Former Oregon mayor, missing car pulled from Willamette River a year after disappearance

NEWBERG, Ore. — Three days shy of the anniversary of his mysterious disappearance, private volunteer divers searching the Willamette River located the car belonging to a former Oregon mayor and schoolteacher who vanished last spring.

Human remains were found Friday evening inside the blue Nissan Sentra belonging to Ralph Davis Brown, according to authorities. The Yamhill County medical examiner confirmed on Tuesday that the remains are those of Brown, a former mayor of Cornelius.

Brown, 76, was last seen the evening of May 16, 2021, leaving his home in his car. Loved ones soon turned to authorities to find Brown, who had been diagnosed the year before with Alzheimer’s disease.

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Brown’s granddaughter, Megan Closson, described her grandfather as a “well-loved, genuinely amazing man.” Brown was a former educator in multiple school districts, and he served for several years on the Forest Grove School Board, according to KEZI in Springfield.

The Oregonian reported last year that Brown, who served as Cornelius mayor in the 1980s, vanished shortly after running errands with his wife of 50 years.

According to the couple’s son, Daryle Brown, his father suddenly stood up and said he was going home, despite already being home. Ralph Brown no longer had a driver’s license and had not driven a car in more than a year, the newspaper reported.

Closson elaborated.

“He all of a sudden one night told my grandma ‘Hey, I’m going to go home,’ and for him home was Astoria. That’s where he grew up,” Closson told KEZI. “So we were thinking that he was trying to head off to Astoria.

“He grabbed the keys and she was disabled, so she couldn’t get up to chase him. So he took the keys and he left, and I think he was trying to head to Astoria but he got confused and then he ended up this way.”

‘You’re looking for me, aren’t you?’

Washington County authorities received many tips on Brown’s whereabouts, but none of the alleged sightings could be confirmed. One of those sightings was in Newberg, near Rogers Landing County Park and the Willamette River.

Brown’s cellphone had also pinged in that area before he vanished. According to KOIN in Portland, his phone records indicated that he drove in circles for about four hours, all within a 30-mile radius from his home.

The Oregonian reported that members of the Brown family called his cellphone dozens of times, but the elderly man answered only once. Sounding confused, Brown told his daughter, Laurie Saunders, that he was “in the bushes at a golf course.”

“Are people looking for me?” Brown asked. “You’re looking for me, aren’t you?”

After that, he was gone.

It was ultimately near the Rogers Landing boat ramp, 23 miles from his home, that Brown’s car was found by the volunteer divers of Adventures with Purpose. The nonprofit group, which travels the country working on cold missing persons cases, offers its services for families for free, solving disappearances that law enforcement agencies don’t have the time or resources to tackle.

According to the group’s website, their divers have solved about two dozen cases since 2019.

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A post on the nonprofit’s Facebook page indicated it was the divers’ fourth search of that portion of the Willamette River.

“Working from the knowledge we’ve gained this past year on the road about dementia patients and cell phone pings, AWP was drawn back to the Rogers Landing Boat Ramp because of Ralph’s last cell phone ping near the area,” the post read.

“We just couldn’t let this one go,” group founder Jared Leisek said.

Leisek told KOIN that upon learning that investigators were never able to track Brown’s cellphone, he and his colleagues “had a gut feeling” that the vehicle was underwater. His crew had already searched for Brown a total of 10 times over the past year, with three of those searches taking place at Rogers Landing.

The fourth time was the charm.

“Something that just kept drawing me back here and today was the day,” Leisek said.

Watch divers Jared Leisek and Doug Bishop discuss finding Ralph Brown’s car below.

It was just 90 minutes into Friday’s search that Leisek and fellow diver Doug Bishop identified an upside-down vehicle in about 40 feet of water near some boat docks.

“After diving, Doug was able to pull the Oregon plate 319KQV matching the vehicle Ralph was driving,” the Facebook post read.

Bishop was unable to tell if anyone was inside the car. According to authorities, Yamhill County deputies, along with marine patrol deputies and deputies, responded to the scene after Bishop and Leisek notified them of the find.

“Yamhill County deputies and Adventure With Purpose worked through the evening to remove the vehicle from the Willamette River,” a Washington County news release said. “Once removed, investigators found human remains in the vehicle.”

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The divers relayed news of the find to Brown’s family. Closson told KOIN that the family is in mourning, but they are relieved.

“I’m just so thrilled we finally get the closure that we’ve really wanted for the past year,” Closson said.

In their social media post, Leisek and Bishop said they were humbled to be able to help the former mayor’s loved ones find answers.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to Ralph’s family during this difficult time,” the post read. “Hug the ones you love, for you never know when it might be the last time you see them.”