Monument man arrested in 1973 cold-case killing of California girl

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SANTA ANA, Calif. — Authorities said Wednesday that they solved two decades-old cold cases that stunned Southern California, arresting suspects in the separate killings of a boy and a girl who disappeared while walking home from school.

Linda O’Keefe was strangled in 1973 and William Tillett was suffocated in 1990. They were both 11.

James Neal, 72, of Monument was arrested in Colorado Springs and charged with murder with special circumstances in O’Keefe’s death — a case that has long shaken the seaside community of Newport Beach, Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said.

“The detectives dogged this case,” Spitzer told reporters, saying advances in technology have made it possible to close old cases. “We have every opportunity in the world to solve so many of these cold cases that we never had hope in the past of solving.”

Authorities published sketches of the suspect last year based on genealogical evidence taken from a DNA sample at the crime scene.

Investigators got a hit from a genealogical database earlier this year and got a DNA sample from Neal that matched, Spitzer said.

Neal was expected in court in Colorado on Wednesday. It was not immediately clear if he had an attorney who could speak on his behalf. The voicemail was full on a number listed for Neal.

O’Keefe was walking home from summer school in Newport Beach on July 6, 1973, when she vanished. She was last seen talking to a stranger in a van and never made it home, Newport Beach police Chief Jon Lewis said.

Her body was found in a ditch the next day. She had been strangled, Lewis said.

Neal lived in Southern California when O’Keefe was killed and went to Florida soon afterward, where he changed his name, prosecutors said.

Authorities said they never gave up the search for her killer, even after decades passed and her parents had died. O’Keefe’s two living sisters have been told about the arrest, authorities said.

Neighbors told FOX31, Neal and his wife of 40 years had been leasing a home on the outskirts of Monument, but recently moved. The house was empty Wednesday afternoon.

FOX31 has learned Neal has four children, 11 grand children and 15 great grandchildren.

People in Monument, a small town with a population of just more than 7,000, are shocked.

“That is insane,” said Daniella Surian. “I’ve never heard of anything like that around here.”

In the 1990 case, a 50-year-old Edward Donell Thomas was in custody in connection with the kidnapping and killing of William Tillett outside Los Angeles. Prosecutors said they charged him with murder Tuesday.

Investigators didn’t say what linked Thomas to the slaying. Tillett disappeared while walking home from school in Inglewood on May 24, 1990.

His body was found in a dark carport later that day. The coroner determined he had been suffocated.

Thomas, a resident of Pomona, was being held without bail. It wasn’t known if he has an attorney. Arraignment is scheduled for April 4.

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