Butte Co. sher­iff ex­plains na­ture of miss­ing list

The Modesto Bee (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY TONY BIZJAK, ALEXAN­DRA YOON-HEN­DRICKS AND MICHAEL FINCH II tbiz­[email protected]

Two weeks ago, amid chaos in the early days of the Camp Fire, Butte County Sher­iff Kory Honea made a de­ci­sion: He would pub­lish daily the names of any­one re­ported to his de­part­ment as miss­ing.

That list, how­ever, soon swelled to 1,200, caus­ing con­ster­na­tion, con­fu­sion and com­plaints about in­ac­cu­ra­cies. As of Fri­day, the num­ber had dropped to 605 as more peo­ple re­con­nected with loved ones, were ac­counted for in shel­ters, or were tracked down by county in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

The re­main­ing num­ber is huge, though, and prompts se­ri­ous con­cern: Is it pos­si­ble the death toll for the dev­as­tat­ing Camp Fire, al­ready the dead­li­est in state his­tory, could ul­ti­mately be much higher than the cur­rent tally of 84 vic­tims?

Speak­ing to The Sacra­mento Bee on Fri­day, Honea said he would not spec­u­late on that, but is hope­ful the num­ber will be much lower than his list hints.

“My sin­cere hope is the ma­jor­ity of peo­ple on that list ... will be ac­counted for” as safe, he said.

In Sonoma County’s 2017 Tubbs Fire, more than 2200 peo­ple were re­ported miss­ing at one point, but the ul­ti­mate death toll was 22, ac­cord­ing to Cal Fire. Sonoma of­fi­cials told sev­eral news me­dia out­lets that they chose not to print names, fear­ing er­rors dur­ing a fluid sit­u­a­tion.

Honea said his in­tent in pub­lish­ing names, even ones that may be mis­spelled, was to get “raw” in­for­ma­tion out to the pub­lic to so­licit help in win­now­ing down who re­ally is and isn’t miss­ing. He said his de­part­ment had ac­counted for 2,146 miss­ing peo­ple as of Fri­day.

“I can’t let per­fec­tion get in the way of progress,” he said at a brief­ing last week when asked about the like­li­hood of in­ac­cu­ra­cies. “It is im­por­tant for us to get the in­for­ma­tion out so we can get started iden­ti­fy­ing these in­di­vid­u­als.”

The list is built from phone calls to the sher­iff’s of­fice, as well as 911 calls and emails, Honea said. That may in­clude calls from friends, neigh­bors or dis­tant rel­a­tives who have lost touch with a per­son, even if the per­son may be fine.

Bev­erly Jean Sparks and Wal­lace Sparks were ini­tially on the list but were not miss­ing, ac­cord­ing to their grand­son, Patrick Sparks. The cou­ple had evac­u­ated to a nearby fam­ily cabin, Sparks told The Bee last week.

“Know­ing that they’re on the list and know­ing that they’re not miss­ing ... I’m hop­ing that a lot of peo­ple are in the same boat be­cause that means there are a lot less peo­ple dead,” Sparks said.

The pair’s name has since been dropped from the list.

An­gela Perez told The Bee her un­cle David Mar­bury is miss­ing, but his name has fallen off the list, ap­par­ently in er­ror, a sher­iff’s de­part­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tive told her.

“He’s in limbo,” she said, nei­ther con­firmed dead nor listed as miss­ing, though fam­ily mem­bers call ev­ery day to add him back. “Each day we’d have to call back in and call back in and they have no his­tory” of their pre­vi­ous re­quests, she said.

On Thurs­day evening, Honea said he was vis­it­ing evac­uees at a com­mu­nity Thanks­giv­ing din­ner for vic­tims when he ran into a man who had been on the list for sev­eral days.

“He said, ‘I had no idea you were look­ing for me,’ “Honea said.

“It is dif­fi­cult be­cause we have an un­prece­den- ted event where a mas­sive num­ber of peo­ple were dis­placed from their homes and they were scat­tered all over north­ern Cal­i­for­nia,” Honea said at a press brief­ing. “So it is easy for them to lose con­tact with each other be­cause the tra­di­tional means in which they keep con­tact with each other — cell phones, land lines, texts, email — in many cases no longer ex­ist or they no longer have as ro­bust ac­cess to it.”

The search for re­mains of fire vic­tims con­tin­ued Fri­day in Par­adise and other moun­tain towns, where more than 800 peo­ple were sift­ing through burned out res­i­dences.

This week’s rains have made that task con­sid­er­ably more dif­fi­cult, Honea said. Crews pre­vi­ously used screens to sift through ash and rub­ble to find hu­man bones. The rains have turned that ash into a clay-like ma­te­rial, forc­ing searchers now to wash the clay with wa­ter to sep­a­rate out the bone.

Honea said the miss­ing and dead will dom­i­nate the de­part­ment’s fo­cus for months to come. He said his goal is to ac­count for ev­ery per­son on the miss­ing list, al­though he ac­knowl­edged in a press brief­ing last week that may not be pos­si­ble. “That is the na­ture of a tragedy like this,” he said.

The search may be­come even more like a crime in­ves­ti­ga­tion over time.

Honea said his de­tec­tives likely will check phone records, credit cards and bank state­ments of miss­ing per­sons “down the road” in hopes of clos­ing out the tough­est cases. The ef­fort has been aided by Alameda County in­ves­ti­ga­tors who worked on the 2016 “Ghost Ship” case, where 36 peo­ple were killed in an Oak­land ware­house fire dur­ing a party and con­cert.

Honea said he be­lieves his ap­proach has helped.

“In ret­ro­spect, I would make that de­ci­sion again,” he said.

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