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Police give young girl murdered in 1973 a Twitter persona to help catch her killer

Police give young girl murdered in 1973 a Twitter persona to help catch her killer
A new documentary reveals how giving a voice on social media to long-dead Linda O’Keefe helped secure crucial evidence in the unsolved killing

Police officers who created a Twitter persona in the name of a murdered girl have revealed how giving her a voice helped solve the decades-old cold case.

Linda O’Keefe was just 11 years old when she disappeared on her way home from summer school in the seaside town of Corona del Mar, California.

She was found dead beside a nature trail the next morning, and for 45 years her haunting photograph had hung on the local police department’s cold case board without a suspect.

Now, a CBS documentary has shed light on how investigators used fictionalised tweets in Linda’s name to gather crucial evidence on a man identified as her killer.

“It was so important for me to give this little girl whose life was cut short at 11 years old the opportunity to speak again,” Jennifer Manzella, the woman behind the project, told CBS. “When a victim speaks, we want to listen.”

Ms Manzella was working as a spokeswoman for the Newport Beach Police Department (NBPD) when detective sergeant Court Depweg asked her to generate new leads by putting Linda’s face “on every phone, every iPad, every laptop in the country”.

Starting on the 45th anniversary of the disappearance on 6 July, 2018, Ms Manzella used NBPD’s Twitter profile to broadcast a first person account of the murder from the victim’s perspective, with each event told at the exact time it had occurred, accompanied by the hashtag #LindasStory.

“Hi, I’m Linda O’Keefe – or Linda Ann O’Keefe, if I’m in trouble with my mom,” it began. “Forty-five years ago today, I disappeared from Newport Beach. I was murdered and my body was found in the Back Bay. My killer was never found. Today, I’m going to tell you my story.”

Over 68 tweets, it described Linda’s journey from home, her day at summer school, and her mother’s fateful request that she walk home rather than get a ride, which made her cry. It told how friends saw a turquoise van stop near her several times, the final sighting before she disappeared.

The next morning, Ms Manzella wrote: “Tons of people are looking for me.  The helicopter has been scouring the canyons and remote areas of Corona del Mar.  My dad is out looking for me too, with some officers. My mom is still home, peering through the curtains at all the activity on our quiet street …

“[A] man is looking in the ditch on the east side of Back Bay Drive, searching for frogs in the cattails. Instead, he sees something small, and pale. My hand. He screams, trying to rouse me.”

The tweets were retweeted nearly 7 million times, and while they did not directly identify the suspected killer, they did allow officers to search his electronic devices. “It paid off big time,” Det Sgt Depweg said.

In early 2019, police arrested 72-year-old James Alan Neal on suspicion of Linda’s murder and sexual assault, based on a DNA match through the genealogy website Family Tree.

Even though DNA analysis was not available in 1973, a prescient investigator had taken swabs of the killer’s semen from Linda’s body, which were frozen and preserved. Neal plead not guilty to all charges.

According to CBS, the #LindasStory project led police to new leads and gave them probable cause to search electronic devices, arguing before a judge that the killer was likely to be one of the millions of people who read the tweets and made searches about the case.

However, Neal was taken from jail to hospital in May 2020 due to an undisclosed illness, and died in custody that July 2020, about two weeks after the 47th anniversary of the killing. He had no symptoms of Covid-19.

“The death of James Neal prior to putting him on trial 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,” said Orange County district attorney Todd Spitzer.

The CBS documentary 48 Hours: #LindasStory airs on Sunday.