Kims and Their Doomed Trip
SAR Effort: Bungled or Undermined?
and Official Reports Archive
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
Continuing Mystery: How Did the Kims Spend the Afternoon?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
the Kims Really Miss the Hwy. 42 Exit? Not Likely!
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
Wilderness Drive: We Were Exhausted, But Never Lost
"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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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