The Josephine County Sheriff's Department plans to look into why it took more than five hours Wednesday for it to be notified that a 73-year-old, wheelchair-bound woman was missing. She was later found dead on a Williams-area gravel road.
Though the woman's caregiver first reported June Rice missing from her adult foster care center off North Applegate Road shortly before 1 p.m., it wasn't until nearly 6:30 p.m. that Josephine County deputies learned of the disappearance, Sheriff Gil Gilbertson said.
Rice, who suffered from a stroke and had limited speech and use of her right side, was found dead about a half-hour later on a gravel road off Williams Highway near her electric scooter, which was high-centered in the gravel, sources said.
"There was a glitch somewhere in the system and I am asking for a follow-up investigation so it doesn't happen again," Gilbertson said Friday.
Rice's disappearance was reported to 911 authorities, the Oregon State Police and even a separate call was made to Jackson County sheriff's deputies before it ever reached Gilbertson's staff — in part because budget cuts mean no Josephine County patrol deputy or dispatcher were scheduled to work until 3 p.m.
"Had I had an dispatcher on, there would have been an immediate response," Gilbertson said.
Rice's care-giver, Shirley Simons, who first reported her missing, said she believes a lack of deputies in Josephine County contributed to the lack of a police search even as temperatures inched toward triple digits Wednesday.
"Nobody in Josephine County would help her," Simons says.
But T.J. Wood, who is Rice's son-in-law and one of several private citizens searching for Rice, said Wednesday's outcome would not necessarily have been averted had deputies and dispatchers been in service.
"Hindsight's always 20-20," Wood said.
No one knows why Rice did not come inside the foster care home at 6745 North Applegate Road about noon as she always did after spending time outside. At the time, the temperature was near 85 degrees.
When she was about 10 minutes late for lunch, Simons said facility staff looked for her, then telephoned a friend with whom she regularly met for lunch. Wood and his wife were notified and they searched for Rice before Simons telephoned police, expecting to be put in touch with sheriff's deputies, she said.
What she got instead was Grants Pass' 911 dispatcher. Sheriff's staffing has been cut to the bone to help plug a $12 million budget gap caused by the loss of a federal safety net for timber counties and a subsequent failed county tax levy.
When no sheriff's deputy or dispatcher is available, protocol now calls for such calls to be transferred to the Oregon State Police for review, Gilbertson said.
OSP spokesman Lt. Gregg Hastings said the OSP Southern Command Center dispatch took that transferred call at 12:53 p.m. It was reported as an attempt to locate Rice, with her description and that she was last seen about 11:30 a.m. heading up the home's driveway on an electric scooter, Hastings said.
At about 1:10 p.m., OSP dispatchers sent out an attempt-to-locate message to three troopers working out of the OSP's Grants Pass office, Hastings said. They were not in the general area of North Applegate Road and none checked that area after the call was received, Hastings said.
Attempt-to-locate dispatches from other agencies are commonplace and troopers typically keep an eye out for missing people whose descriptions are broadcast, he said.
No trooper was assigned the case and no call was made to Josephine County search-and-rescue teams, Hastings said.
Hastings said he does not know why that call to search-and-rescue crews was not made, but the OSP will "looking to gather details in how it was handled on our end."
As more people continued to search for Rice, temperatures hit 96 degrees by 3 p.m. At 4:38 p.m., Rice called Jackson County sheriff's deputies asking them to check out a report that Rice had been seen in her wheelchair near Cantrall-Buckley Park.
Sheriff's spokeswoman Andrea Carlson said a deputy was assigned the case and was driving from Medford toward Ruch at 4:46 p.m. By 5:09 p.m., Jackson County Search and Rescue teams were called in and their search began as the temperature there hit 99 degrees, on its way to a high of 101.
By 6:17 p.m., sheriff's Sgt. Pat Rowland was at the foster-care home when they realized it was a Josephine County case, Carlson said. That's when Rowland called Josephine County Search and Rescue Coordinator Sara Rubrecht and Gilbertson, who both immediately jumped on the case, Carlson said.
Gilbertson then began driving to Murphy to meet with Rowland about the search, Carlson said.
A man walking his dog found Rice dead off the 7000 block of the Williams Highway and reported it at 6:54 p.m., Josephine County deputies said.
"She was only 20 minutes away, as far as her electric chair could take her," Wood said.
No cause of death was given and the case was referred to Deputy State Medical Examiner James Olson, who could not be reached for comment Friday.
Had Simons' 12:53 p.m. call that was forwarded to the OSP been made some time after 3 p.m., it would have gone to a Josephine County dispatcher who "absolutely" would have telephoned search and rescue leaders, Gilbertson said.
"We're trying to determine if the ball was dropped and how that might have happened," Gilbertson said.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.