UNION COUNTY — The Oregon State Police are turning up the heat on a local cold case.
OSP officers and OSP crime lab personnel will soon reexamine a site near Finley Creek, 18 miles north of La Grande, where the remains of an unidentified woman were found in August of 1978.
The OSP team, which will have human remains detection dogs, will be searching for anything connected to the unidentified woman who was found there in a shallow grave more than 40 years ago.
The OSP will go to the site after all the snow there has melted. Detective-sergeant Sean Belding of the OSP said his agency will be facing a big challenge.
“It will be a little like looking for a needle in a haystack,” Belding said.
Melinda Jederberg, of La Grande, a member of the Finley Creek Jane Doe Task Force, is more hopeful.
“We are very optimistic,” said Jederberg, who founded the task force in 2019.
A big reason for the confidence is that task force members went to the Finley Creek site where the woman’s remains were found twice in 2021 with cadaver dogs. The task force brought a single dog once and two on another trip. Each of the two dogs indicated they found ground under which there are human remains at the same site at or near a tree.
“One dog pawed at the ground near the tree,” Jederberg said.
The task force members did not dig at the site because it is a crime scene and thus it would be illegal to disrupt it. They instead notified the Oregon State Police who later decided to investigate the site and possibly dig there.
Suzanne Timms of Walla Walla, Washington, who is assisting with the search as a volunteer, is glad that highly trained OSP investigators will soon be examining the Finley Creek site.
“They know how to collect evidence without contaminating the site. I can’t wait,’’ Timms said.
A daughter’s search
Timms is elated that the OSP will be investigating the site since she is certain the Finley Creek Jane Doe is her mother, Patricia “Patty” Otto, of Lewiston, Idaho, who has been missing since Sept. 1, 1976.
Timms first suspected that the Finley Creek Jane Doe was her mother in 2021 when she saw an image created by a forensic artist in Massachusetts, Anthony Redgrave, the operator of Redgrave Research Forensic Services. Redgrave was assisting the Finley Creek Jane Doe group, and the image he created look very similar to that of Timms’ mother.
Other details have contributed to Timms’ belief that the Finley Creek Jane Doe is her mother. The remains were was found with a white shirt and red pants, which is what Patty Otto was last seen wearing before disappearing.
As part of the investigation in 1978, Lewiston police believed the Jane Doe could be Patty Otto, and Timms’ grandparents Thomas O’Malley and Ardys O’Malley were flown from Lewiston to La Grande to identify the body. Timms said they were sure the remains were those of their daughter, because the white shirt and red pants were found with the remains at Finley Creek.
“I found records indicating that they told the Lewiston police that the white shirt and red pants looked very similar to what my mother was wearing before she disappeared,” Timms said, who discovered this information earlier this year.
Timms believes that her mother was murdered in Lewiston by her father, and then taken to Finley Creek where he buried her in a shallow grave.
The OSP’s autopsy records for the Finley Creek Jane Doe, however, do not match those of Patty Otto.
Timms believes the discrepancy is due to an error made by the OSP’s medical examiner while doing examinations of the skeletal remains for two Jane Does in his office at about the same time in 1978. She suspects he assigned his reports to the wrong Jane Does because his report for the second Jane Doe matches her mother’s autopsy photos and dental records.
“It appears that he had the two Jane Does confused based upon documents he wrote himself,’’ Timms said.
A cash award
Timms said she is excited about the OSP’s plans to examine the Finley Creek site because if bones are found their DNA tests could prove that they are the bones of her mother. Currently, there are no known bones of the Finley Creek Jane Doe because they are believed to have been cremated by the state after they were found, Timms said.
A recent cash award for information on the Finley Creek Jane Doe also offers hope that new evidence may come to light.
Interest in the Finley Creek Jane Doe has picked up since Crime Stoppers of Oregon announced in March that it was offering a cash award of up to $2,500 to help identify the murdered woman.
“It has generated a lot of calls about the case,” Jederberg said.
Jederberg, of the Finley Creek Jane Doe Task Force, said she hopes the reward and increased interest will encourage people to step forward.
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