As the search continues for a missing Columbia County woman, both police and a private search team say they don't have any new leads about what happened to Nichole Sherman.
The 19-year-old Lower Columbia College student vanished after leaving her rural Columbia County home on Nov. 13. Sherman lives with her fiance and his family in an area southwest of Rainier. She left her home in 68000 block of Meissner Road and never made it to a friend's house on nearby Apiary Road
Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson said Wednesday that investigators continue to work the "highly suspicious" case.
Family members clarified Wednesday that they haven't hired the professional K-9 search and rescue outfit searching the area for Sherman, but they are collecting donations to help cover the team's expenses.
Harry Oakes runs a for-profit search and rescue team out of Longview but said Wednesday he has donated his time in this case. He said he's racked up about $9,000 in man-hours with three people working the area with their dogs. He estimates he's spent about $500 in out-of-pocket expenses, such as gas and meals.
Oakes said he accepts donations to cover his expenses but the "Help Find Nichole Sherman" U.S. Bank account money will be used solely at the family's discretion. He has no access to the donation account, Oakes stressed.
"We're just trying to help out and cover his gas and stuff, but he's donating his time," said Kim Koon, the mother of Sherman's fiance.
Oakes has had a rocky relationship with some local sheriff's departments and volunteer search and rescue groups, and he hasn't worked with Cowlitz County officials for several years. Oakes said that's because he asked to be reimbursed for some out-of-pocket costs and local officials refused. In a 2005 Daily News article, local officials also questioned his effectiveness.
Oakes said he's worked with Columbia County in years past but has not contacted officials about Sherman.
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Oakes and his team are concentrating on the area Sherman would have driven to her friend's house, noting there are some heavily wooded areas and steep drops along the way.
Sheriff's officials do not think Sherman drove off the road. They driven the route several times but have not held a ground search because officials say they have no fixed area to search.
Oakes had high praise for the sheriff's office work on the case, but he said he didn't need to talk to them to conduct his search. He's afraid Sherman drove off the road and her car is hidden in the brush somewhere.
Anyone interested in assisting with the ground search — including pilots who could fly over the area — can contact Oakes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dickerson didn't want to comment directly about Oakes. He said his office believes it's more likely Sherman is either the victim of foul play or just took off on her own.
After talking with family and "given the place she was in in her life," Dickerson said officials are treating the disappearance as a criminal matter and are working daily to track down tips and eliminate suspects, Dickerson said.
Sherman is 5 feet, 3 inches tall with a medium/heavy build and brown hair and brown/hazel eyes. She was last seen wearing dark jeans and a camouflage hooded sweatshirt. Her red, 2001 Chevy Cavalier has an Oregon plate YCD 562 and has dents in both the trunk and driver's side door. It's also missing hubcaps and has LCC parking stickers in the back window.
Anyone with information should call the sheriff's tip line at 503-366-4698.