through genetic genealogy, including O’Keefe’s case.

Last year, 45 years after O’Keefe’s body was found, police released these sketches of her suspected killer.

Parabon used the DNA from the crime scene to predict the suspect’s eye color, hair color and skin color. The sketches depict what the suspect may have looked like at 25 years old as well as an age-progressed version.

The lead bringing officials to Neal came after these sketches were released, authorities said Wednesday.

“But now, 45 yrs later, I have a voice again. And I have something important to say. There is a new lead in my case: a face. A face that comes from DNA that the killer left behind. It’s technology that didn’t exist back in 1973, but it might change everything today.” #LindasStory pic.twitter.com/GsZClKFwPj

— Newport Beach Police (@NewportBeachPD) July 7, 2018

The police department last year also “live-tweeted” O’Keefe’s story from her perspective, narrating the final day of her life in real-time, exactly 45 years later.

“Hi. I’m Linda O’Keefe (or Linda ANN O’Keefe, if I’m in trouble with my mom). Forty-five years ago today, I disappeared from Newport Beach. I was murdered and my body was found in the Back Bay. My killer was never found. Today, I’m going to tell you my story.” #LindasStory pic.twitter.com/G25n2IppZb

— Newport Beach Police (@NewportBeachPD) July 6, 2018

“I’m wearing a dress today… It’s white, with light blue flowers on it, and dark blue trim. My mom made it. She makes a lot of my clothes, and my sisters’ clothes. She’s really good at sewing, and we don’t have a lot of money for fancy store outfits anyhow.” #LindasStory pic.twitter.com/9sucqJsnGg

— Newport Beach Police (@NewportBeachPD) July 6, 2018

“Let’s see… What else can I tell you about me?? I’ve always been *really* good at tidying up. Mom says I’m like a ‘little mother’ and always keep my room very neat. Whenever I clean up, I ask her to come see. I like hearing her tell me that I did a good job.” #LindasStory pic.twitter.com/cYfjJEGnX6

— Newport Beach Police (@NewportBeachPD) July 6, 2018

The Twitter campaign did not lead to the suspect’s identification, but it did create an emphasis on the case and opened doors for the case to be pursued with renewed efforts, officials said.

According to police, O’Keefe normally rode her bike to summer school. But that day, she was dropped off.

While waiting to use the school phone, O’Keefe went outside. Her friend later told police a turquoise van stopped next to O’Keefe a few times as she walked.

O’Keefe then called her mother from the school office, and her mother told her she was busy sewing and that she should walk home, police said.

A woman later told police she saw O’Keefe standing next to a turquoise van and talking to the driver — a white man in his mid-20s or early 30s.

“The van is parked along the curb, just before the intersection of Marguerite and Inlet Drive. The front passenger door is open, and I’m standing right beside it. Jannine will remember that she sees the driver: a man, white, in his mid-20s or early 30s.” #LindasStory pic.twitter.com/Q2A1mTSyYp

— Newport Beach Police (@NewportBeachPD) July 6, 2018

But O’Keefe never came home. Her family called the police and officers then joined the search for the 4-foot-tall girl with long brown hair and blue eyes.

“Officers are searching everywhere. Back then, there were vacant fields south of Pacific View and east of Marguerite. They search the fields, the reservoir, the neighborhoods, the streets. Nothing.” #LindasStory pic.twitter.com/zgdl0JfPvr

— Newport Beach Police (@NewportBeachPD) July 7, 2018

“Officers are searching Fashion Island. The Back Bay. On foot. By car. By helicopter. Jeeps are used in the places the patrol cars can’t get to. Still… nothing.” #LindasStory pic.twitter.com/9LNk8LQ9Et

— Newport Beach Police (@NewportBeachPD) July 7, 2018

That night, a woman who lives in the bluffs above Back Bay heard a voice scream, “Stop, you’re hurting me,” police said.

The next day, a man visiting that area found O’Keefe’s strangled body, police said.

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