In 1981, a Sacramento Man Disappears on Trip to Los Angeles. Two Weeks Later, His Car Found Abandoned in New Orleans: What happened to Dale Kelley?

Dale Kelley (Apr 1981)
Dale Kelley circa April 1981 [Image via]
On the morning of May 20, 1981, 21-year-old Dale Eugene Kelley departed his home in Carmichael—a Sacramento County suburb roughly 10 miles northeast of Sacramento proper—in his orange 1976 Toyota Celica. He planned make the six-and-a-half hour drive to Los Angeles to visit his girlfriend.

Dale was 5’10” and roughly 165 lbs at the time of his disappearance.  He was clean-shaven—never known to have facial hair— with green eyes, shoulder-length brown hair, and a scar on his left knee.  According to the Doe Network, Dale Kelley’s teeth were “perfect,” as his father was a dentist. On May 20, he was reportedly wearing a yellow tank top, dark blue Brittania jeans, and a pair of white high-top Converse sneakers, according to the California Office of the Attorney General’s website.

According to The Charley Project, Kelley called his girlfriend at 8 AM, but it’s unclear at when he actually left the Sacramento. What is clear, though, is that Dale Kelley never made it to Los Angeles. His roommate filed a missing persons report when neither Dale’s friends nor family could locate the 21-year-old.

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(R-L) The location of Sacramento County California, and the location of Carmichael, CA highlighted in red [Image via]
Information about Dale Kelley’s disappearance is so incredibly scarce that it’s hard to identify any of the players involved or know what came next. Despite my best efforts, I’ve been unable to locate any further information about who exactly Dale Kelley was.

The last confirmed detail of this case is significant: On June 4, 1981, Dale’s Celica was discovered by the New Orleans Police Department in Louisiana. Where exactly was his car found? Who knows?

But here’s what we do know: that Dale has not been seen or heard from since, and foul play is suspected in his disappearance.

* * * * *

If I was a man, I might be described as the “ramblin’” type. I’ve spent most of my life moving from state to state, city to city, school to school. Small talk becomes a bit less small when the answer to Where are you from? is always, Lots of places.

But, if I had to pick one singular place as my hometown, I’d pick Sacramento—or, at least the greater Sacramento area. I hated Suck Town as an angsty preteenbut I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for California’s capital city in adulthood.

Perhaps it’s not coincidence that my interest in true crime just so happened to intensify as I learned more about my hometown’s history. Since the mid-19th century, Sacramento’s been a hotbed for murder, mystery, mayhem, and missing persons.

Things have gotten somewhat better for the City of Trees: the murder rate is down and the city seems to be flourishing. But, ghosts of a darker time are still visible every now and again, most obviously in the form of the region’s unsolved crimes, for which there’s often scant information.

The most frustrating cases are those of missing people; murders tend to get at least a day’s worth of media coverage, and are therefore easier to research using local newspaper archives. But missing persons cases, on the other hand, are rarely covered to the same extent—especially when the vanished is an adult. When cases go so frostily cold, all you usually get is a paragraph-long blurb, unless a friend or relative of the missing is actively searching for their loved one on the internet.

* * * * *

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Dale Eugene Kelley circa 1980 [Image via]
Dale Kelley is one of the region’s missing young adults whose names I can’t seem to forget. Every now and then, I take a look at the Sacramento County Sheriff Department’s unsolved homicides, in hopes that one of the many names and faces with which I’ve become acquainted will no longer be there, because the case has been solved. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened yet. In this case, I’m left with a series of unanswered questions:

Who was Dale Kelley? What was he like? Was he flighty? Was he mentally well in 1981? Did he have a history of pulling Irish goodbyes, or was this super out of character?

Where did Dale live in Carmichael? Was he a Sacramento native, or was he living in Carmichael to attend college at CSU Sacramento, Sacramento City College, or American River College? Who was his roommate? For how long had he lived with this person? Did he have an alibi? Was he cleared? And who was his girlfriend? When was it determined that he was actually missing and not just delayed in traffic?

When was the missing persons report filed? Where did his father practice dentistry (I’ve tried searching for “Kelley dentist” in old city directories, but it turns out Kelley is a pretty common last name for dentists)? Was there an investigation? Were there any signs of foul play in or near his car? Was there blood? Were his belongings there? 

Despite my best efforts—and while I’m a pretty good researcher, I’m now living on the opposite coast and am thus limited to what’s been digitized—the answer to every one of these questions is the same: We don’t know.

* * * * *

Now, I’m not usually one to entertain unsubstantiated theories without good reason. But, because it’s often mentioned in what discussion does exist about Dale Kelley, I’m going to mention the Snake River John Doe

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An artist’s reconstruction of what the Snake River Doe may have looked like in life [Image via]
On June 26, 1982, the body of an unidentified male was recovered from the Idaho side of the Snake River  in Nez Perce County, Idaho.

According to an archived page on the county sheriff’s website, ballistics proved the victim was shot with a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson 36 Centennial Model, which has not been manufactured since 1967.

Based on the condition of the remains, the decedent had likely been deceased for 2-3 weeks, and was likely in his late teenage years or early twenties. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the decedent had black hair approximately 3 to 4″ long. However, according to NamUs, his hair was red or auburn in color and his eyes were brown.

He was roughly 5’11” tall and weighed roughly 145 to 165 lbs. According to the Doe Network, the decedent had no obvious dental work, but had “great teeth with no cavities.”  The…quality(?) of both the Doe and Kelley’s teeth paired with the fact that Kelley’s father was a dentist leads some to believe that the two men are one in the same.

The Snake River Doe was found wearing Britannica-brand jeans, California Sun-brand dark blue swim trunks with alternating ½” thick red and white stripes, and one white sock with a red a blue stripes around the top. The decedent had a scar on his lower right leg—according to NamUs, on his right ankle—approximately 2 inches long.

dale kelley mapIn case you’re wondering, Nez Perce County, ID is not on the way from Carmichael to Los Angeles, nor is it on the way to New Orleans. In fact, it’s in the completely opposite direction.

Does that make it impossible for Dale Kelley to have disappeared from Northern California in May 1981, dumped his car across the country in New Orleans in June 1981, and then dicked around for a year until he was shot and murdered in June 1982? It’s not impossible, but it seems improbable. Similarly improbable seems to be the idea that someone with malicious intent he held Dale Kelley captive and dragged him across the country for an entire year before finally ending it—although stranger things have happened.

* * * * *

While I will continue to scour the internet for information on Dale Kelley, I’m not holding my breath.

If you knew Dale Kelley—or if you know someone who knew Dale Kelley—please, drop me a comment.

But if you’re just a befuddled bystander like me, what do you think happened to Dale Kelley? Do you think he is, in fact, the Snake River Doe?

UPDATE: New details have emerged in the disappearance of Dale Kelley.

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