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Firefighter's stolen iPad found, but still out of reach

An out-of-town wildland firefighter whose iPad was stolen from a sports utility vehicle parked outside a Cave Junction supermarket earlier this month has tracked the device to a Rockydale Road property where a homicide occurred over the summer. But he can't get the iPad back because Josephine County law enforcement agencies don't have the resources to investigate property crimes.

The firefighter who owns the iPad was not available for an interview, but his colleague, Alaska firefighter Ryan McPherson, shared the story. McPherson's firefighting pack was also stolen in the same car break-in, as were two briefcases containing official documents.

McPherson is a fire specialist with the Alaska Fire Service, which is part of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and was in town to help fight the Happy Camp Complex of fires, just south of the Oregon-California border. On the evening of Sept. 4, the crews — operating out of the Illinois Valley Airport — had just put in a full day of work. McPherson headed back to the Holiday Motel where he was staying while his colleagues stopped at Shop Smart Foods to pick up some groceries. The gear, the briefcases and the iPad were inside the Chevrolet Suburban they were driving, and McPherson said it is possible the car was left unlocked in the parking lot. He said that whoever stole the items did so quickly.

"They just did a quick grab-and-go," he said.

McPherson reported the theft to the Josephine County Sheriff's Office online because there was no one available to take the report by phone. The firefighters tried using the "Find my iPad" app to pinpoint the location of the stolen device, but didn't get any results, possibly because the iPad was turned off at the time. However, a couple of days later they tried again and this time they got a hit, complete with a satellite image.

"It actually showed the address, and it actually showed where it was sitting. It was in a white RV that was parked on that property," McPherson said.

The address that came up was 6087 Rockydale Road — the same address where Michael MacDonald, known by the nickname "Dirty Mike," was found fatally shot on the afternoon of Aug. 2. The death is being investigated by Oregon State Police, who have released few details about the case. A suspect in the killing, 28-year-old Stranger Davis, was arrested near Chico, Calif., and was arraigned in Josephine County Circuit Court last week after being extradited from Butte County.

Not knowing about the MacDonald killing, McPherson drove by the address to check it out but decided against stopping and possibly triggering a confrontation.

McPherson made a flier about the theft, and a photo of the flier was posted on the community Facebook site "To Catch A Thief." Locals who saw it encouraged McPherson to contact Oregon State Police, which he did. He said police told him they respond only to life-threatening incidents.

"They told us there's nothing they can do for us," he said.

The fire crews made peace with the fact the stolen items were gone, and McPherson is now back in Alaska.

The loss of his firefighting pack, which contained supplies such as a GPS unit, a fire shelter, clothing, batteries and other odds and ends, knocked McPherson out of work for a day. He was able to borrow a colleague's pack after that and continued working. He said the briefcases that were taken contained things like travel documentation and financial paperwork related to the helicopter the crews were using.

"It's a bunch of worthless stuff to whoever took it, but to us it's pretty important," he said.

The address on Rockydale Road has been the site of other criminal investigations, including a probe into several stolen cars that were found on the property in April. Illinois Valley Fire Chief Dennis Hoke said his crews have also responded to a number of illegal burns there. He said fire crews use extra caution whenever they go to that property, which contains a number of structures, including a house, cabins and trailers.

Hoke said a handful of people who keep cycling in and out of the county jail are responsible for much of the crime in the area.

"Cave Junction and the Illinois Valley is a really good community. We have 5 percent of the population that does stupid crap," he said.

OSP Lt. Gregg Hastings said that since the sheriff's office took the initial report about the stolen iPad, OSP would defer to that agency for the follow-up investigation. The sheriff's office doesn't currently have the staff to investigate property crimes, and McPherson said he never got a response to his email reporting the theft.

Sheriff Gil Gilbertson said his staff has their hands full already. To investigate the iPad theft, he would have to take someone off of their normal duties, and would have to obtain a search warrant to enter the Rockydale Road property.

"It is a time-consuming operation. Do I wish we could do it? Absolutely," he said.

He pointed out that there are many other thefts that haven't been investigated, and that taking on property crime investigations would simply require too much manpower.

"We just don't have the resources," Gilbertson said. "It kills me to say that."

There may be some help on the way, however. The sheriff's office is kicking off a program in which citizen volunteers are being trained to investigate crime scenes in property crime cases, under the supervision of armed, sworn reserve deputies. The first wave of volunteers has been undergoing training for several months, and Gilbertson hopes to have them begin taking on theft and burglary cases sometime in October.

Reach reporter Melissa McRobbie at 541-474-3806 or mmcrobbie@thedailycourier.com.