Maj. Margot Myers
Public Information Officer
National Cell Phone Forensics Team
Civil Air Patrol’s National Cell Phone Forensics Team guided searchers March 25 to a missing couple stranded 29 hours in their vehicle in a remote area of northwest Oregon in temperatures that fell below freezing.
The couple, ages 59 and 60, set off March 24 from their hotel in Enterprise, Oregon, in a rented sport utility vehicle to revisit some of their old hunting areas.
A restaurant employee where they ate breakfast March 24 was the last person to report seeing the pair. She told searchers the two said they were going for a drive.
After not hearing from them by the next day, their daughter contacted the Wallowa County Sheriff’s Office and expressed concern about whether her father had necessary medication with him.
The sheriff’s office was able to confirm the couple had not returned to their hotel room the previous night. Deputies were dispatched to drive along main roads in search of the couple and the rented SUV.
They also contacted the pair’s cellphone provider, which could provide only a single ping yielding no conclusive information.
Maj. Justin Ogden, lead analyst for the CAP cellphone forensics team, leapt into action after the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center alerted the team to help with the search just before 11 a.m. Pacific time March 24.
After contacting the cellphone provider, Ogden received data that helped him visualize the couple’s route of travel from the hotel to the restaurant to the area where their phones stopped communicating with the cellular towers.
The forensics data showed the couple driving north on Elk Mountain Road around 11 a.m. local time March 24, the final time of contact with a cellular network by either of their phones. “They were probably still moving north/northeast,” Ogden told the local search and rescue team around 12:30 p.m. Pacific time. “They just left the cell service area.”
Ogden provided a Google Earth map highlighting the recommended area to search. He particularly noted a “hot spot” along Elk Mountain Road.
“Since we only see where they drove out of cell range, the search area is big. We just have a last known position and direction of travel,” Ogden said.
At 5:22 p.m., Scott Lucas state search and rescue coordinator for the Oregon Office of Emergency Management, told Ogden the couple had been found alive in the SUV on Elk Mountain Road.
“This location was 2 miles up the road from Justin's ‘hot spot’ point,” Holly Akenson, incident commander for Wallowa County Search and Rescue incident commander, said in an email to Lucas.
“A deputy had checked the road up to but not beyond the ‘hot spot’ the night before, so we probably would not have resurveyed the area right away without the forensics clue.
“Our SAR teams drove 390 miles for this search, and deputies probably drove similar miles,” Akenson continued. “Once we got the ‘hot spot,’ our team drove 1 more mile and walked 1 mile for the find.
“Very efficient finale!” she said. “The couple was just out for a day-trip drive to some of their old hunting areas. Their belongings and medication were at the motel. They had no extra clothes or blankets but stayed warm running the vehicle and heated seats.”
The overnight temperature during the couple’s ordeal reached a low of 21.
“The driver said their rental [SUV] was high centered (on a rock) in the road” Akenson said. “They could not use their cellphones. They were stranded and in the vehicle 29 hours before being found.
“Send a big thank you to Justin” and the team, Akenson concluded. “Their ability to give us a focused search area was essential for the efficient rescue of this couple during winter weather conditions.”