Did A Serial Killer Murder Teen Girls in Oregon?

Oregon officials may have a serial killer on the coastCourtesy Lincoln County District Attorneys office
Oregon officials may have a serial killer on the coast

Jennifer Esson and Kara Leas left a friend's house around 1 a.m. in late January 1995, after a night of hanging out and watching movies. They were going to have Esson's older brother drive them home, said Esson's father, Floyd Esson. But the girls, both 16, decided to walk.

They were never seen alive again. Their bodies, covered with brush, were found a few weeks later by loggers in the woods. They had been strangled.

"It was like a kick in the gut," said Floyd Esson. "I fell to pieces. I lost it."

VIDEO: Suspected serial murder cases in OregonPlay

Their killer has never been caught. Earlier this year, investigators in Newport, Ore., reopened the unsolved murders, along with three other cases of teenage girls who were killed near the town in the last 25 years.

Police believe the killings, which took place during an 11 year period between 1984 and 1995, may be connected. It was unclear why the murders stopped after 1995.

"I just want to know what happened. And see the guy who did it get punished," Esson said.

Lincoln County District Attorney Rob Bovett said that investigators have no hard evidence that all five girls were victims of the same killer, and do not have a suspect in mind. But he pointed to some obvious similarities in the cases.

"I don't know that we can say that we even think it's the work of a serial killer," he said. "We don't have any direct evidence of a connection yet. The only thing that connects them is the basic facts -- we've got teenage girls disappearing in the middle of the night."

All the victims were teenage girls who disappeared late at night or early in the morning. Esson, Leas and two other girls, Sheila Swanson and Melissa Sanders, were all last seen near Highway 101 north of Newport.

Their bodies were later found in wooded areas. In a fifth case, another girl disappeared after she was last seen walking alone at night east of the city.

Bovett said his team is focusing on the Esson and Leas cases, the most recent murders, which have the best physical evidence.

Cause of Death for Three Girls Undetermined

The cause of death of the other girls -- Kelly Disney, 17; Swanson, 19; and Sanders, 17 -- has never been determined.

Swanson's and Sanders' bodies were found about five months after they disappeared. Their remains were too decomposed to determine how they died.

Disney's skull was found in 1994, 10 years after she disappeared, in an abandoned car near Big Creek Reservoir, just outside the city.

Bovett said investigators planned to retest DNA evidence, hoping that advances in DNA technology will lead to a break in the cases. He also said he hoped someone would come forward to give police information about the cases.

"DNA testing has changed, people have grown older and relationships have changed. Someone might decide to talk," he said.

Father: Teen Daughter 'Terribly Naive'

Kelly Disney was the first to disappear. She was last seen on U.S. 20, east of Newport, at about 1 a.m. March 9, 1984.

Swanson and Sanders, two friends, had gone on a weeklong camping trip with Sanders' family. They disappeared after one night. The two girls had their own tent and were last seen near Beverly Beach State Park May 3, 1992, talking on a pay phone, said Bovett.

Their bodies were found in a wooded area.

Esson said his daughter was outgoing and "extremely bright," helping her mother with her homework for college courses. Jennifer liked to play guitar and sing, he said.

Esson said he didn't think his daughter was killed by a serial killer.

"She was terribly naïve," he said. "The thought that somebody would want to hurt her wouldn't even cross her mind."

"I think she happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Police have asked anyone who knows anything about the crimes to call 800-452-7888.