Checkered past follows search and rescue worker to Longview

Checkered past follows search and rescue worker to Longview

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It was the stuff of a hero story: Harry E. Oakes and his search dog, Valorie, finding Honduran flooding victims following Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

The Longview dog handler and his canine partner were among the search teams featured Sunday on "Storm Stories," the Weather Channel top-rated show.

In the show, firefighters in Honduras praised teams such as Oakes and Valoire for their rescue work and for taking their dogs to a local orphanage to cheer up traumatized children.

Despite the favorable portrayal, and Oakes' recent move to the local area, Oakes is persona non grata in local search and rescue circles. Officials say they're wary of Oakes' checkered financial past and his claimed record of success.

"He is no longer eligible to do search and rescue in Cowlitz County, like in a number of other areas," said Art Jordan, volunteer coordinator for Cowlitz County Search and Rescue and member of the state's Emergency Management Council.

Oakes, 49, acknowledges that county sheriffs who head up search and rescue operations often don't like him, but that's because his work is so good.

"Sheriffs often get upset when we come in and find people they can't," he said in an interview last week.

Oakes claims to have found the bodies of Ashley Pond and Miranda Gaddis, two Oregon City girls murdered by neighbor Ward Weaver in 2002, but others dispute that.

"Nobody used him in Oregon City, because he's not reliable," said Marty Neiman, with Search One K-9 Detection, an Oregon nonprofit called in by authorities investigating the case.

Neiman said Oakes showed up on the scene and volunteered his services but was not used in the official search. In a later, unofficial search, Oakes' search results were so general as to be useless, Neiman said.

Oakes runs International K-9 Search and Rescue Services, a for-profit organization, a rarity in search and rescue circles. In fact, Oakes describes his company as "the only for-profit K-9 search and rescue in the nation."

He typically charges $200 an hour for staging and searching, as well as $25 an hour for travel time, according to his website. He said much of his work is searching for pets, which Oakes said can be more profitable than searching for people.

"People won't hesitate paying for a dogs or cat," he said. "People won't pay for you for their child."

Cowlitz County Coroner Mike Nichols, a former Search and Rescue coordinator for the county, said volunteer search and rescue crews don't agree with the concept of for-profit search and rescue services.

"Other than Harry Oakes, I don't know of anybody else who hires out to distraught families and promises to find their kin," Nichols said.

Nichols said Cowlitz County's search and rescue volunteers will look for anyone who is missing and don't ask for payment. Volunteers tend to spend a lot of their own money on equipment, training and transportation. "We only work as volunteers here," he said.

Nichols and Jordan said Oakes' reputation in Oregon preceded him when he came to Washington from Portland a year ago.

"He wasn't welcome within search camps within his own state," Nichols said.

In Oregon, Oakes formerly was with Mountain Wilderness Search Dogs and Help Us Find You, Inc., which both were registered as nonprofit organizations. In the late 1990s, both came under investigation by the Oregon Department of Justice, which claimed that Oakes was using the nonprofits as a tax dodge.

"He uses MWSD and HUFY to avoid paying taxes by virtue of their tax-exempt status," the department said in a 1997 court settlement with Oakes.

At the time, the agency said, Oakes did not have a personal bank account and used the nonprofits' accounts as his own, paying his personal and living expenses out of them.

The department signed an order with Oakes forbidding him to represent himself as a charity of any kind or representing his professional locating services as a public service.

Oakes said he was cleared by the investigation.

"We came out squeaky clean," he said. "There was no criminal action brought against us."

The department did require Oakes to pay $7,500, but suspended the fine on the condition he not violate the order. Oakes said the fine was never imposed.

More inquiries

An Oregon Justice Department concern involved Oakes' search for bodies at the site of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.

The agency said Mountain Wilderness received a $4,000 donation from a canine club in Oklahoma. Oakes immediately was reimbursed for $3,000 in "expenses" he claimed but failed to document, according to the justice department.

The state also found that while Oakes was running Mountain Wilderness, he claimed round-trip mileage for a trip to Disney World in Florida in connection with operation of the nonprofits. He later acknowledged that the only business done there had been to drop off an unsolicited packet of information at Disney World offices, and the trip was actually a vacation, according to the justice department.

After the state investigations, the Mountain Wilderness Search and Rescue board in 1997 fired Oakes, the Group's CEO and founder.

Oakes later started International K-9 Search and Rescue Services, his current for-profit company. The 1997 agreement between Oakes and state of Oregon bars him from charging anyone for services if he has volunteered in the search for the same or victim.

Oakes, who answers his phone "search and rescue," said he is careful to make it clear to potential clients that he is not with a government agency.

The Weather Channel program made no mention of Oakes' for-profit status, but it did note that he and a fellow dog handler had to pay their own way to Honduras. Contributions were not sought on the program.

Weather Channel spokeswoman Kathy Lane said Oakes' business dealings were unrelated to its program.

"That would have nothing to do with the story we portrayed," she said.

Lane said Towers Productions Inc. of Chicago produces Storm Stories under contract. Towers officials were unavailable for comment.

In addition to questions about Oakes' financial dealings, search and rescue officials have doubts about the quality of Oakes' search work, said Cowlitz County Sheriff's Deputy Chuck Dunnavant, the county's search and rescue coordinator.

"He'll point to a spot on the river and say 'He drowned right there,' and there's no way to prove it," Dunnavant said.

While with Mountain Wilderness, Oakes participated in high-profile search for two Longview men, Larry Mansur and Dennis Svoboda, who were missing and presumed dead after a boating accident on the Columbia River off Cowlitz County in 1996.

During the hunt, Oakes told officials that Valorie had found the spot where they died, Nichols said. Months later, one of the bodies was found upriver from that spot, leading local search and rescue personnel to doubt the validity of Oakes "find."

"I've never heard of a body going upstream," Nichols said.


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