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Girl’s death haunted police to arrest made 45 years later

This undated photo from the Newport Beach Police Department shows Linda O’keefe. James Neal, 72, was arrested in Colorado Springs, Colo., and accused of murder with special circumstances in the death of O’keefe, who was found strangled in 1973, a case that has already long shaken the seaside community of Newport Beach, California., Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said. (Newport Beach Police via AP)

SANTA ANA, California. Researchers have searched for decades for the killer of an 11-year-old girl disappeared on his way home from summer school in a case that the grip of a Californian coastal community.

A picture of a smiling Linda O’keefe has hung for years on the wall of the police station in Newport Beach, reminds researchers to keep forward on cold cases as those of its.

More than four decades later, the authorities in Southern California said Wednesday that a Colorado man is arrested and accused of killing her in 1973. The announcement came the same day authorities said they charged a man with killing an 11-year-old boy in the neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1990.

In Linda’s case, authorities said they got a hit in the last month from a genealogical database corresponding to a DNA sample taken when her body was found strangled in a ditch a day after they disappeared. More and more researchers have found that a powerful tool in the databases of the DNA samples provided by people looking to learn about their origin.

“The detectives pursued this case,” Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer told reporters, refusing to say whether the defendant or his family submitted DNA for genealogical purposes. “We have all the potential in the world to solve, so that many of these cold cases that we never had the hope in the past of the problems.”

James Neal, 72, was arrested in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Tuesday and accused of murder with special circumstances in O’keefe’s death, Spitzer said.

“He seemed like a good guy,” Neal of the landlord, Michael Thulson, told the Colorado Springs Gazette. “I had no indication he was capable of anything, even 10 steps is less than this, which just shows you what you don’t know.”

Neal’s son-in-law told the newspaper that the family was not prepared to comment. It was not immediately clear if Neal had a lawyer who could speak on his behalf, and the voice mail was full on a number listed for him.

Neal was due to appear in court in Colorado on Thursday.

In Los Angeles County, authorities said Edward’donell Thomas, 50, was arrested and charged in connection with the kidnapping and murder of William Tillett. The boy disappeared while walking home from school in Inglewood. His body was found in a dark carport later in the day. The coroner determined he was suffocated.

Inglewood police department has ‘ substantial and compelling physical evidence that implies Edward Thomas in the murder of William Tillett,” Capt. Mark Fried said. He refused to work.

Thomas was held without bail, and it was not known whether he has a lawyer. His arraignment is scheduled for 4 April.

In Newport Beach, O’keefe was the home of the summer school in July 1973, when she vanished. She was last seen in conversation with a stranger in a van and never made it home, Newport Beach police Chief Jon Lewis said.

Her family and friends searched for her and called the police. The next morning her body was found.

The authorities said that they never gave up the search for her killer, even after dozens of years passed and her parents had died. The suspect’s DNA profile is uploaded to a criminal database in 2001, but there were no hits for years, authorities said.

The police published the sketches of the accused last year, based on genealogical evidence. They got a hit this year on a genealogical database, leading researchers to obtain a sample of DNA from Neal, and the matched, Spitzer said.

Neal lived in Southern California at the time of O’keefe’s to kill, and moved to Florida soon after, where he changed his name, Spitzer said. The prosecutor refused to say whether Neal has a criminal record.

O’keefe’s two living sisters told about the arrest, authorities said. Over the years hundreds of people who have worked on the case, the head of the police said.

One of them was a retired Newport Beach police officer Stan Bressler, who said O’keefe’s death stunned the community and was never forgotten.

“Every once in a while, you think,” Gosh, I wonder if we’ll ever find him, ” he said.

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Associated Press writer Christopher Weber in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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