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Police search for Calif. girl who vanished in 1961

SHARE Police search for Calif. girl who vanished in 1961

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — On Sept. 2, 1961, Ramona Price watched excitedly as her father helped movers pack the family's belongings.

The 7-year-old schoolgirl said she would run on ahead to their new home, a few miles away. Sure, honey, the distracted dad had said, not thinking his daughter was serious.

A short while later, he realized she'd gone. He called police, who launched a huge search. But the little girl with curly brown pigtails had vanished.

Fifty years on, police on Wednesday began the painstaking task of looking for Ramona's remains along the side of a picturesque freeway. Acting in part on information provided by a local sleuth, detectives now think Ramona became yet another victim of serial killer Mack Ray Edwards, who confessed to killing more than 20 kids before he committed suicide on death row in San Quentin in 1971.

Weston DeWalt, an author and investigator from Pasadena, pointed out to police that Ramona's disappearance had many similarities to other killings carried out by Edwards, an Arkansas native who joined the Army in 1942 and was trained how to work heavy equipment. He eventually wound up driving backhoes and other machinery during the Southern California freeway boom and told fellow prisoners at San Quentin that he'd buried victims in the dirt under the roads.

"He really joked about it, who would ever tear down a freeway, no one would ever find them," Santa Barbara Police Chief Cam Sanchez said.

Authorities said Edwards helped build a freeway overpass on U.S. Highway 101 as it cuts past rolling green hills along the Pacific coast, just west of Santa Barbara. The bridge was completed soon after Ramona went missing.

Using dogs specially trained to pick up the scent of old human remains, a crew of handlers worked the graded areas on each side of the overpass, which is in the process of being demolished and replaced. The animals can pick up on scents at concentrations 100 million times smaller than humans can detect.

Police said that the dogs had found "an area of interest," but the findings must be analyzed further before officials decide whether to excavate, the Los Angeles Times reported late Wednesday.

Ramona's disappearance had quickly reverberated around the community. Police and sheriff's deputies from neighboring towns, as well as volunteers and airmen from nearby Vandenberg Air Force Base, scoured the area to no avail. Killings in the area were rare then, as they are now. Lt. D. Paul McCaffrey said there are typically about three homicides annually in the city of some 88,000.

Soon after Ramona disappeared, two brothers who were sex offenders were questioned in the case and underwent lie detector tests. They acknowledged talking to a girl as she passed them on the road but they said they never touched her and no charges were filed.

A witness who saw a girl matching Ramona's description get into a 1950s Plymouth helped police produce a composite sketch of a man with dark, receding hair. When looked at alongside Edwards' booking photograph, the sketch shares some similarities.

Detective Jaycee Hunter, who provided the account of Ramona's last exchange with her father, said Edwards had an "eclectic way of killing," and would sexually assault his victims before killing them by strangulation, or stabbing or shooting them.

Edwards turned himself in to authorities in 1970 after kidnapping three girls from the Sylmar area of Los Angeles. He told police he'd killed six children between 1953 and 1968 and later on said he'd killed as many as 18 more, though his story changed, Hunter said.

It's not the first time authorities have attempted to find remains alongside roads Edwards worked on.

In the fall of 2008 crews excavated a stretch of earth alongside a freeway in the arid hills northwest of Los Angeles. They were looking for the body of Roger Dale Madison, a 16-year-old boy who disappeared in 1968 at the hands of Edwards.

Edwards, who hung himself at age 53 with the power cord for his cell television, confessed in 1970 that Madison was one of his victims. Citing safety considerations, authorities abandoned their excavation without finding any remains.

That case was also revived by DeWalt, who was looking into a 1957 missing-child case and noticed similarities with the Madison case.

DeWalt was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

Both of Ramona's parents are dead. She is survived by a sister, who no longer lives in the area. The police chief said it was important to find Ramona's remains to get closure for the sister and the community.