Details of Disappearance
Ernest was last seen in Garden City, South Carolina on October 10, 1984. He and his son, Alan, owned and operated a mobile home park together and he occupied one of the mobile homes. He missed several appointments that day and left his car parked in the carport at his home. When his son checked the residence, the blinds were drawn and a basket had been spilled on the floor in the kitchen. It's uncharacteristic of Ernest to leave his home in this condition.
At 9:00 p.m., Alan got a phone call from someone who said they had kidnapped Ernest and left a ransom note in Alan's mailbox. Alan didn't open the box; he called the police instead. A police officer opened the mailbox and found an envelope containing Ernest's driver's license and a typewritten note threatening the family and demanding $250,000 within 48 hours. Alan collected $75,000; the bills were marked and photocopied and their registration numbers were recorded. When the kidnapper called on October 13, Alan followed the directions given while wearing a recording device and under police surveillance. He was led to several different phone booths in Myrtle Beach and Conway, South Carolina. Finally he was ordered to leave the money in a black garbage bag under a bridge on U.S. 501. The money was picked up by a 5'7 man with a white beard. When the police told Alan this, he recognized the description and said he thought the kidnapper was Alvin Owens, a handyman who had worked for Ernest installing mobile homes.
Owens was arrested that same day and charged with kidnapping. The police found all but $18 of the $75,000 in ransom money in his pockets. At home they found handwritten rough drafts of the ransom notes and phone conversations, and a receipt for the rental of a portable Brother typewriter consistent with the one used to type the ransom notes. He had rented the typewriter on October 6 and returned it on October 8. Ernest's watch was found in Owens's son's possession, and Owens's daughter had pawned one of Ernest's rings. Hairs consistent with Ernest's hair were found in the trunk of Owens's car.
In January 1985, Owens was convicted of kidnapping Ernest. In May 1986, he was convicted of Ernest's murder and sentenced to death; it was the first murder conviction without a body in South Carolina history. The conviction was overturned in 1988, but he was convicted again in 1991 and this time sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Owens claimed a terrorist group called "Weather Underground" was responsible for Ernest's kidnapping and they had forced him to write the ransom notes and collect the money. He offered to lead the police to Ernest's body in 1994 and directed them to an area near the U.S. 17 bypass in Myrtle Beach. Authorities dug in the area with a bulldozer, but found nothing. Foul play is suspected in Ernest's disappearance due to the circumstances involved.