GRANTS PASS, Ore. – James Kim likely would never have made what turned out to be a deadly wrong turn, had vandals not cut the lock of a gate blocking off a remote logging road in the Oregon wilderness, authorities said Friday.
The road that Kim and his family drove down before getting stranded deep in the Rogue River Canyon is normally blocked by a locked metal gate, but it was open the night they got lost because a vandal had cut the lock, authorities said Friday.
The Kims were stranded more than a week with little food after driving 15 miles past the gate. James Kim was later found dead of exposure after setting out on foot for help. Kati Kim and their daughters, Penelope, 4, and Sabine, 7 months, were airlifted out.
"It's locked during winter so people don't mistakenly go down that road." said Patty Burel, spokeswoman for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management Medford District and the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest.
The gate was locked Nov. 1, after the end of deer hunting season, but later it was cut, and searchers looking for the Kims discovered the gate was open, Burel said. An investigation is under way to find out who cut the lock.
The one-lane paved route known as Bear Camp Road runs over BLM and Siskiyou National Forest land from the community of Galice to Agness, another small community on the river. It is regularly used in summer to shuttle vehicles for rafters descending the popular wild and scenic section of the Rogue. In winter it is used by hunters, cross country skiers and families cutting Christmas trees.
About a dozen miles up Bear Camp Road, the Kims took a fork to the right, which is BLM road 34-8-36. They drove about 15 miles down that road, got stuck in snow, freed themselves, turned around, and stopped for the night, afraid they would run out of gas.
The family stayed with the car a week, burning tires and wood for warmth, and last Saturday James Kim struck out on foot. He was found dead in Big Windy Creek, after walking 10 miles. He had no way to know that the car was just a mile down a rugged road from a fishing lodge, closed for the winter but stocked with food.
"It's a tragedy," Josephine County Undersheriff Brian Anderson said Thursday after authorities released more details of Kim's death from hypothermia.
"I wish Mr. Kim would have found the place," said John James, who runs Black Bar Lodge with his family. "It would have been a Cinderella story. It would have been a beautiful ending to sad story.
"Certainly a person in desperation or dire straits could have broke through a window and found some sustenance that literally could have lasted them through the rest of the winter."
The Kim family had driven from San Francisco to Seattle for Thanksgiving, and were on the way home, planning to spend the night of Nov. 25 at a luxury lodge outside Gold Beach on the coast. They never made it.
After more than a week with little food and nothing but a car for shelter, Kati Kim and her daughters were spotted Monday by a search helicopter and were rescued in good condition.
James Kim was found dead Wednesday, after setting out Saturday. An autopsy attributed his death to hypothermia. There were no signs of injury. But state police Lt. Gregg Hastings said Kim had walked five miles up a road, then five more miles down rugged Big Windy Creek.
Deputy State Medical Examiner Dr. James Olson, who did the autopsy, told The Oregonian it was an "educated guess" that Kim likely died two days after leaving his family, based on the condition of the body.
"It's possible that we'll never know exactly when he died," Olson said.
Searchers said the body was a half mile from the Rogue River, about a mile from Black Bar Lodge, which is open May through October for people boating the Rogue River.
Despite his long hike, he was just a mile as the crow flies from the car, which was near the road to the lodge.
Driving south on Interstate 5, the Kims had missed the planned turnoff to the coast south of Roseburg, and after consulting a roadmap, turned off instead at Merlin just north of Grants Pass, following a thin gray line on the map through the Siskiyou National Forest that leads to Agness, then along the Rogue River to Gold Beach.
They passed signs warning Bear Camp Road may be blocked by snow, but kept going. At times James had to stick his head out the window to see through the falling snow, said Hastings.
They came to a fork in the one-lane road and turned right, leaving the road to Agness and descending into a confusing warren of logging roads.
By the time they turned around, they were 15 miles off Bear Camp Road, and they stopped where they hoped to be spotted from the air, fearing they were running out of gas, searchers said.
Kati Kim told investigators that they stopped at 2 a.m. Nov. 26, but could get no cell phone service. They stayed in the car as it snowed and rained for three days.
They had only baby food, jelly and bottled water, Hastings said. When the bottled water ran out they melted snow. When the food ran out, Kati Kim nursed her two children.
Kati Kim told investigators her husband thought he was just four miles down the Rogue River from Galice. It was closer to 15. But he felt he could follow the river to help.
"James Kim did nothing wrong," Hastings said. "He was trying to save his family."
The Kim house — with a cheery, red garage door and window sills, perched up a small hill — stood dark and empty Thursday in Noe Valley, a sought-after San Francisco neighborhood. One of the Kims' two boutiques, Church Street Apothecary, is a few blocks away.
A sign on the shop, which sells skin products and children's clothing, said, "We will be closed for a few days. Please respect our privacy."
Below the sign, scores of flowers, cards and candles conveyed warm wishes from neighbors.
"Your dad is a hero. Your dad is a great, kind man. He will always love you very much," said a handmade card written in a child's scrawl, signed by "Malia."