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The Kims and Their Doomed Trip

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Afterthoughts: Summer 2007

Media and Official Reports Archive


Afterthoughts: Summer 2007

I just got home from a 3,500-mile jaunt: Seattle-San Diego-Vegas-Seattle. Among other things, we retraced the Kims' steps, including their timeline. My partner, who did not work on the website with me but who heard all about it from me, was with me. Our mutual conclusion was: "Too bad it happened, but boy oh boy, what idiots the Kims were."

Seattle to Wilsonville

We left Seattle at 8 or 9 on the morning on Monday, June 25. We had reservations that night at a lodge in Gold Beach, OR. We had tried to book at Tu Tu Tun, where the Kims were heading on the night where they were lost. It was full, so we had to pick a different one. We manage to have dinner at Tu Tu Tun; suffice to say that it's a very nice place and the food is great.

We took Interstate 5 out of Seattle. Traffic was heavy; not quite bumper to bumper all the way, but close. Our first stop was in Wilsonville, OR, at a tourist center operated by the local chamber of commerce. The place figured prominently in the Kim story; after she and the kids were rescued, Kati Kim denied having stopped there, but employees and the center's director said the Kims were there.

There were three reasons that it mattered. First was that the Chamber's employees warn people not to travel from I-5 to the Oregon coast via the remote roads maintained by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Second was that an employee specifically recalled giving such a warning to James Kim on the afternoon of Saturday, Nov. 25, 2006, the night the Kims were lost on their way from I-5 to Gold Beach. Third was that the timing of their stop at the Wilsonville office left a gap of three or four hours that Mrs. Kim never explained.

We arrived at Wilsonville at about 1 p.m. We needed a break from driving anyway. The tourist info center is listed on a freeway sign, and is located about a half-mile from the freeway in a city park. It was a sunny day, and when we entered the building we were greeted by a matronly woman who looked to be in her late 50s or 60s.

She came across to us as cordial in a no-nonsense sort of way, a lady who, when she travels, knows exactly where she's going and how she'll get there. She is also someone who knows everything that happens in her small building. When a child tried to enter through the wrong door, she let her in but politely informed the child that the correct entrance is around front.

The woman in the center gave me a couple of brochures about the area. I also got a state highway map from her and a couple of brochures about the Oregon coast. This is what newspaper stories had said were given to the Kims, along with advice not to travel on the Forest Service/BLM roads between I-5 and the coast. After Kati Kim was rescued on Dec. 6, the Portland Oregonian, whose coverage of the Kim ordeal won a Pulitzer Prize, corrected itself and wrote that the Kims had never stopped at the center. This was because Mrs. Kim told her rescuers that they hadn't been there.

Eventually, I asked the woman at the center about the Kims. "I remember them," she said, in a tone similar to that which she had used with the child who had entered through the wrong door. This was the voice of absolute certainty. I told her that I had followed the situation very closely; that we were headed toward Gold Beach, and that we were planning to retrace their route.

She replied that she did not recommend that we use those roads, and said that if we were planning to do so that she had nothing to tell us about them. She was not hostile at she said this, but matter-of-fact: she would simply not discuss the back roads other than to advise against them. After a short time, she said she didn't want to discuss the Kims any further. She was polite about this; I replied that I understood and respected her wish. I thanked her for her help, and we left the building.

I smoked a cigar and we strolled around the park, and shortly before 2 p.m. we got back onto I-5 and headed south, in heavy traffic. When I first wrote about the Kims, I closely checked the timeline, and even interviewed the executive director of the Wilsonville Chamber of Commerce. As a result, I believe that they arrived at the Wilsonville center at about 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 26th, and left by about 1 p.m.: they had been about an hour ahead of us.

A Continuing Mystery: How Did the Kims Spend the Afternoon?

Our next stop was at a Shell station in the town of Halsey, OR. This is where the Kims had stopped on Nov. 26. Receipts and cellphone records place them there at 5:45 p.m. We got to the Shell station at 3 p.m., exactly an hour after leaving Wilsonville. We drove in perfect weather; the Kims drove in light rain, which in Oregon presents no particular challenge on the Interstate in the Willamette Valley.

Therefore, if the Kims left Wilsonville at 1 p.m. and gassed up at Halsey just before 6 p.m., while we left at 2 p.m. and gassed up at 3 p.m., there is a four-hour time gap that neither Mrs. Kim nor any investigation nor any media account has ever mentioned, let alone tried to explain. What did they do for four hours, and why did Mrs. Kim make a (successful) effort to conceal it?

My partner and I discussed this at great length during our drive. One possibility: Maybe the Kims' who owned a clothing boutique in San Francisco, returned to Portland and toured boutiques before heading south. But this seems unlikely to me. They had started their day in Portland, which is 20 miles north of Wilsonville; the boutique hypothesis would have required them to have retraced their steps not just once, but twice.

The bottom line is that there exists an intriguing four-hour time gap. Until and unless Kati Kim ever steps forward and explains it, no one will ever know what they did that afternoon and whether it was relevant to what happened next.

At 3 p.m., we left the Shell station and got back onto I-5 and headed south. Just before 6 p.m. on Nov. 26, the Kims had done the same thing, after calling Tu Tu Tun to reconfirm their reservation and ask that a key be left for them. Tu Tu Tun is a very nice place; among other things, they take a deposit that's non-refundable in the final two weeks of a reservation period.

As the Kims had made their reservation after stopping in Wilsonville on Nov. 26, they were on the hook for more than $200. I suspect that this was a powerful incentive for them to get there, no matter what.

Halsey to Roseburg, OR is another hour an a half. From the highway, we saw a sign for the Denny's restaurant where credit card receipts showed the Kims having stopped for dinner at about 8 p.m. They left shortly after 9 p.m. and kept driving south. According to Mrs. Kim, they inadvertently missed a turnoff to Oregon Hwy. 42, one of the two major routes to the coast available to them that night.

Did the Kims Really Miss the Hwy. 42 Exit? Not Likely!

Once they realized they'd missed Hwy. 42, she told authorities, they drove another 60 miles to the town of Merlin, OR. From there, they used a combination of Forest Service and BLM roads that lead to Gold Beach. After encountering heavy snow on one of the roads, they took an unmarked logging road, where they became stuck.

It's vital to know that the Kims were not newcomers to Oregon. Mrs. Kim is a graduate of the University of Oregon in Eugene, where she spent four years. Her husband lived with her there for six months. In one interview, Mrs. Kim told authorities that she had assumed the back roads from Merlin to Gold Beach would be similar in character to a winding road from Eugene to the coastal town of Florence.

As we passed the Hwy. 42 exit, I asked my partner, who like me has done a lot of driving, how likely he thought it was that the Kims would have missed the turnoff. "No way in hell," was his answer. It's true: the turnoff to Hwy. 42 is very clearly marked. If the Kims had intended to use that route, as they'd been advised at Wilsonville, they'd have done so. I am firmly convinced that their decision to use the back roads from Merlin was intentional, not accidental as Mrs. Kim told authorities.

Merlin is about another hour from Roseburg. We got there at about 5:30 p.m. on June 25. We stopped for soft drinks and a bit of rest, and entered a convenience store. In her account to authorities, Mrs. Kim said they'd asked for directions at a gas station in Merlin, and that her husband had returned to the car uncertain as to whether the person at the station had understood him.

This is entirely believable to me. Josephine County, Oregon is the poorest in the state, and now that federal timber subsidies are going away it's about to become even poorer. Aside from the shrinking logging trade, the main industries are seasonal tourism, the distillation of cold medicine into methamphetamine, and indoor cultivation of marijuana. Meth and marijuana are the moonshine of the 21st century, and Merlin is full of moonshiners.

That said, I'd be surprised if anyone deliberately misled the Kims at Merlin on account of his having been of Korean descent. Unlike among the moonshiners of the South, racism isn't a prominent part of the social mix in Oregon. I'm as white at they get, and when I asked for directions to Tu Tu Tun at a convenience store in Gold Beach I got the wrong ones. Let's put it this way: Gomer Pyle is Merlin, OR's valedictorian.

In any case, the Kims had an Oregon highway map that they'd obtained in Wilsonville, and subsequent accounts from Kati Kim indicated that they in fact had taken the correct combination of roads toward Gold Beach. They were never "lost" in the sense that many had assumed; rather, they decided to use an unmarked side road.

The Wilderness Drive: We Were Exhausted, But Never Lost

The "main" back roads between Merlin and Gold Beach run for about 90 miles. About two-thirds of it is rough going. We started at about 5:30 p.m. and got to Gold Beach at 8:30 or so, exhausted. But we never felt "lost." Contrary to media reports and Internet postings (most of which were written by people who'd never been on the roads in question), the directional signs along Bear Camp Rd. are clear.

What exhausted us was the combination of tight, blind curves and driving westward at sunset on a sunny afternoon, which made for visibility problems amid the interplay of light and shadow. The Kims didn't face the sunny day problem; their issue was that they drove up into mountains as heavy snow fell on the road.

We passed several signposts that are blank in summer but that, when the Kims were there, held bright yellow signs warning of snowdrifts at the summit ahead. I have seen the photos of those signs, and now having driven the road I believe that they were unmistakable.

We passed the intersection where the Kims, having backed down Bear Camp Road after finding it impassable, took an unmarked logging spur rather than return to Merlin and I-5. "Here's where they turned off," I said to my partner, noting that media reports first said that it was a mistaken turnoff. My partner immediately dismissed the idea that it had been a mistake; the signs pointing to Gold Beach are clear. In fact, later on, Mrs. Kim confirmed that their final detour was purposeful.

What about the gate? The spur that the Kims used that evening was supposed to have been blocked by a gate. CNN visited the spot, found some broken locks on the ground, and declared that vandals had opened the gate. It wasn't true; in fact, the Bureau of Land Management had left it open, in violation of its own rules specifying that it should be closed after Nov. 1.

So, do we blame BLM? Not so fast. Remember that Merlin, Oregon might as well be Poverty Gulch. Oregon's hunting season might end in early November but locals go into the forest to kill their food regardless of what the calendar might say. (NOTE: Oregon's deer and elk season ends on Nov. 30, meaning that it was still on when the Kims entered the ungated logging road). They also go into the back country to harvest Christmas trees to make a few dollars. Now, think of some other realities. One is that SW Oregon is roughly the size of Connecticut. Another is that there are 5,000 miles of logging roads in that area. Another is that there are fewer than half a dozen BLM employees to "manage" them.

And who are these BLM managers? Are they imported from, say, Neptune? No, they are Americans who, by and large, are native to the areas that they manage. In Oregon, they are Oregonians. And, while the government might pay a somewhat livable wage, they're not getting rich. Some of them might be out-of-season hunters and Christmas tree harvesters just like their poorer neighbors. Conclusion: Wise up, city slickers. That gate was open because you can't keep gates closed in that area.

Oh, and one other thing: If the gate has been closed, there was no shortage of other, ungated logging spurs. The Kims would have simply used one of them instead.

Why didn't they just turn around and go back to Merlin, and from there drive a few miles on I-5 to Grants Pass, OR, where they easily could have found a Motel 6? Two possibilities. One is that, contrary to what Mrs. Kim told authorities after she was rescued, they'd encountered heavy snow as they ascended Bear Camp Road and were afraid to go back. The other possibility, and to me the more likely one, is that they were in the grip of "get there-itis." They'd come a long way, and there was more than $200 at stake. In for a dime, in for a dollar.

We didn't completely retrace the Kims' route. I didn't see any point in driving down the logging spur where their car eventually became stuck in snow, and where James Kim died when he tried to walk out. I was interested in how they got into their predicament.

"Who Knows?"

My partner was incredulous. "What were they doing here?" he kept saying. You'd have to be crazy or stupid to drive back here on a night like that, yet by all accounts the Kims were educated, sane people. We reached Gold Beach at 8:30, tired. We had dinner at sunset on the banks of the Rogue River, and pondered the case of the smart people from San Francisco who got tunnel vision, did a series of remarkably foolish things, and paid with one of their lives.


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