1973 California Cold Case Broken Open With Arrest Of Colorado Man After Twitter Campaign

James Alan Neal was arrested in connection with the murder of 11-year-old Linda O'Keefe, who disappeared in July 1973 while walking home from school.

By Ethan Harfenist
James Alan Neal

Authorities in Southern California have arrested a man in connection with the decades-old murder of 11-year-old Linda O’Keefe, a cold case that recaptured public attention due to a highly-publicized Twitter campaign aimed at solving the crime.

O’Keefe disappeared on July 6, 1973 in Newport Beach, Calif., while she was walking home from school; her body was eventually found in Back Bay, according to police. She was last seen speaking with somebody in a van.

Her killer, however, was never caught — but now, a suspect has been identified.

On Wednesday afternoon, police said at a press conference that they arrested 72-year-old James Alan Neal, of Monument, Colo., in Colorado Springs a day prior. Prosecutors said Neal changed his name some years ago from James Alan George Leighton and moved around California several times: He moved to Orange County from Chicago prior to the murder, and then moved to Florida at one point, according to NBC News. He relocated to Monument in recent years.

Neal is facing charges of murder and kidnapping with intent of lewd and lascivious acts with a child. Prosecutors will ask for life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted, NBC News reports.

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer would not provide specific details during the conference, but noted that genealogical DNA technology led authorities to arrest Neal, and the hit came back in January.

He added that “old-fashioned” police work, as well as surveillance, assisted officers in collecting supplemental DNA in order to make the arrest.

“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," Spitzer said in a statement released Wednesday after the conference. "The community resolve for justice, cooperation of local law enforcement, and the strategic use of investigative tools like DNA are what helped find answers for this family and community. Our office will work tirelessly to ensure justice is served in a court of law.”

Spitzer said he would consider asking for the death penalty for Neal; however, he noted also that since the death penalty was not on the books at the time of crime that such a request might be problematic. California reinstated the death penalty in 1978.

Spitzer added that he would request that Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney Matt Murphy, who will handle the case, look into other potential victims. 

Linda O'Keefe

Last year, the Newport Beach Police Department took to Twitter on the 45th anniversary of O’Keefe’s disappearance in a campaign called #LindasStory in order to re-publicize the case, tell O’Keefe’s story, and release a digital sketch of a potential suspect made by Parabon NanoLabs, whose DNA technology helped nab the Golden State Killer.

“It’s one thing to read about an 11-year-old that passed away,” Jennifer Manzella, an NBPD spokesperson, told Oxygen.com at the time. “But by putting all of the statements in the first person, by giving Linda a voice again, we could do a little bit more than just give the case details.”

NBPD Chief Jon Lewis said Wednesday that the Twitter campaign “created an awareness and a narrative,” and also led to the case "being pursued with renewed effort.”

“We will never know who Linda’s story touched,” he added.

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