An 18-year-old aspiring actress is shot dead in her car in a California parking lot. At first it looks like a robbery gone wrong.
Mike O'Keefe says his daughter was a brilliant 18-year-old who had it all together. She was a math whiz and a star cheerleader in high school. She juggled college courses in computer science with part-time work as a screen extra. She was very proud of and took care of her 260-horsepower Ford Mustang GT.
On February 22, 2000, in California's Antelope Valley, Michelle and a friend were on the way to Los Angeles for an unbelievable gig: to be extras in a Kid Rock video filming in downtown L.A. Michelle didn't want to drive the Mustang the 60 miles into the city, so she pulled into a park-and-ride lot off the freeway in Palmdale, parked under a street light and rode with her friend for a night with Kid Rock.
The production went into overtime. By the time they returned, Michelle was late for class, and still needed to change out of her "rocker girl" outfit she wore for the video.
"They were running late and the class was gonna end at 10 o'clock, so she told her friend 'I'm gonna slip into my jeans and we'll head down there and tell the teacher what happened and try to get the assignment for next week,'" Mike O'Keefe, Michelle's father, tells Crime Watch Daily.
Michelle's friend dropped her off and later told Mike she saw Michelle put the Mustang into reverse. What her friend didn't see is that Michelle's car hit a planter and came to a stop
Someone had just blasted four 9-millimeter slugs into her face and chest.
Security guard Raymond Jennings was patrolling the lot that night.
"I did my patrol and right around 9:30 I heard a car alarm go off," Jennings tells Crime Watch Daily. "I responded to that and as I started to walk down to where that car alarm was sounding, there was a gunshot. And subsequently after that there was multiple gunshots and I radioed in for my supervisor and told her I had shots fired and they patched it through to the sheriff's department."
Jennings was an Army National Guard sergeant who served in Iraq. He says he approached the car, and Michelle, as a crime scene.
The only other witnesses were four people in another car smoking marijuana and listening to music. They reportedly heard the car alarm and what they called "tapping" noises.
Over the next few weeks L.A. County Sheriff's detectives tried to piece the puzzle together with what Raymond Jennings could tell them, in what detectives call a "cognitive interview," a scientific way to help a witness recall crucial information they may have forgotten.
He said his view was blocked by another car parked next to Michelle's Mustang. But the detectives' interest was piqued. They believed Jennings volunteered information only the killer would know, such as the order of the gunshots and the trajectory of the bullets. And he gave chilling details of how he says Michelle died. Jennings was so helpful investigators wondered: How does a security guard know so much about a shooting he says he didn't see?
"I figured when I went home, as I sat down and talked to my wife at the time, I told her 'I think they believe I did it,'" Jennings tells Crime Watch Daily.
He was right.
But was he the right guy? Or was the military veteran just at the wrong place at the wrong time?
Was it a carjacking gone bad? A robbery attempt? Or an assault that turned deadly?
The key witness, the unarmed security guard patrolling the parking lot that night Raymond Jennings, was helpful. During his videotaped interview with L.A. County Sheriff's detectives he led them straight to their suspect -- himself.
"I think me playing the part as far as trying to impress the detectives and sheriff's department, I think that may have played a major role in my own demise," said Jennings.
But it would take five years before the Iraq War veteran was taken custody on a murder charge.
But did they have the right man? There was no direct evidence connecting Raymond Jennings to Michelle O'Keefe's murder. No one identified him as the shooter. He owned a .38-caliber gun, but the murder weapon was a 9-millimeter. There was no gunshot residue or blood on his uniform. And someone else's DNA was found underneath Michelle's fingernails.
Prosecutors believed Jennings approached Michelle's car with flirtation in mind, but ended up killing her instead. Jennings always maintained his innocence, but he soon faced a murder trial.
Because of pre-trial publicity, the trial was moved to the downtown L.A. courthouse. The first jury deadlocked and a mistrial was declared. Then a second jury deadlocked for another mistrial.
"I didn't think they would convict me based upon the evidence and what the state presented," said Jennings. "I didn't believe they presented a strong case to convict me."
But when the third trial was moved back to the Antelope Valley, where Michelle was from, Jennings was scared.
"I was extremely worried due to the fact of the media attention that the case had drawn, it was very negative towards me, in a sense, and I didn't think I would get a fair trial up there," Jennings tells Crime Watch Daily.
Raymond Jennings was found guilty of second-degree murder in 2009 and sentenced to 40 years to life in prison.
It was a news story about Michelle O'Keefe's murder that would be the key to unlock the cell door. And the man holding the key? Just some bored guy surfing the internet.
Attorney Jeffrey Ehrlich says his son, a foreign policy expert, was intrigued enough to investigate the Jennings case, and concluded that Jennings was railroaded.
"He read the opinion and it raised a lot of questions in his mind," said Ehrlich. "He came to me the next day and said 'If I have found an Iraq War veteran who was wrongfully convicted of murder and is innocent, would you like to try get him out of prison?'"
Ehrlich, a prominent civil attorney, isn't a criminal defense lawyer -- but he became one overnight.
"I think I initially had some concerned getting involved in a case if it turned out that he was innocent," said Ehrlich. "But it was just the opposite, that the deeper we dug into the case the stronger our conviction was that he was clearly innocent.
"The state's entire case against Ray, at its most fundamental level, was: He was there and there was no one else that could have committed the crime, therefore he must have done it," Ehrlich said.
But Jennings wasn't the only one in the parking lot that night. There were four other people hanging out in another car nearby getting high.
"The state knew that he wasn't there only one there," said Ehrlich. "A person that has since been identified that we'll call 'John Doe Number One,' who was a convicted carjacker, a gang member who had done some home-invasion robberies and who used a 9-millimeter pistol, which is the same kind of pistol used in the killing."
According to court papers, four months after Michelle's murder John Doe Number One was busted for carjacking a Mustang. When he was arrested he was wearing an earring matching the description of the earrings Michelle was wearing the night of her murder, and one of those was missing.
"The case really had no validity and so the state tried to make up for that by just heaping on piles of irrelevant matter, so we just sort of peeled an onion and showed piece by piece how none of it hung together and none of it made sense," said Ehrlich.
The Los Angeles District Attorney's Conviction Review Unit looked at the new evidence, and they agreed.
"Our office no longer has confidence in the conviction of Mr. Jennings," L.A. County Deputy D.A. Robert Grace announced.
A judge ordered Jennings' immediate release. After almost 11 years he was free.
But he wasn't off the hook yet -- there was still one final day in court.
"The judge vacated the sentence and charge and dismissed all the charges," said Raymond Jennings.
But if Jennings didn't murder Michelle, who did? Cops won't say who they are looking at, only that the investigation is continuing.
At the lonely parking lot on a hill, a cross marks the spot where Michelle O'Keefe was murdered, a sad reminder her killer is still out there, lurking somewhere in the dark of the night.
Under the federal wrongful conviction statute, a person can receive up to $50,000 per year of wrongful imprisonment, meaning Jennings could see more than a half a million dollars for his time served behind bars.