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Local

Technology may one day solve 1973 death of Joliet teen

The Herald-News archives contain notes on Becky Neal's death.
The Herald-News archives contain notes on Becky Neal's death.

In this new series, Herald-News senior reporter Brian Stanley looks back at some of the most notorious crimes in the area’s history. This week marks the 44th anniversary of a Joliet teen whose body was found a month later.

Becky Jean Neal was a frequent runaway. The 16-year-old had been gone for a few days before she was reported missing July 25, 1973.

Becky lived in Joliet with her father, brother and sister, but had talked about going to see her mother in Texas. She’d asked her aunt to lend her traveling money, but never came over to get it.

When Becky’s brother reported her missing, it did not make The Herald-News. It doesn’t appear her disappearance was considered unusual. Despite being one of Becky’s best friends, Susan Light would later tell the paper she hadn’t seen her in two months.

But about 7:30 p.m. Aug. 25, 1973, 18-year-old Robert Sieffert went for a walk along the I&M Canal towpath. Police told The Herald-News Sieffert went to an area east of Bush Road and west of the Caterpillar property to check out a spot where he went ice skating in the winter.

It was there – about 150 yards from the towpath – he found Becky Neal’s body.

Dressed in jeans, her body was too decomposed for an autopsy. Her body was identified by dental records. The only nearby clue was a purse that contained her driving learner’s permit.

Though there was decomposition, detectives confirmed she’d been alive up to July 29. And a Shorewood couple who’d frequently had Becky baby-sit their children would tell the paper they were certain it was Aug. 17 when they encountered her “at a westside hamburger drive-in.”

According to the couple, “Miss Neal was with a woman and two small children – about 7 and 8 years old when they got into the car of a male driver.”

“The couple was positive it was Miss Neal and spoke to her as she left,” The Herald-News reported.

But the investigation stymied soon after the body was found. A man charged with murder in Champaign around the same time who’d passed through Joliet was questioned, but ruled out. The Herald-News reported Becky’s older sister, Jolleen, ran away after an argument with her father on the day of Becky’s funeral – four days after her body was found. Police speculated if the 19-year-old had been present when her younger sister was killed, but the questions of where she was and what she knew hadn’t been answered before what had been consistent press coverage ended in the fall of 1973.

Becky Neal’s death remained almost unmentioned until the late 1980s. Judge Edward Burmila, who was an assistant prosecutor at the time, recalled then-Will County State’s Attorney Ed Petka typically would bring up some random cold cases at the end of the weekly staff meeting.

According to reports, a man from downstate Casey had been telling relatives for several years about a Joliet murder. When police eventually questioned the man, he allegedly said he’d driven a girl to the canal to have a sexual encounter, but killed her with a rock when she laughed at him.

A radiologist and anthropologist were hired to examine Becky’s body and determine whether the man’s statement could be verified. Unfortunately their results were inconclusive and the man who’d confessed was later placed in a mental institution.

Was he telling the truth or is the real killer of a teenage girl still out there?

“We weren’t able to tell (in the 1980s), but there are so many advances in technology,” Burmila said this week.

“Anybody who thinks it’s a waste of time for police or the state’s attorney to review cold cases is sadly mistaken,” Burmila said. “There may be a breakthrough in forensics – literally, tomorrow – that can prove everything that happened.”

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