The Unsolved 1989 Murder of Seven-Year-Old Leticia Hernandez
The little girl disappeared while playing outside her family’s apartment in December 1989; her skull was later found in March 1991.
OCEANSIDE, Calif. — Rodolfo Martinez and Leticia Hernandez, 32, lived with their six children in a ground-floor apartment in the 1300 block of Bush Street in Barrio Posole, Oceanside, California. The apartment complex they lived in housed mainly Mexican immigrants who came to California seeking better lives for their families. It was considered a safe environment to raise their children.
In December 1989, the family prepared for a magical Christmas and looking forward to spending as much time together as possible.
Hernandez’s namesake had just celebrated her seventh birthday on Dec. 14 and looked forward to opening more presents on Christmas Day.
Leticia was a first-grader at Palmquist Elementary School in Oceanside. She has been described as a “mother hen,” tending to her classmates and younger siblings whenever they needed her.
She was a beautiful child with long, raven waist-length hair that she liked to braid herself. She wanted to be a model when she grew up.
Leticia last attended school on Friday, Dec. 15. That night, several teachers from her school delivered presents to the students in the barrio. Leticia was so happy to see her former kindergarten teacher Jackie Madison that she did not seem too worried about the gifts.
Little did Madison know at the time, she would never see Leticia alive again. And unbeknownst to Leticia’s family, their world was about to change forever.
The Abduction of Leticia Hernandez
On Saturday, December 16, 1989, Leticia and her younger brother, Jorge, 2, played outside the apartment while their mother did household chores. Jorge went inside around 5 p.m. without Leticia. When her parents could not locate her, they called the Oceanside Police Department and reported her missing.
Witnesses reported seeing a man in Leticia’s neighborhood driving a late-model black Cadillac and attempting to lure children into his vehicle by offering them $50. However, the reports led nowhere.
The initial search included Marine Corps members, who searched the canyon near Interstate-5 and nearby San Luis Rey River. Flyers were made and distributed around Oceanside, and CB radio operators broadcasted the little girl’s description across the country.
Leticia soon captured Oceanside residents’ hearts and the rest of the country’s when her case went national.
A massive hunt for Leticia soon followed. Law enforcement agencies nationwide joined together to locate the missing girl.
Sightings of Leticia Hernandez
Between the day she disappeared and May 22, 1990, there were 18 sightings of Leticia. The last sighting occurred on May 22 at a gas station in High Springs, Fla.
Witnesses had seen the little girl at campgrounds, gas stations, and rest stops between Buckman Springs and High Springs, Fla.
In these sightings, several people saw a man and a woman with the girl. They described the male as white, in his 30s or 40s, around 6 feet tall, and about 250 pounds. He had shoulder-length blond hair, thinning on top, and a tattoo on the back of a hand depicting a cross with printing on it. The female was around 30 years old, slender, 5 feet 6 inches to 5 feet, 11 inches tall, shoulder-length blond hair, and a light complexion.
On one occasion, a third captor was seen with the couple. She was heavy-set, in her 40s or early 50s, and weighed about 160 pounds. She had a deep tan and shoulder-length dark brown curly hair with gray streaks.
Authorities believed the captors were traveling Northern Florida in a maroon mid-1970 Buick Regal or Skylark, or a 1975 or older chocolate brown Dodge van with bubble windows at the rear, similar to the one pictured below, pulling a black cargo trailer.
Due to the numerous out-of-state sightings, the FBI joined the investigation.
On March 9, 1991 (some reports say March 6), a property caretaker discovered a skull in a remote canyon near a rural county road between the Pala Indian Reservation and the Riverside County line in North San Diego County. The area was sparsely populated and roughly 25 miles northeast of Leticia’s Oceanside home. Dental records later identified the skull as belonging to Leticia Hernandez.
Police searched the area and found the red shorts Letica was wearing the day she disappeared. They did not find any more bones.
The area where Letica’s remains were found was used by “alien smugglers as a bypass to the U.S. Border Patrol Checkpoint a few miles to the west on Interstate 15,” the Los Angeles Times reported. It has also been a dumping ground for killers. The body of Amber Dubois, abducted and murdered by John Albert Gardner in 2009, was found in the same area. In the 1980s, the bodies of at least four women were also discovered in the same place when authorities were investigating a string of killings, mostly involving sex workers.
The medical examiner determined Leticia had been dead 12 to 15 months but most likely killed soon after the abduction.
The discovery of Leticia’s remains in California and the time frame of her death cast some doubt into the numerous sightings after her abduction. Nevertheless, investigators did not rule out the Florida sightings.
Prime Suspect and DNA
One man, aged 40 and married with three children in 1989, has been the prime suspect since early in the investigation. His name has never been released to the public, but he lived in Leticia’s neighborhood when she disappeared and was a convicted pedophile and alien smuggler.
In December 1989, authorities served a search warrant on the man’s mother and brother’s home and confiscated the suspect’s vehicle. Police returned it soon after, and they never arrested the man.
Several residents said they saw the suspect’s son playing with Leticia shortly before she disappeared.
Authorities were so focused on the out-of-state sightings of Leticia they stopped pursuing the suspect. In their defense, the man looked nothing like the white captor seen with Leticia — he was Latino, 5-foot-6, and weighed around 155 pounds. Furthermore, the man never left California during the search for Leticia.
However, investigators did not pursue the theory he had killed Leticia soon after he molested and abducted her. They surmised he molested and abducted Leticia before turning her over to his white alien smuggling friends, who took her to Florida. They later returned to California and handed her back to the suspect, who then killed her. Another theory was that Leticia died while in Florida, and the captors brought her body to California and dumped it.
Meanwhile, the suspect’s lawyer blocked a federal search warrant to obtain blood, hair, and saliva samples from him for DNA testing.
By the early 1990s, DNA testing was advancing. According to the DNA Diagnostics Center, “DNA history introduced Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) DNA testing, which replaced RFLP analysis for routine relationship testing. PCR analysis requires a comparatively small amount of DNA, so a cheek (buccal) swab is a suitable sample for testing — eliminating the necessity of a blood collection … A PCR DNA test can provide a probability of a relationship of 99.99% or higher.”
A 1991 federal grand jury focused on the neighbor, and officials served him with a subpoena identifying him as the inquiry target. The suspect did not testify at the hearing.
The warrant raised a novel issue in federal court: whether it is legal to obtain DNA evidence if no criminal case exists, based on a mere grand jury investigation. Two federal judges reviewed the case but gave different views. Clarke then took her argument to the U.S. 9th Circuit Cout of Appeals, where it languished for half a year without a hearing. Frustrated with the delay, prosecutors bowed out of the case in November 1991. Under federal law, the disputed search warrant is a settled point in state court, where local police regularly used the warrants to collect samples. — Alan Abrahamson, Los Angeles Times
The suspect submitted blood, hair, and saliva samples. Authorities sent the specimens to the FBI Lab in Washington for DNA testing. However, the results did not link the suspect to the various sites police searched, nor did they place Leticia at those locations.
Investigators shelved the Leticia Hernandez case in 1992 when they had exhausted all leads and could not take it any further.
After Leticia disappeared, her school classmates rotated what desks they sat in, so her seat was never empty.
Her family kept her unopened Christmas gifts for over a year after she vanished. Leticia’s mother had two more children — Michael and Javier — after her disappearance. Her mother passed away from cancer in 1998.
Oceanside Detective Chris McDonough helped raise reward money. He wrote and recorded the song “Leticia We Love You,” which was later made into a video. McDonough sold cassette tapes of the tune for $5 at a benefit for Leticia, earning roughly $7500 for the reward fund. Benefit organizers raised another $3,000 through other means.
Retired Major League Baseball star Rollie Fingers headlined the benefit for Leticia. Before he married his second wife, Suzanne Fingers, Suzanne’s daughter was abducted and safely returned home three months later. However, the trauma still lingered for Fingers’ wife, and she knew all too well what Leticia’s family was going through. Fingers’ celebrity status helped ensure more tickets sold and, therefore, more reward money raised.
Leticia’s case has been featured on both “America’s Most Wanted” and “Unsolved Mysteries.”
The murder of Leticia Hernandez remains unsolved. In 2010, investigators said they had no plans to revisit the case.