The Kims and Their Doomed Trip
James Kim was a product reviewer for CNET, an Internet-based trade journal that reports on Internet-related consumer gear: I-Pods, Palm Pilots and the like. A memorial to James Kim on the CNET website labeled him “family man, gadget fan.” In his reports, James would occasionally refer to his children in connection with some gadgets, particular his older daughter, Penelope. The Kims owned two boutiques in San Francisco, and his wife, Kati, managed them. By all accounts, they were happily married.
The Kims, especially Kati, were familiar with Oregon and its winter weather. They had met while she was a student at the University of Oregon in Eugene, and had lived together there for six months while she finished her studies. The Kims moved from Eugene to San Francisco, while maintaining ties to friends and family in Oregon and Seattle, where the Kims spent Thanksgiving.
The Rainiest November in Pacific Northwest History
November is always a rough month in these parts. It's the rainiest month of the year, in a region known for rain. At elevation, the Pacific Northwest becomes the snowiest region in the United States; accumulations at the summits of the Cascade mountains usually top 600 inches a year, and occasionally 1,000 inches. November is when it really gets going, but even by Pacific Northwest standards November 2006 was unusual. By the time the Kims reached Seattle to celebrate Thanksgiving, the city had broken its official, all-time record for rain in one month. There had been flooding in parts of the city, and TV and newspapers were anticipating that Seattle's unofficial, and even higher, all-time record would be broken before the end of the month.
As the Kims left Seattle on Friday, Nov. 24, a major winter storm was forecast for the region. Unlike the prior storms that month, the approaching storm included a cold front; forecasters said it would include snow. On Saturday, Nov. 25, a half-inch of rain fell in Portland. It was Portland’s wettest November in history. It is unimaginable that the Kims, who had driven from San Francisco to Seattle only a week earlier and who were familiar with the region, had failed to take note of the unusually wet and stormy conditions.
James Kim had appointments scheduled in San Francisco on the following Tuesday, Nov. 28. He and Kati planned to spend Saturday night in Gold Beach, a town in the southwest corner of Oregon near the California border. On Sunday they would drive to Mendocino, a scenic town in Northern California, where they would stay overnight. On Monday, they would return to San Francisco.
The 300-mile drive from Portland to Gold Beach, which the Kims planned for Nov. 25, is longer than the mileage might suggest. It takes at least six hours via routes typically used by travelers, not including breaks for restrooms, fuel, meals and sidetrips. Indeed, the manager of Tu Tu Tun Lodge, the luxury resort where the Kims were headed, told the ABC network's 20/20 program, a retrospective look at the tragedy broadcast Feb. 11, 2011, that she had advised them against driving all the way to Gold Beach when the Kims had called that afternoon to make a reservation.
The Kims' vehicle, a 2005 Saab 2X station wagon, had a highway range of 450 miles. On Nov. 25, with Mr. Kim at the wheel, they traveled about 275 miles – stopping about 90 miles into their journey to refill their tank – before coming to rest in the early hours of the following morning on an unpaved logging road in the remote and rugged Rogue Wilderness of southwest Oregon.
To get there, the Kims had missed several chances to take safe, familiar roads. Instead, they chose an obscure combination of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management roads, ignoring two verbal cautions, two map warnings, and four snow warnings posted on large yellow signs along their route. When snow blocked their way, they decided not to return to an Interstate highway less than 30 miles away but instead chose to drive farther into the wilderness along an unmarked, unpaved road not shown on their maps.
The Kims did these things late at night while carrying two young children, little food or emergency gear, and scant winter clothing. After resting overnight, they chose not to drive back the way they came but rather to stay where they were. While in the car, the Kims burned the remainder of their fuel to keep themselves and their children warm.
When Did The Kims Leave Portland? A Minor Mystery
Reports about the Kims’ departure from Portland on that Saturday are contradictory. A version based on eyewitness testimony by people who encountered the Kims along their route had the family leaving Portland at about noon, but Mrs. Kim told law enforcement authorities that the family had left the city at about 5 p.m. Why does it matter? Because a noon departure for their distant destination would have made much more logical sense than waiting until late in the day to leave Portland. Also relevant is that an early departure would have allowed the Kims to stop at the Wilsonville Chamber of Commerce, which operates a visitor center along Interstate 5, located 19 miles south of Portland.
While the search for the Kims was underway, media accounts quoted Mark Ottenad, the visitor center's executive director, saying that the Kims had stopped in between noon and 1:30 p.m. Mr. Ottenad said that one of his employees had told him that she had spoken with the Kims, and that a second tourist center employee who had not spoken with the Kims recognized the family from television broadcasts.
According to Ottenad and the employee who had dealt with the family, Mr. Kim inquired about scenic routes to the coast. He was given an official Oregon highway map, and was advised not to use Forest Service roads to the coast. Other Oregon highway officials interviewed separately said that they discourage use of back roads during winter. The employee who had dealt with the Kims contacted state police after seeing the Kims’ photographs on television. The employee was reinterviewed by a Portland Police Department detective, Michael Weinstein, who obtained a replica of the map given to the Kims with the routes to the coast that the employee had highlighted.
After Kati Kim and her children were rescued on Dec. 4, she told authorities that they had left Portland at 5 p.m. and had not stopped at the Wilsonville tourist center. In comments in early 2011 on on a website operated by the Portland Oregonian, Mrs. Kim reiterated that, "there was no Wilsonville." A poster identifying herself as Holly Stalder, owner of Seaplane, a now-defunct boutique that was located in Portland, wrote that Mrs. Kim had been there that afternoon, and had left at 4 p.m. The boutique owner claimed to have been interviewed by FBI agents; however, that agency's involvement in the search for the Kims was not mentioned in a comprehensive review of the events released Jan. 18, 2007 by the Oregon State Sheriffs Association.
Shortly after Mrs. Kim told authorities in 2007 that they hadn't stopped in Wilsonville, the Oregon State Police (“OSP”) issued a statement saying that the tourist center’s account had been mistaken, and that the Kims had not been there. An OSP spokesman told an Internet website that the OSP had accepted Mrs. Kim’s version at face value, and had not attempted to reconcile the two versions. Nevertheless, Mrs. Kim’s account was contradicted by a chronology of events released Jan. 5, 2007 by the Oregon governor’s office, and by elements of the Sheriff’s Association report. On Jan. 22, 2007, this writer spoke to Mr. Ottenad, who reconfirmed to us what he had told various media. The following summer, this writer spoke to the visitor center employee who had dealt with the Kims. Both Mr. Ottenad and the employees verified the timing of the Kims’ stop at the visitor center, the identity of the family, and the content of the conversation between the Kims and the employee.
While investigators did not reconcile the two versions, the Sheriff's Association report said that gas receipts and phone records showed that the Kims refueled their car just before 6 p.m. in Halsey, a town located 88 miles south of Portland and 70 miles south of Wilsonville along I-5. While they were in Halsey, the Kims used a cellphone to reconfirm a reservation they had made earlier that afternoon at the TuTuTun Lodge near Gold Beach.
Mrs. Kim's claims about how they spent the afternoon are also contradicted by cellphone records cited in the Sheriffs Association report. According to Cingular Wireless, the Kims called the Tu Tu Lodge at 2 p.m.; the timing of that call was supported by the lodge's manager. The call originated from a cell located between Salem and Albany, at least 50 miles south of Portland, where Mrs. Kim claims the family spent the afternoon. If the Kims had stopped at the Wilsonville center, there would have been a gap of four to six hours between that location and their refueling stop, which is located a little more than an hour's drive from the tourist center.
Running Late: The Kims Stop At Halsey, Oregon
Regardless of how or where the Kims spent the afternoon, it is beyond dispute that their 6 p.m. stop in Halsey made them very late for their destination at Gold Beach. They still had 225 miles to travel, a journey of at least five hours not including stops. Indeed, when they called the lodge from Halsey, the Kims asked that a key be left for them because they would be late. From Halsey, they drove south to the town of Roseburg, stopping for dinner at a Denny’s restaurant along I-5.
Along the way, they missed their first chance to take a major route to the coast -- Oregon Hwy. 38, which runs from I-5 just south of Eugene to Reedsport, where it intersects with U.S. 101, a major highway running the length of the Oregon coast. After the family left Denny’s in Roseburg at about 9:30 p.m., they had a choice of a standard route to the coast and a risky one. The standard route is via Oregon Hwy. 42, an excellent road that connects I-5 to U.S. Hwy. 101; the risky one uses a combination of primitive Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management roads considered difficult in summer and nearly impassable in winter.
Mrs. Kim told authorities after her rescue that they had planned to take Hwy. 42, but changed the plan after they missed an exit from I-5. Rather than backtrack to Hwy. 42, the Kims kept driving for an hour to the town of Merlin, where travelers can reach the back roads running through the Rogue Wilderness to the coastal town of Gold Beach. Local residents consider this route hazardous for its narrow path, rough and poorly maintained surface, confusing signage, steep dropoffs, and blind curves. Indeed, this writer retraced the Kims' journey on a clear summer afternoon in 2007, and found the route arduous.
In an interview conducted by Sheriff Tim Evinger on Jan. 15, 2007, six weeks after her rescue, Mrs. Kim described sitting in her car outside of a gas station in Merlin, checking the 2006 Oregon Dept. of Transportation (ODOT) highway map, and deciding to take the back road. This map showed the route as a solid black line, which the legend identified as the lowest grade of paved road; major roads in Oregon are depicted in red or green. The ODOT map carried two warnings applicable to the Kims. One was a box with an arrow pointing to the Kims’ route, containing the red-letter warning, “This route closed in winter.” A second warning is not specific. In red letters, it read: “Make local inquiry of road conditions in remote areas. Some roads are impassable following severe weather conditions.”
Only after they had been stranded in the wilderness for several days did the Kims notice a warning on the map. Mrs. Kim recalled reading the words, “Not all roads advisable. Check weather conditions.” That warning language is not part of the ODOT map, pieces of which James Kim had left as clues for investigators as he tried to walk out of the wilderness. Thus, either Mrs. Kim’s recollection of the wording is flawed, or the family had more than one map in their car.
At the gas station in Merlin, the Kims did not refuel. Mrs. Kim said her husband went inside for directions, and was given confusing information. Nevertheless, she told investigators that she felt no one had communicated that their intended route was dangerous. Conditions were dry at the time, she said. Media reports said that a mixture of rain and snow was falling in the area.
Into the Wilderness
The couple proceeded along the route shown on the ODOT map, which starts on Merlin Galice Road and connects to Bear Camp Road. As they drove the route, they passed four large yellow signs warning that it “may be blocked by snowdrifts.” Though Mrs. Kim told authorities that conditions were dry, a sheriff’s deputy was quoted in the Jan. 18 Sheriff’s Association report saying that he had driven the route two days earlier and that snow was visible along Bear Camp Road.
About 14 miles from where they entered Bear Camp Road and 27 miles from I-5, the Kims reached an intersection. To the right was a logging road. To the left, Bear Camp Road continued toward their destination, as indicated by signs showing the mileage to Gold Beach and two stops along the way. A few dozen feet behind the mileage sign stood the fourth warning sign on their route, stating “Road May Be Blocked By Snowdrifts 6 Miles Ahead.” The Kims went left.
At that point, Mrs. Kim told authorities, the dry conditions abruptly turned to heavy snowfall. Thinking that the crest of the road would be near and that they could then proceed downhill to the coast, they kept climbing until their path was blocked by snow. At that point, Mr. Kim carefully backed down the narrow road, being afraid to turn the car around. When they reached the intersection they had passed on the way to the snow closure, snow continued to fall. They used their three cellphones to try to make 911 calls, but got no signal.
Rather than use the wide intersection to turn their car around and proceed back to I-5, the Kims elected to take the logging road, which was unmarked at the intersection and not shown on their map. That decision, which ultimately led to their becoming stranded, has been the subject of much confusion due to erroneous reporting by virtually every media outlet that covered the story, along with contradictory statements made by Mrs. Kim in 2011.
One error concerned a gate at the intersection, which by Bureau of Land Management regulation was supposed to be locked in early November. Several media outlets, including Fox News and CNN, reported that a lock had been cut, making vandals responsible for the Kims’ detour. Subsequent reports determined that BLM hadn’t closed the gate in 2006, and in fact that the agency’s employees had rarely, if ever, closed it. On the day the Kims elected to use the logging road, Oregon's elk hunting season was still open. In addition to using the roads for reach hunting grounds, local residents commonly harvest Christmas trees in the area. There are 5,000 miles of logging roads in the remote counties of southwest Oregon; closing them is impossible.
Another widely reported error concerned the road signs at the intersection, which are considered confusing and are thought to have led some summer tourists to take the logging road by mistake. For that reason, the media reported that inaccurate signs had lured the Kims onto the logging road. In fact, they had correctly interpreted the signs on their route and purposely decided to abandon Bear Camp Road for the logging road.
According to Mrs. Kim's statement to Oregon sheriff Evinger, they elected to take the logging road because it dips downward from the intersection, and as a result that believed it would lead to a lower altitude and out of the snow. By contrast, she said, they were afraid that if they turned around and went back toward I-5, the snow that was then falling would make the drive hazardous. They drove along the unpaved logging road for 21 miles, periodically stopping to remove rocks. Mrs. Kim told authorities that they realized that they were disoriented and decided to rest and try to find their way in the morning light.
Later, in a program broadcast Feb. 11, 2011 by ABC's 20/20, Mrs. Kim claimed that her husband had simply taken a "wrong turn" at the intersection. Mr. Kim had not backed down the coast road, but had been lured onto the logging road by poor signage and a road gate that forest employees had erroeously left unlocked. In exchanges on the Oregonian's website, Mrs. Kim denied that her accounts were contradictory, and introduced a new claim that she had been asleep for much of the drive up Bear Camp Road, and down the logging road. No mention of her having been asleep appears in the Sheriffs Association report; to the contrary, Mrs. Kim's recollections of sights along the route were numerous and detailed.
When they awoke on the morning of Nov. 26, it was raining. Rather than drive back the way they came, the Kims decided to stay where they were. Mrs. Kim told authorities that they did this because they were afraid they’d be stuck in snow at higher altitudes. They had seen a snowplow parked by the side of Bear Camp Road on their way up, and believed they’d be discovered by people plowing the roads. They even believed they could hear a plow in the distance, a sound they would later realize was the rushing of water in a nearby river.
For the rest of the week, the Kims stayed with their car, conserved resources and continually tried to attract attention through various signaling devices, including attempting to make cell phone calls and eventually burning all five of their car’s tires. As their situation grew more desperate, they took desperate measures. Mrs. Kim breast-fed not only her infant but her four-year-old, and eventually Mr. Kim set off in search of help. Lightly clad, he retraced the car’s route along the logging road for several miles. But then he made a detour into a ravine that leads to a creek where his body was eventually found. Along the way, he left pieces of clothing and bits of his map as signals for rescuers, who arrived too late.
Questions and Contradictions
Was this the Kims’ first trip on Bear Camp Road? Mrs. Kim told authorities that they proceeded up Bear Camp Road in the snow, past the fourth warning sign, because they believed the crest of the road was just ahead. The observation suggests prior knowledge of the route. An Oregon resident, Bob Hollenbeck, wrote on a message board that someone “down south” had told him that the Kims had taken Bear Camp Road at a previous time, but Mr. Hollenbeck declined to answer further inquiries about his statement.
Did the Kims actually intend to use Hwy. 42? Mrs. Kim describes having missed the turnoff to Hwy. 42. In fact, that main turnoff is advertised by a series of prominent signs along I-5, making it difficult to miss. Travelers who do miss it have several more opportunities to make short backtracks to Hwy. 42. Mrs. Kim told authorities that they drove 60 miles to Merlin before checking their map for alternative routes. As it should happen, their alternative started right there. Was it a coincidence, or did the Kims intend to use the back country route from the beginning?
How did they spend the afternoon of Nov. 25? The tourist center employee’s specific recollection of meeting the Kims and providing them with scenic routes from I-5 convinces us that the family stopped there early in the afternoon. It is an hour’s drive on I-5 from the tourist center to the gas station where the Kims refueled their car five or six hours later. What made the Kims arrive in Halsey so late in the day? If the reason was, as Mrs. Kim has asserted, simply a late start from Portland, given her significant background as an Oregon resident, wasn't Mrs. Kim concerned that 5 p.m. was too late to start a trip to Gold Beach amid predictions of a winter storm that would include snowfall?
What about the snow? Mrs. Kim told investigators that conditions were dry as they climbed Bear Camp Road late on the night of Nov. 25, and that the first snow they encountered began falling suddenly after they passed a sign warning of possible snowdrifts six miles ahead. They soon became stuck and backed down the road, and by the time they reached the logging road intersection it was snowing so heavily that they thought it would be too hazardous to retrace their route back to I-5.
If conditions had been dry until they had gotten there, as Mrs. Kim claimed, snow wouldn’t have been falling long enough to make the drive back to I-5 hazardous. It is more likely that the Kims encountered heavy snow well before approaching the fourth warning sign. Only then would there have been any logic to seeking a lower route by taking the logging road, which at the intersection with Bear Camp Road appears to go lower.
NOTE: In January 2011, this writer offered Mrs. Kim an opportunity to answer detailed questions about the events of late 2006, in hopes of reconciling contradictions and filling gaps. She reiterated her account of how how the family spent the afternoon of Nov. 25th., and denied that she and her husband had elected to travel on the logging road that night, but otherwise declined to engage in further dialogue.
©2007, 2011 Charles Wilson, all rights reserved