DNA evidence and a genealogy website led to the arrest of a Colorado man in the sexual assault and killing of an 11-year-old girl in Newport Beach nearly five decades ago, authorities announced Wednesday.
James Alan Neal, 72, is currently in custody in Colorado, O.C. District Attorney Todd Spitzer said at a news conference. Officials believe he lived in Southern California in the 1970s as James Alan George Layton but changed his name following an incident in Florida.
The victim, Linda Ann O’Keefe, went missing on July 6, 1973 while walking home from school. Her body was found the next morning strangled in a ditch in Newport Beach’s Back Bay.
Detectives collected DNA from the crime scene at the time. Officials said the data stayed in the system for a long period of time before information from a genealogical website linked the DNA to Neal.
Newport Beach police said after gathering additional DNA evidence, detectives detained Neal in Colorado on Tuesday morning.
He’s facing charges of murder, kidnapping and lewd and lascivious act upon a child under 14, Spitzer said. The DA said his office does not yet know whether Neal will waive extradition.
Authorities said O’Keefe’s parents have died, but she’s survived by two sisters who have been informed of Neal’s arrest.
Newport Beach police said the case haunted the agency for decades. A number of officers who had retired from the department attended Wednesday’s announcement at the DA’s office.
One of them, Stan Bressler, was relieved to hear the news.
“Wow… We got him,” Bressler told KTLA. “I’ve already received two calls from explorers that were with me that day in the search… We’re all excited.”
In 2018, on the 45th anniversary of her disappearance, the Newport Beach Police Department took to Twitter in hopes of sparking new interest in the cold case.
The agency sent a series of tweets about the incident told from O’Keefe’s perspective.
“There were reports that a man in a van was seen stopped near Linda … and a bulletin was distributed with a sketch of this man, but he was never identified,” agency spokeswoman Jennifer Manzella said at the time.
Spitzer on Wednesday said new developments in similar cases can be expected with recent innovations in science and technology.
“The significant arrest for the brutal sexual assault and murder of Linda O’Keefe is an affirmation to never give up on solving cold cases,” the officials said.
KTLA’s Sarah Fenton contributed to this story.