It was in Oceanside, California, that Leticia Hernandez lived with her parents, grandparents, and six siblings in an apartment building. Around 5 p.m. on Saturday, December 16, 1989, the 7-year-old was playing outside in front of her apartment. Her mother then went into the laundry room of the building. Ten minutes later, her mother, who was also named Leticia, left the laundry room. She didn’t see her daughter and thought she had gone off with a friend. People in the neighborhood and some of her daughter’s friends were called, but no one knew where the girl was. After that, she called the police to say that her daughter was missing.
A little over two days before she disappeared, Leticia had her seventh birthday. She went to Oceanside’s Palmquist Elementary School and was in the first grade. Her classmates knew her as a friendly but shy girl who was well-behaved and got along with them. Her friends lived in the same apartment building as her and they often played with her. They had never been lost before.
On that Saturday, though, there was a police chase in nearby Balderrama Park. Leticia noticed that there were a lot of police cars with flashing lights and a sheriff’s helicopter in the area. Then she told her mom about them. Her mom told her not to worry about it and to stay in front of the apartment. She was now afraid that Leticia might have been so interested in what was going on that she disobeyed her and went to the park to see what was going on.
Officers from the Oceanside Police Department began a thorough search of the area right away around Leticia’s apartment building. They went from apartment building to apartment building and street to street in the nearby neighborhood. They also called in reserve officers to help them search through a nearby canyon. At 3 a.m., they were beginning to lose hope. The search was put on hold for a few hours, but it started up again after sunrise, with many people offering to help. Police spokesman Bob George said he thought Leticia had probably been taken away.
By Sunday, thousands of missing person flyers had been sent out all over the area. Copies of the flyers could be made for free at a printing shop in Oceanside. Police officers with search dogs and hundreds of volunteers looked through Oceanside’s alleys and backyards, while deputies from the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department searched from above. They couldn’t find any hints about where Leticia was.
As word spread about Leticia’s disappearance, several children came forward to say they had seen a man driving a dark-colored four-door Cadillac through the neighborhood early Saturday evening. The man, who was described as balding and in his mid-30s, was offering kids $50 to get into his car in the parking lot of a nearby market. The kids ran into the store and stayed there until they saw the man leave in his car.
Another girl remembered seeing the same man in the parking lot of the market a few days before. When a young girl said she didn’t need help carrying her groceries, he didn’t follow her. Detectives didn’t know if this man had anything to do with Leticia’s disappearance, but they wanted to find out who he was so they could question him.
Robert George said that over the past two or three weeks, there had been several reports of men in Oceanside trying to get kids into their cars. However, detectives hadn’t been able to figure out if these reports were connected or not. Still, they didn’t have any leads on any of the cases.
Leticia’s father was in Mexico taking care of his sick mother when his daughter went missing, so he wasn’t thought to be a suspect. Leticia’s mother asked everyone to please keep her daughter safe while she waited for her husband to come back. “I just need her back soon.” If they want money, they should talk to me. Having my child here is all I want.
Detectives said on Monday that they didn’t know what happened to Leticia and didn’t have any solid leads. The FBI joined the search because they thought the little girl had been taken. Agents were sent to talk to neighbors and search homes in the area. “We don’t have good feelings on this case,” Bob George said.We want to put stress on the person who has her to get rid of her.
Everyone in the neighborhood worked together to find the girl. Detectives saw that among the volunteers were gang members, community leaders, and block captains. In Oceanside, Encinitas, Fallbrook, San Marcos, and Vista, they helped hand out flyers. The mother of the missing girl said she was shocked by how many people had come to her house to ask what they could do to help find Leticia. She asked the person who took her daughter, Leticia, to return her several times in public. “Leave her somewhere she can get to me if the person who has her doesn’t want to bring her here.”
The San Luis Rey River and the Buena Vista Lagoon were searched by police on Tuesday. Along with them came Marines from Camp Pendleton who had been trained specifically in search and rescue. Investigators said they hadn’t been given any information that told them to search the river or lagoon, but they wanted to make sure they checked the whole area in case.
When asked about the disappearance of Leticia, Oceanside Police Lt. Ron Call said that a task force of six investigators and four FBI agents hadn’t been able to find any solid leads yet. “We’re looking at everything and checking every angle.” The police were able to rule out the possibility that Leticia’s family members had anything to do with her disappearance.
By Wednesday, the search for Leticia had been called off because police thought she had probably been taken out of the area. Bob George said that investigators did not have any leads at this time. People who saw her or know of people who tried to talk to her before she went missing need to let us know. Detectives looked into every tip they got, but none of them led them to Leticia.
The little girl’s siblings had a hard time figuring out what had happened. When she went missing, her brother Daniel Hernandez was only 4 years old. “If I were big, I’d put on my Superman suit and fly around until I saw her,” he told the press. I’d save her and take her home…I’d fly home with her in one arm.”
Even though Leticia’s apartment was decorated for Christmas, no one in the family felt very joyful. The girl’s mother said that all she wanted for Christmas was to have her daughter back. But as the days went by, investigators knew that they were losing hope of finding Leticia alive.
The police searched parts of Mexico four days after the last time they saw Leticia. In Tijuana and Baja California, missing person flyers with Leticia’s picture were passed out, and some investigators crossed the border to follow up on leads they got. Other than that, they worked with Mexican police to search a number of areas nearby.
People in Oceanside set up a reward fund at a nearby bank and asked individuals and businesses to donate. The Blade-Citizen newspaper also said it would pay $5,000 for information that led to Leticia’s location. Lawyers for the police thought that the reward money would help them find new leads.
Police spokesman Bob George told reporters that they were hopeful that they would find Leticia. “We’re not going to give up, and we never will.” We’re not giving up on her just because she hasn’t been found yet.
Even though it was a sad Christmas Day at the Hernandez house, people brought food and gifts for Leticia’s siblings. Leticia’s mom said she was thankful for all the help from the community, but all she wanted was her daughter back.
On December 26, 1989, police released a sketch of a man they wanted to question about the disappearance of Leticia. A woman said she thought she saw Leticia and her kidnapper at the Buckman Springs Rest Area on Interstate 8 around 11:30 pm on the Saturday she was reported missing. This information was used to make the composite sketch. This was about 90 miles east of where Leticia lived.
The girl was crying and looked scared, the woman said. She was with a white man in his early 30s with shoulder-length blonde hair. He was stocky and about 5 feet 8 inches tall. He weighed about 225 pounds. She told the police that she and her husband didn’t do anything because they thought the man and child were having “family problems.” She didn’t call the police until after she found out that Leticia had been taken.
After the sketch of the person who was thought to have taken Leticia was made public, detectives got several calls from people in the Las Vegas area who thought they saw him with the girl. After a few days, they heard from several people who said they saw Leticia at an Arizona rest stop with a man and a woman. People who saw the girl said she looked scared and upset, but she wasn’t hurt physically.
Investigators put out a composite drawing of the woman who was seen traveling with Leticia and the blonde man. People said the woman was 5 feet 10 inches tall and had a slim build. She also had blonde hair. People who saw the blonde man said his hairline was receding and that he had a cross tattoo on the back of his hand. The three people were riding in a dirty maroon car with a tan interior. It was most likely a 1975 Buick Skylark.
According to police, they were focusing their search for Leticia and her kidnappers in Texas on January 2, 1990. This was because the girl had recently been seen at a truck stop in El Paso. There, people said they saw her with the same couple that other people had seen, and they saw the same car. Detectives were hopeful that they would soon be able to find Leticia and bring her back to her family.
There were no more reports of seeing Leticia after a few days, and detectives had no solid clues about where she was. They checked into more than 230 possible sightings, but they thought that most of them were just cases of people thinking they were someone else. The police did everything they could to get the case covered across the country in the hopes that this would lead to more tips that would help them find Leticia, but the investigation eventually stopped moving forward.
Detectives were doing everything they could to find Leticia, but her friends at Palmquist Elementary School didn’t know what had happened to their friend. A lot of kids were scared to play outside because they thought they would be taken next. The kids were taken to the school to talk to counselors, who heard how scared they were that Leticia would never be found.
This happened on January 24, 1990, on an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries.” Detectives were getting more and more desperate for information, police spokesman Bob George told reporters. It looks like we’ve hit a wall. We need some ideas. We need help.” Investigators got 144 calls about the case after the show aired. People in Texas, Alabama, Florida, and Colorado said they had seen Leticia. We looked into every tip, but none of them led us to the missing girl.
Late in February 1990, detectives said that they had thought a local man was responsible for Leticia’s disappearance before they got many reports of her being seen with a blonde couple. They wouldn’t say the man’s name, but they did say that he lived on the same block as Leticia and her family. Detectives were still looking into leads from out of state, so this man wasn’t ruled out as a suspect.
In June and October, people in the community held a number of fundraisers in the hopes of raising an extra $100,000 for the reward fund. Aside from concerts and silent auctions, they also had booths at local fairs and raffles. Their fundraiser helped keep the case in the news, but it didn’t lead to any new developments.
Police followed leads from California to Florida, but Leticia’s mother said she didn’t think her daughter had been taken out of the state as the first anniversary of her disappearance drew near. “I don’t think she’s in Florida…”I don’t know what other people see, but I can tell she’s close.
Today, December 13, 1990, would have been Leticia’s 8th birthday. She should have been with her family and friends. For the event, the Oceanside Boys and Girls Club held a party for everyone to honor the girl who went missing. Also, they dedicated a few of their fall and winter shows to her. They did this to keep the case in the public eye and remind people that she was still missing.
Leticia’s skull was found in a wild canyon near the border with Riverside County on March 9, 1991. It turned out that her mother was right; Leticia was found only 23 miles from where she was last seen. She had only ever been to California.
Oceanside residents were shocked when they heard about the find. Since so many people had seen Leticia in Florida, they all hoped that she would be found alive there. When they found out she had been so close to home the whole time, it broke their hearts.
Leticia had died three to twelve months before she was found, but pieces of the red shorts and underwear she was wearing when she went missing were found nearby, which made some people think she had been k*illed the same day she went missing. The area where her body was found was searched thoroughly and 27 pieces of evidence were found. However, detectives would not say what exactly had been found.
There was no way to know for sure what k*illed Leticia; the medical examiner could only say that there were no signs of violence on her skull. It was impossible to say for sure how she died because only a small part of her body was found, but detectives were looking into the case as a m*urder because Leticia would not have been able to get to the canyon on her own.
People from all over the world came to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Oceanside on March 23, 1991, to remember Leticia. At first, Leticia’s family wasn’t sure if they would have a public funeral because most of her body parts hadn’t been found yet, but they seemed to understand that they and the community needed to say goodbye. The service had almost 500 people.
A federal grand jury was called together to see if there was enough evidence to charge an unnamed person in the case while the community was grieving. Detectives wouldn’t say what the suspect’s name was, but they did say he lived in Oceanside and had been convicted of sexually abusing children. He was asked to testify, but he used his constitutional right to remain silent in front of the grand jury. He did, however, give blood and hair samples.
Police first learned about this man early on in the case. Shortly after Leticia went missing, the FBI searched his home and took his car for a short time. People who saw him said he wasn’t in town on the day Leticia went missing, but he said he was. No one was charged in the case, and the investigation quickly stopped and then went cold, so the truth may never be known.
In 1992, police said that the convicted child molester was still a suspect in the case, but DNA tests had shown mixed results and they couldn’t connect him to the disappearance of Leticia. An investigator with the district attorney’s office named Steve Casey said, “The well on that is pretty dry. It would be wrong to call it an active, ongoing investigation at this point.”
Leticia’s mother died on February 8, 1998, at the age of 40. She never found out who had taken and ki*lled her beloved daughter. The little girl’s grandmother, father, and siblings kept hoping that they would one day get justice for her. As of August 2023, they are still not ready.
In December 1989, Leticia Hernandez was only 7 years old when she was taken from Oceanside, California, and k*illed. She was a shy but sweet little girl who loved penny candy, bananas, and oranges. She spoke English and Spanish very well. Detectives have been following up on thousands of leads over the years, but they have never been able to catch anyone in her case. Please call the Oceanside Police Department at 760–435–4900 if you know anything about Leticia’s d*eath.