Suspect in Linda O’Keefe cold-case homicide described as habitual criminal, emotionally disturbed
Seven years before James Alan Neal allegedly kidnapped, sexually assaulted and strangled 11-year-old Linda Ann O’Keefe in Newport Beach, he sat in an Orange County jail cell lamenting his miserable life and long rap sheet.
“I want to make up for all the hurt I have caused myself and my parents, especially my mother,” Neal, who was 19 at the time and went by James Albert Layton Jr., told Orange County probation officer David R. McMillan in 1966 while awaiting sentencing for a burglary conviction.
“Here at this jail, people want to give me a bad time. They don’t understand me or why I am the way I am. I don’t have any friends because I’ve always been afraid to make any because I just figured they would only see me as everyone else has in the past.”
Records obtained by the Southern California News Group show that Neal was arrested more than a dozen times in California, Florida and Colorado from 1959 to 1974.
He was apprehended in February after DNA analysis identified him as a suspect in O’Keefe’s slaying. He is awaiting extradition from Colorado Springs to Orange County.
An eight-page report prepared by McMillan offers for the first time clues about what may have driven his criminal behavior.
The burglary that landed Neal behind bars in 1966 occurred a year earlier when he and two accomplices broke into a Santa Ana business, stealing $44.97 in cash and a portable television set valued at $90, Orange County Superior Court records show.
Neal, who was living at the YMCA in Santa Ana at the time, surrendered to police four days later and ratted out the other burglars.
“The defendant’s conscience began to bother him, so he walked off a job he had obtained in Inglewood, returned to Santa Ana and contacted an officer of the Santa Ana Police Department,” McMillan wrote in the report.
Neal was released from police custody on his own recognizance, fled California and was rearrested when he returned to the state on March 3, 1966. Three weeks later, he pleaded guilty to second-degree burglary, was sentenced to 40 days in jail with credit for time served and placed on probation against McMillan’s recommendation that he should instead be sent to Vacaville Prison in Northern California.
“This defendant seems quite emotionally immature and psychologically unstable,” McMillan wrote in his report. “He has not been able to relate well with other students, family members or inmates. He will ultimately benefit more from a state prison sentence.”
A Santa Ana police officer who arrested Neal for the burglary went further, describing him as being in “constant emotional conflict” and in need of long-term psychiatric care.
A chaotic childhood
Neal told McMillan he was the second of three children, never got along with his siblings, rebelled against his parents and was an “emotionally disturbed child.” “All my life up to this day has been going in circles,” Neal said.
A native of Chicago, Neal began getting into trouble soon after he moved with his family to Anaheim in 1956. Two years later, he began burglarizing homes for fun, according to McMillan. “He feels he has always been picked on and never given a chance to better himself or be equal to others,” Neal wrote in the report. “He was always getting into fights and was always afraid to tell anyone ‘how I really felt.’ “
McMillan went on to say that Neal’s father, who designed drugstores, and his mother, who was a bookkeeper, were described as “extremely neurotic people who were both physically and psychologically cruel to their children.” “They are reported to be detached emotionally and narcissistic,” he added.
The report also notes other problems.
Neal’s education was “terminated early” and his work history was spotty, McMillan reported. Records show that from 1963 to 1966, Neal was employed as cook, furniture mover, iron worker, factory worker, and a floral deliveryman but didn’t hold a job longer than five months.
And at the time of his arrest Neal had no income, savings or property except for a car that had been stolen in Springfield, Illinois, McMillan said.
A lengthy rap sheet
Neal was arrested for burglaries in August and October 1959 and was committed to the California Youth Authority in December 1960. He was paroled in July 1961 but returned to the Youth Authority in October 1962.
Then, after he was paroled again in August 1963, he was arrested a year later for burglary and sentenced to nine months in the Orange County jail. Finally, in September 1965, he was arrested for yet another burglary but the charge was reduced to petty theft and ultimately dismissed.
There is no record of Neal ever having been incarcerated in a California prison, according to state officials.
Neal said that despite his recidivism, he was confident he could become successful. McMillan remained skeptical.
“If he pursues these goals conscientiously and stays away from downtown Santa Ana where associates congregate, he feels he will never again become involved in difficulty,” the probation officer wrote. ” In spite of rehabilitative attempts through California Youth Authority and Orange County Jail sentences … (it) seems to negate any desire or ability (by Neal) to follow through.”
Locked up in Colorado
It wasn’t long before Neal was in trouble again.
In August 1969, he was convicted of fraud in Denver and sentenced to three to 10 year at Colorado’s Territorial Correctional Facility. Neal appears gaunt and stoic in a black-and white prison photo. He was released from the penitentiary in July 1971.
Authorities suspect that Neal, while on parole in the Colorado case, snatched O’Keefe, who lived in Corona del Mar, from the street on July 6, 1973, as she walked home from summer school.
That night, family members, volunteers and police spread out to search for her. Her body was found the next morning in a ditch in the area of Newport Beach’s Back Bay.
The investigation into the homicide remained cold for 45 years until Virginia-based Parabon NanoLabs used DNA to identify Neal as a suspect in the killing, leading to his arrest last month in Colorado.
After the slaying, Neal moved to Florida, where some sort of incident prompted him to change his name from James Albert Layton to James Alan Neal, authorities have said, declining to give specifics.
Records reveal Neal was arrested on Sept. 9, 1973, in Marion County, Florida, on a fraud charge for writing a bad check and unauthorized use of a vehicle. It was not clear from records if he was convicted for those offenses.
Then, in 1974, he was sent back to prison in Colorado for a parole violation and released three years later.
Neal then moved back to California, where he lived until 2014 at six addresses in Riverside, Hemet and Winchester, public records show.
His last address was in San Jacinto, where his home on East Evans Street was just a few blocks away from North Mountain Middle School and Jose Antonio Estudillo Elementary.
Jeffrey Malecki, 55, who lived next door to Neal for five years, said Friday his neighbor mentioned having served time in jail but never elaborated.
“He said he was glad he had all that stuff behind him but never mentioned what he had done,” Malecki recalled. “Nothing he said made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It’s amazing how you really don’t know people.”
Then in January, Parabon used the DNA was matched with a sample from genealogy website FamilyTreeDNA.com leading authorities to identify Neal, now 72, as a suspect. He was arrested at 6:39 a.m. in Colorado Springs on Feb. 19.
Phone calls to Newport Beach police were not returned, but the Orange County District Attorney’s Office said it is seeking other potential victims of Neal.
“Neal’s extensive criminal history and the circumstances of the 1973 sexual assault and murder of 11-year-old Linda O’Keefe lead law enforcement to seek potential additional victims and witnesses. Anyone with additional information about the O’Keefe case or who believes they may be a victim of Neal is asked to call the NBPD Cold Case Tip Line at 949-644-3669.”