Saturday, April 1, 2023
April 1, 2023

Linkedin Pinterest

Child killer Westley Allan Dodd hanged 30 years ago

Those who were there can’t forget ‘surreal’ Jan. 5, 1993, execution

By , Columbian Assistant Metro Editor
success iconThis article is available exclusively to subscribers like you.
10 Photos
Westley Allan Dodd. Today marks the 30th anniversary of Westley Allan Dodd's hanging for the murders of Vancouver brothers William "Billy" and Cole Neer, ages 10 and 11, and Lee Iseli, 4, of Portland.
Westley Allan Dodd. Today marks the 30th anniversary of Westley Allan Dodd's hanging for the murders of Vancouver brothers William "Billy" and Cole Neer, ages 10 and 11, and Lee Iseli, 4, of Portland. (Frontline) Photo Gallery

One of the most horrific criminal cases in Clark County history ended 30 years ago today with the hanging of serial child killer Westley Allan Dodd.

Roger Bennett — who prosecuted Dodd alongside Clark County’s then-elected prosecutor, Art Curtis — remembers the case as clear as day. But he rarely thinks about it.

“If I’m asked about it, obviously, I have a lot of recall about it, but … unless someone brings the name up, it’s out of mind,” Bennett said in a recent interview, citing the passage of time and the other cases he has since handled.

“I probably have a better memory than most other cases, because it was so important,” said the attorney and retired Superior Court judge.

He’s not alone. Gregg Herrington, The Columbian’s city editor at the time, said he vividly remembers Dodd’s arrest and discussions about sending a reporter to witness his hanging.

Did You Know?

In the last few decades, there have been three cases in which the Clark County prosecutor pursued the death penalty: Westley Allan Dodd; Clark Hazen, who was sentenced to die in 1986 for the murder of two Fargher Lake residents; and James Leroy Brett, who killed Kenneth Milosevich Sr. during a botched robbery at the victim’s Mount Vista home in 1991.

Hazen died by suicide in prison while his case was on appeal. Brett’s sentence was reversed, and he is serving a life term at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, according to the online state inmate search.

“It was horrific. It captured the whole newsroom, if not the whole community. It was a huge, awful, terrible story,” Herrington said. “The worry and angst in the newsroom and the city was just palpable.”

Dodd was sentenced to die in July 1990, after pleading guilty to three aggravated murders — the stabbing deaths of Vancouver brothers William “Billy” and Cole Neer, ages 10 and 11, and strangulation of Lee Iseli, 4, of Portland.

The Neer brothers’ bodies were found Sept. 4, 1989, in David Douglas Park, where they had ridden their bicycles. Lee’s body was discovered Nov. 1, 1989, dumped near Vancouver Lake, three days after he had disappeared from a Portland schoolyard.

Dodd was arrested weeks later after his car stalled while trying to kidnap a 6-year-old boy from a movie theater in Camas.

Dodd, 31, was hanged Jan. 5, 1993, at the Washington State Penitentiary — the first person to be executed in Washington in 30 years and the first in the nation to be executed by hanging in 28 years. He declined his court appeals.

A rare sentence

Seventy-eight offenders have been executed in the state since 1904. None was a woman. Five men, including Dodd, have been executed in Walla Walla since 1981, according to the Washington Department of Corrections.

None will follow them to the execution chamber.

On Oct. 11, 2018, Washington became the nation’s 20th state to end capital punishment after the state Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional, finding it to be racially biased and used arbitrarily. At the time, Washington was the only state with an active gallows, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Attitudes about the death penalty were different in the early 1990s than they are now, Bennett said. Herrington concurred.

“I don’t remember a bunch of hullabaloo about the death penalty in terms of letters to the editor,” Herrington said of Dodd’s execution.

Herrington said he’ll never forget one of The Columbian’s editorial writers saying something along the lines of: “I’m against capital punishment — have been for a long time — but if ever there was one the community needed, this is it.”

Although Dodd had pleaded guilty, a jury was empaneled to determine his sentence. Bennett said a majority of jurors wanted the death penalty due to the heinous nature of the crime and overwhelming evidence that Dodd would offend again if he could.

“He was caught right in the act of kidnapping another kid, so if he hadn’t been caught, he would have kidnapped more kids and killed them,” Bennett said.

“But when the jury went to deliberate, it was discovered — despite a week or more of jury selection — that there was an anti-death penalty advocate on the jury,” he said.

She had concealed her opinion during jury selection but later shared it with the other jurors. When jurors asked about being deadlocked 11-1, Clark County Superior Court Judge Robert Harris reminded them they’d be individually polled and, therefore, their verdicts would not be anonymous. The holdout changed her vote afterward, Bennett said.

“The burden in a death penalty case is to convince the jury beyond a reasonable doubt there’s no mitigating factors sufficient to merit leniency. So it’s a hard, hard burden of proof, and you just got to pile the evidence on,” Bennett said.

“The death penalty was an accepted component of the law, and this case cried out for it,” he added.

Dodd could have chosen to die by lethal injection, but instead, he chose death by hanging — the same way he had killed 4-year-old Lee Iseli.

Bennett said there was no controversy about Dodd making that decision.

“But I think he played it up. He knew he was going to get the death penalty, so in order to get attention, he played it up like he was the magnanimous person who agreed to the death penalty,” Bennett said.

Witness to the execution

Julie Long, a reporter at Columbia Cable TV in Vancouver at the time, was among the dozen news media witnesses to Dodd’s hanging, the first to occur in Washington since 1963.

Some aspects of the case she remembers like it was yesterday, she said.

Prison officials walked Dodd into the split-level execution chamber. A screen that covered the upstairs window was briefly raised to show Dodd as he spoke his last words.

“For being as disturbed … he was smart enough to know and humble enough to admit he would offend again if ever let free,” Long recalled. “He was very lucid in terms of understanding the gravity of what he had done in killing Lee and the (Neer brothers).”

Media reports stated that the screen dropped afterward, and with only silhouettes visible, the noose was placed around Dodd’s neck. Then a hood was placed over his head.

“They closed the blind, and we saw him come crashing through the floor. He was swinging very gently,” Long said.

The execution took place at 12:05 a.m.

“We all just sat there. Nobody said a word. It was surreal. To me, it almost looked like a department store display. … But it was obviously a lot more grim, a lot more traumatic, a lot more devastating,” Long added. “We watched somebody’s life end. You can’t ever get that image out of your head.”

Long’s only sense of satisfaction in watching Dodd’s hanging, she said, was looking over at Lee Iseli’s mother, Jewell Cornell, and seeing her reaction.

“I remember watching her. … I remember what he said at the end and remember watching Jewell’s face — this sense of closure or calm or relief that it was over,” Long said. “I saw that it had washed over her.”

Bennett said he was unable to attend the hanging due to the limited number of witnesses.

“I would have gone,” he said. “I felt that if I prosecuted this case all the way through a death penalty, I owed it to him, basically, to attend. That may sound funny. But I was going to follow it through.”