Following the tragic death of James Kim in the rugged mountains of Southwestern Oregon last November, both the State, at the request of the governor, and the Sheriff's Association, at the request of Josephine County, conducted extensive reviews of the search efforts.
This week, we have cause to wonder how much progress has been made in providing a more sophisticated response to missing travelers in our state.
There is a chilling similarity between the Kim saga and the death of two more California visitors whose bodies were found inside their wrecked car 20 yards off U.S. Highway 26 in the Coast Range of Northwest Oregon.
Meanwhile, authorities would love nothing more than to find the man who called in a report of a red car leaving the roadway about 25 miles east of Seaside. One of the questions the Oregon State Police would like to ask is "why didn't you stop long enough to check on the occupants of the car?"
The caller indicated, on the tape, that he had rushed to the nearest cell phone service in order to report the accident. The call was made 12 miles from the scene of the accident. Subsequent investigations have shown that the return number he provided apparently belonged to someone else. Some of the facts may lead police toward additional questions.
According to tapes of the 9-1-1 call, which the OSP describes as a model for others, the accident site was pinpointed at one-quarter-mile west of Milepost 26. Another good question would be why the dispatcher left the responders to search an area two miles in length.
And again, as in the Kim case, there was confusion about jurisdiction as validated by the tape of the 9-1-1 call. In the end, the OSP responded.
Ten-Day Lapse Between Disappearance & Report
The victims, The Rev. David Schwartz, a Jesuit priest, and his friend, Cheryl Gibbs, weren't reported missing until after they failed to return home to California on June 18. At that time, authorities learned they were driving a red Toyota.
The similarities between the two cases continue beyond the fact the victims are California visitors on a road trip through Oregon. Again, they are reported missing by relatives and, again, little happens until concerned family members and private citizens launch their own investigation.
In this case, Schwartz's sister, one of numerous relatives searching the state for clues, stopped at the Tillamook Cheese Factory and looked through the guest book for June 8 where she found that her brother and Gibbs had signed in. This led authorities to focus their search on Lincoln and Tillamook counties. Further investigation revealed the pair also had stopped in Wheeler and at a Nehalem Bay winery where they asked for directions back to Portland.
This revelation further narrowed the search area but still no connection had been made between the report of the red car careening off Highway 26 on June 8 - the last day the two were seen - and the red Toyota driven by Schwartz and Gibbs.
In the end, the connection would be made only after a Civil Air Patrol pilot spotted the car almost precisely where the original call had suggested it would be.
Report Issued On Kim Search Problems
The 26-page "Kim Family Search Review," issued by the Oregon State Sheriff's Association on Jan. 18, 2007, was the result of participation by 18 law enforcement leaders from around the state. That report is fairly straightforward and talks about political problems in the sheriff's office in Josephine County, confusions about command situations, jurisdictional issues, personality conflicts and provides suggestions about how to streamline procedures. It also acknowledges the massive amount of information that is generated during a search.
Some of the same issues raised in the Kim report echo in the aftermath of the events involving Schwartz and Gibbs.
Throughout the last nine years, 5,889 people have been found or recovered by search efforts in Oregon. In the same time period, 123 people who were the subject of search and rescue missions remain missing. That's a very high success rate, but it does little to console the friends and family of those who have vanished.
The saga of the Kim family and the miscues surrounding the latest pair of missing Californians are high-profile examples and are by no means the only search and rescue situations in which a more sophisticated response system possibly could have saved lives.
In the words of Glen Schwartz, a younger brother of the victim, "I am really believing they could do better."
We tend to agree.