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March 22, 2006

Above: Pete Stivers hugs his mother, Becky Higginbotham, and his 8-year-old daughter, Gabrayell, after the family was reunited in front of news reporters and cameras Tuesday in Glendale.
Mail Tribune / Roy Musitelli

MISSING FAMILY RESCUED

Ashland family rescued after two weeks in their snowbound motor home

By MARK FREEMAN
Mail Tribune

GLENDALE — After more than two weeks stuck in a motor home buried beneath thick mountain snow, Pete Stivers and his wife, Marlo Hill-Stivers, decided to quit waiting for rescuers and start looking for them — all the while promising they would reunite with family members left behind.

Tuesday afternoon in the Glendale City Hall parking lot, the Ashland couple couldn’t wait to say, "I told you so."

They sprinted out the City Hall doors and through a horde of cameramen to greet Pete Stiver’s stepfather, Elbert Higginbotham, who along with his wife, Becky, and the Stiverses’ two children were rescued from the stranded motor home two hours earlier thanks to the Stiverses’ bold hike to safety.

"Oh, Elbert. We made it," Pete Stivers cried in Higginbotham’s arms, surrounded by cameras. "We made it."

The family that disappeared into thin air while on an ill-chosen route to the Oregon Coast March 4 re-appeared in front of America on Tuesday after a quick and remarkable turnaround to a missing persons case police feared would not end happily.

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Stuck on a remote logging road more than 15 miles west of Glendale and surviving on old Y2K rations while watching the search unfold on a black-and-white television, Pete and Marlo Stivers struck out on their own Monday and were found Tuesday morning by a federal Bureau of Land Management employee in the Marial Junction area of Douglas County.

They directed search crews who used three Sno-Cats to find and rescue the Higginbothams and the Stiverses’ children, 9-year-old Sabastyan and 8-year-old Gabrayell. None needed medical attention. They hitched a ride home to Ashland from Jackson County search and rescue workers elated at the outcome.

"It’s been a long time," Elbert Higginbotham said in the Glendale parking lot before leaving. "We kind of got lost."

On a television set 70 miles away, Ashland police Detective Brent Jensen watched a family reunion he did not expect to see. After 12 days of heading the police search, Jensen said the only skimpy information they had hinted on a kidnapping.

"That was neat," Jensen said of watching the reunion. "I was thinking we’d have the opposite of that."

But family members in Ashland said they never gave up on the desert-toughened Higginbothams, the camping-savvy Stiverses or the kids.

"Every day we did get a little more scared and more worried," said Lori Mock, Hill-Stivers’ 39-year-old sister from Portland. "But my parents raised some pretty resourceful children. We just had to have faith."

No one expected to rely on faith for so long when three weeks ago the Stiverses and Higginbothams hastily began planning their first-ever trip to the Pacific for the Stivers, who moved here two years ago from Arkansas.

With the recent arrival of the Higginbothams, a nomadic couple accustomed to rugged living, they decided to take the Higginbothams’ 35-foot motor home and see the sea on March 4, returning the following day.

Eschewing the traditional route from Grants Pass via Highway 199, they headed toward Merlin, possibly attempting to traverse Bear Camp Road connecting Galice near Grants Pass to Agness 35 miles east of Gold Beach.

Though Elbert Higginbotham did not say Tuesday what road he attempted to cross, he most likely bypassed the Bear Camp Road turnoff and headed down the Merlin-Galice Access Road, crossed the Rogue River at Grave Creek and headed through a series of logging roads through Eden Valley and into Agness.

Trouble is, those roads were under thick snow.

"We decided to take the scenic route," Elbert Higginbotham said. "But every time we took a corner, we took the wrong one."

More snow started to fall and the motor home almost rolled once by the time they winded their way to the Marial Junction, he said. They dug out some snow, turned the motor home around and started back, he said.

"All of a sudden, the motor home turned into a snowplow," Elbert Higginbotham said. "We were stuck."

They waited out the falling snow, discovering they were more than stuck. They were stranded.

A self-professed survivalist, Elbert Higginbotham said he relied on his desert survival skills even though he was dealing with snow instead of sand.

"We’re from Arizona," he said. "The number one rule is never, never leave your vehicle."

Luckily, they had plenty of gas for the motor home, propane for a heater and more than enough dehydrated, prepackaged meals the Higginbothams put together to survive a Y2K disaster that never came.

"Those leftover rations, my sister said, is what kept them alive," Mock said.

In Ashland, friends worried when the clan did not return as planned on Sunday. They grew more worried when Pete Stivers missed a shift at the 7-Eleven store and Hill-Stivers did not make it back to work at DJ’s Video.

On March 8, Rose Hill, Marla Stivers’ mother, filed a missing-persons report on her daughter. An Ashland police teletype to regional law enforcement agencies asked for help finding her and the Dolphin motor home, but it turned up no tips.

An all-points bulletin went out for all six people on March 10, and Jensen received the case March 12 when no credible sightings had been identified.

Family members searched the Brookings area on March 12. But the case became intense when police confirmed March 13 that Hill-Stivers’ cell phone had no incoming or outgoing calls and there was no activity on known bank accounts of the Stiverses and the Higginbothams.

"In my mind, that’s what tipped it," Jensen said.

Believing the motor home was stranded or had crashed, Jensen on March 15 called for searches in the Bear Camp Road and Highway 199. As many as 60 search-and-rescue workers from southwestern Oregon and Northern California searched logging roads to no avail. They searched the Bear Camp Road area intensely, but found nothing.

About 10 miles away and on the north side of the Rogue, the Stiverses and Higginbothams remained in their well-stocked cocoon.

Elbert Higginbotham said he ran the motor home in the morning and evening for heat and humored the children with back issues of Reader’s Digest. They drew. They made airplanes.

"The kids were fine," Elbert Higginbotham said, "but mom and dad and grandma and grandpa almost lost it a few times.

"Nobody got sick, nobody got hurt," he said.

But picturing the family hurt, or worse, became more prevalent back home. Jensen said Tuesday he for several days believed the motor home had crashed and disappeared into the Smith River along Highway 199, though there was no sign such a crash occurred.

Rogue Valley builder Randy Jones boarded his private helicopter and joined the search Thursday amid bad weather, and the massive ground search was suspended amid reports that the family might have headed to Disneyland.

Better weather greeted Jones on Sunday, when he and chief spotter Skip Snyder of Central Point headed up again.

They flew the Smith River Canyon, dipping into the nooks and hovering over pools, but found nothing.

After three years of 100-percent search success rates in Jackson County, Jones said he began preparing himself for a bad outcome.

"You keep going back and forth, saying what are we missing?" Jones said. "It’s huge country, it’s rugged country. That all plays on your mind."

Heading over Oregon Mountain toward Cave Junction that day, Snyder spied a motor home pulling out of a forest road onto Highway 199. He chased after it, eventually finding it parked at a Cave Junction eatery.

Jones hovered low enough for Snyder to see the motor home had Oregon plates, not the Arizona plates on the Higginbothams’ vehicle.

"That stuff haunts you if you don’t follow it up," Jones said.

Jones then flew about five miles up the Grave Creek path the Higginbothams had taken, but the road was so snow-covered he suspended his search about five miles from the stranded vehicle.

"I thought, there’s no way that there’s a motor home up there," Jones said.

Back in the motor home, the family did not know Jones was in the air that day. But they knew he was earlier.

Elbert Higginbotham turned on his old black-and-white television and they followed news reports of the search efforts.

"When they heard the search was called off, they thought they needed to do something," Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy Dwes Hutson said.

They chose to violate Higginbotham’s rule number one.

On Monday, Marlo and Pete Stivers loaded a duffel bag and backpack with food, wool blankets and an old tent, then trudged through snow drifts back down the road, Elbert Higginbotham said.

They spent Monday night in the tent and continued Tuesday morning as Jensen, in Ashland, began investigating the case’s darkest turn.

A woman in Ripley, Miss., phoned to say she was sure that last Thursday she saw a motor home like the Higginbothams’ with Arizona plates that included the letters TDH, Jensen said.

Jensen had Arizona authorities match the possible plate to Dolphin motor homes, and the Higginbothams was the only one. On Tuesday, they had Arizona officials run all the possible plates on motor homes containing the letters DH, and checks found no other missing vehicles.

By 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, Jensen believed his missing-persons case had become a criminal case.

"I was pretty much down to the point where, if she saw the motor home in Ripley, Miss., we had a kidnap," Jensen said.

Jensen sent Mississippi police to check with Wal-Mart video surveillance to see if the motor home was parked overnight in its lot as some travelers do. Then he ran home for some breakfast.

That was almost exactly the moment at which Marlo and Pete Stivers crossed paths with a BLM employee later identified as Deston Russell out on that remote road.

"Just as it got most negative, we got our first positive," Jensen said.

As the Stiverses sat eating lunch with sheriff’s deputies, Jones launched his helicopter hoping to rescue the Higginbothams and the kids.

A helicopter from Timberline Logging lowered Rick Mendenhall, a medic and Shady Cove police chief, to the motor home, where he found the family safe.

Poor weather grounded the helicopters, forcing Sno-Cats for the eventual rescue of the remaining people as well as Higginbothams’ dog and cat.

"It’s a great success, a miracle," Jones said.

When three generations reunited in the Glendale parking lot, the kisses and I-love-yous poured among them.

"I told you we’d make it, Mom," Pete Stivers cried while clenching Becky Higginbotham. "I told you we’d make it. I done good."

Elbert Higginbotham agreed.

"I’m proud of my family," he said.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Chronology

Following is a timeline of events surrounding the Stiverses’ disappearance:

March 4 — Pete Stivers and Marlo Hill-Stivers of Ashland, their two children, 9-year-old Sabastyan and 8-year-old Gabrayell, and Pete Stivers’ mother and stepfather, Becky and Elbert Higginbotham, leave in a Dolphin motor home for a trip to the Oregon Coast.

March 8 — Hill-Stivers is reported missing by her mother, Rose Hill.

March 12 — Ashland police add Pete Stivers and the two children to the missing persons’ list; family members launch their own search of the back roads and campgrounds in Curry County.

March 13 — Police ask for the public’s help in locating the Higginbothams’ vehicle, a 35-foot Dolphin motor home with Arizona plates. Detectives learn neither the Stiverses nor the Higginbothams had touched their bank accounts, and there had been no activity on Hill-Stivers’ cell phone since the family left Ashland.

March 15 — Oregon State Police troopers conduct an aerial search of the Highway 199 corridor between Grants Pass and Brookings and of Bear Camp Road. Fliers are sent to businesses in Brookings and Grants Pass. Tips pour in from across the country. Rescue workers search other areas where the family might have headed, from the Klamath River to Butte Falls to Crater Lake National Park.

March 16 — Searchers in two helicopters, one airplane and almost two dozen ground vehicles search Bear Camp Road between Galice and Gold Beach as well as Highway 199.

March 17 — Police call off the active search until they can pinpoint a more exact location of where the Stiverses may have disappeared. Some witnesses told police they thought the family was going to Disneyland. California Highway Patrol officers search Highway 96 between Redding and the coast. Fliers and police bulletins are sent across the country.

March 20 — With their motor home stuck in snow in a remote location known as Marial Junction west of Glendale, Pete and Marlo Stivers head out on foot to find help. The family had survived on Y2K rations and snowmelt and watched rescue efforts on a mobile television set. The couple spend the night in a tent they brought with them.

March 21 — At about 10:25 a.m., the Stiverses are found by a Bureau of Land Management employee during a routine timber inspection about 15 miles west of Glendale. A massive rescue effort ensues, and the rest of the family is rescued and reunited with the Stiverses at about 5 p.m. in Glendale.




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