For months, the billboards scattered around the Antelope Valley showed a high school cheerleader flashing a brilliant smile, the kind that could have sold commuters just about anything. But this was no sales pitch.
"I wasn't ready to die . . . at 18," the signs read. "Can you help catch my killer?"
It's been nearly two years since Antelope Valley College student Michelle O'Keefe was found in a Palmdale ride-share parking lot, slumped in the front seat of her electric-blue Mustang, her body riddled with four bullets.
O'Keefe and a friend had spent that afternoon and evening at the Shrine Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles, working as extras in a concert film shoot for musician Kid Rock.
But despite the billboards, reward offers and a segment on the TV show "America's Most Wanted," Los Angeles County sheriff's detectives say they are no closer to making an arrest in the Feb. 22, 2000, shooting. Frustrated by the lack of progress, Michelle's parents, Patricia and Michael O'Keefe of Palmdale, have turned to civil court in an effort to bring their daughter's killer to justice.
Their lawsuit, filed last November, names the city of Palmdale and All Valley Security Inc.--the company hired to patrol the Park and Ride lot--as defendants. Since the filing, it has been amended to add Raymond Lee Jennings, a security guard at the parking lot on the night of the killing.
The suit alleges that all were negligent for allowing O'Keefe to die. The defendants have denied the charges. A trial date has not been set.
"We want the truth," said Michael O'Keefe, an engineer at Edwards Air Force Base. "We know these things take some time, but my God, it's been two years."
Using civil proceedings to bolster stalled criminal cases is unusual, according to legal experts. The O'Keefes' attorney, R. Rex Parris, known locally for his hardball tactics, has boasted in court that he will solve the killing during the civil trial.
"Yes, we do believe there's a substantial probability that Mr. Jennings murdered Miss O'Keefe," Parris said during a May 30 hearing in Lancaster Superior Court. "He sexually assaulted her and then he murdered her."
No Physical Evidence Points to Jennings
Jennings, a 29-year-old Lancaster resident, would not comment on the case. Nor would his Torrance-based lawyer, Alvin Hall, nor attorneys for the security company. Palmdale's city manager also declined to discuss the case.
Authorities say there is no physical evidence to link Jennings, a former National Guardsman, to the killing, and he has no criminal record. They also say there was no sexual assault.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Richard Longshore, the lead investigator, said the department has conducted hundreds of interviews and chased scores of leads. He said detectives are investigating 10 men who allegedly have admitted killing O'Keefe, though some of the claims appear to be bogus.
"Here's a young woman with no apparent enemies. Her wallet wasn't stolen, her car wasn't taken and she wasn't sexually assaulted," Longshore said. "Nonetheless, she's shot multiple times. This is an absolute whodunit."
Although Michelle O'Keefe was planning a career in computers, a more glamorous sideline placed her in the parking lot Feb. 22. The statuesque teenager had landed bit parts in Hollywood productions, and rubbed elbows with heartthrobs like Carson Daly and members of the music group 'N Sync.
On the night of the slaying, sometime after 9 p.m., the victim and her friend returned to the Park and Ride lot, where O'Keefe had left her Mustang. The friend told detectives that she watched Michelle get in her car, and saw her lights come on. She drove away assuming Michelle was safe.
That night, a Tuesday, was one of Raymond Jennings' first on the job with All Valley Security, according to investigators. In court documents, Parris charges that the former guard's recollections of the evening are fraught with inconsistencies.
In a videotaped interview, Jennings told sheriff's detectives he heard a shot from the direction of the Mustang that night.
As he approached the car, he said, he saw it roll backward, and heard three more shots--but saw no one. Because he was unarmed, Jennings said, he ran for cover behind his own vehicle and called his supervisor.
Later, at the scene with the supervisor, he saw O'Keefe for the first time, Jennings said in the interview. He said she was wearing a tube top, short skirt and vinyl jacket, and her breasts were exposed. He said he could see O'Keefe's pulse, but did not administer first aid because he was afraid of tampering with a crime scene.
On the tape, investigators gave Jennings a lie detector test and told him he failed it.
Lawyer Says Guard Changed His Story
In court filings, Parris cites the lie detector results, which are inadmissible as evidence, and says Jennings switched his story. First he denied seeing her until after his supervisor determined she was dead; later, he said he saw her twitching, and with a pulse.
Parris said in court that at the very least, Jennings "negligently did nothing. He was a security guard. He was supposed to assist her. He was supposed to protect her."
In a recent interview, Parris said it was the O'Keefes' "obligation" to bring the lawsuit, but the attorney declined to discuss the case.
Many families--like those of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman--have used the civil courts' lower burden of proof to pursue justice after suspects are acquitted in criminal court. And though such incidents are rare, aggressive civil cases have also bolstered related criminal investigations.
In 1997, former Army paratrooper Guy Dean Bouck pleaded guilty to the decade-old killing of his wife, three years after a probate judge ruled that he committed the 1987 Canyon Country slaying.
The victim's brother had brought the probate case to prevent Bouck from inheriting the estate of his wife, Stephanie. Authorities collected enough evidence from the civil proceedings--including a revised time of death and statements challenging Bouck's version of events--to charge Bouck. He is now serving a life sentence in state prison.
Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor, said that while civil cases often provide the groundwork for prosecutions of white-collar crimes, it is "extremely rare" for violent offenses.
"Ordinarily, law enforcement has access to better information and has better investigative techniques," she said. "But if you have a trail that's gone completely cold, you have nothing to lose pursuing such a case."
Levenson noted, however, that there are risks in such a strategy--for example, it might gather evidence in ways that make it inadmissible in a criminal trial.
Shrine Remains at Slaying Site
Meanwhile, the O'Keefes are no longer sure how many billboards still carry the image of their daughter. Their contact at the company that donated the ads has taken another job. Commuters, however, are reminded of the killing daily by a cross, plaque and picture of Michelle that adorn the spot where she was killed.
Jennings quit All Valley Security the day after the shooting. Last week, he filed for bankruptcy. That means any judgment against him could be stayed until a federal judge grants or denies him bankruptcy protection, Superior Court spokeswoman Fran Burnett said.
In his interview with detectives, Jennings repeatedly denied that he had anything to do with the killing, and said he was sorry for the way things turned out.
"It's puzzling," he says on the video. "It's troubling. That her life basically was in my hands in some way. That somehow I could ease the pain for the family if I'd have seen something."