Times Past

Murder of young boy still haunts retired SLO police lieutenant. Here are his notes

The murder of Ernest Whitaker Jr. in 1945 still haunts retired SLO Police Lt. Gary Orback.
The murder of Ernest Whitaker Jr. in 1945 still haunts retired SLO Police Lt. Gary Orback.

“World War II in Europe would end in six days. San Luis Obispo was no longer the sleepy town in which Mayor Louis Sinsheimer’ s dog could lie undisturbed in the middle of Monterey St. Prostitutes on Sycamore St. and downtown bars solicited troops from Camp San Luis, and the Navy base in Morro Bay.”

The loss of innocence to this once sleepy town was epitomized in the murder of a young boy May 2, 1945. This unsolved crime haunted retired SLO Police Lt. Gary Orback. He shared his manuscript from notes investigating this crime. As follows are portions of those notes (edited for length).

I am grateful to him for his meticulous research.

“On a beautiful school holiday afternoon, May 1, 1945, a child’s body was discovered in San Luis Creek, shocking the community since the town had a relatively low crime rate except for minor offenses.

“He was identified as Ernest Whitaker Jr., 6, son of Martha and Ernest Whitaker, Sr. of San Luis Obispo. About 1:30 p.m., Mr. Whitaker left his furniture store at 766 Higuera to check on the boy, who was last seen fishing in the creek behind the store. He couldn’t locate him. Walking upstream along the creek, he observed a young man walking downstream towards him. He asked if he had seen his son. The stranger said no.

“Mr. Whitaker saw his son’s fishing pole and shoe near the creek. He asked the teen what he was doing in the area. He said he’d been fishing. Mr. Whitaker noticed he was wet up to his waist and didn’t have any fishing equipment. Due to the suspicious circumstances, Mr. Whitaker escorted the young man back to his store, instructing an employee to watch him and his wife to call the police.

“With another employee, the father returned to the creek and began walking up stream. They located the boy’s body face down in knee deep water behind the Anderson Hotel. A hotel employee immediately called the Police and Fire Departments. They began resuscitation procedures, believing the boy might be alive. The boy was transported to the General Hospital. Drs. Joseph G. Middleton and Herbert Bauer worked for at least an hour in an unsuccessful effort to save his life. The declared cause of death was drowning.

“Meanwhile the mysterious stranger — soon to be considered the prime suspect — fled the store. He was last seen by a resident of 744 Higuera. She called out to him when she saw him behind her residence. She said he’d told her that a boy had drowned upstream and he was trying to get to Higuera to call the police.

“She gave him directions and that was the last time the suspect was seen. Police searched the area but didn’t find him.

“The suspect was described as 17-18 years of age, 5-foot-8, husky build, broad chested, ruddy faced, pimply chin and light blue eyes. He was last seen wearing slightly-worn blue waist type overalls, a light blue striped shirt and a khaki military jacket.

“Evidence discovered at the scene showed the boy was criminally attacked before being thrown in the creek. Ernest’s body was found fully clothed, except for one shoe and an undone overall strap. The victim’s body showed deep impressions on the wrists and ankles, indicating he’d been bound with a ‘stout cord’ that was removed prior to redressing him. There were also three or four contusions on his forehead, a deep scratch on his right hand and other bruises.

“Police questioned several suspects who matched the description of the suspect. All were released without charges. Mrs. Whitaker received a suspicious phone call from a person claiming to be a relative. The voice sounded like a man disguising his voice as a woman asking what happened to her son. Mrs. Whitaker contacted the relative but the relative denied making the call. The caller was never identified, and no additional suspicious phone calls were received by the family.

“Description of the suspect was broadcast statewide.

“Ernest Jr. was a student at Emerson School in San Luis Obispo. The grieving parents were left to make funeral arrangements for Ernest. Ernest Whitaker Sr.’s mother, Polly Mattie Whitaker, had died seven days prior to her grandson’s murder.”

Dan Krieger is professor of history, emeritus, at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.