Westley Allan Dodd killings: A gruesome anniversary

25 years after he murdered 3 boys, his execution frames discussion of the death penalty's future in Washington

By Lauren Dake, Columbian Political Writer

Published:

 

Jeff “Mac” McEllrath has never regretted his decision to help send Westley Allan Dodd to the gallows.

Twenty-five years ago on Labor Day, Dodd stabbed to death two brothers, William, 10, and Cole Neer, 11, in David Douglas Park in Vancouver. Later, the killer abducted 4-year-old Lee Iseli in Portland, murdered him and left his body near Vancouver Lake.

The murders haunted the community and gripped the nation. Memories from the grisly cases linger. McEllrath, a juror in Dodd’s trial, remembers Dodd’s detailed diary, the gruesome photos the child killer snapped of his victims, and the plans Dodd outlined for future targets.

“Like it was yesterday,” McEllrath said.

Without trying, McEllrath can conjure “the pure evil” in the killer’s eyes, the lack of remorse Dodd displayed during the trial and Jan. 5, 1993, the day the trap door opened and the 31-year-old Vancouver man was executed by hanging. It was the state’s first execution since 1963. Since then, four other men have followed Dodd to Washington’s death chamber.

Earlier this year, Gov. Jay Inslee issued a moratorium on the death penalty, thrusting Washington into a position to reconsider how it punishes those responsible for the most unthinkable crimes. Inslee’s move comes at a time when the nation is experiencing the lowest public support for capital punishment in 40 years. But lawmakers on both sides of the death penalty issue are bracing for an emotional fight in Olympia this legislative session.

Closer to home, some linked to the Dodd case find the governor’s decision unnerving.

Angus Lee is a prosecutor in Grant County. His father, Darrell Lee, served as Dodd’s attorney and was instrumental in ensuring Dodd was executed per his wishes.

Lee said the governor “should have studied the Westley Allan Dodd case” before making his decision. “It’s a prime example of when the death penalty is clearly appropriate. It’s troubling that if the Dodd case were going on today that Dodd would be left alive to do what he said he would, which is kill prison guards until he could escape and then go on to kill small boys.”

Dodd, who said he wanted to die by hanging, was widely quoted saying he would escape and continue to kill and rape boys if his sentence were commuted to life in prison.

Inslee’s decision was not based on sympathy for the criminals, noting “they get no mercy from me.”

But, referring to the nine men currently on the state’s death row, the governor said he doesn’t believe their horrendous crimes “override the problems that exist in our capital punishment system.”

‘I knew he had to die’

For those involved in the Dodd trial — from jurors to law enforcement to family members — the pain has softened with time, but the memories refuse to fade.

“There are still a lot of people carrying around the weight of the trial,” McEllrath said.

At the time, McEllrath had children the same age as the Neer boys.

“It’s hard to explain. It plays with your psyche, especially when you have kids the same age. I would sleep on the floor in their bedroom, making sure they are safe. You think you’re OK, but you’re in a mental state of shock,” he said.

For Steve Seymour, another juror and an elementary school teacher with the Ridgefield School District at the time of the trial, there are still details — the story of one of the Neer brothers trying to shield the other, hoping to save him, and pleading with the child killer to “take me instead” — that will never leave him.

“It was a hurting time,” Seymour said.

Dodd asked to be executed by hanging, the same way he killed 4-year-old Lee Iseli. Both McEllrath and Seymour said they were convinced it was right to oblige.

“There came a turning point, I knew he had to die,” Seymour said.

Clark County Sheriff Garry Lucas was a sergeant in charge of the investigation at the time.

There are cases that occur in every officer’s career that “get you,” Lucas said.

“That’s certainly one of them,” he said.

Questioning ‘the entire system’

It’s one thing to stand in the nation’s Capitol, thousands of miles from home, and oppose replacing the death penalty with life imprisonment, which Inslee did while serving in Congress. It’s another to be the one ultimately responsible for executing someone.

“As governor he had the responsibility to look at the issue more in-depth than he had in a long time,” said Nick Brown, the governor’s general counsel.

Not long after being voted into office, Brown told the governor he would likely have to preside over an execution early in his term. Jonathan Gentry, who in 1991 was convicted of killing 12-year-old Cassie Holden in Kitsap County, had nearly exhausted his appeals.

“It doesn’t come up often, but it’s obviously an important decision and process for any governor to go through,” Brown said.

Before making his announcement about the moratorium in February, both Inslee and Brown toured death row at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. They spoke to victims’ families and current and former correctional officers.

Not long ago, it would have tapped a politician’s entire reserve of political capital to tackle the death penalty. Today, 18 states have abolished capital punishment and several others, including Oregon, have declared a moratorium on executions.

In 1994, according to a Gallup poll, nearly 80 percent of those surveyed supported the death penalty. That percentage has dropped to 60 percent, the lowest in decades.

Inslee noted that since 1981, the year the state’s current capital punishment laws took effect, 32 people have been sentenced to death. Of those 60 percent saw their sentences overturned. Many had their sentences commuted to life in prison due to procedural errors, Inslee said in a news conference.

In Clark County the death penalty has been sought three times since 1981. Dodd was executed after declining appeals. Clark Hazen, condemned to die for the murder of two Fargher Lake residents, committed suicide in prison while his case was on appeal. James Brett had his death sentence reversed; he is now serving a life sentence at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen.

When the bulk of death penalty cases are overturned, the governor maintained “the entire system must be called into question.”

Inslee said the economics of capital punishment also figured heavily into his decision.

County governments spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even millions, getting a death penalty case to trial. Hundreds of thousands more are spent on appeals. The Brett case cost Clark County more than $500,000 to appeal.

“The death penalty from start to finish is more expensive than keeping someone in prison for the rest of their lives, even if the convicted lives to 100,” the governor said while explaining his decision earlier this year.

Mark Larranaga, a Seattle-based defense attorney and former director of the Washington Death Penalty Assistance Center, confirmed costs for capital punishment cases soar beyond other murder cases from the start.

“The reality is, the death penalty is being sought in an extremely small amount of counties in the state,” Larranaga said. “It’s a well-educated guess that cost is a big factor.”

Death penalty cases are more complex, and extra precaution is taken at each step, from hiring extra investigators and lawyers to picking jurors.

Larranaga said there is a procedure called the “extraordinary criminal justice act,” enacted by the Legislature, allowing counties to seek reimbursement from the state, with the idea being it would help some of the smaller counties afford the costs.

“They submit a petition to the state to get reimbursed for the costs, but I can tell you they get pennies on the dollar,” he said.

A widely cited 2006 report by the Washington State Bar Association estimates that death penalty cases cost $470,000 more than trying the same case without the death penalty, plus an average $100,000 more in appeal costs and anywhere from $47,000 to $70,000 for court personnel.

‘Never the same’

These days, the Neer family lets Labor Day silently pass by. There are no picnics; rarely does the family gather like they do on other holidays.

Last spring, Clair Neer, father to Cole and Billy, died. His ashes were buried, as requested, between the two boys in North Dakota.

Neer avoided most of the Dodd trial in 1993, but the hanging offered him a sense of “finality,” said his widow, Vicki Gourley-Neer.

“He was never the same” after the murders, said Gourley-Neer, who was not the mother of the boys.

To this day, the boys’ aunt, Kay Neer Lohnes, who lives in Hillsboro, Ore., cannot understand why anyone would hurt two little boys.

For her family, “it was important that (Dodd) be executed.”

“To terrorize my nephews like he did and that little Iseli boy,” she said.

Robert Iseli, Lee’s father, was a single dad at the time, raising Lee and his older brother, Justin. The two boys were at a park in Portland when Dodd abducted the younger boy.

Robert Iseli recalled the feeling of helplessness, of not being able to do anything but hope with every fiber that his boy returned unharmed.

Lee’s body was found in the brush near Vancouver Lake.

Dodd was arrested in November 1989 after he tried to abduct another young boy from Camas’ New Liberty Theater during a screening of “Honey I Shrunk the Kids.” Outside the theater, Dodd’s dilapidated Ford Pinto stalled, allowing the boyfriend of the victim’s mother to catch him.

The killer’s capture heightened the frenzy around the cases and it became clear Dodd had an insatiable appetite for the attention. Robert Iseli was an introvert, but suddenly his coping mechanism became giving a voice to the murdered children. Iseli fought back the only way he knew how: He granted interviews, too, trying to overshadow Dodd’s spotlight. He went on national TV several times, even going head-to-head with Dodd in an episode of “The Sally Jessy Raphael Show.”

Iseli declined to attend the execution.

“I’m not a violent person; watching someone die is not what I want to be part of,” he said.

Twenty-five years later, Iseli said he’s an overall happy person.

“One way it changed me, if my wife walked out on me tomorrow, if she wanted to get a divorce and just said goodbye, I would say ‘OK, she’s still breathing, she’s still alive … This is not the worst thing that has happened to me.’ ”

Today, Lee Iseli would have been 29 years old.

Cole Neer would be 36; his brother, Billy, would be 35.

‘Revisiting capital punishment’

State Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, has regularly introduced a measure to abolish capital punishment since he was first elected in 2008.

“Fundamentally, I believe the death penalty doesn’t work. I think it is ridiculously expensive. It does not accomplish the goal of deterrent, it fails to elevate us as a society,” he said.

This legislative session, Carlyle is hoping his bill will benefit from the momentum created by the governor’s announcement.

Rep. Terry Nealey, R-Dayton, the assistant deputy ranking member on the House Judiciary Committee, said, “It’s fair to state most Republicans would be against removing the death penalty.

“Our focus is really justice for the victims and we certainly consider and think of them,” Nealey said.

Nealey suspects some of his colleagues will resurrect legislation to prevent the governor from using his powers of clemency until receiving a recommendation from the state Clemency and Pardons Board.

Brown, the governor’s general counsel, points out that Inslee’s moratorium on executions will affect only two to three cases in the state.

“The governor has not changed the law at all; he doesn’t have the authority. If a new crime happens in any county, the county prosecutor is free to pursue the death penalty and by the time the case goes to trial and through the appellate process, this governor would be long gone,” Brown said.

What the governor has done, Brown said, is advance the conversation on a policy that hasn’t been changed in 30 years.

“We’ll see what happens in this legislative session,” Brown said. “(Inslee) is going to leave it up to the Legislature to change the law, if they want to do that. We’re revisiting capital punishment in a way we haven’t in a long time.”

Don't Do Stupid Stuff Mugs