Man charged in California cold-case killing, sex assault of 11-year-old girl dies in custody

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Linda Ann O’Keefe, left, and James Alan Neal are seen in images displayed at a news conference at the O.C. District Attorney’s Office in Santa Ana on Feb. 20, 2019. (Credit: Via KTLA)

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. (KTLA) — The man who was arrested and charged in a string of child sex crimes last year after DNA evidence tied him to the 1973 homicide of a Newport Beach girl died while in custody Wednesday, officials said.

James Alan Neal, 73, was transferred May 25 from the prison where he was being held to a hospital for treatment of an illness, according to Orange County sheriff’s officials. He died there at about 5:15 a.m. Wednesday, they said.  

Authorities did not provide details on Neal’s illness but said he was not exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms.

In February 2019, Neal was identified as a suspect in the sex assault and killing of 11-year-old Linda Ann O’Keefe, a case that had stymied investigators for more than four decades.

O’Keefe was abducted while walking home from school in the summer of 1973. Her strangled body was later found dumped in a ditch in Newport Beach’s Back Bay.

DNA evidence eventually linked Neal to the homicide with the help of data from genealogical website FamilyTreeDNA.

Neal was arrested Feb. 19 in Monument, Colorado, where the Colorado Springs Gazette reported he’d been living with his family since 2016.

But investigators believe he lived in Southern California in the 1970s, when he was known as James Albert Layton Jr. He later moved to Florida and changed his name, officials said.

In addition to facing the charge of murder while committing lewd acts on a child in O’Keefe’s death, Neal was accused of lewd acts against two other California girls under age 14 in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Neal, who denied all charges against him, could have faced up to 82 years to life in state prison if convicted on all counts.

“It was our intention to see James Alan Neal stand trial and answer for the murder of Linda Ann O’Keefe,” Newport Beach police Chief Jon Lewis said in a statement. “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.” 

O.C. District Attorney Todd Spitzer said the defendant’s death “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.” 

The DA’s office and Sheriff’s Department will conduct a review of Neal’s death, as is protocol.

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