Forever 5: The Kidnap and Murder of Doreen Heskett

Dec 4, 2014 - by Tobi Shields - 1 Comment

Doreen Heskett 

When the badly decomposed remains of 5-year-old Doreen Heskett were discovered in a cow pasture eight months after she was abducted from a busy street, the citizens of Napa discovered that living amongst them was a sexual predator responsible for child abduction and murder.  While parents whispered rumors of police cover-ups, children became fearful of a faceless boogieman authorities were never able to unmask.

by Tobi Shields

 The year was 1963 and Napa County had yet to become a tourist trap of wine salons and congested city streets.  The population, an estimated 22,000, was predominantly white, working class families.  Parents allowed their children to walk to school and play outside unsupervised, and children lived without fear of kidnapping, as the potential dangers posed by the predatory sex offender had yet to enter public awareness.


In March 1963, the Heskett family lived at 2309 Main Street.  Marvin Heskett, at home recovering from his second heart attack, worked as a salesperson while wife Dorothy stayed at home and cared for their nine children ranging in age from 17 years to five months.


Doreen Disappears


Monday, March 25, 1963, was a routine day of school and play for 5-year-old Doreen Heskett.  Dressed in a turquoise blue jumper with red decorative stitching on the shoulder straps, a white blouse, stockings and blue tennis shoes, she walked with her siblings approximately one half mile to Lincoln Elementary School for her morning kindergarten class.  When class recessed at 11:30 a.m., the little blue-eyed blonde returned home to eat lunch with her mother and younger siblings.  Fellow classmate Linda Ford arrived at the Heskett residence shortly before 2 p.m., to play with her new friend.


With her husband out of town, Dorothy left her eldest son and daughter in charge of the younger children while she visited the grocery store.  When Dorothy returned, Doreen immediately approached her mother with the request to walk to Linda’s house.  Assuming Linda Ford lived nearby, Dorothy granted Doreen permission.  Unbeknownst to Dorothy, the Fords had recently moved to a new home on Sherman Avenue, approximately one mile to the north of the Heskett residence.


The girls set off for the Ford residence at 4 p.m.  Linda rode her bicycle with the smaller Doreen seated behind her.  The most likely route taken by the girls would have been north down Main Street; left at the corner of Main and Pueblo Avenue; right at Pueblo and Jefferson Street; north down Jefferson to the first street on the left, Sheridan Drive; and left onto Sherman Avenue.  It probably took the girls 15 minutes to reach Sherman.


Mrs. Ford cut the play date short and asked her daughter to escort Doreen home at 4:40 p.m.  Instead of walking Doreen home as her mother had requested, Linda parted company with her friend at the intersection of Jefferson and Pueblo.  At the time, Jefferson Street was a major thoroughfare of the city.  Then only a two-way street, it stretched approximately five miles in a straight line north from Trower Avenue to just beyond the intersection of West Imola to the south where it ended at Earl Stewart’s pasture.


When Doreen continued walking south on Jefferson, instead of east down Pueblo to Main, Linda called out to her friend that she was walking in the wrong direction.  Doreen replied that she wanted to go that way and proceeded to walk south, past the Union Oil bulk gasoline plant toward Napa Union High School. 


As dinnertime approached, Dorothy Heskett realized that Doreen had yet to return home.  At 5 p.m., she began searching her Main Street neighborhood, expecting to see Doreen in front of a house playing with Linda.  Two hours later, unable to find Doreen, she returned home to report her daughter missing to police.  The Napa Police Department logged her call at 7:15 p.m. After a search of the Heskett residence, responding officers ordered a door-to-door canvas of the neighborhood.


Without a clue to the child’s whereabouts, Chief of Police Sherwood Munk contacted the Marin County Sheriff’s Department to request bloodhound assistance.  In recent years, Deputy Michael McLean and his personally trained scent hounds had garnered media attention due to their high success rate of locating murdered and missing persons in the North Bay. 


An hour and a half after receiving Munk’s call, Deputy McLean and his bloodhound Brandy were in Napa.  The bloodhound picked up Doreen’s scent outside the Ford residence and followed it south down Jefferson to the crossing signal located in front of Napa Union High School.  There the trail came to an abrupt end. 


Chief Munk informed the local sheriff’s office and California Highway Patrol unit that he had a possible abduction.  An all-points bulletin broadcast from the Napa Police Department and Napa County Sheriff’s Office catapulted the case to a statewide effort by law enforcement.  Police departments in neighboring states and major cities received a poster bearing a photograph and description of the missing child.  Chief Munk kept Doreen in the public eye by asking newspapers to publish her photo and description with instructions for readers to clip the article for future reference.  Television and radio also featured news coverage of the search, informing neighboring counties of the urgency of the situation.


Thousands of citizens of Napa and surrounding counties contributed to the search.  Local service stations donated gasoline and oil to over 80 radio-equipped cars patrolling the streets.  Homemakers provided hot meals to the volunteers at search headquarters and offered babysitting services to the mothers volunteering in the search.


For five days, county and state agencies aided police in widening the search, eventually covering 100 square miles.  While off-duty law enforcement officers and firefighters from other jurisdictions volunteered their time to the foot search, city crews accessed wells, septic tanks and sewer mains.  Military personnel from Hamilton and Travis Air Force Bases scoured fields while their helicopters conducted aerial searches.


Theories as to what became of Doreen differed among local law enforcement agencies.  After two days without a ransom demand, Chief Munk ruled out the possibility that monetary gain was the motive behind the kidnapping and ordered his officers to question the nearly 100 sex offenders residing within the county.  Officers with the sheriff’s department were of the opinion that Doreen was still in the area, injured from a fall into a hole or a well.  While Chief Munk alerted surrounding agencies to be on the lookout for his kidnap victim, Sheriff Claussen used the local media to direct citizens to search their properties for the missing child.


As for Marvin and Dorothy Heskett, they too preferred to believe that their daughter was alive.  Perhaps not wanting to acknowledge the latest theory that a sex offender was responsible for her daughter’s disappearance, Dorothy had conceived a scenario in which a childless woman had abducted Doreen to raise as her own.  Marvin, on the other hand, trusted the intuition of Chief Munk and thought his daughter’s willingness to talk to people might have contributed to her abduction.  While both parents had cautioned Doreen not to talk to strangers, and if one should offer her a ride, to go to the nearest house and ask for help, the little girl had remained trustful and friendly.


Napans were fearful.  Prior to the disappearance of Doreen, the community was virtually unaware of the prevalence of child molestation by strangers.  The local newspaper would occasionally print an article announcing the arrest or conviction of a man accused of child molestation, but most often than not, such persons escaped the glare of the media.  That all changed when Doreen disappeared.  Front-page articles in the Napa Register alerted residents to the perverts in their midst by including the name, occupation, and address of every arrestee accused of child molestation.


Spurred by a reward fund created by local radio station KVON, daily reports of potential sightings of Doreen flooded the switchboards at the Napa County Police Department and Napa County Sheriff’s Office.  While the majority proved false, three reports from local citizens claiming to have seen Doreen on Jefferson Street that fateful afternoon proved useful to police. The distribution manager of the Union Oil bulk gasoline plant reported seeing a little blond girl walking south on Jefferson.  He recalled hearing another little girl yell to her friend that she was walking in the wrong direction.  During the second day of the search, a woman reported seeing a girl fitting the description of Doreen standing near the traffic signal in front of the Napa Union High School campus late Monday afternoon.  She saw the girl run away from the street, toward the school, as if scared by the traffic.          


A third sighting placed Doreen three miles south of the high school.  Several young men employed at the service stations located at the intersection of Jefferson and Imola Avenue reported seeing a young girl run across busy Imola at 5:45 p.m.  The young men all described the child as blond-haired and wearing a blue dress with matching suspenders.  They lost sight of the girl after she ran toward the River Park Estates construction barricade located at the end of South Jefferson.  In case Doreen had wandered into one of the fields between South Jefferson and the Napa River, Chief Munk ordered another foot search of the area.  To rule out the possibility that Doreen reached the water and drowned, local scuba divers checked the river and sloughs.  Days later, Undersheriff Gardner joined Hamilton AFB aviators for a low survey of the housing development and surrounding fields.


Described by the Oakland Tribune as one of the most massive hunts ever staged in California, the five-day search concluded on Saturday, March 30, 1963.  An estimated 3,000 people volunteered that day making it the most dramatic attempt to find a child in Napa history according to the evening edition of the Napa Register.  At nightfall volunteers assembled in the grandstands behind the National Guard Armory where Undersheriff Gardner thanked them for their tireless search efforts and donations to the KVON reward fund that had exceeded $5,000.


Investigating a Case without Leads


Desperate to find that one critical clue that would break the case, Chief Munk reached out to the State Department’s Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation (CII) in Sacramento to request the assistance of an investigator skilled in kidnap and missing person cases.  In early April, Special Agent Sidney Jones came to Napa and interviewed every person questioned by police in the initial hours of the investigation.  Back at his Sacramento office, he ran background checks on every name in the voluminous case file.  Jones also ran criminal background checks on 290 registered sex deviates in Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties.


Chief Munk assigned three officers to the Heskett case full time.  Assistant Chief Blair, Detective Sherman Schulte and Juvenile Officer Earl Randol investigated potential sightings and possible leads from around the North Bay.  Several jurisdictions, including San Jose and Petaluma, extended the courtesy of allowing Napa detectives to question suspects arrested for attempted abductions and molestations of young girls.


Some residents of Napa theorized that police had been unable to locate Doreen because her parents were involved in her disappearance and withholding information from investigators.  However, this was not the case.  Police had interviewed Marvin and Dorothy Heskett early in the investigation and neither parent had exhibited behavior indicative of deception.  In fact, both parents had openly discussed their personal lives and allowed police to search their residence on more than one occasion.  In order to quash the rumors, both parents agreed to undergo polygraph examinations.  Chief Munk announced in the April 18, 1963, issue of the Napa Register that the test results showed both parents were truthful and not involved in the disappearance of their daughter.


At the suggestion of Marvin and Dorothy Heskett, Chief Munk asked Los Angeles-based medium Lotte Von Strahl to examine the case.  Chief Munk and Detective Randol personally showed Von Strahl the route Doreen walked before she disappeared.  The self-professed psychic viewed mug shots of convicted sex offenders but failed to sense a connection to missing Doreen.  Before she left Napa, Von Strahl visited the Heskett home where she received a photo and lock of Doreen’s hair to aid her psychic investigation.

Desperate to know what became of their daughter, the Hesketts made a public plea to her abductor in the September 16, 1963, issue of the Napa Register.  Written by Marvin Heskett, the statement addressed the pain that his family had endured in the past six months as they imagined Doreen murdered and abandoned in some remote location.  The family did not wish any vengeance upon the person responsible; their only wish was to recover the remains of their family member for a proper burial.  While their public plea did not result in its intended outcome, the Hesketts did receive several letters of encouragement from concerned citizens.


Remains Recovered


On the morning of Thursday, November 21, 1963, Earl Stewart stumbled across the skeletal remains of a child in his South Napa cow pasture.  Police were baffled by the location as they had paid particular attention to the field due to its proximity to the South Jefferson/Imola intersection, the last location of a possible sighting of Doreen.  Undersheriff Gardner had participated in an aerial search of the field while law enforcement officers and volunteers had combed the field on three separate occasions.


During their initial observation of the remains, investigators noticed some important details.  There was a gaping hole in the skull; the missing portion lay about a foot from the body.  The body was face down; the right arm under the body, the left arm outstretched with the hand clasped together.  Despite the advanced decomposition of the body, the clothing was intact and only slightly faded.  Investigators theorized Doreen was the victim of a sex crime as the child’s panties were pulled down to her knees.  Missing were Doreen’s stockings and tennis shoes.


Various specialists examined the remains throughout the next eight months.  First, Napa pathologist Houghton Gifford and coroner Charles E. Burchell studied the bones at the pathology lab at Queen of the Valley Hospital.  Gifford found the condition of the remains consistent with a body exposed to the elements for eight months, the length of time Doreen was missing.  At the request of Napa County District Attorney James D. Boitano, renowned criminologist Dr. Paul L. Kirk assisted police in the investigation.  As head of the criminology department at the University of California at Berkeley, Kirk had extensive experience in forensic science and microscopy. 


Prime Suspect           


Confident that Doreen was murdered, Chief Munk focused on the likeliest of suspects: adult male sex offenders with a predilection for female children.  Since their initial questioning of local registered sex offenders in April, police investigators had regarded six as possible suspects.


One particular suspect, Claude Ray Jr., eventually became the prime suspect.  Ray had a history of molesting prepubescent female children.  In 1957, he served a one-year sentence in county jail for committing a lewd and lascivious act upon a 7-year-old girl. 


During the course of the investigation, police discovered information that placed the convicted pedophile in close proximity to Doreen Heskett.  At the time of Doreen’s disappearance, Ray worked as a laborer on the Ghisletta Ranch, property that adjoined that of Earl Stewart.  The Ray family resided in a small house on Lincoln Avenue, within sight of Napa Union High School and three blocks from the Heskett family.  Due to their residential location, the Ray children attended Lincoln Elementary School, the youngest daughter a classmate of Doreen.


Questioned within 48 hours of the abduction, Ray provided an alibi that Assistant Chief of Police Jack Blair was unable to disprove. Eight months later, when police recovered the remains of Doreen Heskett, Ray was again brought into the police department for questioning. Repeating his earlier alibi, Ray failed to convince Detective Earl Randol of his innocence. Unable to make an arrest without an eyewitness account or physical evidence that tied Ray to the abduction or murder of Doreen, Detective Randol was forced to cut his suspect loose.


Ruled a Homicide


The year 1964 brought disappointing news for investigators.  In late March, a year after Doreen’s disappearance, D.A. Boitano officially announced that the examinations, as conducted by criminologist Dr. Paul L. Kirk and pathologist Dr. Houghton Gifford, were inconclusive.  The badly decomposed condition of the body made it impossible to determine if the fractures present in many of the bones had resulted prior to death or as a result of trampling by the cattle that grazed in the field.  Kirk theorized that the discovery of the body three miles from the location where Doreen was last seen, coupled with the position of her underwear, were indicative of foul play.  In his final assessment of the case, Kirk determined the cause of death as homicide.


The final ruling in the matter of how Doreen Heskett met her death came in August.  Before a panel of nine jurors, investigators outlined the circumstances of Doreen’s disappearance and the eventual recovery of her remains eight months later.  Information gleaned from the autopsy revealed a perimortem (at or near the time of death) injury to the jaw.  Jurors officially ruled the death of 5-year-old Doreen Heskett a homicide.


A Suspect Kills


On the morning of Monday, October 4, 1965, Claude Ray Jr., drove to the Mendocino coast with his two youngest daughters, 9-year-old Jeanette and 7-year-old Renay.  Estranged from his wife, Ray had offered to drive the girls to school in order to spend some time with them.  Despite her husband’s recent threats to kill the children if she followed through with divorce proceedings, Mrs. Ray allowed her two youngest daughters to leave with their father that morning. 


When the school called to inform her of the absences, Mrs. Ray chose not to call police until she spoke with her husband.  When Ray arrived at his wife’s apartment later that afternoon, he claimed that he had dropped both girls off at school that morning, and then proceeded to drive to Mendocino to inquire about a job.  Mrs. Ray then phoned police to report her two daughters missing.   


When Detective Sergeant Earl Randol responded to the call, he immediately recognized Claude Ray Jr. as the prime suspect in the Heskett case.  With time of the essence, Randol grilled Ray on the route he drove to Mendocino.  Ray admitted that he had not inquired about a job, but rather drove along the coast pondering his marital problems.  Ray cast further suspicion upon himself when he voiced his concern that a sex fiend had kidnapped his daughters and they had met the same fate as the little girl found in the hayfield.


That afternoon, two dozen deputy sheriffs and volunteers aided police in a search of the area surrounding Westwood Elementary School.  Napa Police Department broadcasted an all-points bulletin to police agencies throughout California.  Randol informed law enforcement in Mendocino County that two Napa girls were missing and possibly met with foul play in their jurisdiction.  Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office immediately launched its own search of the area Claude Ray claimed to have driven on October 4. 


On October 10, six days after the girls disappeared, a man out scouting seashells with his family discovered the body of Renay Ray at Schooner Gulch, two miles south of Point Arena in Mendocino County.  The body was clothed in a pink sweater and gray wool jumper.  A white ankle sock and black Mary Jane shoe were missing from the left foot.  Also missing were the child’s white cotton underpants.  The Mendocino county coroner noted a large welt over the right eye and another that stretched from the bridge of the nose to the upper lip.  An autopsy revealed that the child was sexually assaulted prior to death or shortly thereafter.  Observing bruises around the neck, the coroner determined cause of death as manual strangulation.  The lungs, absent of water, supported the theory that Renay had been thrown into the ocean after death.


Mendocino County Sheriff Reno H. Bartolomie directed Sergeant Randol to arrest Claude Ray Jr., on the suspicion of murder and deliver him to the county jail in Ukiah for booking.  As Randol transported his prisoner, members of the Air Force and Coast Guard searched the stretch of beach between Gualala and Point Arena for the body of Jeanette Ray. After two weeks of combing the beaches and county roads failed to produce a clue to the whereabouts of the missing child, Sheriff Bartolomie, resigned to the fact that Jeanette had been swept out to sea, called off the search.


In Napa, D.A. Boitano and Assistant Police Chief Blair informed the press that detectives planned to question Claude Ray Jr., in relation to the Heskett case, as there were similarities between the cases that warranted further investigation.  However, detectives were unable to uncover any new information that might link Ray to the unsolved murder.


Ray Sentenced to Life in Prison


Mendocino County Superior Court found Claude Ray Jr., guilty of the first-degree murder of his daughter, Renay, on January 27, 1966.  Authorities were unable to charge him with the murder of his daughter Jeanette as their search had failed to recover a body.  Two days after his murder conviction, Ray received a sentence of life imprisonment. On July 11, 1983, he committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell.


Renay Ray is interred at Tulocay Cemetery in Napa.  The inscription on the headstone reads, “My precious daughters, Renay M. Ray, July 10, 1958-October 4, 1965; In Loving Memory of Jeanette L. Ray.”  Three rows to the north lay the headstone of another little girl who lost her life to a depraved murderer.  Her headstone simply reads “Doreen Heskett, 1957-1963.”


A Fifty-Year-Old Cold Case


For 47 years, the Doreen Heskett case remained unsolved and virtually forgotten as Napa investigators focused their attentions on new, solvable cases. The case resurfaced in late 2010 when Napa County received a $500,000 federal grant for the funding of a cold case unit. 


Comprised of Napa Police Detective Todd Shulman and Napa County Sheriff’s Office Detective Pat McMahon, the two-man cold case unit reviewed 39 unsolved homicide and sexual assault cases, the oldest case being that of Doreen Heskett.  In the hopes of locating foreign DNA, detectives submitted the tattered remnants of the clothing worn by Doreen on March 25, 1963, to the Department of Justice criminal lab in Sacramento.  In June 2012, the federal grant expired and detectives disbanded the cold case unit.  As of this writing, there has yet to be a public announcement of the DNA results.


During the 18 months that the cold case unit was in operation, the Napa Register published several articles related to the Heskett case. Comments posted to the online edition of the newspaper reveal suspicions passed down through generations.  Napans who were children during the time of Doreen’s disappearance revealed an old rumor that the “good ol’ boys” of Napa had concealed the crime. Other comments addressed the long-standing question of whether searchers could have failed to locate the body in the hay-covered field, or whether someone familiar with the property had placed the remains there much later.  These suspicions are still evident today 50 years after Doreen Heskett tragically lost her life to a vicious child murderer who then dumped her in a cow pasture.

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1 comment on "Forever 5: The Kidnap and Murder of Doreen Heskett"

andrestephk Jan 13, 2015 · Log in or register to post comments

A very interesting article. Well written.

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