SANTA ANA (CNS) - A defendant in the 1973 killing and sexual assault of an 11-year-old girl in Newport Beach succumbed to a disease today while in custody.
James Alan Neal, who was 73, was taken to an area hospital on May 25 due to an undisclosed illness, said Jaimee Blashaw of the Orange County Sheriff's Department. Neal was pronounced dead at about 5:15 a.m. Wednesday, she added.
Neal did not have any symptoms of COVID-19, Blashaw said.
He was awaiting trial for the July 1973 killing of 11-year-old Linda Ann O'Keefe.
“The pursuit of justice is never-ending, and in this case the hunt for a child rapist and murderer lasted more than 46 years and transcended generations of law enforcement officers,'' Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said. “It was not if, but when we would find the killer of 11-year-old Linda O'Keefe, and when that day finally came in 2019 as a result of advances in investigative genetic genealogy, we thought we were one step closer to justice for Linda and her family. The death of James Neal prior to putting him on trial for Linda's rape and murder robs the O'Keefe family of the justice they so deserve and deprives the law enforcement officers of the satisfaction that they finally got their culprit.''
Newport Beach Police Chief Jon Lewis said, “It was our intention to see James Alan Neal stand trial and answer for the murder of Linda Ann O'Keefe. Linda's story deeply touched the hearts of our community. Through the tireless efforts of generations of our investigators, we hope we have been able to bring a measure of closure to Linda's family, friends, and loved ones.''
Neal, who was arrested in March 2019, was living in Colorado at the time. He was also facing charges of sexually assaulting two children in Riverside County.
Identifying Neal as O'Keefe's alleged killer led investigators to connecting him to the two Riverside County attacks, according to Orange County prosecutors.
Those girls were assaulted in the 1990s and early 2000s, according to prosecutors.
The Corona del Mar girl disappeared while walking home from summer school on July 6, 1973, and her body was recovered the following morning in a ditch in the Back Bay area. Police said she was last seen standing near a man in a blue or turquoise van.
Newport Beach police last July mounted a Twitter campaign, releasing information about the killing to try to spur new leads in the case, which had stymied investigators for more than four decades. But Lewis said Neal's arrest was due to “the latest in DNA technology.''
Investigators submitted the DNA collected from the victim to the Family Tree website and it gave them leads pointing to Neal. From there, police put the defendant under surveillance and collected his DNA and matched it to the evidence collected from the victim, Spitzer said.
The police tweets detailing the last hours of Linda's life included photographs from the crime scene and a newly created “snapshot'' of the suspect. The tweets concluded with a video that included interviews with the detectives who have worked on finding the girl's killer through the years.
Newport Beach police last year hired Parabon, a Virginia-based DNA technology company specializing in a process using genetic material, to build a sort of composite sketch of the suspect at 25 years old and how the killer might look today.
Neal moved to Southern California with his family from Chicago,
Spitzer said, and was a construction worker at the time of the crime. He moved to Florida soon after the killing, but after an unspecified criminal incident there, he changed his name from James Albert Layton Jr. to Neal, Spitzer said.
Photo: Newport Police Department