Report highlights mistakes in search for Kims

Oregon sheriffs group finds that search for missing senior editor at CNET was plagued by squabbling among agencies, confusion and indifference.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
5 min read
The official search for James Kim and his family in the Oregon backwoods was plagued by squabbling among police agencies, confusion, indifference and mistakes, a government report released Thursday says.

Kim, an editor at CNET Networks, and his family became stranded deep in a wilderness area in southern Oregon during a Thanksgiving road trip. Kati Kim and her two daughters were rescued a week later on December 4, but the body of James Kim was found on December 6. He had died of exposure and hypothermia following a 16-mile hike in ice, snow and water.

The report from the Oregon State Sheriffs' Association was based on extensive interviews with the Kim family and officials from 10 agencies involved in the search effort. It represents a telling critique of what went wrong during the effort, which the authors say will provide "lessons that we can learn from."

Click for map

To be sure, all search and rescue operations are difficult, and the one for the Kim family was complicated by the fact that nobody could narrow the search area until a local mobile provider provided some information on December 2. Until then, searchers had a dizzying array of less-traveled roads to explore in less-than-perfect weather.

Other aspects that worked well, according to a summary of a post-search meeting, were that volunteer searchers were dedicated, air operations experienced no major hiccups, the Red Cross helped out quickly, and only one injury was sustained during the search.

Among the report's findings:

•  Squabbling: Josephine County Search Coordinator Sara Rubrecht and Jackson County Search Manager Pat Rowland didn't get along, which "may have affected communication." In a long-standing feud, Rubrecht claims that Rowland "takes over" everything even inside someone else's county.

•  Poor training: Rubrecht was a "part-time" employee with "limited training" who nevertheless is in charge of managing all aspects of the county's search and rescue operations, including overseeing 100 volunteers. In a December 28 interview with investigators, Rubrecht acknowledged that "she has a checklist of what was required for her duties on the search but she said she did not have time to pull it out."

The report added: "Rubrecht has not had a performance review for over three years. She does not know what her job expectations are."

•  Indifference: Josephine County Deputy Jason Stanton shares responsibility for overseeing police officers involved in search and rescue efforts and has attended multiple courses on managing search operations. At 9 a.m. on December 1, an operator called him at his house and told him of a missing family. When the operator told him she would note that he was advised of the call, Stanton replied: "Like, wait a minute. You're gonna do that to me?" and told the operator to call Rubrecht instead.

•  Nobody in charge: The Kim family was stranded on the evening of November 25. They were reported missing on November 29. But until midday December 3, when the Oregon State Police took over, "there was no established command." A timeline (click for PDF) shows a confused organizational structure until that time.

•  Politics: The incumbent sheriff in Josephine County had not run for re-election the month before and Undersheriff Brian Anderson had been told by the incoming sheriff that he would be out of a job in the new administration. Anderson therefore "was actively looking for employment" after the election instead of working for the entire month of December. In addition, Anderson appeared to be trying to act as Incident Commander even through written plans say Lt. Brian Powers of the Oregon State Police was in charge.

Kati Kim, daughters found

•  Claiming credit: James Kim's body was found by a Carson Helicopter pilot hired by his father, not by government searchers. While in the same area as the body, Carson Helicopter pilot Joseph Rice spotted a bedraggled group of searchers--an exhausted U.S. Forest Service team in such poor shape that they had to be evacuated by medical helicopter. The report says: "Apparently, on her own volition, District Ranger Pam Body sent that Forest Service team out and she was taking credit for finding James Kim."

•  No standards: The searchers had no standard latitude and longitude system to work from. Some expressed coordinates in decimal degrees; some used decimal minutes; others used minutes and seconds of latitude and longitude. Pilots used aviation maps, while ground searchers did not. In addition, Douglas County used orange ribbons on roads to show they had been searched already, while Josephine County did not.

•  Aerial search: Three helicopters chartered by Kim's father, Spencer Kim, were in the air constantly during daylight hours for a total of five days. But government helicopters including two National Guard units flew only a small fraction of that time. A flight log (PDF) shows that chartered helicopters flew for approximately 307 hours, while official ones flew only about 83 hours. The report concluded better coordination could have "made better use of the available air resources."

•  Mobile tracking: Not one of the many police agencies involved thought to ask local mobile providers whether their systems had been "pinged" by the Kims' phones. Instead, a technician at Edge Wireless took the initiative on his own and found a match. Edge provided that information to police at 5:25 p.m. on Saturday, December 2. But police didn't ask the technician to meet with them and explain where the signal likely originated until around noon the next day, hours after helicopters were already in the air.

One of the more puzzling incidents came when Rubrecht, Josephine County's search coordinator, and Stanton, a sheriff's deputy, visited Bear Camp Road early in the search process on December 1. That area--which turned out to be where the Kim family was eventually found days later--is notorious among locals as a place where travelers become lost or stranded.

John James owns the nearby Black Bar Lodge. He called the Josephine County Sheriff's Office that morning and was transferred to Rubrecht's voice mail. After leaving a message, John James and his brother, Denny James, drove snowmobiles up Bear Camp Road until they hit pavement after about a mile and could not continue. After retreating, the James brothers ran into Rubrecht and Stanton in a patrol vehicle.

John James stressed that county authorities should explore the rest of Bear Camp Road. But Rubrecht replied, according to John James: "We don't believe that they are out there. We are doing this just to do it." (Denny James confirms this version of events.)

Stanton initially told investigators that John James did not tell him to check the road and indicated it had already been explored. But during further questioning, Stanton said: "I'm not willing to go to court and say that."

Rubrecht never filed a report about the conversation with the James brothers or at any other point until Kim's body was found. She claims, according to the report, that she "did not remember the whole conversation, but they told her that they had taken their snowmobiles down the road Kati Kim was eventually found on. She went away with the impression that they had already searched that road."

In a conversation with investigators on December 28, Rubrecht denied making the statement: "We don't believe they're out here, we're just doing it to do it."

Information on how to help the Kim family can be found here.