"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, April 1, 2024

The Mystery of the Missing Sharpshooter

"Napa Valley Register," June 24, 1976, via Newspapers.com

Perhaps the most frightening thing about missing-person cases is how so many of them appear to be not only unexpected, but totally inexplicable.  One moment, someone is going through their normal routine, with no hint of anything being amiss, and the next moment, they’re gone forever, with no one ever knowing what the hell happened.  The following little-known mystery is a perfect example of these particularly unsettling disappearances.

Elaine Fay Lehtinen was a promising young Navy Officer.  She was originally from Wisconsin, but in 1976, was stationed at Mare Island in Vallejo, California.  She had a particular talent for sharpshooting.  By 1966, when she was only 21, she was regarded as one of the top 100 shooters in the nation, and the top Navy markswoman.  

As far as Elaine’s personal life goes, there is very little to say.  She appears to have had few living relatives, and they all lived outside of California.  She never married, or even had any known serious romantic relationships.  Colleagues generally liked her well enough--she was a good, reliable officer--but no one was close to her.  She had no financial worries, and was happy with her military career.  She was on track to become a lieutenant commander, an exclusive rank, particularly for a woman in those days.  There was only one known dark side to her life:  In May 1976, Elaine’s mother committed suicide.  However, Elaine appeared to be handling the tragedy as well as could be expected.  As her mother had been sole beneficiary in Elaine’s will, she was beginning the process of having the will updated.  (It’s not clear how much money Elaine had, or whom she was planning to name as the new beneficiary.)  

At about 8 p.m. on Monday, June 14, 1976, two girls who lived in her Napa neighborhood rode their bikes past Elaine’s house.  They noticed that she was watering plants in her front yard.  One of the girls, who knew Elaine personally, called out a “Hello” to her, but Elaine appeared not to hear her.  These girls were the last known people to lay eyes on Elaine Lehtinen.

When Elaine failed to show up for work the following morning, her supervisor was immediately concerned.  It was so unlike her.  A neighbor was phoned, with the request that he check up on her.  This neighbor found that all the doors to her home were locked.  When Elaine failed to answer his knocks on the door, he contacted police.  

When officers arrived at the scene, they found an unlocked window that allowed them to enter the residence.  The house was in perfect order.  Elaine’s car and bicycle were in the garage.  Her uniform was (depending on which account you read) either hung up in the closet or laid out on her bed.  Her purse and keys were on a kitchen counter, along with a bag of groceries.  She had already put together a brown bag lunch for the following day, which was in the refrigerator.  The dirty dishes from a one-person dinner were in the sink.  Her bed was unmade.  A Navy regulation manual was found open to the section dealing with court-martials, but the significance--if any--of this is unknown.

Only one possible clue was discovered regarding her disappearance:  Around 9:30 p.m. on June 14, a blue car was seen going up her driveway.  Someone got out of the car, went to her front door, and then the car drove off again a few minutes later.  This person has never been identified.

Considering that police had virtually nothing to work with, it is sadly unsurprising that the investigation into Elaine’s disappearance went nowhere fast.  Her vanishing was one of those cases that spawned a handful of stories in the local newspaper, and then was largely forgotten.  In 1984, a former Navy captain turned P.I. conducted his own research into the mystery.  He said he found what he believed to be a credible suspect, but he could not find enough evidence to warrant a formal charge.  He believed that Elaine had been murdered and buried somewhere within 50 miles of Napa.

Suicide was ruled out.  Elaine appeared entirely content with her life, and was busy making plans for the future.  Besides, she was regarded as the type who would put her affairs in order if she planned on killing herself.  (On a harsher note, the boyfriend of Elaine’s late mother made the jarring statement that the missing woman was “too selfish” to commit suicide.)

Napa County District Attorney James Boitano had a more exotic theory for Elaine’s disappearance: that she may have been part of some government spy program.  As a loner with no strong ties to anyone, she would be an ideal candidate to take on a new identity.  Boitano found it extremely “fishy” that the Navy claimed to not have Elaine’s fingerprints on file.  “I think the CIA or someone may be involved with this one,” he said in 1979.

If--as many people suspected--the Navy knew more about Elaine’s disappearance than they were willing to say, their silence continues to this day.  A Public Administrator was appointed to deal with Elaine’s assets, she was declared legally dead seven years later, and--to date, at least--that was that.

1 comment:

  1. Though it is very strange that the navy would not have her fingerprints on record, it also seems strange that, if she were on an assignment, she would not put everything in her house away - unless it was a sudden assignment, without warning. Even so, if she had died during it, a plausible cover-story could have been concocted. Not even that was forthcoming, however.


Comments are moderated. Because no one gets to be rude and obnoxious around here except the author of this blog.