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Suit settled over death of elderly woman

A lawsuit accusing local and state authorities of negligence in the death of a missing 80-year-old Grants Pass woman in 2012 has been settled, although lawyers in the case won't say for how much.

The suit was filed on behalf of the estate of June Rice, who was found dead next to her motorized wheelchair on Aug. 15, 2012, hours after she wandered away from an adult care facility in the Murphy area in sweltering 99 degree weather.

In the days after the incident, then-Josephine County Sheriff Gil Gilbertson blamed layoffs in his agency weeks earlier for a five-hour delay in launching a search for Rice. The retired waitress was recovering from a stroke that confined her to a wheelchair and was beginning to show early-stage signs of Alzheimer's disease.

Because of budget cuts, the sheriff's office didn't have any deputies scheduled to work until 3 p.m. that day, and the agency didn't even learn of the search until that evening. A man walking his dog found Rice's body around 7 p.m. near her wheelchair, which had gotten stuck in gravel less than a mile from the care home. That was seven hours after Rice was last seen and five hours after she was officially reported missing.

The lawsuit alleged 911 dispatchers failed to promptly activate a search-and-rescue effort and that Oregon State Police further compounded the delay by mislabeling the call a low-priority "attempt to locate." As a result, none of the three state troopers on duty at the time were sent to investigate.

In the aftermath, officials with the sheriff's office and OSP conceded there were evident communication gaps in the way the case was handled.

Rice's daughter, Vickie Wood of Grants Pass, sued the Sheriff's Office, OSP, the Grants Pass Department of Public Safety, which operates the 911 call center, and caregiver Shirley Simon, alleging negligence and seeking $500,000.

The suit stated that Rice died of heat stroke and dehydration.

The budget cuts at the sheriff's office occurred weeks earlier because of dwindling federal subsidies for timber counties. Voters have since rejected three public safety levies.

Lawyers handling the case declined to divulge the settlement figure, which is a public record under Oregon law because it involves public agencies and taxpayer money.

Josephine County Legal Counsel Wally Hicks said he couldn't yet comment on the settlement because it is still considered "pending." The settlement might come before the county Board of Commissioners next week.

Daily Courier City Editor Chris Bristol can be reached at 541-474-3716 or at cbristol@thedailycourier.com.