SANTA ANA (CBSLA) – Genealogical DNA has lead to the arrest of a Colorado man in the abduction, sexual assault and killing of an 11-year-old girl in Newport Beach more than four decades ago.
The Orange County District Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday that 72-year-old James Alan Neal was apprehended Tuesday morning in Colorado Springs for the murder of Linda Ann O’Keefe.
“He is presently in the state of Colorado, where he was living,” O.C. District Attorney Todd Spitzer told reporters at a news conference. “He is still there. We do not know if he is going to waive extradition. If he does, than he should be here, potentially, sometime this week. If he doesn’t, then of course, that will be a prolonged deliberation.”
On July 6, 1973, O’Keefe, a student at Corona del Mar Middle School, was walking home from summer school when she was abducted. The following day, she was found strangled to death in some weeds in the Back Bay area.
A witness had reported seeing O’Keefe talking to a man near a turquoise van.
Spitzer said that a DNA sample which was recovered from the victim at the time of the crime was placed into the CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) system in 2001, but did not yield a hit.
“And so that sample remained in the system for a long period of time,” Spitzer said. “However, because of innovations in science and technology, and the fact that these detectives were using every means available to them, they received a pointer indication through genealogical DNA.”
Thanks to that pointer system, Neal was identified as a possible suspect. Investigators then put Neal under surveillance in Colorado and were able to obtain DNA samples which matched that found on O’Keefe’s body.
“As a result of that genealogical submission, they (investigators) got an indication that James Alan Neal may be the suspect,” Spitzer said. “As a result of surveillance and other traditional detective techniques, they were able 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 during a particular location during surveillance activities.”
“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,” Newport Beach Police Chief John Lewis added.
Neal grew up in Southern California and lived in Orange County in the 1970s working in construction, at which time he went by the name James Alan George Layton, Spitzer disclosed. He moved away shortly after O’Keefe’s murder.
“As a result of an incident in the state of Florida, he subsequently changed his name to James Alan Neal,” Spitzer said.
Last July, police released old crime scene photos and a video on social media to try and obtain fresh leads. They also released new sketches of the suspect created by Virginia-based Parabon NanoLabs based on the DNA evidence collected at the crime scene.
“But now, 45 years later, I have a voice again,” police tweeted back in July using the voice of the victim. “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.”
The images showed the suspect’s possible age progression from 1973 to now.
Claire Ratfield, a former teacher at Lincoln Intermediate School — which is now Lincoln Elementary — was attacked and strangled while leaving the campus about four months prior to O’Keefe’s death. She survived. Her case remains unsolved.
“You know, I’ve always carried this little girl’s memory with me, because I thought she didn’t live, and she was so young, and she was so vital, and she had such a life ahead of her,” Ratfield told CBS2 Tuesday.
Ratfield has been interviewed numerous times over the years by detectives. It’s still unclear if investigators believe the same suspect was responsible for both attacks.
This comes as authorities also announced Tuesday that a 50-year-old Pomona man has been arrested in the unsolved 1990 kidnapping and murder of an 11-year-old boy in Inglewood. Edward Donell Thomas, 50, was apprehended Feb. 14 in the death of 11-year-old William Tillett. On the afternoon of May 24, 1990, Tillett was kidnapped while walking home from Kew Elementary School. His body was found dumped in a Hawthorne carport later that day.