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Christmas tree hunters find body of missing Grants Pass man

Josephine County Search and Rescue recovered the body of a man missing for the past week in Del Norte County, California just south of the Oregon border.

Russell Wilcox of Grants Pass was found Friday afternoon beneath his truck at the bottom of a steep embankment near Takilma, according to Josephine County Undersheriff Travis Snyder. Family reported Wilcox missing Nov. 29, after he never returned home from a snow outing with relatives near Sanger Peak in Josephine County.

People looking for a Christmas tree Friday afternoon were traveling on a forest service road saw tracks going over an embankment and spotted a vehicle and called it in, according to Snyder.

"It was the same plate as Wilcox's vehicle," Snyder said. "A deputy went out and got some ropes and was able to go down there and identify Mr. Wilcox.

Josephine County SAR's Rope Rescue/High Angle Team responded and recovered the body about 9 am Saturday.

The cause of death is still under investigation and is expected to be determined by the medical examiner.

"My immediate thought is exposure. That wouldn't surprise me," Snyder said.

Clues from the scene

The investigation reveals that a bundle of trees that blocked the road just past the point where his vehicle was found.

"It looks like he did a multi-point turnaround and either backed over the embankment or went forward over the embankment. I'm guessing he didn't see it. It may have been dark conditions," Snyder said. "He went over the embankment and did not survive."

Snyder said there is no indication whether Wilcox wore a seat belt, or whether it would've helped the nearly 300 foot fall.

"He was out of the vehicle," Snyder said. "It's a steep hillside and the vehicle was almost on its side to the point where the door on the bottom was open. Basically it's like having the floor of an elevator fall out. Either the door gave way or he was able to get out. Most likely he would not have been able to lift the door. We can't tell if he opened the door or if he opened it and fell out."

Snyder rules out a suspicious death.

"Nothing would lead you to believe anything suspicious in cause of death. The medical examiner will make the final call and if he wants to do an autopsy. It would not be shocking if the cause of death was exposure given the weather that hey were having a week ago now."

Marc Spilde, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Medford, tells News 10 the Illinois Valley received between one to four inches the day before Wilcox went missing but it's unclear how much would have been around at the elevation where he was found.

Chances of survival

The deck was stacked against Wilcox even if he was able to survive the initial fall.

"It was pretty steep I don't know if he would have been able to walk out of there," Snyder said. "It's so steep and the brush is so thick up there that if the vehicle wouldn't have stopped against a tree it would have gone to the bottom of a canyon and you wouldn't have been able to see the vehicle down in there. It's such thick brush."

Snyder said searchers had been out every day since and were searching the wrong area following up on tips. Wilcox was told to go left at an intersection when he left his family gathering and that's the last clue they had to go on.

"He went to Takilma Road and Waldo Road and he took a right and stayed on that road through Takilma turns into a forest service road and goes into California," Snyder said. "He totally got turned around. I you weren't familiar with the area you would believe you're going somewhere civilized because of all the residences all through there - until there isn't anymore."

Authorities activated the California Oregon Regional Search and Rescue Task Force, or CORSAR, earlier on used to better provide regional communications and public assistance during major or extended search and rescue missions.

"Mid-week we got a tip.. someone saw his vehicle turning left on Takilma Road which would have put him in a different direction so they started search of a branch of roads. Then we kept getting new 'what ifs. Each branch turns into a new fork of roads. They spend time everyday just trying to follow-up," Snyder said.

Snyder said the searchers never made it to that location.

"His route was said to be north and that was south," Snyder said.

Snyder said people need to be ready to stay in their vehicle stranded over at least one night and let people know where you are going.

"Let them know you're route and what you're driving," Snyder said. "Take yourself food and water and warm clothing. If you are going to travel in the winter you need to be ready to stay the night in your vehicle."

Wilcox traveled unfamiliar roads in the dark and drove past numerous houses.

"You can stop and ask for directions. We'll never know if they could have gave him directions and got him on the right path," Snyder said.

Jonathan Brines is Executive Producer of KTVL News 10. Reach him atjrbrines@sbgtv.com.

Josephine County Search and Rescue personnel recover the body of Russell Wilcox of Grants Pass. JCSO photo.
Search and rescue found Wilcox's body near this truck, which fell roughly 100 feet down a steep embankment in northern California near the Oregon border. Josephine County Sheriff's Office photo.