By Bill Hewitt
Updated July 07, 2003 12:00 PM

A pregnant young woman suddenly disappears under mysterious circumstances. Nearly three months later her body washes up in San Francisco Bay, missing its head and several limbs. No one who knew the vibrant and attractive victim, due to give birth the week after she vanished, can believe she’s met such a ghastly end.

Sound familiar? But these remains, recovered last July 24, belonged to Evelyn Hernandez, a 24-year-old Salvadoran immigrant and single mother—not Laci Peterson. There was no saturation media coverage of the murder, no massive police investigation or hefty reward offered. And nearly a year later no one has been arrested in the case, all of which has left Hernandez’s friends and family outraged over what they see as a double standard of justice. “The police and journalists ignored my sister because she was poor and from El Salvador,” says Olivia Hernandez, 30, a student in Arlington, Va. “She wasn’t middle-class and married, like Laci Peterson.”

One person who agrees that the Hernandez homicide deserves a much closer look is Mark Geragos, the lawyer for Scott Peterson, who is in the county jail in Modesto, Calif., awaiting trial in his wife’s murder. Before a judicial gag order banned him from speaking out, Geragos raised the possibility that, given their similarities, the Hernandez and Peterson killings could be the work of the same person or persons, perhaps even a cult. On May 29 Geragos formally requested all the police records in the Hernandez case to explore possible connections.

Authorities insist that Hernandez and Peterson were not killed by the same person, and that they have done everything possible to track down Hernandez’s killer. (Her 6-year-old son, Alex, is also missing and presumed dead.) “We try and check out every promising lead that comes in,” says Inspector Holly Pera of the San Francisco Police, who is in charge of the case and who admits little progress has been made. Investigators have questioned Hernandez’s boyfriend, Herman Aguilera, 37, though he has not been arrested or even named as a suspect.

Whatever parallels Hernandez’s death has with Peterson’s, her life was decidedly different. Born in El Salvador, she came to the United States at 14 to join her mother, Maria Luisa, who had fled her country’s civil war. She enrolled in school and began taking extra English classes. “At first she was a shy, simple girl, but I could see she was intelligent,” says Berta Hernandez (no relation to Evelyn), who works at a Latino youth center in San Francisco’s Mission District and became a mentor to the girl. “She studied hard and was responsible.” Evelyn soon developed a keen interest in acting and performed in many plays at the center. At 17 she had her son, Alex, out of wedlock but managed to finish school anyway. After graduation she took a series of jobs—nurse’s aide, store clerk, waitress—to make ends meet. What she really wanted was to get married and settle down. “She was so lonely,” says her close friend Twiggy Damy. “It’s hard to be a single mother.”

About five years ago she met Aguilera, who works as a mechanic at San Francisco International Airport, and began dating him. She hoped the relationship would work out. But toward the end of 2001, not long after she had gotten pregnant by Aguilera, she discovered he was already married. At the time she vanished, on May 1 of last year, she had recently told Aguilera she no longer wanted to see him. “We’re watching the boyfriend,” says Inspector Pera. “We don’t have enough credible evidence to charge him with anything.”

Evelyn’s family and friends wonder why police didn’t do more in the first days to publicize her disappearance. Investigators didn’t hold their first news conference until a month later, and the mayor’s office did not offer a $10,000 reward until a year later (in the Peterson case the family and other private parties had posted a $500,000 reward within a week). “Why did the authorities wait so long?” asks Hernandez’s friend Maria Rinaldi. “It’s discrimination, clear and simple.” Her other friend Damy puts a slightly different spin on it. “Laci Peterson has a family,” she points out. “Evelyn didn’t have people to pressure the police and the media.”

At least now the Hernandez case has begun to attract more attention from news organizations. America’s Most Wanted, for instance, is scheduled to air a segment soon on the murder. “Laci was beautiful, bright with a beautiful smile,” says Damy. “But Evelyn was beautiful, too.”

Bill Hewitt

Ron Arias in Los Angeles