Kims and Their Doomed Trip
SAR Effort: Bungled or Undermined?
and Official Reports Archive
SAR Effort: Bungled? Undermined?
failed to exploit vital clues in the hunt for the family of
James Kim, including several crucial pieces of evidence that
surfaced in the final hours of his life, when he was freezing,
alone and lost in the woods,” said an article published
Dec. 17, 2006 by the Portland Oregonian.
article triggered an uproar among the Kims’ friends,
causing the Oregon governor’s office to launch an
investigation of the search and rescue (“SAR”)
effort. Separately, the Josephine County sheriff’s
office, which had directed the rescue operation, asked the
Oregon State Sheriff’s Association to review its
January 5, the governor’s office released a timeline of
official actions connected to the SAR effort, and announced
that, once the Sheriff’s Association report is complete,
it will convene a task force to review the SAR effort and
procedures. The Sheriff’s Association released its
report on Jan. 18. The report, which included the governor’s
timeline in an appendix, revealed a fragmented and
disorganized SAR management structure, exacerbated by
geographic realities and personnel issues.
Kims were lost in Oregon, a state 1.5 times the size of New
England, but with one-quarter of that region’s
population. The main search area in southwest Oregon included
sections of four counties; together they are roughly the size
of Connecticut but have one-seventh its population. Josephine
County, where the Kim family was lost, is almost as large as
the state of Delaware, but with one-tenth its population.
state-level Office of Emergency Management has statutory
responsibility for coordinating SAR operations, but the office
is understaffed due to budget constraints. The SAR efforts
themselves are to be conducted by each county, with the Oregon
State Police lending investigative and management help, and
the Oregon Army National Guard able to supply search equipment
if requested by county authorities.
a day of SAR efforts getting underway, Josephine County became
the focal point. Josephine County’s resources are
stretched in every department. SAR is coordinated by a
part-time employee, Sara Rubrecht, a former sheriff dispatcher
with minimal training or supervision. Staffing relies heavily
on unpaid volunteers, with sheriff’s department
personnel serving mainly as coordinators. Budget cuts from
declining timber revenues are threatening to eliminate funding
for Rubrecht’s civilian position, and likely some
uniformed positions as well.
the beginning of the Kim search, James Kim’s wealthy
father, Spencer Kim, was closely involved both personally and
through his attorney. The San Francisco and Portland police
departments took swift action on the initial missing-persons
filings, and SAR efforts were launched within two days.
However, when it came to the search itself, thinly staffed and
poorly coordinated county efforts appear to have led the elder
Mr. Kim to quickly launch his own SAR operation.
Governor’s timeline released Jan. 5 suggested that these
efforts, consisting mainly of overflights by Carson Helicopter
Services, a private agency hired by Spencer Kim, might have
been responsible for keeping the Oregon Army National Guard
(OANG) from finding the Kims on Friday, Dec. 1. When Carson’s
aircraft returned to the skies on the morning of Saturday,
Dec. 2, Curry County pulled out of the search. The Guard
pulled its helicopter out of the search and didn’t
return until Dec. 4, when Josephine County authorities
requested that they return.
Kims were reported missing by their house sitter on Wednesday,
Nov. 29. The report was filed with the San Francisco police,
who transmitted it to the Portland police late that day.
Portland police spent the day investigating leads, and on the
evening of Thursday, Nov. 30 they contacted state authorities
and issued a statewide bulletin.
morning of Friday, Dec. 1 was clear and sunny, and the Curry
County sheriff and the OANG had agreed to send a helicopter to
search between Agness, Oregon and Galice, Oregon. It was where
the Kims were stranded, and where the Kims were burning their
car tires that day in hopes of attracting attention. The
National Guard helicopter was to be staffed with locals
familiar with the terrain and roads.
the Guard helicopter’s launch was delayed by several
hours because of interference by Mr. Kim’s wealthy
father, Spencer Kim, who had hired Carson Helicopter to
conduct its own search. A cornerstone of SAR efforts is
unified command and control; searches are conducted according
to a grid pattern to avoid confusion, duplication of effort
and even airborne collisions. Additionally, the Guard is
prohibited by law from competing with private businesses.
the OANG refused to send its helicopters into the area until
Carson agreed to move its aircraft. On Friday afternoon, the
civilian agency did so and the Guard launched its helicopter.
Nothing was found. Tall trees and slanting rays made an air
search of the Rogue Wilderness difficult in all but the
mid-day hours, but the argument with Spencer Kim had kept the
Guard away until shortly before sundown.
the following morning of Saturday, Dec. 2, Spencer Kim ordered
Carson’s helicopters into the search area. Lacking legal
authority to keep them out, the Curry County sheriff ended its
involvement in the SAR effort, and the OANG withdrew. Two days
later, a helicopter pilot unaffiliated with either the
National Guard or the private agency hired by Spencer Kim
found Mrs. Kim in mid-day. He informed ground searchers, who
rescued her and her children.
the ground, SAR efforts began Friday, Dec. 1, when Sara
Rubrecht, coordinator of Josephine County’s SAR
operation, and Jason Stanton, a Bureau of Land Management
deputy, drove along Bear Camp Road. Knowing that inexperienced
travelers had often driven onto the same logging road that the
Kims turned out to have also used, Rubrecht and Stanton
decided to go in that direction. According to the Oregonian,
they encountered John James, owner of the seasonal Black Bar
Lodge reachable by a spur off of the logging road.
James told the Oregonian, and official investigators,
that in that conversation he had informed Rubrecht and Stanton
that he had driven along the logging road on a snowmobile and
saw fresh tire tracks, and that he advised them to thoroughly
check it and the maze of other logging roads through the area.
James claimed that Rubrecht and Stanton had been unreceptive
to the information.
later interviews, Rubrecht acknowledged meeting James. She had
been short-tempered with him, but not for the reason James had
believed. Rubrecht told the Oregonian that the drive to
the logging road had made her carsick. “I was trying not
to throw up,” the newspaper quoted her as saying. The
Sheriff’s Association report said that Rubrecht was
suffering from a medical condition that required her to have
surgery the following week.
later interviews, both Rubrecht and Stanton denied that James
had advised them to check the one logging road. He had only
made a general suggestion to check logging roads in the area,
she said, an idea she regarded as obvious and not particularly
useful. As for the road James had mentioned, she lowered the
priority of checking it because James had said he’d
already done so. If James’s account of these events is
accurate, it is conceivable that Rubrecht and Stanton’s
failure to follow up on the suggestion to search the logging
road kept the entire Kim family from being rescued on Friday,
Dec. 1, the day before Mr. Kim left the car on his doomed
mission for help.
has been made of the activities of Eric Fuqua, a switching
technician for Edge Wireless, a wireless telephone operator.
Mr. Fuqua contacted the Oregon State Police late on the
afternoon of Dec. 1 to suggest that searchers subpoena all the
cellphone records in the area to see if there were any
transmissions from cellphones belonging to the Kims. If there
were transmissions, Mr. Fuqua said, the family’s
position could be narrowed to within the transmission range of
a particular cell tower.
State Police, which was receiving many tips as the result of
media interest in the Kims’ disappearance, gave Fuqua
the phone number of the Portland police detective who had
handled the missing persons report about the Kims. Fuqua
called the number and got a recording instructing him to leave
his phone number; the cellular technician did not do so.
the following day, Mr. Fuqua obtained more information. Late
on the night of Saturday, Dec. 2, he contacted the Portland
detective to say that he had been able to trace cellphone
“pings” from one of the Kims’ phone to an
area of the Rogue Wilderness. It turned out to be an area
where the search had been underway for nearly 36 hours; thus,
media reports highlighting the “pivotal” nature of
the cellular information were incorrect.
fact, cellular transmission data is known to be of dubious
utility because of the unpredictable behavior of radio waves.
SAR coordinators were reluctant to trust it, and some of them
said that Mr. Fuqua’s coverage maps were impossible to
interpret. Moreover, if the radio signals had behaved as
expected, Mr. Fuqua had “pinpointed” an area of
about 4,000 square miles. Current cellular technology is not
reliable enough to pinpoint user locations in outlying areas;
Mr. Fuqua’s efforts, while well-intentioned, played no
role in SAR activities and had no potential to do so. Nor was
Mr. Fuqua’s input dismissed at any stage, as was
suggested by some media reports. Once he approached the SAR
coordinators with specific information, they were eager to
speak with him.
the night of Saturday, Dec. 2, Lt. Brian Powers, the State
Police officer in charge of the agency's involvement with
local SAR efforts, called Ms. Rubrecht, the Josephine County
SAR coordinator. Lt. Powers told her of the cellphone ping
that Fuqua had located and about a report that the Kims had
been seen at the Denny's restaurant in Roseburg on Nov. 25, on
their way to TuTuTun Lodge in Gold Beach.
following morning, Sunday, Dec. 3, Lt. Powers met with Ms.
Rubrecht and her supervisor, Josephine County Undersheriff
Brian Anderson, to plan the continuation of SAR efforts. That
day, searchers began rechecking Bear Camp Road and others in
the area, at one point being blocked by 18-inch thick ice.
Kim and children rescued; air search resumes
the same day – Sunday, Dec. 3 -- John Rachor, a private
helicopter pilot unaffiliated with any government agency or
Carson Helicopter, the private outfit hired by Spencer Kim,
flew over the logging road leading to where the Kims were
trapped. He saw footprints and tire tracks. Low on fuel, he
returned to his base in Medford and told another pilot, a
volunteer working with the Josephine County sheriff, of his
second pilot flew straight to the spot that Rachor had seen,
and determined that the footprints were bear tracks. But he
also saw tire tracks, and reported them to the ground
searchers. They dispatched a vehicle to the road, but it was
blocked by snow. On Monday, Dec. 4, a Sno-Cat, essentially an
industrial-strength snowmobile, was dispatched. It was an hour
away from the Kims’ car when Mr. Rachor returned to the
road and found Mrs. Kim and her children.
ground search for James Kim continued, focusing on the rugged
Big Windy Creek drainage, where James Kim’s body was
ultimately found. On Monday afternoon Josephine County
authorities requested that the National Guard send a
helicopter equipped with heat-detection equipment. The
helicopter was launched, and searched until 8 p.m.
Tuesday, Dec. 5, private helicopters coordinated by the
Jackson County sheriff, Carson Helicopter and the National
Guard searched the Big Windy Creek drainage from the air, as
it was combed by ground searchers. On Wednesday, Dec. 6, a
Carson pilot located James Kim’s body lying in the
creek. Neither official nor private searchers had been able to
do more than locate a body.
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