'Patty's Party' draws a crowd

·4 min read

Aug. 5—More than 80 people turned out Thursday to honor the 70th birthday of a Lewiston woman who vanished in 1976, leaving behind two young daughters.

A brisk wind blew as the crowd carried signs along Main Street to let the community know Patricia Otto has not been forgotten, and progress has been made on the case. The walk lasted 24 minutes to reflect Otto's age when she disappeared.

Earlier in the day, Otto's surviving daughter, Suzanne Timms, of Walla Walla, spoke with Lewiston law enforcement, saying she was pleased by Capt. Jeff Klone's interest in helping solve the decades-old cold case.

"It went really well," Timms said of the meeting. "He took a lot of notes and was very encouraging."

Timms, along with an independent researcher and longtime friends, believe Otto was murdered and buried near Finley Creek, Ore., where the body of an unidentified "Jane Doe" was found by hunters in 1978.

"Not only did the Jane Doe match my 24-year-old mother's physical description, she was literally wearing the same red pants and white blouse my mom was wearing on the night she disappeared."

Oregon State Police are sending a forensic team to coordinate a dig at the Finley Creek gravesite, where two cadaver dogs alerted to the presence of human remains, Timms said. The Pendleton Crime Lab will be on site to process any evidence they recover.

Margaret Anderson, the mayor of Irrigon, Ore., went to school with Timms and her late sister, Natalie, at Culdesac. She made shirts for the event and sat in on the meeting at LPD.

Anderson said she reached out to help her old high school friend, who has been dealing with the state of Oregon, where she is an elected official and could offer assistance.

"I just want Suzanne to know her mom didn't leave her," Anderson said of her involvement. "Can you imagine growing up thinking your mom walked out on you? Everything in the Finley Creek Jane Doe case matches up. That's her. I really think we've found her."

Past Oregon authorities "messed up" when they closed the case, destroyed evidence and cremated the body, Anderson said.

"Now the state wants DNA, and that's what we're going to find," she said.

Molly Ott, of Craigmont, is one of Timms' closest friends. She helped distribute shirts and signs as the crowd gathered at the Nez Perce County Courthouse and passing cars honked in support.

"This has been a huge part of Suzanne's life," Ott said. "Now we're seeing some positive progress. To see this many people show up to support her today means the world to us."

Timms spoke to the supporters, thanking the unified front in their efforts to bring her mother home. "I needed you guys," she said. "In 1976, this community forgot Patty Otto existed."

A small article about her disappearance appeared in the Lewiston Tribune, but little — if any — coverage followed, she said. Two months later, all of the headlines and media attention were focused on her late father, Ralph Otto, who had hired a hit man to kill the chief of police.

Timms said she chose the Nez Perce County Courthouse as a starting point for the memorial walk for a reason. Her father was once in a jail cell in that building, "and should never have been released."

His conviction was overturned in 1981 because Idaho didn't have a law on the books saying hiring someone to pull the trigger was the equivalent of attempted murder. That has since changed.

Ralph Otto was never charged with his young wife's death, but belief in his guilt among law enforcement intensified after he hired the hit man to kill Duane Ailor, who was pushing hard to find evidence against him.

The missing woman's case went cold for years, but Timms has never given up hope for closure.

"My mother was silenced, but we are all Patty's voice now, and we are being heard," Timms said, drawing cheers from the group.

Melinda Jederberg, of La Grande, Ore., was introduced as the lead researcher in the Finley Creek Jane Doe Task Force. She is a private citizen with degrees in criminal justice and criminology who became interested in the possible Patty Otto connection about three years ago.

Otto had previously been ruled out, but dental records from the scene had not been accurately described by authorities, she said. "We believe Jane Doe and Patty Otto are the same person."

Timms said the discrepancy may have been caused by an error by the medical examiner who was looking at the skeletal remains of two Jane Does in 1978.

Anderson agrees with her theory. "They were looking at the wrong body," she said Thursday.

Timms, who was 3 years old when her mom disappeared, said she's looking forward to a time when she can finally say she no longer has a missing mother.

"I think we're getting closer to that day," she said. "I really appreciate everyone who is helping us get there."

Sandaine can be reached at kerris@lmtribune.com.