Search for Santa Barbara girl missing since 1961 narrows
Reporting from Goleta, Calif. -- The search for Ramona Price began nearly 50 years ago, but only now do police feel they may be getting close.
The 7-year-old girl vanished on Sept. 2, 1961. Santa Barbara authorities disclosed this week that she may have encountered Mack Ray Edwards, a serial killer who worked in the area and confessed to killing six Southern California children.
On Wednesday, four specially trained dogs found what police are calling “an area of interest” near a bridge spanning U.S. 101 in Goleta.
“It’s about as strong a reaction as we could have expected to receive,” said Lt. Donald Paul McCaffrey, a police spokesman.
Ramona lived on the outskirts of Santa Barbara, several miles down the 101 from the Winchester Canyon Road bridge.
Edwards was a heavy-equipment operator who helped build the bridge, which opened just a few weeks after Ramona went missing. He sometimes bunked with a friend in a mobile home on a ridge top within view of the construction site.
The bridge is soon to be torn down, replaced by a new one nearby — which makes this a particularly good time to search, police said.
“When he was in San Quentin [State Prison], he told other inmates he had victims no one would ever find,” said Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez. “He said no one would ever tear up the freeways.”
Sanchez spoke to reporters as the dogs and their handlers methodically paced the bare dirt at the bridge’s base and scrambled through brush on its embankments. The Australian shepherd, chocolate Lab, border collie and golden retriever worked independently — and all four alerted in the same area.
“We’re hoping and praying that some great things come out of this,” said Sanchez, a former Los Angeles Police Department homicide detective. “Everyone deserves some kind of closure, whatever that might mean to them.”
Sanchez said police would have to further analyze the canine team’s findings before deciding whether to excavate at the site — a process that could take weeks. A similar effort to find another of Edwards’ presumed victims failed in 2008 after crews conducted digs near the 23 Freeway in Ventura County.
The four dogs and their handlers were from the Canine Specialized Search Team, a volunteer group affiliated with the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office.
Finding remains half a century old is not an impossible task, said Lynne Englebert, one of the group’s directors. She said the dogs have located buried remains around the world, including some at an archaeological site in Czechoslovakia that probably were more than 1,500 years old.
Recently, the dogs located some 300 unmarked burial sites in the old eastern Sierra mining town of Bodie near the California-Nevada border.
Ramona disappeared as her parents were packing up for a move to another home in the Santa Barbara area.
A witness saw her talking to a man who had stopped his 1950s-vintage Plymouth on the road where she was walking. Ramona got in the car. She was never seen again.
Edwards had a 1950s Plymouth, Sanchez said. A sketch made at the time was “pretty darn close” to Edwards’ 1970 booking photo at the Los Angeles County jail. He turned himself in — and confessed to six murders — after an aborted kidnapping of three young sisters in the San Fernando Valley.
Edwards bragged about committing as many as 20 murders but is not known to have mentioned any in Santa Barbara. In 1972, before investigators could check out his claims, he hanged himself with a TV cord in his San Quentin cell.
Santa Barbara police did not focus on him until about four years ago, when Weston DeWalt, a Pasadena writer, alerted them to his research. It was DeWalt who discovered Edwards’ work on the bridge.
Ramona’s parents are dead, but an older sister survives. Police would not release her name. But Sanchez said the 60-year-old woman remains devastated by the loss of her sister.
On Wednesday, a few Santa Barbara residents gathered at the bridge to watch the dogs work. They talked about the search for Ramona in 1961, a massive community effort that involved Boy Scouts, military helicopters and police officers from all over the region.
Shirley Robles, 76, lived in a house just behind the one to which Ramona was about to move.
Robles, whose two children were young at the time, remembered police searching her home, hoping that Ramona might simply be playing hide-and-seek.
“It was a very frightening time,” she said.
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