SDMRT 2020-21 Lake Morena

SDMRT Operations Report 2020-21
Full Callout, Search for Missing Hiker Myung Yoo, Lake Morena, Campo, CA
2 September 2020
Author: Richard Yocum

SDMRT Responders: Bill McNaul, David Brandt, Will Pisarello, and Richard Yocum.
SDMRT ITC: Hugo Bermudez

Other Responding Organizations: SDSDSAR, SD County Sheriff Deputies, including Off Road Enforcement Team, ASTREA, BORSTAR. Approximate personnel included SAR 17. BORSTAR 4, SD Sheriff personnel 10, not including ASTREA.

Short Summary:

  • Type of Callout: Full callout
  • In County or Mutual Aid: In-county
  • Type of search: Missing hiker
  • Environment: Rural open space, very dense brush in places
  • Location

o LKP: Subject’s camper parked in Lake Morena Campground, 2330 Lake Morena Dr, Campo, CA 91906 (approx. UTM 0545166, 3616384).

o Command Post: SD County Fire Station 42, 29690 Oak Dr, Campo, CA 91906 (approx. UTM 0546169, 3615844).

o Found: Deceased, in Hauser Canyon, UTM 0540605, 3615042.

  • Operational Period 1 (only 1 op period)

o Searcher callout: Initial callout issued 2005 hours on 9/1/2020 for 1000 briefing on 9/2/2020.

o Conclusion of operations: Search concluded upon recovery of body, late on 9/2/2020, approximately 2200. 10-22 for additional searchers issued 1028 on 9/2/2020.

  • Information about the Subject:

o Number/Name(s) of Subject(s): 1 subject

o Age/Gender: 79-year-old man

o Level of fitness and experience: Fit, avid, backcountry hiker

o Mental status: No known mental or cognitive impairment

o Injuries: Left knee problems slowing his hiking pace

o How were they found: Found during low level training by US Navy helicopter

  • Injuries to Searchers: None reported
  • Aircraft used: ASTREA, and SDSDSAR UAS (drone)

Descriptive Report:

Mr. Myung Yoo (answers to Myung or Jim), a 79-year-old Korean American man is an avid backcountry hiker, having climbed Mt. Whitney about 15 years ago. He currently spends his time travelling around in his camper and doing day hikes by himself. He last spoke to his family on 8/24/2020 or 8/25/2020 before he left Big Bear where he was doing some hiking. He was seen after having checked into the Lake Morena Campground sometime on 8/25/2020. When he did not check out as scheduled on 8/26, the campground contacted LE who visited the camper, visualized 90% of the interior, noticed no person inside, and departed. The next day the family contacted park rangers and reported him missing.

His two sons who drove down from LA were interviewed as the RP. Although his recent hikers had been about 8 miles, more recently he was having left knee pain and reportedly would hike only 2-3 miles. He rarely leaves the trail. He hikes for fitness and the scenery, and takes a camera strapped around his neck to take photos that can be taken from the trail. The family was very sure that he would be found along the trail, most likely the PCT, within a few feet of the trail. The sons and wife initiated their own search of local trails.

He was described as 5’7”, 165 pounds, brown eyes, and grey hair. He typically hiked with his camera and a small backpack with enough water and snacks for a day hike. His medical problems consisted of hypertension and hyperlipidemia, and medications were amlodipine, losartan, atorvastatin, meloxicam, and levocetirizine.

While SD County SAR was involved in an active search in Solana Beach on 9/1/2020, an initial search was conducted by SD Sheriff off road enforcement team and ASTREA, mostly in the vicinity of the campground and some areas to the NE, with no clues found.

Cell phone ping forensics were provided by Air Force Rescue Coordination Center/Civil Air Patrol Cell Phone Forensics Team, but there were no pings after 1321 on 8/25/20. Based on cell tower viewshed analysis, the high probably area is outline in purple below. The two green areas were high probability areas but earlier in time, suggesting direction of travel along the PCT from north (upper right) to south (lower left). However, there was no phone activity after that timeframe, and it is not known if the subject continued in that direction or turned around. Independent analysis of cell ping raw data by Steve Hall was consistent with the AFRCC/CAP analysis, and yielded the highest probably area within the AFRCC/CAP purple polygon, largely at the higher elevations. AFRCC/CAP reported that it appears the phone was coming on and off beginning after midnight until about 0300 on 9/2/2020 (signal replying to query from wireless carrier) but without pings or ability to deduce location (a very unusual pattern).

SAR was contacted at 2005 hours on 9/1/2020 for a briefing at 1000 on 9/2/2020. Search efforts were guided primarily but cell phone forensics, the presumption that he took a day hike, and may have been able to travel only several miles. The first team was a BORSTAR team of 4 with canine deployed to the camper to obtain a scent article, but the dog was not able to pick up or track scent. This ground team then hiked the PCT south beyond the high probability ping area (HPPA), then entered the HPPA and searched the high point and surrounds, exited the PCT north and took a trail east, accessed Lupine Road, and returned to base, with on clues.

The UAS team launched from the nearest road access, south of Lake Morena, flew about 2/3rds of the HPPA (not the very thick brush area to the south), some PCT to the north, and then the southern shoreline of Lake Morena.

An SDMRT hasty Team 3 of Brandt (lead), McNaul, and Pisarello searched the PCT south to the HPPA, conducted an area search of the NE section of the HPPA, with no clues. Meanwhile, another hasty team approached the HPPA using the PCT from the south and area searched the HPPA in an eastern area that completed the Team 3 area search. Deputies on two quad teams of two each searched the dirt roads south of Lake Morena including the dam, pumphouse, and abandoned structure; an area of roads, dirt trails and roads south of Morena Village; and took Lake Morena Road south and then Hauser Creek road to where the PCT crossed the road; no clues were found. When two additional searchers arrived, they were deployed by the quickest route to the HIPPA to join Team 3 in their search. A ground team of 2 searched a use trail reported by the quad team, where the paved road ends south of the lake, with no clues. A mountain bike team of 3 searched the PCT and other paths heading north from Lake Morena Drive. A hasty Team 11 of 4 SDSDSAR drove to the UAS launch area, hiked a use trail south to access the PCT, and then searched the PCT south to its intersection with Hauser Canyon Road, and other 50 meters. They found no clues except a clear Aquafina plastic water bottle along the trail. The family was contacted and reported that he did use clear plastic bottles.

ASTREA responded to CP’s request for assistance and was provided 3 GPS coordinates each with a search area radius. They thoroughly searched those 3 areas as low as 30’ elevation. They were then requested to search the PCT for 2 miles north and 2 miles south from the area they just searched. Having completed that, on their own initiative they searched some shoreline of Lake Morena. No clues were found.

When 3 SDSDSAR canines arrived, 3 teams of 2 each were assigned and deployed to area searches of the campground and surrounds, an area north of the CP encompassing the PCT and other trails, and an area WNW from the campground to the lake. A ground team of 2 was formed for another search of the campground, and a quad team formed for a search of a large area east of the lake. When confirmation of a body matching the missing subject was later determined, the canine teams were recalled before completing assignment and the other two teams cancelled.

At approx. 1800, word reached the CP through LE channels of a “11-44” (dead body) when a US Navy helicopter crew conducting low level training in Hauser Canyon observed a dead body some hours earlier. Unable to land, they lowered a medic who reported a male deceased at least several days. A photo provided by the navy appeared that it could match the missing subject. It was then observed that on his left wrist was an unusual patterned wristband matching the band in his missing person photo, and also a white Apple watch. His family said he had a white Apple watch. This information was sufficient to recall teams from the field and notify the family in the area.

In part because the format of lat/long coordinates provided by the navy were unusual (32.40:36.6388, -116.33:55.0961), CP requested a pindrop, which placed the subject in Hauser Canyon, about 0.5 miles from the east end of Barrett Lake, which would have been about a 10‑mile hike from the campground.

Because Team 11 was in the field and already in Hauser Canyon, the closest team to the body and had nearly completed with their assignment, they were met for pickup by a reserve deputy in a motorized unit and instructed to proceed farther down the Canyon to determine if there were vehicle access to the body. The deputy was providing comms for Team 11. After driving some distance down the canyon, Team 11 informed CP that they could proceed no farther, and were instructed by CP to standby at a location that according to coordinates provided by Team 11 was 4 miles from the body. However, rather than remaining in location, Team 11 needed a place to turn around so they proceeded farther down the canyon and eventually happened upon the body. While CP heard comms from Team 11 that they had reached a point where the road access was blocked and they could go no further, the deputy later said that he had transmitted "the road is blocked with an 11-46." Code 11-46 is a death investigation. He might have meant to say “11‑44," which means dead body. Also, the deputy reportedly requested “10ES5 or 6” over the radio, which was not heard by 10ES5, 10ES6, or either of the two comms persons or the search manager in MC5. Team 11 received no response to that transmission and Team 11 did not follow-up to address that problem. Team 11 returned to CP as instructed.

CP did not learn that Team 11 had been able to access the body until they returned to the CP. Plans for a long line extraction by ASTREA were then cancelled and a body recovery team of SD Sheriff personnel departed in one vehicle and a side-by-side, and retrieved the body from the canyon and were met by the ME. When the body was reached, it was learned that body was almost 4 miles less down the canyon than indicated by the navy’s pindrop. The reason for this discrepancy is not known.

Myung Yoo

Lessons Learned/Suggestions for Future Operations:

1. Not at all a new lesson, but once again the family’s estimate of the maximum distance the subject is able to travel (2-3 miles) underestimated the distance actually travelled (probably about 6 miles).

2. Better coordination between UAS teams in the field and ASTREA are needed. CP neglected to give the UAS team advance notice that ASTREA was inbound, but became aware of ASTREA’s approach over the SAR81 command channel, and directly coordinated the ASTREA and UAS search limitations. However, when ASTREA self-initiated their search of the lake shoreline, the UAS was already in that airspace and there was no advance coordination.

3. Field teams should be on the lookout for ambiguous terrain features and sources of trail confusion and report these to the CP, such as during the team debrief. In this case, Team 3 was sent out to the area of forensic cell phone pings. Team 3 ingress was via the southbound PCT shown in RED on the map below. This route was also a likely route taken by the subject from his LKP. The area to be searched by the team included the saddle region east of the Moreno Butte. At this saddle the view of the surrounding terrain was greatly obstructed by 6-foot high brush and basic line of sight limitations. The map shows the viewshed from the saddle in RED SHADING. Short of climbing to one of the high rock outcroppings, walking through this saddle would be similar to being in a dense forest. It is speculated that the subject reached the saddle and became confused as to the correct way to return to his camp and ultimately proceeded southbound on the PCT, a steep trail not unlike the ingress trail. This trail took him into Hauser Canyon where he was found 1.5 mile west down the canyon.

4. The cell phone ping forensics were helpful, consistent with the likely route the subject took and the time frame he passed through that section of the PCT, established a direction of travel at that point in time 8 days prior, but provided no information over the most recent 8 days.

5. The unusual lat/long format provided by the navy (32.40:36.6388, -116.33:55.0961) cannot be parsed by Mission Manager or SARTopo, but can be parsed if entered as 32D40’36.6388”, -116D33’55.0961”.

6. Only plain language should be used for comms on SAR missions, and not police codes. In this case, radio transmission and an understanding of “11-44” or “11-46” would have communicated the very important message that the body had been reached by Team 11, but even if the 11-46 were heard over the radio, it was not understood because most SAR personnel are not familiar with many police codes.

7. When a field team is told to standby in place, they should not move from that location. Or, if they do (presumably for some very good reason, such as a safety consideration), they should immediately notify CP. (This was not communicated to CP when Team 11 proceeded farther down the canyon to find a turn-around location.)

8. A motorized unit should not be communicating for a field team, as they are not part of that field team. However, this situation was unusual because at the time of pickup, the team was given a further assignment. Clear direction is needed as to who is the primary comms person when a motorized unit is picking up a field team the team and driver are directed with a further assignment. As the field team is still on assignment, I believe it should be field team as primary comms.

9. SAR personnel (orange shirts) should not be intimidated or take a “back seat” when they find themselves in the field with a deputy (black shirt) unless otherwise instructed, but rather should remain actively engaged in radio comms. SAR operations are orange shirt operations, and whenever possible, comms should be orange shirt to orange shirt, utilizing all the comms knowledge and experience that is part of our SAR training.

10. If there is no response to a radio transmission, one must assume that no one heard the transmission. (In this case, neither Comms, nor Richard, nor Daniel, nor Anthony heard the deputy’s transmission of “10ES5 or 6.” At no time before Team 11 had returned to CP were any of these individuals made aware there had been a request for 10ES5 or 6. However, at least one person did hear that transmission.) The lack of response to a radio transmission is a problem, and that problem should be immediately addressed and fixed. This was not done.

11. SDSDSAR has a very specific radio code for when a subject is found deceased. That code is “Request 10 Edward Sam 5 report to my location. No code.” This transmission was not used when Team 11 happened upon the body. If this transmission had been made by an orange shirt, it would most likely would have been done correctly.

12. If a field team receives instructions from CP that doesn’t make sense to the team, they should ask for clarification/confirmation and question CP. CP isn’t all-knowing, can make mistakes or misunderstand, and radio transmissions are less than perfect. If the topic is sensitive, cell phone or alternate radio channel should be used. CP will not be offended by being asked to provide clarification. (In this case, any transmission from the field team that indicated they were at the body and so why being asked to return to base could have clarified the lack of communication about having reached the body.)

13. Sgt. Daniel Vengler is preparing a "what to expect" document for deputies and sergeants to better understand their role in SAR missions.