[This story originally aired on October 16, 2021.]
For nearly 45 years, the murder of 11-year-oldhaunted the Newport Beach Police Department in California. Her image hung among the faces of other unsolved cases, reminding each new generation of officers of the work they still had to do. Could new technology and social media turn the tide?
Former Newport Beach Police spokesperson Jennifer Manzella had come up with the idea for telling Linda’s story on Twitter after lead investigator Sgt. Court Depweg tasked her with bringing attention to the case.
“Hi, I’m Linda O’Keefe (or Linda ANN O’Keefe, if I’m in trouble with my mom)”, begins the first tweet. “Forty-five years ago today, I disappeared from Newport Beach. I was murdered, and my body was found in the Back Bay. … Today, I’m going to tell you my story.”
There were few clues to what happened to Linda, who was last seen by witnesses talking to a man in a turquoise van after she left summer school in July 1973; her body was found along a nature trail the next day. After years of working on the case, the detectives eventually ran out of leads and the case went cold. But her image on the wall of unsolved cases remained a constant reminder.
“We needed to put Linda’s face out there,” Depweg tells “48 Hours” contributor.
“It was so important for me … to give a little girl whose life was cut short at 11 years old the opportunity to speak again,” says Manzella.
“Now, 45 years later, I have a voice again,” reads another tweet. “And I have something important to say.”
JENNIFER MANZELLA [reading tweet aloud]: “Orchid Avenue. That’s the street I grew up on. It’s a small house, and we’ve lived here most of my life. At 8:00 am, I walk out my front door … and have no idea that it will be the last time.”
On July 6, 2018, exactly 45 years after Linda O’Keefe disappeared, the Newport Beach Police Department launched their unusual campaign for new leads on the cold case on Twitter.
Jennifer Manzella: When a victim speaks, we want to listen.
The last day of Linda’s life — and its tragic end — unfolded in a series of tweets. It was written from the 11-year-old murder victim’s point of view and gave her a voice that resonated around the world.
Jennifer Manzella: When we ran the numbers, we had seven million impressions.
That’s 7 million people who saw, liked and retweeted #Linda’s Story according to former Newport Beach Police Department spokesperson Jennifer Manzella.
Jennifer Manzella: We were all over South America, in Europe … Australia, France … There wasn’t a corner of the world that wasn’t talking about it.
Jeff Thurnher: I was like, “Wow, this is gonna be huge.”
For Linda’s classmates Jeff Thurnher, Brian Weaver, Lysa Christopher, David Wedemeyer, and Terry Briscoe Corwin, #LindasStory brought buried emotions back up to the surface.
Terry Briscoe Corwin: Yeah, we never forgot her.
JENNIFER MANZELLA [reading tweet aloud]: “I go to Lincoln Intermediate School… A lot has changed between the last time I was here, and what it looks like in 2018.”
Tracy Smith: What was it like reading that Twitter story and essentially hearing Linda’s voice?
Lysa Christopher: I thought that was the most incredible, gut-wrenching thing I have ever read.
Brian Weaver: Chilling. Just chilling.
Terry Briscoe Corwin: As we were reading it … we kind of didn’t want that girl to get in the van, you know, thinking, ohh!!
Jeff Thurnher: Linda should have been able to get home.
It’s a sad irony for the friends who know all too well how the story ended. In 1973, they were all carefree 11-year-olds growing up in the sleepy beach town of Corona del Mar.
Tracy Smith: What was Corona del Mar like back then?”
Jeff Thurnher: Shangri-la.
Lysa Christopher: It was like Shangri-la.
Brian Weaver: Like, a perfect Utopia.
Lysa Christopher: I mean, you would hop on your bike and you would let the freedom and just the, just the day unfold … And it was magic.
In those magical memories of their youth Linda remains frozen in time.
David Wedemeyer: She was really shy.
Lysa Christopher: Quiet, to herself but sweet, very, very kind.
Brian Weaver: I would just pass her through the hallways. She was a cute girl, you know, and it was like … just beaming red as soon as, you know, she’d smile or whatever else.
Cindy Borgeson: She was just a very gentle, lovely soul.
Linda’s older sister Cindy Borgeson spoke with “48 Hours” via Zoom.
Cindy Borgeson: She loved Billie Holiday … She loved old Blues music. … I had a Blood, Sweat, & Tears album in high school … And “God Bless the Child” was one of her favorite songs. … Sometimes we’d find her … and she’d just be in bed reading. … She loved stories. We both really loved Nancy Drew.
Linda was the middle child and shared a special bond with her dad, Richard, a machinist.
Cindy Borgeson: So, he would go out and work on projects, and she would go out and help him. They had a real bond. They loved to hang out together.
Their mom Barbara was an artist and working seamstress.
Tracy Smith: Your mom sewed all of your clothes – you and your sisters?
Cindy Borgeson: Most of them … she was a really gifted seamstress.
Some of Cindy’s happiest memories are of family trips to the great outdoors, where Linda, a Girl Scout and nature lover, fit right in.
Cindy Borgeson: Our family would vacation in the Redwoods and we’d be camped by a creek … and she would just crouch down and these little … newts and little snakes would just come right to her.
Tracy Smith: Do you think Linda saw the beauty in the world?
Cindy Borgeson: Absolutely … And she always seemed to see the good in people.
That made her murder all the more horrific and shattered the idyllic life they knew.
Lysa Christopher: How do you make sense of it as an 11-year-old? You can’t even grasp death … You just knew she wasn’t gonna be there anymore.
What Christopher couldn’t have known then was that this unfathomable tragedy would unfold moments after she saw Linda at summer school. Linda was on the phone with her mom in the school office, begging for a ride home.
Lysa Christopher: She was upset, crying, just very, very sad. And then … she left the office and I walked out behind her. I went the opposite direction.
Cindy had overheard her mom’s end of the call telling Linda she was too busy with work to pick her up from school. Cindy and her Mom would play the “if onlys” over and over in their minds.
Cindy Borgeson: I felt terrible for not insisting that I go get her. … none of this would have happened.
At around 1:15 p.m. on July 6, 1973, less than an hour after Linda had called home asking for a ride, a mother and daughter spotted her near an intersection about a mile from her house. She was talking to a man who pulled up next to her in a van. It was the last time anyone saw Linda alive.
JENNIFER MANZELLA [reading tweet aloud]: Late tonight the police will talk to a young woman named Janine. She and her mom are driving up Marguerite right now, and they see something they won’t forget for a long time. It’s me. And a turquoise van.
Tracy Smith: If you close your eyes, you can remember it like it was yesterday?
Jandi Pierle: Oh yeah, I don’t even need to close my eyes.
Janine Pierle, who goes by the nickname Jandi, was 19 at the time. She and her family lived a few houses down from the O’Keefe’s.
Jandi Pierle: I saw Linda standing – like you were he, about this close. And the van is right there in the street, the door is open.
Tracy Smith: Did you think danger?
Jandi Pierle: No … I just thought it was odd because I never see those girls without their parents or one of their siblings. They always stayed together.
Jandi wouldn’t realize the significance of what she’d seen until that night when she came home from work.
Jandi Pierle: Because there was police all over. They were in the alleys, they were in the streets … I said to my sister – I said, “What’s going on?” And she said, “Linda O’Keefe is missing.”
Jandi immediately went to tell detectives on the scene what she’d witnessed.
JENNIFER MANZELLA [reading tweet aloud]: “The sun is setting, and there’s still no sign of me.”
By the morning of July 7, the search for Linda had intensified. Around 10 a.m., about three miles from the O’Keefe home, Ron Yeo, a local architect was biking along a nature trail known as the Back Bay with his young son.
Tracy Smith: Was this place fairly hidden?
Ron Yeo: Yes, it was mostly people that enjoyed looking at birds and the water and the peacefulness. … I looked over to the side and said to my son, “this is a good place to find frogs.”
Instead, they made a gruesome discovery.
Ron Yeo: And there was this body just nestled right into this little area here.
Tracy Smith: I would imagine that image is pretty clear in your mind still today.
Ron Yeo: It is. You know, after all the time, you know, it’s one of the few things I can still remember.
JENNIFER MANZELLA [reading tweet aloud]: “They see a young girl’s body … Still in my mom’s homemade dress. I’ve been strangled … this is now a homicide investigation.”
WHO KILLED LINDA O’KEEFE?
JENNIFER MANZELLA [reading tweet aloud]: “The search for Linda Ann O’Keefe is now the search for Linda Ann O’Keefe’s killer. Was It someone I knew? A stranger? The man in the van? There are so many questions.”
Cindy Borgeson: So, I get home from work around one and there’s just lots of police cars around the house … I walk up to the porch and I see my dad just weeping uncontrollably.
Linda’s father had been the one to identify her body.
Cindy Borgeson: It’s not making sense to me. … Looking and seeing my mom sitting in the living room weeping. … The last thing I imagined was that Linda had been killed. … it was like being punched, like the air was knocked out of me.
Just two days later, more shocking news: a member of their own community was arrested.
Sgt. Court Depweg | Newport Beach Police detective: There was a suspect that came forward and tried to admit to kidnapping and killing Linda.
The supposed killer: a young man named Peter Wooten, who’d just graduated high school with Cindy.
Cindy Borgeson: I was looking through my senior yearbook … and I remember thinking, “well, he’s odd enough that it’s possible.”
Sgt. Court Depweg: Brought him in for an interview, asked him questions only the killer would know.
Wooten was held for two days, but nothing connected him to Linda’s murder, or a van like the one Jandi had seen next to Linda the day she disappeared.
Jandi Pierle: I could tell you right from the get-go, that wasn’t him.
As it turns out, police say Wooten’s confession had just been a ploy for notoriety.
Tracy Smith: How agonizing for your family – for a moment people thought that he was responsible for your sister’s death?
Cindy Borgeson: Right … People were angry… My father was furious.
Wooten was released the same day Linda’s body was being laid to rest.
Cindy Borgeson: The room was packed out. There was a lot of my friends from high school, there was Linda’s Girl Scout troop…. It finally hit me … that it wasn’t just a bad dream, that it was really happening.
Newport Beach investigators went back to square one trying to identify a suspect. Under hypnosis, Jandi and her Mom provided details about the turquoise van and the man they’d seen talking to Linda.
Sgt. Court Depweg: They said he was a white male, he had curly hair, tan skin.
Newport Beach P.D. generated a composite sketch based on that description.
Jandi Pierle: I tried to give them a license plate, but after the third time, I just said, it’s not working. … I wish I could have helped more.
Terry Briscoe Corwin: Our 11-year-old selves, we all got on our bikes, and we all wanted to help.
Brian Weaver: We were looking for the van.
Tracy Smith: Did you think maybe it was somebody that you knew?
Lysa Christopher: Yes.
Jeff Thurnher: Oh, yes.
Lysa Christopher: Everybody’s older brother was under scrutiny.
Tracy Smith: Because the idea that he was out there … to an 11-year-old kid must have been terrifying.
Terry Briscoe Corwin: It was scary.
With no license plate number and just a sketch, investigators were grasping at theories.
Sgt. Court Depweg: They were looking for a needle in a haystack at that point.
The crime scene provided few clues.
Several tire tracks were photographed and examined, but with no vehicle for comparison, it led nowhere. Detectives were hoping the autopsy would provide some leads, but it only told a horrific tale at the time.
Sgt. Court Depweg: We knew she had died a pretty violent death.
The Orange County Coroner’s Office found that Linda had been sexually assaulted, and there were ligature marks around her neck.
Sgt. Court Depweg: There was a clear indication she had been strangled.
And scratches from Linda fighting for her life.
Sgt. Court Depweg: You can only imagine how horrific it was for her, how scared she was.
The Coroner’s Office placed Linda’s time of death between midnight and 2 a.m. That’s about 12 hours since she was seen talking with that man in the van. And detectives would learn that around 11:30 p.m. — while the massive search for Linda was still underway — a woman who lived in the bluffs up above where Linda’s body was found heard a female voice screaming, “Stop! You’re hurting me!” But she never called police.
Sgt. Court Depweg: That was devastating to the case.
It’s a missed opportunity that Sgt. Depweg and Detective Mike Fletcher say might have altered the entire case.
Det. Mike Fletcher: If that call had been made to the police department it would have solicited a police response —
Sgt. Court Depweg: A massive police response.
Det. Mike Fletcher: — to that area. With the resources that were here that would have put a net around that area and potentially have caught the suspect.
Tracy Smith: And maybe have saved Linda.
Det. Mike Fletcher: Yes.
Tracy Smith: Was this a solvable case?
Sgt. Court Depweg: I don’t know … I think the detectives back then … did everything that they could for what they had back in 1973. … There was a lot of unanswered questions.
Questions that might never have been answered if not for a forward-thinking criminalist.
Sgt. Court Depweg: Without Jim White, I don’t know that we’d be sitting here today.
Det. Mike Fletcher: We wouldn’t be sitting here.
Tracy Smith: How remarkable is it that this little piece of evidence survived?
Jim White: This one little screw cap vial with two little swabs in it that lasted all that time.
Tracy Smith: The DNA sat.
Sgt. Court Depweg: For years … It sat in a freezer for decades.
Decades, waiting patiently for science to unmask the killer.
JENNIFER MANZELLA [reading tweet aloud]: “My name is Linda O’Keefe. What is his name?”
NEW TECHNOLOGIES FOR AN OLD CASE
Cindy Borgeson says her family never recovered from Linda’s loss.
Cindy Borgeson: The grief was overwhelming … The family unity came undone … there were no more family camping vacations … no more visits to the museums. There were no more beach trips … My mother pretty much isolated in the home … my dad went to work, came straight home.
Linda’s parents would die never knowing who took their daughter; her mother forever haunted by that last phone call.
Cindy Borgeson: I think it shortened her life … the guilt “if only.” The “if onlys.” “If only I’d gone and picked her up, she’d still be alive.”
Lysa Christopher: As the years roll by you start to give up hope. … You think, “Oh, it’s just going to be an unsolved mystery. They got away with it.”
Terry Briscoe Corwin: It was almost surreal, like, did it even happen? … Her name wasn’t even on the internet.
But Linda’s picture hung on the wall of the cold case unit and generations of investigators had never forgotten her name.
Tracy Smith: Did Linda’s case stick with you?
Jim White: Oh, absolutely.
Even though DNA hadn’t yet emerged as a tool at the time of the murder, Criminalist Jim White had collected swabs of the killer’s semen from Linda’s body and preserved them, having no idea how they’d help the case decades later.
Jim White: I knew it was potentially important because there was semen there, but that it would become as important as it was … I had no envision that the testing would become as sophisticated as it became.
DNA testing was first done on Linda’s case in the late 90s, creating a profile of an unidentified suspect, which was uploaded into the national criminal database CODIS.
Sgt. Court Depweg: But there were no hits.
In October 2017, Sgt. Depweg hired a company called Parabon NanoLabs that could generate a Snapshot — a composite based on the suspect’s genetic characteristics.
Sgt. Court Depweg: We now knew for sure that he was a Caucasian male … we had some identifying attributes that we didn’t know before because all we had is a composite from 1973.
If science could give the assailant a face, could it give him a name? A jaw-dropping arrest in another case would prove it was possible.
In April of 2018, authorities in California announced that Joseph James D’Angelo, a former cop, was the notorious Golden State Killer responsible for at least 13 murders and 50 rapes between 1975 and 1986.
It was the first arrest in a case solved through genetic genealogy – a painstaking process of finding relatives of an unidentified DNA profile, then whittling it down, until they came up with a suspect.
Sgt. Court Depweg: We knew, at that point, we got a chance … we just didn’t know how to do it.
As it turns out, the Golden State Killer’s arrest would not just give hope to the Newport Beach Police investigators.
David Wedemeyer: I posted on Facebook about Golden State.
Brian Weaver: When Dave posted that … they got him by DNA … I’m like, “OK, they got to have something.”
Tracy Smith: Maybe it’s Linda’s turn
David Wedemeyer: It’s Linda’s turn.
For Linda’s classmates it was the catalyst to once again try to help solve the case. They formed a Facebook group – “Justice for Linda Ann O’Keefe” – and went to the Newport Beach Police Department to have the case reopened.
Terry Briscoe Corwin: Walked right up to the counter … and said, “‘This is gonna sound crazy, but … we want to talk about Linda O’Keefe.”
Tracy Smith: You didn’t know that the police had her picture up on the wall?
Lysa and Terry [in unison]: No
And they couldn’t know what Court Depweg had in store. That social media campaign that would start two months later and end with the DNA composite. Depweg decided to make it public at the end of #LindasStory on Twitter.
Terry Briscoe Corwin: We were all together on pins and needles waiting to see … who is this guy?
Lysa Christopher: Forty-some odd years we have been racking our brains. Who could’ve done this?
Tracy Smith: Did any of the Twitter leads pan out?
Sgt. Court Depweg: No. But by putting that storyline out there … It paid off big time.
#LindasStory didn’t yield any substantial leads but it caught the attention of an instrumental ally, CeCe Moore.
CeCe Moore: I had heard about this case way back in college.
Moore had just become the chief genetic genealogist at Parabon — the company that had made that DNA composite.
So, when Depweg asked her if she would show them how to apply genetic genealogy to find Linda’s killer, she was only too happy to help.
Sgt. Court Depweg: We needed her to basically hold our hand through this.
CeCe Moore: To actually have an opportunity to help solve a case that I had known about for … 30 years, you know, that’s an amazing opportunity.
Using the same methods as investigators from the, they uploaded the killer’s DNA profile into a public database called GEDmatch, where people voluntarily submit their DNA looking for family members.
Sgt. Court Depweg: That really opened up our investigative leads. … Now we were actually identifying people that shared DNA with our suspect.
Depweg’s investigators and CeCe then had to work backwards from the suspect’s relatives to find him.
Tracy Smith: So, you started building your tree?
CeCe Moore: I started building trees. … The DNA just gives us a guide. … I’m immediately turning to public records, to obituaries, newspaper articles, social media to try to piece these families back together.
CeCe Moore [pointing to a family tree on a laptop]: So, this is our common ancestor way back in the 1700’s.
Tracy Smith: That’s wild.
Tracy Smith: With this suspect, you were going, going, going, going, and then you hit a wall.
CeCe Moore: This was a very difficult case … so I need to find someone who descends from each of these common ancestors … and we weren’t finding it.
But while one family tree withered, another firmly took root. In December 2018, a commercial DNA testing company called FamilyTreeDNA opened up its database to law enforcement for solving violent crimes. It would be a game changer.
Sgt. Court Depweg: I remember it like it was yesterday … my phone rings, and it’s one of the higher-level directors at FamilyTreeDNA … He says real nonchalant … “I think I have your suspect identified” … And I said, “Oh, you have a close family member match?” And he says, “No, I think I have your guy.”
A PERFECT MATCH
In January 2019, more than four decades after Linda O’Keefe’s murder, DNA left by her attacker finally led to a suspect.
CeCe Moore: I was shocked … They must have misunderstood. It can’t actually be a match.
Sgt. Court Depweg: After all these years, how did we get so lucky?
The DNA profile that Sgt. Depweg had submitted to FamilyTreeDNA was a perfect match for James Alan Neal.
Tracy Smith: How did the suspect’s DNA end up in FamilyTree’s database?
Sgt. Court Depweg: He put it in there voluntarily.
Tracy Smith: What kind of criminal mind does that?
Sgt. Court Depweg: Luckily for us, not a bright one.
As luck would have it, Neal had been researching his own genealogy, and even had a public family tree online.
So, when Cindy Borgeson got a call from Sgt. Depweg, she had no idea investigators were closing in on her sister’s killer.
Cindy Borgeson: Says, “I’m probably going to Colorado in a month. I’ll be giving you a call.” And I thought, “OK, I wonder what’s in Colorado?”
Neal, now 72, was a married father and grandfather living in Monument, Colorado. But before Newport Beach Police could make an arrest, they had to make sure their case would stand in court.
Eric Scarbrough | Orange County Senior Deputy District Attorney: Cold cases are incredibly difficult to prosecute. Having DNA is an incredibly important part of the case … But it’s really only the beginning.
Sgt. Court Depweg: We had to put him in Newport Beach at that time. We had to connect him to the area.
And they needed fresh DNA from Neal to compare to the DNA sample from 1973.
Sgt. Court Depweg: I looked at Mike Fletcher and said, “you’re going to Colorado.”
In January 2019, Detective Fletcher and his team arrived in the dead cold Colorado winter, to watch and wait.
Det. Mike Fletcher: You got three detectives from sunny California who are now in minus 6 degree weather trying to do surveillance. … Where James was living at the time was kind of a rural road, and it was really hard to surveil.
But they soon discovered Neal was a smoker with an odd habit.
Sgt. Court Depweg: Mike called me and said … “Hey, this guy keeps snuffing his cigarettes out and putting them in his pocket.”
Det. Mike Fletcher: At first, I was thinking … maybe this guy is onto the DNA side of things.
Tracy Smith: I’m picturing you guys, as he’s snuffing out these cigarettes and sticking them in his pocket, going crazy.
Det. Mike Fletcher: Yeah … there was a moment of that. … come to find out, there’s an extremely high fine for throwing a cigarette out in Colorado.
When Neal finally flicked his cigarette in the parking lot at a grocery store, he had no idea it would cost him far more than a fine.
Det. Mike Fletcher: It was submitted to the Orange County crime lab and it was a direct match.
Meanwhile investigators had also been developing Neal’s criminal profile.
Eric Scarbrough: James Neal’s criminal history runs the gamut from petty crimes to incredibly serious offenses. There’s violence. There’s sexual assaults.
In 1966 Neal was caught with an underage girl in his car and arrested for delinquency of a minor.
Sgt. Court Depweg: The 1966 case confirmed it … that … this guy had been doing this for a while. … Linda wasn’t his first. And we knew now we were dealing with a true predator.
Just like Linda, he’d picked her up in Newport Beach.
Tracy Smith: Do you think this was his hunting ground?
Sgt. Court Depweg: I think wherever he was at … was a potential for a hunting ground.
Newport Beach Police discovered suspected sexual abuse by Neal on five other children in other jurisdictions.
Tracy Smith: What was his M.O.?
Sgt. Court Depweg: He obviously preyed on girls from the ages of 7 to 13. That was his primary target. And he would gain their confidence quickly.
At the time of Linda’s murder, Neal lived in Orange County, less than a half hour drive from where she was abducted in Corona del Mar. And his real name was James Albert Layton. But soon after Linda was killed, he turned up in Florida under his new identity.
Det. Mike Fletcher: His … new name popped up … during an arrest in Florida two months after Linda was murdered. I think it leads us to believe that he got out of town … to … escape from answering for what he had done.
But there was no escaping when Newport Beach Police arrived at Neal’s home in Colorado armed with a warrant for his arrest — captured on police video.
Tracy Smith: What was his demeanor like?
Det. Mike Fletcher: Relatively cool, calm and collected.
Depweg and Fletcher escorted him to the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office in Colorado Springs.
Det. Mike Fletcher: He started talking on the drive over.
Sgt. Court Depweg: We started with his history of sexually molesting other girls. … and he was very open about it. … He had an excuse for it … he said that “Oh, I was drunk” … but he admitted to it.
But when it got to Linda’s murder, Neal was about to get a lot less agreeable.
SGT. COURT DEPWEG [police interview]: You remember this girl, Jim?
JAMES NEAL: No, sir.
SGT. COURT DEPWEG: Have you ever seen her before?
JAMES NEAL: No. She looks like, almost, like one of my kids’ pictures.
SGT. COURT DEPWEG: But you don’t remember this little girl? You don’t remember picking this girl up on the side of the road?
JAMES NEAL: I’ve never picked up any kids, ever.
Over a three-hour cat-and-mouse game, Neal refuses to take the bait, even when confronted with his DNA on Linda’s body.
SGT. COURT DEPWEG: Single source, male. Guess whose? Yours. … It’s a 100% match.
JAMES NEAL: I can’t explain that.
SGT. COURT DEPWEG: So, you’re tellin’ me — just miraculously your semen got on her?
JAMES NEAL: It must be miraculous because it wasn’t me.
Tracy Smith: He understands DNA, he knows you have his DNA, and yet still he says to your faces —
Det. Mike Fletcher: He just can’t bring himself to say the words.
And even though Neal had admitted to molesting other girls, he can’t admit to murder.
JAMES NEAL: I’m not gonna admit to something I didn’t do. I would never kill anybody.
In one eerie moment, Neal is left alone with Linda’s photo, when he looks at her face and offers a twisted apology.
JAMES NEAL [talking to Linda’s photo]: I’m sorry baby, but it wasn’t me.
Tracy Smith: There’s something about the phrasing of that that is just so creepy. How does that strike you? “I’m sorry baby, but it wasn’t me.”
Eric Scarbrough: It’s almost familiar … He recognizes her, but he still wants to distance himself from the crime. This is him acting.
DET. MIKE FLETCHER [police interview]: Jim, you’ve had 45 years to convince yourself that you did not do this … It’s time to take responsibility for what you did to this little girl.
JAMES NEAL: I didn’t – I don’t need to be responsible for something I didn’t do.
Neal refuses to take any responsibility, but detectives already had what they needed.
Eric Scarbrough: The evidence in this case speaks for Linda louder than James Neal ever could deny he wasn’t involved.
SGT. COURT DEWPEG: You did do it, Jim.
JAMES NEAL: No, I didn’t.
SGT. COURT DEWPEG: And you’re being arrested for the murder of Linda O’Keefe.
JAMES NEAL: Well, I’m sorry, I didn’t do it.
SGT. COURT DEWPEG: You’re being arrested for abducting her … sexually molesting her, and then murdering that 11-year-old girl.
JAMES NEAL: Oh, God.
The Newport Beach Police had their man, but would James Neal still get away with murder?
JUSTICE FOR LINDA?
Before the rest of the world heard about James Neal’s arrest, Cindy Borgeson got the call from Sgt. Depweg that brought her family’s saga full circle.
Cindy Borgeson: He said, “are you sitting down?” … And he said, “we arrested him this morning.” And I remember, like the day Linda’s body was found, everything slowed way down … I was so excited. … I felt — I wish my parents were here to hear this news.
CHIEF JON LEWIS | NEWPORT BEACH PD: James Neal, now 72 years old, was arrested by our detectives yesterday at 6:29 a.m. Pacific Time in Colorado Springs for the murder of Linda Ann O’Keefe.
On February 20, 2019, the Newport Beach Police Department and the Orange County District Attorney held a joint press conference to share the news.
DA TODD SPITZER: He’s being charged with murder and two special circumstances … kidnapping … and … an act during the murder of a lewd and lascivious act upon … a child under the age of 14.
Linda’s classmates were overcome with emotion.
Lysa Christopher: Shocked, happy, elated, and angry … He took this girl’s life and went on to live his life.
Terry Briscoe Corwin: I was glad that he was still alive. … So that he could be punished.
Eric Scarbrough: This is the kind of case that you know you’re going to do everything you can to hold the defendant accountable.
But accountability looked very different in 1973. And Eric Scarbrough would have to work with the laws in the books at the time the crime occurred.
Eric Scarbrough: In 1973, Mr. Neal would have only been facing seven years-to-life.
Tracy Smith: When you hear seven years?
Eric Scarbrough: It blows your mind.
However, thanks to the information unearthed by Newport Beach P.D.’s investigation, the DA could up the ante by bringing in Neal’s other alleged sexual assaults on children.
Tracy Smith: So, you could pull cases from other counties to establish, hey, this is his pattern of behavior.
Eric Scarbrough: That’s exactly what we were going to do.
And they found even more evidence thanks to Newport Beach P.D.’s viral Twitter campaign.
Even though it hadn’t led directly to a suspect, #LindasStoryfor all of Neal’s electronic devices to see if he’d followed the case. They didn’t find any searches about Linda, but what they found was just as disturbing.
Det. Mike Fletcher: Evidence of child pornography … copious amounts of that to go through.
The Orange County DA ultimately combined Linda’s case with charges for two other young girls Neal had allegedly sexually assaulted between 1995 and 2002 in Riverside County, California. Those cases had never been prosecuted and were still within the statute of limitations. If Neal was convicted on all three, it’d be enough to put him away for the rest of his life.
Eric Scarbrough: There was other information we had that unfortunately was out of statute and we weren’t able to charge it. But we do know that there were other victims out there.
Neal’s family declined “48 Hours”‘ requests for interviews, and never made any public statements about the charges against him. During his arraignment in Orange County Superior Court, Neal pleaded “not guilty” on all counts. Now Eric Scarbrough would have to make jurors feel a sense of urgency on the decades old case.
Tracy Smith: How do you bring this … case alive to a jury?
Eric Scarbrough: That’s the real challenge of the cold case. … But really what it comes down to is finding ways of using that evidence, including the DNA, to tell the girl’s story.
Evidence like Linda’s school bag found a few feet away from her body — her mother had made it for the Fourth of July – and its contents, a perfect time-capsule of her harrowing last moments.
Tracy Smith: A half-eaten orange, a little toy, school supplies and art supplies, her socks and urine-stained underwear. What does that tell you?
Eric Scarbrough: This tells you about what happened to her in her last minutes. … This is the backpack of virtually any 11-year-old you might find today. And then you come to the evidence of her underwear and you realize that something very bad had happened to her.
Tracy Smith: She was scared.
Eric Scarbrough: Terrified. … That information is essential.
But a jury would never get to hear it. In the summer of 2020, James Neal died of natural causes in custody.
Sgt. Court Depweg: There’s no doubt in my mind he would’ve been convicted.
Lysa Christopher: The biggest heartbreak. … The story ended so bizarrely, just as it began.
Jeff Thurnher: We were hoping to see the end of this guy standing before a jury and being convicted.
Tracy Smith: So, David, you were the one who put the Facebook page up … “Justice for Linda,” was this justice for Linda?
David Wedemeyer: In some way, but truly justice, no … but I think it’s closure.
Closure and relief for Linda’s sister, who says she forgave Neal before she even knew his name.
Cindy Borgeson: I couldn’t carry that pain in my heart … obviously God is protecting me from a trial that would have been traumatic. … Because for years we thought, “what did they do for 12 hours together … what happened?”
With Linda’s case officially closed, her photo no longer hangs among the unsolved at Newport Beach P.D. But she’ll always live among Cindy’s precious memories of a more innocent time.
When their family was still whole.
Cindy Borgeson: There’s a portrait … it’s the only family portrait we ever had done. … my mother looks like Jackie O. … and my dad looks … typical dad in the 60s.
And the three of us girls are just smiling, beaming from ear to ear.
Tracy Smith: What do you take from Linda’s story?
Cindy Borgeson: To be grateful for every day … the good and the bad.
And grateful for the unexpected friends along the way.
Cindy Borgeson: This whole support group of people that knew her … are now friends of mine and … their support and their encouragement and all of it was really fantastic.
Terry Briscoe Corwin: She mattered. … And I really like to think and hope that our efforts helped just a little bit.
JENNIFER MANZELLA [reading tweet aloud]: “Thank you to my family, friends, and schoolmates – who never gave up hope… thank you to the generations of investigators who worked on my case… Because of you my story didn’t end in July 1973.”