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Cold Case, 1976: Missing or Murdered?

More than 35 years ago, a Navy officer with a promising career vanished from her Napa home, leaving no sign of what had become of her. Now, cold case detectives are waiting for the results of new testing on old evidence from her 1976 disappearance.

Second in a series of reports on individual cold case investigations in Napa. 

Investigators in the  are working on from 1963 to 2007.

The strange case of Elaine Lehtinen is one of them.

"It’s like she dropped off the face of the earth”

The last time Lehtinen was seen was the evening of June 14, 1976, when she was 31. Neighbors told investigators they saw her gardening in the front yard of her home in the 1500 block of Parkwood Street in north Napa.

“No one has ever heard from her again. It’s like she dropped off the face of the earth,” said Detective Todd Shulman.

Although it’s been more than 35 years since Lehtinen was seen alive, she is still listed as a missing person, Shulman said.

However, police are also investigating her disappearance  as a possible cold case homicide, he added.

At the time of her disappearance, Lehtinen was a Navy officer stationed at Mare Island in Vallejo. The Navy initially listed her as AWOL, and later as dead.

But with the advancement of criminal investigation technology such as DNA testing, the Navy has reclassified her case as a missing person and is working with Napa County law enforcement in trying to solve what happened to Lehtinen, Shulman said.

Cold case detectives have retrieved from storage the evidence collected during the initial investigation at the time Lehtinen disappeared.

“We have sent the evidence to the Department of Defense criminal lab in Georgia,” Shulman said.

“With all the new technology with DNA, we hope to find something that will help us solve the case.”

Home was "neat and orderly"

On the morning of June 15, 1976, Lehtinen’s Naval supervisor became concerned when Lehtinen did not show up for work. A call was made to Lehtinen’s neighbor, who agreed to check her house.

“Her car and bicycle were in the garage. There was no sign of forced entry,” Shulman said. “The neighbor found an unlocked window and entered the home.”

Shulman said Lehtinen’s uniform was laid out as if she had been preparing to go to work. “Her purse and keys were also found inside the house,” he said.

Because the case is under investigation, Shulman would not go into detail about the condition of the home, except to say, “It was neat and orderly,” adding that he did want to comment on whether police suspect there had been a struggle.

“There was no note or anything else to believe she was suicidal,” Shulman said.

“Most missing persons cases are resolved in a week, not months and years,” he said. “People go missing for usually two reasons: they don’t want to be found, or foul play.”

No apparent reason —or resources— for disappearance

Shulman said typically people who want to disappear have either criminal, financial or family problems or a history of mental health or substance abuse.

“Miss Lehtinen has none of these signs. She had a promising career in the Navy, no criminal history, no indications of financial troubles, nothing that goes along with her wanting to disappear,” Shulman said.

“She never touched her bank account after she disappeared. She didn’t have any close family, but she had a lot of Navy friends. It just doesn’t add up for her wanting to drop off the earth.”

Shulman said when people want to disappear they need resources: “They need money, contacts, transportation. It doesn’t appear she had any of those things. She never has any contact with relatives, close friends — no one since she went missing. She left everything she had in life behind.”

Shulman said Lehtinen's Navy career was going well: “She enlisted when she was 18 and moved up the ranks to an officer status. She had a secret clearance, but a lot of officers in the Navy have one. We don’t think that played a part in her disappearance.”

Lehtinen had many friends, none of whom ever heard from her after her disappearance, Shulman said.

“We checked her friends and talked extensively to an old boyfriend,” he said. “But no credible evidence turned up.”

The Navy declared Lehtinen dead in 1986 and her life insurance was paid, Shulman said.

“We don’t think that could be a motive. It’s wasn’t all that much, and it took 10 years before it was paid.”

Do you remember anything that might help investigators?

Shulman hopes someone in the area may have information that could help solve the mystery of Lehtinen’s disappearance.

“Many people who were in the Navy at Mare Island stayed in the area after they retired. We hope someone will remember something about the case and call us,” he said.

“No matter how trivial it might seem, please contact us.”

Anyone with information is asked to call the cold case investigation unit at (707) 299-1521 or at 1-800-450-9543. Callers may remain anonymous.

About the Cold Case unit

The Napa County cold case investigation unit is made up of seven detectives from the sheriff’s and police departments. The unit is funded by a $500,000 grant.

This week, the cold case unit announced its first arrest after DNA evidence linked a known sex offender with the nine-year-old forcible rape of a 17-year-old girl in Napa ().

For more about the unit and the cases it investigates, please see and our Cold Cases topic page, available from the News tab or at napa.patch.com/topics/cold-cases.

Mike Treleven March 29, 2012 at 03:00 PM
I hope someone who has any information about Miss Lehtinen will call police and help solve this mystery. It is amazing how far crime solving technology has come over the decades. What's next?
Matthew Young April 05, 2012 at 12:16 AM
Wow, that's creepy. My parents rented a house in the 1500 block of Parkwood Street from 1978-1984. I wonder if we lived in the house that this woman did all those years ago.
Louisa Hufstader (Editor) April 05, 2012 at 12:32 PM
Matthew, even if it was a different house, your parents may have heard comments in the neighborhood about the disappearance two years before. It must have made some waves in a town as small as Napa would have been then.
mimi April 12, 2012 at 09:11 AM
Did she have or someone she knew that they she talked to, a kind of weird walk or limp?
Marsha Dorgan April 12, 2012 at 02:43 PM
Matthew, Give the cold case investigations a call. You might have info they would consider important. they need people to come forward, no matter how trivial you might believe it is.

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