Sixth year marked on unsolved
by Lenny Roberts
Saturday will mark the sixth year of the disappearance of 14-year-old
Jenniffer Rose Vernals, the former Oak View teen who was last
seen alive March 30, 1996 outside the Trueblood Thrift Store
on Main Street in Ventura, where she had been dropped off by
When she failed to return home at the pre-arranged time of 4:45
p.m., her mother notified the Ventura Police Department.
Six months later, Vernals' skeletal remains were found scattered
over a wide area in a remote canyon above Montecito.
For reasons still unclear to Vernals' family friend, Debbie Coss,
who stated that Ventura police investigators never considered
foul play, Vernals was classified as a runaway based on her age
Vernals was born in Ojai, and lived with Donna Stevens and her
family at Stevens' Burnham Road horse ranch from 1988 to 1993
after she moved away from her natural mother Lois Bowden. Coss
described Bowden and Stevens as close friends, and the murdered
teen always called Stevens her second mom.
By 1996, Vernals had moved out of Oak View, and into a duplex
on South Pacific Avenue in Ventura with her parents. In the back
unit lived Michael Joseph Schultz, then 31, who reportedly shared
residency with a series of roommates. The lead investigator in
Vernals' murder case, Lt. Mike Burridge of the Santa Barbara
Sheriff's Department, said that Schultz would frequently entertain
Vernals, who, at 14, was half his age at the time, in his residence
Burridge also said that investigators would later learn that
at least one of his former roommates felt uncomfortable with
their age difference and requested that Schultz not have her
over in his presence. Schultz quickly emerged as a suspect in
Vernals' murder after a series of witnesses stepped forward and
evidence was gathered, which has yet to be disclosed.
Two weeks after Vernals' body was discovered, Schultz was arrested
for burglarizing vending machines at the Ventura campus of the
California State University, Northridge, and for battering two
Ventura Police officers who intervened - one of whom was reportedly
forced to retire after sustaining injuries to both knees. While
serving a 5-year sentence in state prison, DNA testing linked
Schultz to the 1993 rape and strangulation of 44-year-old Cynthia
Burger of Port Hueneme. Burger worked as a customer service manager
at Gold Coast Acura in Ventura. Prosecutors alleged that Schultz
raped and murdered Burger inside her two-story townhouse on Aug.
5, 1993, and left her body in a bathtub before burglarizing her
home and setting it on fire.
In December 2000, Schultz pleaded not guilty to the murder, but
has remained in custody since his 1996 arrest for the crimes
While he was incarcerated, some witnesses who were initially
afraid to come forward have sincebeen willing to talk about what
they know or believe regarding Vernals' murder, Burridge said,
adding that the initial investigation began by focusing on him
as one of several suspects, and that he believes that Schultz
is responsible for Jenniffer's disappearance and death.
But a Santa Barbara judge ruled last week that the indictment
that was originally issued to arrest Schultz for Burger's murder
was invalid because of an imbalanced Ventura County grand jury.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Mike Frawley took over the prosecution
duties from District Attorney-elect Greg Totten. Frawley Friday
called the ruling that emerged from Santa Barbara wrong, but
decided not to appeal it.
"To go through the appeals process was a road we didn't
want to take," he said.
Despite the opinion of Lt. Burridge, Schultz has yet to be arrested
for Vernals' death, and may never be. When asked why Schultz
has not been arrested for Vernals' murder - or even if he is
a suspect - Frawley said that he was unable to comment because,
"charges are not filed until there is evidence beyond a
reasonable doubt that any suspect is guilty."
Meanwhile, Bowden left California after her daughter's death;
Coss and Stevens remain frustrated with the lack of an arrest;
and Schultz, temporarily removed from his state prison cell,
sits in the Ventura County main jail awaiting a preliminary hearing
for Burger's murder.
© 2002 The Ojai Valley News
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her daughter's skeletal remains were found, Lois Bowden, who
has since left the area, held her photograph.