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Michelle Therese O'Keefe, 18

Michelle Therese O'Keefe (2000-02-22)

Michelle Therese O’Keefe, an 18-year-old white woman, was shot and killed Feb. 22, 2000, in the 100 block of East Avenue S in Palmdale, according to Los Angeles County coroner’s records.

About 9:30 p.m., O’Keefe was discovered in the driver’s seat of her blue Mustang at a park-and-ride lot near the Antelope Valley Freeway, authorities said. Investigators found the body after responding to an anonymous call.

O’Keefe had been shot in the upper body several times.

A man was convicted of murder in her death in 2009, but he was ordered released from prison Thursday, June 23, 2016, after prosecutors expressed doubt about his guilt. "The people no longer have confidence in the conviction," Los Angeles Deputy Dist. Atty. Bobby Grace told a judge.

On Feb. 22, 2000, O’Keefe and a friend had spent the afternoon and evening at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, working as extras in a concert film shoot for musician Kid Rock. The teenager, who was planning a career in computers, 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, O'Keefe and her friend returned to the parking lot where O'Keefe had left her Mustang. The friend told detectives that she watched O'Keefe get in her car and saw her lights come on. She drove away assuming O'Keefe was safe.

Detectives initially had 10 possible suspects in the case, which gained notoriety in part because the victim’s parents bought billboards with their daughter’s photo that read: “I wasn’t ready to die ... at 18. Can you help catch my killer?”

Over time, authorities came to believe the killer was Raymond Lee Jennings, a security guard who worked for a company that the city hired to patrol the park-and-ride lot. Jennings told investigators that he found O’Keefe’s body during a routine patrol.

Detectives were suspicious of his story because Jennings said that the teenager was still alive when he found her, but he didn’t perform CPR because he feared contaminating the crime scene.

Hoping to bolster the criminal case, O'Keefe's family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Jennings and his employer. But the suit was put on hold, first when Jennings filed for personal bankruptcy and then when he joined the Army National Guard as a driver. He deployed to Iraq in 2003.

In December 2005, Jennings was charged in O'Keefe's killing after prosecutors reexamined the case at the urging of the O’Keefe family. Jennings had no criminal record.

A law enforcement source close to the case said detectives had considered going to Iraq to arrest Jennings but decided to wait until he returned home.

Prosecutors struggled to convict Jennings, in part because the case lacked physical evidence. Two trials resulted in hung juries. In the third trial, held in November and December 2009, a jury found Jennings guilty. 

Then this month, the L.A. County district attorney's office said it had new evidence that cast doubt on Jennings' guilt.

They wouldn't say what the evidence is, but Jennings' attorney offered some clues. Jeffrey Ehrlich said the new investigation uncovered evidence suggesting a robbery or carjacking and that Jennings had nothing to do with it.

“There were other people at the scene, and the D.A.’s office was aware of them, but they only looked at Mr. Jennings,” Ehrlich said.

In a letter to prosecutors, Ehrlich outlined what he considers the weaknesses of their case. The letter noted that there were several people in the parking lot at the time of the killing who were smoking pot and listening to music. The letter quoted one of the witnesses as saying she saw a man in Toyota Tercel flee the scene. 

Ehrlich argued that investigators failed to look into whether other people in the parking lot might be involved in the killing. He noted in the letter that one of the people in the parking lot that night had ties to street gangs and in the years since has been involved in criminal activities.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Ryan recommended Thursday that Jennings be released immediately from the courthouse but ordered electronic monitoring of him because the case against him has not been dismissed.

Contact the Homicide Report. Follow @latimeshomicide on Twitter.

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