Man accused of sexually assaulting Riverside County girl dies in custody

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RIVERSIDE (CNS) – A man accused of sexually assaulting two Riverside County girls, as well as raping and killing an 11-year-old girl in Newport Beach almost five decades ago, died from an undisclosed illness today while in custody.

James Alan Neal, 73, was taken to an area hospital on May 25, according to Jaimee Blashaw of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. He was pronounced dead at about 5:15 a.m. Wednesday, she said, adding that the defendant did not have any symptoms of COVID-19.

Neal 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.”

Neal was arrested in March 2019 while residing in Colorado. In addition to the charges connected to Linda’s slaying, he was additionally charged with multiple counts of sexual assault for attacks on two children, whose names were not disclosed, in Riverside County. Those alleged offenses were uncovered during the investigation into Linda’s death, according prosecutors.

The girls were assaulted in the 1990s and early 2000s, according to court papers.

Linda disappeared in Corona del Mar as she walked home from summer school on July 6, 1973. 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 gone cold. DNA evidence helped crack the case, according to police.

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, matching 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 perpetrator. The tweets concluded with a video that included interviews with the detectives who have worked on finding the girl’s killer for years.

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, according to prosecutors.