Rabbit holes. Dead ends. Near illegible scribbles of thoughts jotted down before I see something shiny and my ADHD erases it from my stream of consciousness. I’ve lost sleep thinking about a woman who disappeared into thin air. Without a trace. From her own home. Many true crime lovers have lost sleep thinking about what happened to missing persons such as Maura Murray, who disappeared in 2004. Maura had many friends and family that have kept her story and memory in the public eye. Unfortunately for Naval Officer, Elaine Faye Lehtinen, she had very little family when she disappeared in 1976. No one to keep her case in the public eye for all these decades. Which truly shocks me, given how incredibly impressive she was as a person. Or still is? Elaine’s story is one that I happened to stumble across by mere chance. I was hunting down cases that sounded like they may have involved someone like my mother’s step father given his colorful past. That’s when Elaine’s face popped up on a list of California cold cases. Despite not believing my mom’s stepdad was responsible for Elaine’s disappearance, I was drawn to the mystery that shrouds Elaine’s disappearance. How does a woman so successful and noteworthy within our country’s military just vanish into thin air?
Elaine Faye Lehtinen went straight from high school in Tucson, AZ, into the United States Navy in 1963, where she graduated at the top of her class at the U.S. Naval Training Center in Bainbridge, Md. Having never even picked up a gun before joining the Navy, Elaine was part of the first all women Navy Rifle WAVE team . She became such an impressive marks(wo)man, that she was the only woman in 1966 asked to compete in the Presidential 100 Rifle Match and became the one of the first female members of the U.S. Navy Rifle Team. By 1975, Elaine had reenlisted and was stationed at Mare Island in Vallejo, CA. She was a Warrant Officer within the Combat System Technical School with a high level of clearance and working her way toward Lieutenant Commander. Her career was incredibly impressive. SHE was incredibly impressive. Making history as a strong woman and role model to young women. Until she just vanished one day.
The Daily Independent. North Carolina. April 21st, 1966. Elaine Lehtinen is featured on the left. Tiny, but mighty.
June 14th, 1976, was a Monday. Elaine went to work that day and through the motions of her normal work routine. That is, aside from setting up an appointment to update her will. After her mother died of an apparent prescription overdose the month prior, Elaine wanted to update her will. Odds are it would be to remove her mother and move assets around. After work, she then came home and was seen by a teenage girl who lived next door. The teen and her friend were riding bikes past and the neighbor girl said “Hi” to Elaine, but Elaine seemed to be either lost in thought, or blatantly ignored the neighbor girl. Her friend questioned if she really even knew the woman because Elaine gave them no time of day whatsoever. Neighbor girl noted in an article about Elaine’s disappearance that her behavior appeared odd. Later, a blue car was seen pulling into Elaine’s driveway at roughly 9:30 PM. It is unclear how long the car was there, just that it was apparently not parked in the driveway overnight.
The next morning set off concern within Elaine’s office when she failed to show up for work. Elaine was punctual. Reliable. She would not just fail to notify her superiors of her absence. Chief Commander Pye called one of Elaine’s neighbors and asked if they would knock on Elaine’s door. When no one answered, Chief Commander Pye alerted authorities that Elaine Lehtinen failed to show up for work and requested a wellness check out of concern. Officers went to Elaine’s home and knocked on her door. When no one answered, they searched the perimeter and found the side door to the garage unlocked but the door from the garage into the house was locked. Elaine’s bicycle and VW Bug were parked in the garage as if she was home. Officers made their way to the back of her home where they found one window unlocked and climbed in to investigate.
Everything was quiet. Orderly. Dishes in the sink indicated a light dinner for one person the evening before. Groceries still bagged, sitting on her kitchen counter right beside her car keys and purse. The bed was unmade, leading officers to assume it had been slept in. Elaine’s uniform was laid out on her bed. Her lunch was packed and waiting for her in the refrigerator. No visible signs of a struggle. She had simply vanished. So what happened to Elaine Faye Lehtinen?
The side garage door that was left unlocked.
One of these back windows were unlocked, which is how police were able to enter Elaine’s home to investigate.
Near as those who knew Elaine could tell, she had everything going for her. Seemed content with her life and did not appear overly distraught over her mother’s sudden passing the month prior. Her coworkers said she was a great boss and kept things professional within the work space. Only one unnamed woman whom she worked with called her “emotional, boring and pushy” in one of the first articles written about her disappearance. All others who knew and/or worked with her confirmed that Elaine was well liked, not overly emotional and did have a social life outside of work, but liked to keep to herself as well. She occasionally would go on dates with men, but her last known date had been on New Years Day in which she and the gentleman caller watched a football game at her home. Her friend/ coworker and his wife, stated that Elaine would sometimes head to the Skaggs Island Officer’s Club to play cards and only ever drank moderately. They also stated that Elaine was a very cautious person and wouldn’t let just anyone in her home. They once showed up to her home as a birthday surprise and she stood behind the door repeating “Who is it”? from behind the door, until they identified themselves. Was there someone harassing Elaine to make her so cautious? This incident and ignoring the neighbor girl waving to her the night before her disappearance have me questioning if she had been lost in thought with concern over something, or someone. I try to imagine what it would’ve been like in her shoes. As a woman, you do not want to appear weak within the workforce in this day in age, let alone 1976. So if she was being harassed, it’s plausible that she would not have confided her concerns to anyone.
Some may be thinking that maybe Elaine took off on her own accord and didn’t want to be found. Perhaps. But if that’s the case, then why start the process to renew her will and not follow through? Why ask her aunt, basically the only family member she had left, to knit her a sweater? Why subscribe to new magazines and buy paint to give her home a fresh coat? Elaine has never once contacted anyone she knew ever again. Never touched her bank account that contained significant funds. Would someone truly go as far as to leave EVERYTHING behind and not get their affairs in order beforehand? Let’s get to the investigation and then sift through the theories that have been discussed over the years.
The biggest mystery to me are the fingerprints. Or rather, lack thereof. Multiple articles about Elaine’s disappearance state that there was one single print found on the kitchen counter, but no one was able to confirm whether or not it was Elaine’s because she had no fingerprints on file. That’s right, the Navy supposedly has no record of Elaine Faye Lehtinen’s fingerprints. They were allegedly lost. In fact, the Napa County District Attorney at the time, James Boitano, stated that he and Public Guardian, Jane Davison, both reached out to the Navy, the FBI, the Department of Defense, the Secretary of the Navy, even President Carter in search of help with identifying Elaine’s fingerprints. All responded that they were unable to help. This sparked the theory that Elaine became some secret spy. Raising an eyebrow at how this could even happen, I turned to my cousin, a West Point grad and military historian for some clarity. He told me that unfortunately losing fingerprints can indeed happen, especially before the days of digitized records. But what really gets to me about the fingerprints is that Elaine lived alone. To me, it seems like the police would have been able to dust her home, her car, her bike, and be able to confirm a set of prints as Elaine’s. Right?
I was able to briefly get in touch with the Napa Police Department and spoke with Sergeant Hunter. She graciously let me begin asking questions. “So, the fingerprints. Within the case details, it states that there was one fingerprint found on her kitchen counter. Given that Elaine lived alone, wouldn’t police be able to dust her home and modes of transportation to compare against the fingerprint on the counter”? I asked. “I’m sorry…Who did you say you are again”? Sergeant Hunter responded. “Ummmm…I’m a cold case blogger….stay at home mom…my blog is called Naptime Nancy Drew” I replied sheepishly. “Oh. OK. Well, I’m sorry but given that this is an active investigation, I cannot share details like that”. Sergeant Hunter politely responded. I get it. And I felt slightly silly about calling, but I figured it was worth a shot. Sergeant Hunter did sound encouraging about bringing new attention to Elaine’s case though, so I very much appreciate her time.
Another thing I thought was rather odd was that Elaine was this highly skilled marks(wo)man, one of the only women to be a part of the US Navy Rifle Team at the time, and a member of the NRA. Yet, supposedly no guns whatsoever were found in her home. OK so sure, her guns for work were likely kept at her base, Mare Island. What I just find odd is hearing that she was such a cautious person, a hell of a shot, and yet police found no weapons in her home. Not implausible, just seems odd to me. Just saying. So let’s break down the theories that have come up over the years.
Elaine Ran Away To A Convent To Become A Nun
According to former Navy Captain turned private investigator, Ken Lotridge, Elaine was a devout Catholic and had supposedly been close to nuns from her high school in Tucson, AZ. Private Investigator Ken Lotridge thought the mystery was coming to a close when a monsignor and two nuns from a convent had positively identified Elaine’s photo. Alas, upon tracking down the woman in the young convent, she was ruled out as being Elaine Lehtinen.
She Was Assigned A New Identity Through The CIA Or Something Cool Like That
I mean. This is the theory I’m really rooting for, but I know the odds are real slim. No fingerprints (allegedly). High clearance. Record sharpshooter. Nearly no family and few friends. Vanished into thin air. Boom. Spy. None of this explains how cautious she seemed to be about living alone and protecting herself, however. Again, I turned to my military historian cousin. He said that many people in the military have a Top Secret clearance, under many different categories. So odds are, her Naval intel had nothing to do with her disappearance. Well, damn. One thing that I did find interesting was that Detective Bucky Stewart with the Napa Police Department stated that $16,000.00 in retirement funds were placed into Elaine’s bank account in 1980. Due to federal privacy laws, however, he was not able to find out how the funds got into her account. More recent articles have maintained that Elaine has never touched any of the funds within her bank account though. Elaine reenlisted in 1975, so she may have only enlisted for another five years and that pension was set to be released when she didn’t renew? Shrugs. After originally being declared AWOL in 1976, she was officially declared dead in 1986, despite her body having never been found. Her aunt wound up receiving Elaine’s assets as the sole beneficiary and last living relative. There is now a Scholarship in Michigan, set up in Elaine Lehtinen and her aunt’s honor.
Elaine Faye Lehtinen Was Murdered
As much as I want to believe Elaine started a new life, my gut leans toward foul play. To me, it seems she was cautious for a reason. With good reason. On June 1st, 1976, Eileen Francis Hynson went missing from her Lake Berryessa home. She was supposed to meet at a bridal shop in Benicia to get fitted for her bridesmaids gown and she was never seen again. Obviously, no proof that these cases are even related, but it most definitely would have been talk amongst the town. The fact that there was no sign of struggle within Elaine’s home doesn’t mean much to me, given that she was 5’0″ and 110 pounds. She sadly could have been overpowered fairly easily, especially since no weapons were present in her home. The groceries left on her kitchen counter get to me. If she had truly slept in her bed, then she would not have just left her perishable food still bagged up on the kitchen counter. She had to have made the trip that morning. One local grocery store opened at 6AM. I would assume that she had to be to work by 8 or 9AM. I mapped out her commute from her home on the 1500 Block of Parkwood Street in Napa to Mare Island Naval Base in Vallejo and it is approximately a 40 minute drive with mild traffic. That doesn’t leave a very big gap in time to plan out taking Elaine. Did someone follow her back from the grocery store? Did the blue car that pulled into her drive the night before, unlock the back window to gain access later on? Were there ever any composite sketches made or descriptions of suspicious persons in the Springwood neighborhood during the time of Elaine’s disappearance? Did the thought of this tiny woman earning such an impressive and successful career get under someone’s skin? These are just a few of the many, many questions myself and those who are aware of this case, have pondered over the years. Private investigator Ken Lotridge seemed to believe that Elaine Faye Lehtinen was indeed murdered. He even had a lead person of interest in mind and stated in an article that he believed Elaine’s body will be found within a 50 mile radius of her home. I tried to contact Ken Lotridge, but he has unfortunately passed away.
Since finding all of this information out, I have gone through each and every Jane Doe or Unknown Doe that I think could potentially match Elaine’s physical description and time of disappearance. Short, straight brown hair, blue eyes, five feet tall, and 110 pounds. The most promising Jane Doe I came across was discovered about 10 hours north of Napa, in Oregon. A hunter found the remains of a woman on July 24th, 1976, near Swamp Mountain road in Sweet Home, OR. What keeps me skeptical though is what the Jane Doe was wearing, given that I don’t know what Elaine’s fatigue style was like or what her shoe size was. I am currently awaiting a response back from Namus, but here is the link to this Jane Doe’s info: https://www.namus.gov/UnidentifiedPersons/Case#/7765
I will continue to research the disappearance of Elaine Faye Lehtinen and attempt to turn in any potential Jane Doe’s that could be her. There are a few helpful sites that sleuths can use to help identify the missing and help bring them home. NamUs, The Doe Foundation and the Charley Project.
Elaine Faye Lehtinen’s memory and service to our country deserve to be honored. She deserves justice if she was met with foul play. If you have any information regarding the June 15th, 1976 disappearance of Elaine Faye Lehtinen, please contact the Napa Police Department at 707-257-9223 or submit a tip via email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Napa Valley Register Archives
Tucson Daily Citizen 10/18/1966
The Daily Independent 04/21/1966
Ironwood Daily Globe 10/25/1966
The Atlanta Constitution 02/26/1966
Arizona Daily Star 10/19/1966