Using modern DNA technology, California detectives have arrested a suspect for the 1973 murder and sexual assault of 11-year-old Linda O'Keefe. For more than 45 years, her disappearance has haunted the community of Newport Beach, California.
The investigation had been going on for so long the DA in the case was just one year older than O'Keefe at the time of her murder. Still, Newport Beach police say they've never forgotten about the little girl, keeping a photo of her in the detective division as a reminder to continue pushing forward on cold cases like hers.
Wednesday, police revealed how a DNA match on the genealogy website Family Tree led them to their suspect in Colorado, 72-year-old James Neal, reports CBS News' Erin Moriarty.
"Our investigators used forensic DNA testing and an online genealogy website to identify the suspect's DNA as being consistent with DNA left at the crime scene," said Newport Beach police chief Jon Lewis.
O'Keefe vanished in July of 1973 while walking home from summer school. The 11-year-old was last seen on this street talking to a stranger in a van. The next day she was found strangled, her body tossed in a ditch. She was still wearing the dress her mother had made for her.
O'Keefe's sister Cindy Borgeson said she was surprised to get the call that the alleged killer had been caught.
"You know I never really thought they would actually find the individual," Borgeson said. "My hope is that it brings hope to other families that haven't had a resolve yet."
Last summer, in an effort to jump start the case the Newport Beach Police Department posted a series of tweets written as though from O'Keefe's perspective recalling her final hours: "Hi, I'm Linda O'Keefe … I was murdered … my killer was never found."
More police departments are turning to genealogical websites to solve cold cases by connecting DNA from crime scenes with online databases. Authorities have also been able to track down the suspected "Golden State killer" as well as the "grim sleeper" who was convicted in 2016 of murdering 10 people.
In this case, Newport Beach police also used DNA to project what O'Keefe's killer might look like today.
"I can tell you through both traditional DNA and through genealogical DNA, 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," said Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer.
The Orange County DA would not say whether it was Neal or a family member who submitted that DNA to the genealogy website. If convicted, Neal faces life in prison without the possibility of parole and the DA said they may consider asking for the death penalty.
Neal is due to appear in a Colorado courtroom on Thursday.