Gone but not forgotten
Monday, December 15, 2008
For the last eight years of his law enforcement career, every time Tom Saleen opened his desk drawer Patty Otto's face looked back at him.
He was given her driver's license a day or so after she disappeared on Aug. 31, 1976, and he kept it there "so that I'd see it every time I opened the drawer, so I'd think about how to solve that."
Thirty-two years after she disappeared from her home on 29th Street in Lewiston, an attractive, open area where yards border Sunset Park, 24 years after Saleen retired, "I think about it absolutely constantly," he says. "Over the years if I get a new idea I'll call the detectives and say, 'hey, we ought to think about ...' "
Police are 99 percent sure Patty, 24, was killed by her husband, Ralph Otto, who was about 18 years older. He wasn't charged with her death, however, but he was convicted less than a year later of hiring a hit man, actually an undercover agent, to kill a Lewiston police officer, the late Duane Ailor.
That conviction was overturned in 1981 because there was no Idaho law at that time that said hiring someone to pull the trigger was the equivalent of attempted murder. That has since changed.
Ralph died a few years later at the Clearwater County Jail in Orofino, where he was being booked on an unrelated charge.
Family sentiments are mixed, but lean toward his guilt.
Ralph's sister, Marcy Smith of Culdesac, is 99 percent sure her brother was innocent of Patty's death. Smith and her husband, Bud Smith, raised Ralph and Patty's daughters, who were 5 and 3 when their mother disappeared.
The younger of the two children, Suzanne Ziegler, 36, of Walla Walla, believes her father was guilty. She didn't believe that as a child, only after she was married herself and found out her husband was cheating on her, Ziegler says.
"Until I was an adult and in the same situation and felt the rage a person could feel when infidelity happens, did I know it could happen."
"Rage can do crazy things to a person. I don't believe he intended to kill her, but I believe he did."
Her sister, Natalie Otto Smith Meredith, the older of the two, suffered from the doubt.
When they were young, Ziegler says, Natalie always told her their mother had simply gone away to find a job and make a new home for them. And one day she would come for them.
Natalie spent a lot of her adult life looking for answers, Ziegler says. "I would tell her Dad did it, and Natalie would say no, and we would have this happy life again when Mom came back."
Natalie died two years ago with her husband, son and her son's friend on Dworshak Reservoir when carbon monoxide fumes filled the covered boat in which they were sleeping.
The family has consoled itself that when Patty's parents, Tom and Ardys (Toots) O'Malley Sr. died, and again with Natalie's death, that finally they at least knew what happened to their daughter and sister.
"My folks went through plain hell," says Vickie Schaffer, 58, of Coeur d'Alene, the oldest of the four O'Malley siblings.
Family members would be followed by unknown persons and vehicles when they went for a drive. They got strange telephone calls.
"Once," says Alice Mills, 55, of Lewiston, who is the closest sibling in age to Patty, "Mom and Dad flew someplace where a body was found."
They and their younger brother, Tom O'Malley, 50, are both critical and complimentary of police handling of the case. Saleen tried, and he was good to their parents, they agree.
But the investigation started too late. It was treated for too long as a missing person's case, and they didn't have enough evidence to search the land around the house or other property Ralph had access to. Nor did they have the technology that exists today.
According to various accounts, Patty arrived home late in the evening after being at the home of her parents. Ralph was angry, afraid she was cheating on him. They argued. He told police she stormed out of the house, taking none of her possessions and leaving her car behind.
Ralph called Patty's sister, Alice Mills, the next morning, asking if Patty was there. He took the two little girls to Mills, and said he was going to go out looking.
It was Mills who was immediately suspicious and called police.
Saleen, who was only about three years older than Patty, went to the house. "The thing that was odd, a tarp was laying on the ground with a shovel against the wall and the tarp had just been sprayed off."
That wasn't sufficient at that point to get a warrant. And later, it was too late to recapture the moment and the items.
Police investigated dozens of "sightings." They kept coming back to Ralph.
Sometimes, Saleen says, they thought he was close to breaking.
Ralph drank a lot. He would call Mills or Patty's mother in the middle of the night, crying, asking where Patty was.
Once, a family member called police and said Ralph was talking. His brother got to him first and took him out of town. Saleen and Johnson believe if they had been there first, they might have answers today.
They wonder if the brother, who is no longer alive, might have been able to provide the solution, but Ziegler doesn't think so. "I think Ray (Otto) would have said lay it to rest and let the girls have some peace, knowing she's not going to come back."
Someone else told police of a "secret room" in the basement. A warrant was obtained, paneling removed and behind it was a small space, a few feet square. Inside were two jet pumps that had been reported stolen from Valley Boat and Motor. The statute of limitations had run out on prosecution, but the pumps were returned to the owner.
Patty's wedding rings were found in the pocket of Ralph's suit coat. Mills was asked to identify them.
"She didn't take her rings off," Mills says. "When they found them and said where they found them, it was a big shock."
The rings have since disappeared. Neither the police nor Ralph's attorney, who once had the rings in his possession, were able to say what happened to them when Natalie tried to recover them not long before her death, the family says.
It's a cold day in November and Saleen, 59, has taken a break from his job as director of international sales at ATK to take a reporter to what he believes was the crime scene on 29th Street. He points to the thick landscaping installed by the present owners. None of that was there, he said. Many of the nearby houses hadn't been built. There was a small shop in back of the house.
Saleen has prepared a synopsis of the case from memory. It includes names, times, even the case number.
This is the case that has stuck with him throughout his career. This is the one above all others, he wants to see solved.
Lt. Alan Johnson, who took over the case from Saleen and will turn it over to Lt. Doug Clark when he retires Jan. 9, says almost the same thing. "I want to provide closure to our department as much as to the family."
Permission was obtained recently to use a cadaver dog to search the property where the family lived in 1976.
Surprisingly, that has never been done.
A dog was brought into the valley a few years ago in connection with other cases, but arrangements could never be worked out with the present owners, Johnson says. But it's something he's always wanted to do, and the cost is minimal, probably a few hundred dollars.
No one seems to really believe Patty might be there. Ralph was simply too intelligent to have done something so obvious.
That word, intelligent, is said over and over independently by the people involved in the case.
"Crooked, but intelligent," Schaffer says.
"He was too smart to do some half-assed job," Ziegler says of her father. "He wouldn't want us to know. He had to protect us so we wouldn't know what he did."
Schaffer believes Ralph took her sister someplace near Winchester.
She and her husband, Ron, lived in Elk City for awhile and every time they would go that way she had bad feelings, Schaffer says. "So we quit going that way."
The family also consulted psychics who individually told them Patty was dead and they could see water and wet wood, fitting the lake area, she says.
Saleen did a time line as part of his investigation. It included Ralph's visit to a woman friend in Clarkston the morning after Patty disappeared. The woman moved to another state almost immediately after he was there, Saleen says. The crux of that, however, is he can find no time during which Ralph could have gone far from home.
He sometimes had to dispose of animal carcasses using lye. And he had access to several properties other than his home, including land near Weippe and what was called Goat Island on the Clearwater River near Spalding.
And there was the shed in the back yard.
"That's where the weird stuff always seemed to happen," says Tom O'Malley, who was still in his teens when Patty disappeared. He declined to elaborate. "We just know he was into a lot of things and a lot of them weren't legal."
They hope for answers. All of them. After 32 years, they expect nothing.
The siblings, both Patty's and Ralph's, wish for answers for the two girls' sakes.
Marcy Smith, Ralph's sister and adoptive mother to his and Patty's daughters, holds onto that slimmest of chances that somewhere out there Patty is alive and will know people still remember and care. She read about a similar case where a missing woman turned up years later after assuming a new identity, Smith says, "so I know it can happen."
"If she's alive, I'm just praying she will contact someone."
The hardest part, Patty's siblings say, is not having the closure of knowing for sure.
"And Patty and the kids not getting to grow up together," Mills adds. "That's what bothers me. ... Patty was a good person and she loved her kids and she never would have left them voluntarily, and if the police would have had more experience back then they might have..." Her voice trails off.
"If anyone knows anything," says Ziegler who was only 3 on that long-ago summer night, "everybody's gone except me, so why can't they just tell me."
Lee may be contacted at email@example.com or (208) 848-2266.