SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A Colorado man charged with strangling an 11-year-old California girl in 1973 died Wednesday at an Orange County hospital, authorities said.
James Neal of Monument, Colorado, was being held at the maximum-security Theo Lacy Facility in Orange, but the 73-year-old was transferred to a hospital in May because of an illness, according to a statement from the county Sheriff’s Department. It didn’t state the nature of his illness.
He was pronounced dead at 5:15 a.m.
“There are no suspicious circumstances and no signs of trauma to the decedent. The inmate was not exhibiting any symptoms of COVID-19,” the statement said.
Neal was charged with killing Linda O’Keefe in Newport Beach. The girl vanished in July 1973 while walking home from summer school. She was last seen talking to a stranger in a van. The next day, she was found strangled, her body tossed in a ditch, authorities said.
Neal, then known as James Albert Layton Jr., was living with his family in the Newport Beach area at the time. He moved to Florida shortly after the killing and changed his name, authorities said.
Investigators identified Neal as a suspect using genealogical DNA.
In addition to murder, Neal was charged with committing lewd and lascivious acts on two girls under age 14. Authorities say those crimes happened between 1995 and 2004 in Riverside County east of Los Angeles.
He pleaded not guilty in March.
“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 in a statement. “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.”
Newport Beach Police Chief Jon Lewis said he hoped that the long efforts of investigators to find the girl’s killer “have been able to bring a measure of closure to Linda’s family, friends, and loved ones.”