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Hunting Accident File > Safe Hunting?: > December 2004

FAMILY OF MISSING DAYTON HUNTER JUST WANTS CLOSURE

Published: December 11, 2004

By PAUL DAQUILANTE

Of the News-Register

DAYTON - The agony Kristen Childress feels this holiday season is reflected in the tone of her voice, which cracks at times - that and the painful look painted on her face.

How does a mother tell her 3-year-old daughter, Kelsey, that daddy isn't coming home again? That he's gone. Forever.

"That's the hardest part," Kristen said. "Every day she asks about him. Every day she wants to go save him. That's what hurts, because she knows."

Their other child, Jesse, just 8 months, is too young to have much sense of what's going on. But not Kelsey.

Kristen and her husband, Jeromy, will celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary Sunday. They should be celebrating together, but they're not.

Instead, she will be joined by other family members, by friends and probably by people she doesn't know - people she's never even met. They will gather east of Beaver in the Tillamook National Forest to take one long last look for her husband.

The 31-year-old father of two has been missing since mid-October, when he went elk hunting in Tillamook County's Trask Unit with friend and co-worker Shane Luey and Luey's young son.

Childress has not been seen since becoming separated from the pair.

There has been an exhaustive series of searches by family, friends, law enforcement personnel, members of search and rescue squads and others. But no one has managed to turn up any clues to his whereabouts.

Kristen works for the Salem-Keizer School District. Jeromy was working as a painter on Portland's St. John's Bridge at the time of his disappearance.

The last time Kristen saw him was the morning of Friday, Oct. 15, before they left their Dayton home for their respective worksites.

"I spent Friday night with my parents," she said. "I was going to work Saturday, and my parents were going to watch the kids."

Kristen expected to see Jeromy again in a few days. The three-member hunting party left Saturday morning for the opening of elk season.

After setting up camp, the three set off into heavy timber and became disoriented. They couldn't find their way back.

Information provided to the Tillamook County Sheriff's Office indicates the three drove around on logging roads in Luey's pickup, searching fruitlessly.

At one point, Childress thought they were in the right area, so they got out and started looking around. He went one way and the Lueys went another.

The Lueys eventually returned to the truck, off Tucca Creek Road. They spent the night in the vehicle, but Childress never showed up.

The next morning, the Lueys got directions from a logger and headed to Tillamook to report Childress missing. Kristen was immediately notified, and she quickly spread the word among members of the family.

"I panicked at first," she said. "But once I got there, I thought, 'We're going to find him. There are roads everywhere. It's not possible for him to be completely lost.' I thought he was right around the area somewhere.

"But we couldn't find him and we couldn't hear him. Then reality started to hit. After four or five days, I started thinking the worst."

During the week of Oct. 17, an intense air and ground search was mounted. More than 100 searchers were out on the ground some days, combing an area three to five miles across from dawn to dusk.

The official search continued through Oct. 24, at which time Tillamook County authorities decided to call it off, believing there was no possibility the lightly dressed hunter could have survived exposure to the night chill that long.

Tillamook County has since organized occasional weekend searches, aiming at body recovery rather than rescue. Family members and friends have continued to search on their own as well.

"I would love to be up there myself, all the time," Kristen said. "But I have to provide for the kids. I still have bills to pay."

Searching is not only difficult emotionally, but also physically. The Trask Unit is rugged.

Kristen has hiked the area quite a bit by now. She knows well the challenges searchers face.

"There are a lot of clearcuts, but in some areas, it's nothing but heavy underbrush," she said. "I took a group out one day, and within five minutes, I couldn't see any of them. And they were wearing orange clothing.

"The group had a GPS, and people still got turned around," she said. "Granted, they knew where to meet me in a few hours, but they got turned around and disoriented in the brush."

There are canyons and steep dropoffs. It's not uncommon to find an animal den, as bears, cougars and coyotes roam the area.

"We would discourage anyone from going out there alone," said Tillamook County Undersheriff Terry Huntsman.

Kristen is grateful for the search effort. She can't thank the people who have participated enough. She said it has been a powerful undertaking.

"There have been trained cadaver and search and rescue dogs tracking and people searching," she said. "You name it, and it's been out there. The dogs have never picked up on anything."

Childress, 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, was wearing a blue Nike baseball cap, blue jeans and a dark brown Carhart jacket.

Unique features include a mustache, a rising Phoenix tattoo on his shoulder and a dolphin tattoo on his shoulder blade with the numbers 14376. He was carrying a rifle, a silver watch, a gold wedding band, his car keys and possibly a pocket knife.

"Nothing has ever been found," Kristen said. "No clothing has ever been found. He had his wallet with him, and credit cards have never shown up.

"There are just too many roads and hunters in the area not to find anything," she said. "That makes me feel we're looking in the wrong place."

Hunters reported seeing someone matching the description in the Toll Road area, which extends into Yamhill County. But that hasn't led to anything either.

Kristen realizes her husband could have fallen into a canyon, stumbled over a log, landed in a creek, hit his head on a rock - any number of things. Or he might have simply succumbed to hypothermia.

"The not knowing is killing me," she said. "I have no answers. That's the hard part.

"I believe it was a hunting accident. I'm not OK with that, but it happens."

She thinks her husband, wearing a brown jacket rather than the bright hunter orange attire experts recommend, was mistaken for an elk and shot. She thinks the shooter, unable to find an animal, figured it was a miss and left the area.

"I can accept it as a hunting accident," Kristen said. "But I need closure. And I don't have that.

"I'm moving on as well as I can, but without any answers. If he is found, I'll have closure."

Would finding a piece of his clothing provide closure? No, she said. Neither would locating any of his personal belongings.

"That would just mean he's out there somewhere," she said. "I need him. His body."

Jeromy had hunted all his life. He grew up in a family of hunters.

This was an annual trip her husband took. She never gave his well-being a second thought when they said good-bye to each other that Friday morning.

There was always the possibility his job would take his life. Climbing around high up on bridges like the St. John's is dangerous. But never did Kristen believe she would lose her husband on a hunting trip.

Not only has she lost a husband at 28, but her young children have lost a father.

"I know he's not coming home," Kristen said. "Our daughter knows he's not coming home.

"Kelsey knows more than Jesse. Kelsey had gone hunting with him just the week before. She was mad her dad didn't take her this time."

When Kristen learned Jeromy was missing, she simply told her daughter that her dad was still hunting.

After a few days, Kelsey started asking when he was coming home. Kristen told her he was stuck on the mountain and she didn't know when he was going to get back home.

Now Kristen tells her that daddy is in the stars and in her heart.

"You never know how a 3-year-old's mind works," Kristen said. "But every day she says, 'I have a flashlight. I can go find him.' I hear that every day. That's what hurts."

Jeromy's truck is parked in the driveway at home. Sometimes Kelsey forgets what her mother has told her, spots the truck and thinks her dad has come home.

"She said she's sad her dad isn't here," Kristen said. "But Jeromy would be proud, because now the kids are my biggest priority. And I'm taking care of them. That's what he lived for, to take care of us."

She said her husband would think she was pretty special for going on with her life for the sake of their children.

"My kids, they're all I have," she said. "They keep me sane and strong. I have to be strong for our kids. I'm their only provider. They are my main focus."

She leans on her parents and two brothers for support. She said the tragedy has brought the family much closer together.

More than ever before, she wants a closer relationship with her father. Her parents just returned from a three-week trip to Australia, and she was ecstatic to see them back.

Jeromy's grandmother, Colleen Fuller, lives in Amity. Kristen described her as a strong and wonderful woman who's also been a big help.

"Jeromy was our first grandchild and we loved him a lot," Colleen said. "The families are pulling together and being supportive of each other.

"We'd just like some closure. It's sad to think that two young children don't have a dad."

Kristen also treasures the support shown by complete strangers, who have logged on to a website created in her husband's name.

Many people have offered their thoughts and prayers. Others have asked how they can help. Some have offered the use of horses and all-terrain vehicles. Kristen said the response to the website has just been overwhelming.

Her co-workers in the Salem-Keizer School District, where Kristen is a student services and special education assistant, have offered their support as well. They understand she has her good days and her bad days.

"There are days when I just put my headphones on and tune everything out," she said. "Jeromy's on my mind, but at least I can bury myself in work."

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