A Genealogy Website Helped Police Solve The 1973 Killing Of A Newport Beach Girl

Linda Ann O'Keefe's picture was displayed at a news conference announcing a break in her 1973 killing. (Jill Replogle/LAist)

Linda Ann O'Keefe was last seen walking home from summer school on July 6, 1973, in Newport Beach. She was 11 and wore a white dress with light blue flowers. The next day, two men riding bikes found her body in a ditch along Back Bay Drive.

Now, more than 45 years later, authorities have arrested James Alan Neal, 72, in connection to the killing.

The break in the cold case came six months after the Newport Beach police used their Twitter account to try again to solve the mystery of who killed Linda and why. Using the hashtag #LindasStory, Newport Beach police reconstructed her final day.

Ultimately, it was DNA rather than witnesses or storytelling that led authorities to investigate Neal.

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said Wednesday that the online genealogy site, Family Tree DNA, pointed detectives toward Neal. Spitzer declined to say whether it was Neal or a family member who had uploaded DNA to the site.

Once that connection was made, detectives surveilled Neal, who was living in Colorado. Officials said they collected a sample of his DNA and matched it to DNA found on the victim shortly after she was killed. Spitzer hailed the method as key to solving this and other old cases.

"Through both traditional DNA and genealogical DNA, 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," he said.

A similar method was used last year to pinpoint Joseph James DeAngelo as the suspected Golden State Killer.

Prior to that, authorities used familial DNA to identify Lonnie Franklin Jr. as the serial killer who had been dubbed the Grim Sleeper. Franklin was sentenced to death in 2016 for the murder of 10 people: nine women and a teenage girl.

A SHOCKING KILLING

The killing of an 11-year-old girl in Newport Beach in 1973 shocked the community and garnered national attention. It also dogged the Newport Beach Police Department, where several generations of detectives tried unsuccessfully to find her killer. They were constantly reminded of the unsolved case by a photo of Linda hanging on the wall.

Last year, on the 45th anniversary of her death, Newport police took to Twitter to revive public interest in the case. They posted a series of tweets recreating the day that O'Keefe went missing, putting the story into her imagined words.

Police also released a composite sketch of what the suspected killer might currently look like today, 45 years later, using DNA found at the murder site.

Newport Beach Police Chief Jon Lewis said that although the social media campaign wasn't what led detectives to the suspected killer, it inspired a renewed effort to solve the case.

Lewis also said he hoped O'Keefe's story might coax leads in other cases.

"We will never know who Linda's story touched," he said. "Did it touch someone in another country, in another state somewhere that was inspired to report something that they thought was wrong or something they could've had information about?"

Neal was arrested Tuesday in Colorado Springs with the help of local law enforcement. At the time of O'Keefe's murder, Spitzer said Neal had been living in Orange County and working in construction. He then went by the name James Alan (or possibly, Allen) George Layton.

He later changed his name to James Alan Neal after what Spitzer described as an "incident" in Florida. Spitzer declined to elaborate and also declined to answer whether Neal had been linked to other crimes.

Neal is being charged with murder, kidnapping, and lewd and lascivious acts with a child. If convicted, he faces a minimum sentence of life in prison without parole.

O'Keefe's parents are both deceased, but authorities have informed her two sisters of the arrest.