The Kims and Their Doomed Trip

The SAR Effort: Bungled or Undermined?

Who Was Responsible?

Lessons to Learn

Afterthoughts: Summer 2007

Media and Official Reports Archive

The SAR Effort: Bungled? Undermined?

“Searchers 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.

That 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 efforts.

On 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.

The 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.

A 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.

Within 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.

From 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.

The 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.

Air Search Chronology

The 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.

The 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.

However, 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.

Thus, 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.

On 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.

Ground Search Chronology

On 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.

Later 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.

In 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.

In 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.

Much 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.

The 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.

Over 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.

In 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.

On 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.

The 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.

Kati Kim and children rescued; air search resumes

On 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 sighting.

That 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.

The 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.

On 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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