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40 years after 17-year-old Kelly Disney’s disappearance, sister and investigators still seek answers and justice

An adult and a child stand on a grassy area near an intersection
Quinton Smith
Angela Dodds of Prineville and her granddaughter Peyton visit the intersection of U.S. Highway 20 and Southeast Moore Drive where Kelly Disney was last seen on March 9, 1984.

This story was originally published on YachatsNews.com and is used with permission.

It’s been 40 years since Angela Dodd’s sister mysteriously disappeared off the streets of Newport.

And that’s why she felt it was important to come to the coast from Prineville last weekend.

“I just needed to be here,” said Dodds, 53. “Your sister is supposed to be your best friend when you get older. I never had that.”

Kelly Disney was 17 years old when she disappeared March 9, 1984. Dodds was 13.

Disney’s skull was found 10 years later but the rest of her body has never been recovered. Her death is one of three unsolved homicides involving young Newport girls – two others were killed 10 years later.

Disney grew up in Siletz, the oldest of Stan and Betty Disney’s four children. She fell in love with 20-year-old Robert Ellis and threatened to quit school if she could not be with him. So the Disneys agreed – on the condition she attend and graduate from Newport High School.

On March 8, 1984, there was a low-key party at their Hurburt Street apartment. Ellis left it but Disney stayed behind. She eventually got mad and left about 12:30 a.m. March 9.

Ellis returned, but was told that Disney had left. He began searching and found her standing along Highway 20 just east of Highway 101, but couldn’t convince his girlfriend to get in the car.

Two men on their way to their night jobs then saw Disney and offered her a ride. She refused. The men relayed their story to a Newport officer, who called dispatch and a Lincoln County Sheriff’s deputy found Disney along the highway near what is now Southeast Moore Drive. She refused help, saying she was going to a girlfriend’s house nearby.

It was 1 a.m. March 9, 1984.

Investigators now believe there was a 15-20 minute window after that when Disney either got into a car or was forcibly taken by several men.

Scenario becomes clearer

Dodds – and Lincoln County cold case investigators – are now critical of the stop-and-go search efforts of the Newport Police and Lincoln County Sheriff’s offices back then. Their general thinking 40 years ago appears to have been that Disney ran away or willingly got into someone’s vehicle.

Dodds is adamant that her sister would never get into a car with someone she did not know.

Decades later, investigators, including longtime cold case volunteer Linda Snow, believe they now have a good idea of what happened.

Investigators are working on a theory that one or two people Disney knew – likely from the Siletz community — picked her up along Highway 20 that night. A group of men then took her somewhere, sexually assaulted her and then killed her.

A number of men have told others they were there when Disney was assaulted and wished they had stepped in to stop it, Snow previously told YachatsNews.

Every now and then, Dodds will contact the three-member cold case squad in the Lincoln County District Attorney’s office asking if anything new has occurred. She believes investigators know the names of four men – three still in the area – who were with her sister later that night.

“I have a feeling we know who it is,” she told YachatsNews on Saturday while visiting Newport and before going to Siletz to see a family friend. “It’s hard. Getting older and knowing how bad they messed up the investigation back then.”

In the summer of 2020, Dodds and family members staked 200 signs along U.S. Highway 101 and Highway 20 in Lincoln County and handed out 2,000 posters. The message was simple: “Justice for Kelly Disney. 36-year-old murder case.”

That was four years ago. Some posters are still visible around Siletz, especially at the homes of old friends.

“It was awesome to see some still up,” Dodds said Monday.

The cold case investigators

Linda Snow is a retired legal assistant from the Deschutes County District Attorney’s office and has volunteered with the Lincoln County Cold Case Squad since it was resurrected in 2009.

The original cold case detective, Ron Benson, retired in 2022 and died last year. Two other retired detectives – Patricia Miller and Mark Peterson – now also volunteer and work under the supervision of District Attorney Detective Orrin Wallace.

The unit has 12 cases it is investigating. Snow concentrates mostly on the Disney case and the unsolved homicides of two other Newport girls — Jennifer Esson, 15, and Kara Leas, 16.

Leas and Esson disappeared Jan. 27, 1995 after leaving a friend’s house in north Newport and heading into town. More than two weeks later their bodies were found near Moolack Beach covered with brush. They had been strangled. The county activated its major crimes team to investigate, but could never get the evidence to indict someone.

Snow said the Disney family’s poster effort four years ago generated a few dozen phone calls and tips, and helped a little.

Snow presented the case to a statewide cold case investigators group 1½ years ago and got some ideas to pursue – including a larger search of the area where the skull was placed and found in 1994. That turned up some animal bones wrapped in a tablecloth, but nothing else.

The unit has also asked the FBI for help by offering a reward, but that has not been approved yet.

Other than that, Snow can’t share much information about the case.

“We still follow up on statements people have made,” she told YachatsNews this week, or check tips from the occasional phone call.

Ellis lives in Seal Rock, Snow said, but has turned down requests to talk to investigators.

“I would love to talk with him,” said Snow, but adding that investigators are looking at more than one person responsible for Disney’s death.

“We haven’t given up on it at all,” she said. “I’m getting more and more encouraged than discouraged.”

Seeking justice
Dodds returned to Prineville on Sunday. Her mother still lives there, but her health is fragile and can no longer take the ups and downs of regular updates on her daughter’s case.

Dodds says she’s learned to live with the uncertainty, despite health issues of her own.

“I think about it every day,” she told YachatsNews. “I do want justice and I won’t stop until we get it.”

Quinton Smith founded YachatsNews in 2019 after a 40-year career as a reporter and editor for United Press International and three Oregon newspapers. He worked in various editing positions at The Oregonian from 1984 to 2008 where he led a reporting team that won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News.