Kym L. Pasqualini is the founder and former CEO of Nation's Missing Children Organization and National Center for Missing Adults.
On July 6, 1973, Linda Ann O’Keefe, 11, woke up for summer school at her home in Newport Beach, California. She put on the dress her mother had made for her. It was a pretty dress with light blue flowers and dark blue trim. She then put a ponytail in her hair, put on her white ankle socks and dark blue shoes, and headed out the door. Her piano teacher would be picking her up that day.
Linda was a shy little girl and a Girl Scout who loved painting, crafts, and piano. Her mother said she loved to express herself through drawing and was incredibly talented. She loved laying out in the sun and going to the beach, a true California girl.
Linda would often watch TV and kept her room extremely clean, even asking her mother to assess her room after she was done cleaning. She was a sensitive child who had just lost her cat. When it died, her mother said it was hard to console her. She took it very hard.
Linda had two sisters and the eldest she was remarkably close to. Her sister was an adult and worked in a dry-cleaning shop while living at their parents' home.
Linda was also a member of the local youth center and normally she rode her bicycle to Lincoln Elementary School in Corona Del Mar—but that day her piano teacher was giving her a ride to school and she would walk the short distance home from school.
Linda was last seen alive walking home from summer school. Her body was found the next day in a ditch by a man searching for frogs in the Back Bay area. She had been brutally raped and murdered by strangulation. No arrest was made.
Speaking From the Grave
For 45 years, Newport Police Department followed lead after lead, each turning into a dead end. It seemed like Linda had no voice, but with help from investigators, she was about to tell her story.
July 7, 2018, the 45th anniversary of her death, Newport Police Department revealed they would be using DNA technology in the search for her killer. They would also employ a new emotional and psychological tactic to try to get someone to call in with information—maybe even the killer.
To try to raise awareness about Linda's unsolved murder, Newport Police Department used Twitter to post a tweet that looked like a message sent directly from Linda, and more would follow.
Linda had stayed at school through four piano lessons that day. After her second class, she went to a local store a block away from her school and bought bubble gum. She managed to return to school before her third class started.
After school, Linda wanted to call her mother to ask for a ride home, but the school secretary could not let her use the phone at that time and asked her to wait.
Instead, Linda went back to Richard’s Market where she had bought gum just hours before. There she saw her friend Brenda. When they each left, Brenda said she was almost hit by a turquoise van but avoided it by jumping out of the way. A minute later she saw the van stopped near Linda but was too far away to know if Linda talked to the driver.
Linda returned to the school where she called her mother to ask for a ride. Sadly, her mother was busy with a sewing project and told Linda to walk home.
Though it was not far, Linda hated walking to and from school, and that day she was very upset that her mother would not come for her. Crying she left the school but did not go straight home, choosing to sit on the corner of Marguerite Drive and Inlet Drive instead.
When Linda never showed up for lunch her mother became worried and began calling her friends. Waiting until her husband got home from work, they both went out looking for her. Linda’s father and sister drove in one car and her mother in the other car, but their search was futile.
Police Get Involved
At 6:42 p.m. police were notified. Police began searching nearby, but quickly expanded their search with helicopters to the nearby forests and meadows. Meanwhile, the family continued making phone calls to Linda’s friends.
During the search for Linda, police questioned a little girl named Jannine. Jannine and her mother had been driving by and saw Linda sitting on the corner with a turquoise van parked at the intersection near the girl.
Jannine’s mother instinctually knew something was wrong and parked her car nearby. She was planning to write down the license plate as the van drove by. But the van turned and drove out of sight before it reached her. She could not see if Linda was inside the van, but she was no longer sitting on the curb.
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Another witness was a woman who lived on a cliff in Newport Beach and heard a scream nearby. She said she was not aware that a little girl was missing so did not pay much attention to it.
Police were baffled. They looked for her throughout the night, stopping for a short period of time and resuming the search at 7:30 a.m. when volunteers joined in the search.
During the same time frame, only one mile away from Linda’s house, a man with his four-year-old son went searching for frogs at a nearby lake. There he found Linda’s body in the cattails. He first saw her hand and reached out and touched it. Thinking that she was only sleeping, he screamed trying to wake her up. She did not respond. The man immediately returned home and called the police.
Police responded to the scene and from then on, the search became a hunt for a murderer. Forty-five years later, police were deploying every tactic and utilizing every technology available to them.
Police asked scientists to do DNA phenotyping. This procedure helps in the prediction of physical appearance based upon a person’s DNA and is used to create a realistic profile of the killer. An age progression was then produced using the phenotype composite and released to the public.
Linda’s murder case had lasted more than 46 years and spanned generations of law enforcement officers. Using Twitter, Newport Police hoped to revive the case using the new suspect composite.
They were turning up the heat.
Detectives also submitted the DNA recovered from Linda's body to a genealogical website and quickly received a clue that James Alan Neal, 73, was a viable suspect in Linda’s murder. He was arrested in February 2019, living in Monument, Colorado, and extradited to Orange County, California.
The Orange County District Attorney told KKTV:
“As a result of that genealogical submission, they got an indication that James Alan Neal may be the suspect. As a result of surveillance and other traditional detective techniques, they were able to get additional DNA which resulted in corroboration of the DNA from the victim’s body to the DNA sample that the suspect left during a particular location during surveillance activities.”
Neal pleaded not guilty to Linda’s murder and to allegations of lewd and lascivious acts on two other girls under age 14 between 1995 and 2004.
Will There Be Justice?
Finally, the O’Keefe family would see justice, but that sense of potential closure would be short-lived.
Neal was taken to an area hospital on May 25, 2020 due to an undisclosed illness and died a few days later. The Orange County Sheriff said he did not appear to have COVID symptoms.
“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,” said Newport Police Chief Jon Lewis at a press conference. “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.”
The technology and investigative techniques used by Newport Police Department to apprehend Neal is cutting edge in murder investigations throughout the country and oftentimes provide the only hope a family of a murdered loved one to solve the case.
“I never really thought that they would actually ever find the individual responsible," Linda's older sister Cindy Borgeson said to ABC News. “After all this time, finding out there is a face and a name . . . just brings additional closure."
Despite the closure Borgeson described, their mother “carried the guilt” of not going to pick her daughter up for the rest of her life. Linda’s mother Barbara passed away in 2005, and in 2008, her father Richard passed, never feeling that sense of closure and peace.
For the investigators of this most difficult case, their work was not in vain. It is their hope the O’Keefe family no longer feels haunted by "not knowing."
Who knows—real justice may be waiting on the other side for Neal anyway.
© 2021 Kym L Pasqualini