Body in the orange grove
by Robert A. Waters
On March 18, 1968, as fourteen-year-old Elizabeth “Liz” Ernstein walked home from school, she vanished. Only recently, 44 years later, were her remains identified.
Orange groves lined the two mile walk from Moore Junior High School to her home in Mentone, California. Liz wore a blue dress with white flowers, tennis shoes, and an olive-colored corduroy coat. A businessman driving in the area told police he saw Liz walking less than a block from her home.
Police seemed reluctant to even classify the case as a possible crime. An Associated Press report stated that “police ruled out kidnapping because there was no ransom try and said the girl is probably a runaway.”
A year later, when the body of a young girl was found in a shallow grave in Wrightwood (45 miles away), “Jane Doe” was buried and forgotten.
Norman and Ruth Ernstein had already seen tragedy in their lives. One child had died of polio, but Elizabeth’s disappearance devastated the parents. Her mother told reporters that missing a daughter was “the deepest anguish a person can go through. It is a shock so deep you become wooden.”
In the search for their missing child, the Ernstein family became creative. Norman and Ruth decided that publicity was the key to finding Liz, so they sent out flyers to every newspaper in the United States. Friends, co-workers, and fellow-church members helped to finance the massive project. In addition, a reward totaling $5,000 was offered.
Then the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department released the following “Coroner’s Press Release.” [NOTE: I’ve sectioned it into paragraphs for better readability.]
“San Bernardino County Sheriff’s detectives recently revived a 44-year-old cold case after Coroner investigators determined that human remains found in 1969 near Wrightwood were those of a teenage girl who disappeared near her Mentone home the previous year. Elizabeth Ernstein, 14, was last seen March 19, 1968 one block from her home while returning from school in Mentone. For months afterward, Sheriff’s Department personnel and volunteers searched for clues of Elizabeth’s disappearance, but to no avail. The case took on national attention with news media covering the story from across the nation. Her disappearance went unsolved and 44 years passed.
“In May 2012, investigators with the San Bernardino County Sheriff, Coroner’s Division received additional information that lead to the possibility that Elizabeth’s remains had been previously recovered but not yet identified. Investigators located and obtained DNA samples from Elizabeth’s sister and brother. Those samples were sent to the California Department of Justice for entry into a database which routinely searches possible matches between family members and unidentified individuals.
“In 2011, some of the remains of an unidentified person, found in 1969 in a shallow grave near Wrightwood, were exhumed from the county cemetery and submitted for DNA testing. Investigators with the Coroner’s Division learned the remains were those of a young adult. Working on the additional leads developed in May, investigators asked the Department of Justice to compare the DNA samples from Elizabeth’s sister and brother to the DNA from the unidentified remains found in the Wrightwood grave.
“On August 16, 2012, Sheriff’s Coroner Investigator/Unidentified Persons Coordinator Bob Hunter received confirmation from the Department of Justice that the samples obtained from Elizabeth Ernstein’s brother and sister were a match to the remains found in 1969. The San Bernardino Sheriff's Department Homicide Cold Case unit is continuing the investigation in an effort to determine the circumstances surrounding Elizabeth’s disappearance and suspected murder...”
Who abducted Elizabeth Ernstein, drove her 45 miles north to Wrightwood, and murdered her? Is the killer still alive? Has he committed similar offenses?
Anyone with information regarding this case is asked to call Cold Case Detectives Ryan Ford or Scott Cannon of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s Homicide Detail at (909) 387-3589 or the We-Tip Hotline (where you can remain anonymous) at 1-800-782-7463.