The Unsettling Story of Michelle O’Keefe’s Murder
Back in the year 2000, 903 murders took place in the state of Florida. One of these murders was that of Michelle O’Keefe. A homicide that was not investigated as scrupulously as it should have been at the beginning, the teenager’s murder was “solved” when prosecutors suspected a man named Raymond Lee Jennings and charged him with manslaughter. However, here we are 17 years later and in light of new evidence that has surfaced just recently, the murder conviction has been overthrown.
This change of events leaves people to wonder, “Who is Michelle O’Keefe’s killer?”.
Who was Michelle O’Keefe?
An aspiring actress and student at Antelope Valley college, Michelle O’Keefe only lived to reach the tender age of 18. With her whole life ahead of her, Michelle has no idea that her appearance in a Kid Rock music video would be her very last.
Instead of being known for her acting skills, she is now known more for being a murder victim whose life was callously taken away on February 22, 2000. So, who was Michelle O’Keefe’s and has justice been served?
A Young Life Cut Short
A parking lot in Palmdale, California was where the scene of the crime took place and it seems that there was more happening in that parking lot around the time of the murder than police first anticipated.
“Cheerful Loving Sister and Daughter” are the words inscribed on Michelle O’Keefe’s gravestone in Palmdale’s Desert Lawn Memorial Park. An Iraq war veteran was charged with her murder, despite the fact that there were a few suspicious characters lurking in the darkness that night.
Last Job Before Her Death
O’Keefe was in top form as she left the set from filming a Kid Rock music video filming, in which she featured front and center. Kid Rock, or as his mother calls him, Robert James Ritchie, was in good shape as he sang the lyrics to “Bawitdaba” with O’Keefe nearby. In 1998, 14 million copies of his album “Devil Without a Cause” were sold.
It was on the morning of February 22, 2000, that O’Keefe made appearance in the music video. Little did she know that the day’s events would lead to her early departure.
A Murder Suspect
Raymond Lee Jennings is the man who was charged with Michelle O’Keefe’s murder. Jennings was an ex-military veteran and was working as a security guard at the time of the murder. However, he protested his innocence many times and has repeatedly begged for his release from prison.
Since new evidence has recently surfaced, prosecutors now believe that the man who served 11 years of a life sentence could actually be innocent. In fact, a pursuit of justice has been ongoing for the wrongful conviction since prosecutors put him behind bars back in 2005.
The Travel Buddy
Jennifer Peterson accompanied O’Keefe on the journey to Palmdale, Calif. from Los Angeles. Both girls were eagerly anticipating the trip, which would see them featuring in a music video as extras.
Parked at a commuter parking lot in Palmdale, O’Keefe’s blue Mustang was not used for the long drive. Instead, Peterson took to the wheel, before the two friends returned to Palmdale later the same day. The two friends were believed to have entered the parking lot at 9:22 pm.
A Summary of Events
Just before 9:30 p.m., Peterson pulled up next to the Mustang and O’Keefe got out of Peterson’s car. She spent a few minutes moving her belongings from one vehicle to another, before saying her goodbyes to Peterson, who then drove off.
Jennings, the man considered to be Michelle O’Keefe’s killer, was patrolling the parking lot when the Palmdale shooting death occurred just minutes later. A senseless tragedy that sparked an ongoing investigation, the motive for the killing is still unclear.
The Blue Mustang
A gift from her beloved parents and a reminder of her flourishing career in the acting industry, Michelle O’Keefe was easily noticeable whenever she drove around in her new car. Interestingly, the emergency brake had been disengaged and the engine was running in neutral. The deputy of the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department, Billy Cox, noticed this soon after arriving at the scene at 9:49 pm. Just five minutes before, Jennings’ supervisor Iris Malone arrived at the scene.
Jennings would not accompany Malone to the vehicle when asked. The Ford Mustang’s back wheels were in a planter when the police arrived, while O’Keefe was slumped in the driving seat with gunshot wounds to her face and chest. Her foot and leg were hanging out of the driver’s side door, which was open.
Inside the Mustang
She had moved her car to what she thought was a safer place in the parking lot, but it turns out that her safety was in jeopardy and within minutes, the young woman was dead. Wedged between a crack in the seats was her wallet, which was not taken. However, an attorney stated that the 18-year-old’s cell phone was stolen and the glove box ransacked.
Based on police reports, the victim moved her belongings from Peterson’s car after traveling with her close friend for the day to attend a photo shoot. Gunshots and a car alarm surprised Jennings, who was believed to be “safeguarding” the parking lot.
Carjacking gone wrong?
Several street gangs were active in the surrounding area at the time of O’Keefe’s murder, with a few people in the parking lot that night said to be associated with local criminals or street gangs. Could a gang member have been attempting a carjacking that didn’t go as planned, resulting in O’Keefe’s death?
Since O’Keefe had suffered a blow to the head, as well as multiple gunshot wounds, there is a possibility that she was attacked with a weapon intended for the carjacking. As an iconic vehicle, there is a big possibility that someone was preying on O’Keefe’s Mustang while she was in L.A.
The Robbery Theory
If it wasn’t a carjacking gone wrong, perhaps Michelle O’Keefe’s killer assumed the pretty 18-year-old was carrying valuables? Recent evidence suggests that Michelle O’Keefe’s killer might not have been Jennings after all and instead, it was probably a gang member who was involved in a random robbery.
Mustangs are not necessarily cheap cars to buy, so O’Keefe might have looked pretty well-off to an outsider. However, the fact that O’Keefe’s purse remained inside the Mustang with $111 inside it indicates that the motive for the shooting might have been something different.
Mistaken for a prostitute
O’Keefe was scantily clad following her appearance in the music video and had planned on changing into something more reserved. This leads to another possibility – that someone approached O’Keefe with a sexual offer, only to be turned down.
So, did sexual assault escalate to homicide? The prosecutor who took the case to trial claims it was a “sexual advance gone wrong.” If this was, in fact, the case, rejection might have fueled anger, which could have then led to O’Keefe being shot in her car.
Jealousy of Stardom
O’Keefe was an attractive young woman and she had appeared on television more than once. Her rise to stardom was slow and steady. Generally, she would feature as an extra in music videos but, with such good looks and aspirations to be an actress, O’Keefe’s was expected to keep rising.
Perhaps someone who knew her was jealous and wanted to put a stop to her fame? Since there were a few witnesses in the parking lot, envy might well have been the murder motive.
Another Woman In the Parking Lot
Victoria Richardson was a woman who was present in the parking lot at the time of the murder. She claimed to have heard gunshots being fired as she drove out of the parking lot. However, she did not alert police officers or any members of the public about this claim until someone offered her a $55,000 reward.
Richardson had made the news public, but what good was that if she did not detail who was in the car with her when the gunshots punctured O’Keefe’s forehead and chest, killing her almost instantly?
Were gang members to blame?
Now that new evidence was surfacing, authorities began to dig deeper into who was in the parking lot when the murder took place. Richardson (as mentioned previously) had left the parking lot without even looking over her shoulder. Perhaps she was in the company of gang members who were guilty of the crime?
“Earning their stripes” was a normal thing for gang members living in the Palmdale area and beyond. What this usually means is killing someone, whether it is from a gunshot or using another weapon. Just five years after O’Keefe’s murder, Richardson was arrested for a different crime and served time for committing various felonies, such as selling drugs.
Changing Clothes in the Car
O’Keefe had planned to attend a college class on the evening of her death. A self-sufficient girl, she devoted her time to studying computer science and working a part-time job. Upon returning to Palmdale after featuring in the music video, O’Keefe had moved her Mustang from beneath a well-lit area to a darker bay for the purpose of changing her clothes in privacy.
Maybe because she had not yet changed into more suitable attire, a lurker in the parking lot had wrongfully made the judgement that she was a prostitute? Sex and prostitution is a problem in Palmdale, with residents often complaining of seeing them working on Palmdale Boulevard.
The Bizarre 911 Call
The all-important call to police was not made by Jennings, who was said to have been patrolling the parking lot at the time of the incident. Instead, Jennings called his supervisor. Jennings then asked his supervisor to get in contact with the police. Why had he not made the call himself?
Maybe he was too startled after witnessing such a shocking crime? Perhaps he was afraid he would sound too guilty if he had committed the crime himself? While most people would have believed the latter up until now, new evidence suggests that Jennings could have been telling the truth about the 911 call.
The Murder Weapon
One of the biggest mysteries surrounding the case of Michelle O’Keefe’s murder is linked to the murder weapon — it was never found. What we do know is that the unknowing victim was targeted by the murderer using a gun with a bullet caliber in the 9–millimeter range.
Since Jennings had clearly used such a weapon before, based on his past in the military, there is no wonder why he was a main suspect in the case preceding his prosecution.
The Mystery of the Missing Gun
Forensic experts believed that O’Keefe was shot when she was outside the car, whereas Jennings was convicted of shooting O’Keefe when she was inside the vehicle. A firearms expert was contacted to investigate further. The firearms expert concluded that shell casings and ammunition came from the same weapon.
In that case, who was responsible and where did O’Keefe’s killer hide the weapon? Interestingly, Jennings owned a .38-caliber gun, not the kind used to carry out the cold-blooded killing. Nobody was able to step forward and reveal where exactly the gun was hidden, even when a $50,000 reward was up for grabs.
Three Trials Later
It took one appeal and three trials until Jennings was actually convicted of O’Keefe’s murder. David Houchin was the attorney appointed for Jennings’ court trials, which led to his life prison sentence. Of course, we know that he did not serve life and instead, was released after 11 years.
Recent evidence highlighting potential suspects in the case led to this decision. After the prosecutors who originally undertook the prosecution of Jennings had been relieved from blame, he was freed from the prison that had been his home for over a decade.
The Hunt for Michelle O’Keefe’s Killer Continues
Doubts were raised about the conviction by the same district attorney’s office that carried out the prosecution in the first place. Jennings was released from prison by Judge William Ryan on January 20, 2017 “based on newly discovered evidence pointing to his factual innocence.”
The latest evidence reportedly “undermines the entire prosecution case and points unerringly to innocence or reduced culpability.” Law enforcement personnel will reportedly work with the new Conviction Review Unit while the evidence is investigated deeper.
Weaknesses in the Case
A slaying gone wrong? So it seems. Cracks began surfacing in the murder case of Michelle O’Keefe from the very beginning, but the police are said to have overlooked them. Weaknesses in the case point to the presence of other witnesses, who were not considered potential suspects when the case went public.
Attention was not drawn to the other people present in the parking lot when the killing took place, some of whom were smoking marijuana and others who were associated with gangs.
Errors and Inadequate Investigation
Mistakes are costly and Jennings knows this all too well — or does he? If he is not guilty of the crime that cut the young girl’s life short, he will know better than anyone that this potentially wrongful conviction stripped him of his freedom. There have been numerous petitions and arguments against the sentence Jennings served, with family members and friends desperate for his release.
On that note, one must consider the possibility of Jennings actually being a witness of the killing that has kept him behind bars for 11 years. Doubts were thrown upon his conviction, leading to his release. An investigation will now be carried out by law enforcement to determine whether or not he really is responsible for a young woman’s brutal death.
Life Sentence But Now Free
“This is one sin that I will not be judged for.” Those were the words spoken by Jennings when the judge sentenced him to life imprisonment back in 2000. Here we are in 2017 and Jennings is out. He is free.
No longer a convict, Jennings is backed by the team who prosecuted him in the first place. His second-degree murder charge was dropped and the district attorney’s office made history by demanding for Jennings’ immediate release. This is the first time a wrongful conviction was overturned by the new Conviction Review Unit.
Could Jennings be innocent?
The release of Jennings on January 20, 2017, may be disapproved of by many. However, Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Bobby Grace had this to say about the matter: “The people no longer have confidence in the conviction.” So, what was he implying? That Jennings was not guilty and that someone else could be the killer.
Jeffrey Ehrlich, the attorney of Jennings, was pleased about the course of events, saying “Ray Jennings was a witness to an awful, senseless, brutal crime.” Following his prosecution, Jennings said that he felt his ordeal was coming to an end and described the situation as a “sad reality.”
New Potential Suspects in the Case
On that fateful night in 2002, other people were in the car park. Chief Deputy District Attorney John Spillane recently confirmed that similar crimes were committed by people who had been in the parking lot that night preceding the murder of the “girl in the blue Mustang.”
Back in 2010, Jennings said to the courts “This is one sin that I will not be judged for.” Based on “numerous flaws in the initial investigation”, new evidence suggested that Jennings was not involved in the crime whatsoever.
Protesting His Innocence
With no eyewitnesses and a lengthy history of serving in the forces for his beloved country, why wouldn’t Jennings be innocent of gunning down the young woman? Charged with her murder five years after it happened, Jennings was preparing to spend his life behind bars.
Jennings protested his innocence from the very beginning, and it is quite interesting to learn how his security guard uniform was tested by investigators. No fibers from O’Keefe’s clothing were found, nor was any blood or gunshot wounds.
‘America’s Most Wanted’
Despite the fact nothing was found on Jennings’ security guard uniform, he was still featured on “America’s Most Wanted”. In addition to being featured on a segment of “America’s Most Wanted”, the case was also featured on Dateline NBC episodes.
The feeling of elation that comes with his release from prison, still, was merged with sadness. Jennings is the father of five children, all of whom he missed growing up during those years behind bars.
Whose DNA was underneath Michelle’s fingernails?
A court document proved that the DNA found beneath Michelle’s fingernails was not the DNA of Jennings. Considering the fact that his clothes were also free from any residue that may have been linked to the homicide, it seems that the prosecution was purely circumstantial.
To this day, the DNA of an unidentified male has not been connected with a suspect. The search continues, but the killer has not yet been found. Materials from the trial will be reviewed once again, following a request from Michael O’Keefe.
The “petitioner” would be the person who is appealing a case and in this instance, it is Jennings. Convicted of cold-blooded murder, the man accused of committing the notorious Palmdale killing was lucky enough to have had his conviction overturned at the beginning of the year.
In January a letter was filed in court, highlighting how prosecutors from Los Angeles County reversed the ruling based on fresh evidence of Jennings’ innocence. Jennings’ petition revealed how the prosecution was purely “circumstantial”.
A Father’s Heartbreak
Despite the fact he was walking with handcuffs binding his hands together, Jennings smiled as he was sentenced to life in prison over a decade ago. Explaining his reason for smiling, he said, “I laugh and I smile because I did not kill her.” After 11 years behind bars, Jennings seemed pleased that his ordeal was over, according to Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Bobby Grace.
O’Keefe was lucky to have a very close-knit family. Speaking outside of court in June 2015, O’Keefe’s father Michael said, “Nothing is worse than losing our kids and as far as I’m concerned, Jennings is still guilty until proven otherwise.”
A Mother’s Grief
“Ms. O’Keefe may have been killed by gang members during a robbery,” is what the District Attorney’s Office said after dismissing Jennings’ conviction. Michelle’s mother, Patricia O’Keefe, expressed her feelings during the court proceedings on January 5, 2017, saying, “As far as I’m concerned, he’s still guilty.”
Nevertheless, Patricia and Michael O’Keefe respect the judge’s decision and said that they will sit through another trial if someone else faces a murder charge. Superior Court Judge William Ryan said, “While to the O’Keefes and others it may feel it is unjust to now grant Jennings relief, it is even more unjust to keep a man in prison who has been excluded by the lawful authorities.”
Michelle’s Brother’s Death
Michelle O’Keefe’s parents didn’t just have to deal with the death of Michelle but also, her brother years later. Jason Patrick O’Keefe passed away 14 years after his sister. November 12, 2014, was the day his parents received the heartbreaking news that they had lost their son.
A keen baseball player who received an NCCAA D-1 level scholarship for Wagner College, he had a bright future ahead of him. Jason spent most of his life in Antelope Valley, where he grew up with his beloved sister. Now, he joins her in heaven, following a drug overdose in 2014.
The Psychic Reading
Many people will turn to a psychic for a reading following the death of a loved one. After all, if there is a chance to communicate with the person who has passed just one more time, why not? In October 2000, just six months after Michelle’s death, her mother Patricia sat down with Sylvia Browne, a bestselling author and renowned psychic.
Although a transcript of the reading could not be found, Browne said that Michelle O’Keefe’s killer “fled the scene on a shuttle bus” and described his appearance as “blue-eyed and dark-skinned, wearing a blue uniform with a pocket and a badge or something over it.”
A Statement from Jennings
Although he was locked up since 2005, Jennings expressed his sympathy for O’Keefe’s parents. When his conviction was overturned, the former Iraq war veteran spoke about how he felt that the investigation would bring the parents peace in the hope that the true perpetrators would be found.
Following a court filing in the beginning of January, Jennings said, “You know, my heart goes out to the O’Keefes… No matter what’s told to the O’Keefes, they’re always going to be under the impression that I’m the one that took their daughter’s life.”
What happens next?
Jennings is free, for now at least. At the age of 42, Jennings will try to bond with his five children, all of whom he missed growing up. His conviction has been set aside, following a request from the Conviction Review Unit.
“I still leave here with my head held high and knowing that justice has been served to a certain degree,” Jennings said to reporters following the latest court hearing.
A new suspect may or may not be punished for the unspeakable crime. In the meantime, prosecutors continue with the investigation to determine whether or not Jennings will remain a free man, or if somebody else is actually Michelle O’Keefe’s killer.
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