Local tensions complicated Kim search, Winters says

Review by outside investigator lays no blame in death of James Kim
Red tape blocks the route to the Oregon Coast along Bear Camp Road in the Siskyou National Forest near Galice in this Dec. 5, 2006, photo near where the Kim family became stranded in snow.Associated Press

Personality conflicts and communication problems that complicated the Kim family rescue effort actually started last winter during the search for another stranded family, said Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters.

An Oregon State Sheriff's' Association review concluded Thursday that investigators have no way of knowing whether San Francisco online editor James Kim could have been saved in late November after his family took the wrong fork of a backcountry road in Southern Oregon, triggering a massive search.

The review of the Kim search highlighted tensions between Jackson County sheriff's Lt. Pat Rowland and Josephine County rescue coordinator Sara Rubrecht. The two had been feuding since the search for a family stranded in an RV off Bear Camp Road last year, Winters said.

"I don't know what happened between the two search managers, but I thought it had been worked out," Winters said. "Apparently it wasn't."

According to the report, Rubrecht, a part-time civilian volunteer, was reluctant to call the Jackson County search team, saying that Rowland is difficult to work with. This forced Oregon State Police Lt. Brian Powers into the uncomfortable position as the intermediary for the two counties.

"We never received a call from Josephine County," Winters said. "We came at the request of Lt. Brian Powers."

This was one of several issues noted in the review, but it was not a cataclysmic failure because it did not affect the timeliness of additional help being called, the report said.

However, the importance of clear communication between agencies is one of the many lessons local search teams can take away from the Kim tragedy.

"I will meet with the new sheriff of Josephine County soon and we will ensure this will not be an issue in the future," Winters said.

Communication breakdowns are the bane of every search and rescue effort, Rowland said.

"Shuttling messages from point A to point B is always difficult," he said. "It improved (during the Kim search), though."

Rowland did not comment on Rubrecht's claims, though he said he didn't think he was difficult to work with.

"I've never been accused of that before," he said.

Rowland is looking forward to taking the suggestions made by Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger's investigation team and making Jackson County search and rescue better. But he said some of the recommendations, such as having a detailed, articulate plan in place before and during each search, have been standard practice in Jackson County for years.

"You can always learn more," he added. "Our goal is to get other counties working together."

Winters sent out a letter to Josephine, Curry, Douglas, Siskiyou and Coos counties this week saying he would like to start interagency training for search and rescue. This, he hopes, will alleviate any jurisdictional questions that seem to arise during large-scale searches.

He said the same communication issues hampered the search for a boy who went missing at Crater Lake in October. The 8-year-old was never found.

"We can't have these types of relationship and jurisdictional conflicts affect the innocent lives that are lost in the woods," Winters said.

The sheriff wants to start training with other counties by mid-June. Sharing responsibility between counties will alleviate costs for areas like Josephine County that will be cut to the bone by the coming loss of timber subsidies.

"Hopefully we can mend our fences and learn to work better together," Rowland said.

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471, or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.

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