Vandals had cut the lock on a gate that should have stopped the Kim family of San Francisco from taking the spur road that led to a deadly wilderness ordeal, the Forest Service said Thursday.
"That road is gated for the winter, and it was gated on Nov. 1," said Patty Burel, a spokeswoman for the service and the federal Bureau of Land Management. "During the search for the Kim family, it was discovered that the lock had been cut off and the gate opened."
Burel said there was now a "law-enforcement investigation into this vandalism that may have contributed to this tragedy."
However, the Kims were just a few miles from potential salvation along the detour: a seasonal fishing and rafting lodge near the end of the spur road.
Though closed for the winter, the remote Black Bar Lodge has provisions that could have helped the family through their wait for rescue in the freezing wilderness, had they come upon the property and broken in, said the owner, John James.
"There is firewood there; there's plenty of canned food," said James, whose family has owned the lodge for 45 years. "There could have been a different outcome. Certainly the shelter was way more adequate than being exposed out in a car."
James Kim, a 35-year-old Internet journalist, was discovered dead Wednesday in Big Windy Creek, near the Rogue River in southwestern Oregon's Coast Range.
That was four days after he had set out in a desperate bid to seek rescue for himself, his wife and two young daughters after the family got lost Nov. 25 in the rugged terrain while on vacation.
A helicopter search and rescue team found Kati Kim, 30; Penelope, 4; and Sabine, 7 months, alive Monday near the family's stranded Saab station wagon.
The family had run out of food and used all their gasoline, then burned the car's tires to keep warm. Kati Kim drank snowmelt and nursed her children but, after a week, her husband decided to try to hike out to seek help.
James Kim, discovered face up in the creek, died from exposure with hypothermia, Dr. James Olson, a deputy state medical examiner, said Thursday in announcing autopsy results. Olson said he could not yet determine the exact time of death.
Had the federally supervised gate been properly locked, the Kims might have continued backing down the main Forest Service road on which they had been traveling, known as Bear Camp Road, a steep, rocky, at times one-lane byway that is depicted on road maps as a paved link from Interstate 5 to the coast.
They had stopped on that road when rain turned to snow, and rocks in the roadway had forced James Kim to get out of the car a few times and remove them.
If they had stopped there for the night, they probably would have been found within a day or two, lodge owner James and local authorities say.
But, as they were backing up, they came upon the spur road -- #34-8-36, in federal classification, built for logging -- and decided to take it, perhaps thinking it was a quicker way to safety because it slopes down toward the Rogue River.
"It's human nature to try to stay on the low road in that kind of a situation," said James. "Unfortunately, the low road in this case goes nowhere."
Though the gate should have been locked shut, James said, it was not particularly uncommon for the lock to have been destroyed.
"These are federal lands, and there's a certain mentality here that goes, 'You can't lock me out of this, I'm a citizen of this country and I can go where I want,' " James said of the vandals.
Bear Camp Road is often closed in the winter, and several advisory signs along the route taken by the Kims warned that it "may be closed" due to snowdrifts ahead. But it was not officially closed the night the family drove along it.
In the wake of the tragedy, local and federal officials say, the signage along the road will almost certainly be changed.
At least two other motorists have died in the last 12 years after getting stranded off Bear Camp Road.
In 2002, a 60-year-old Arkansas man died three miles from where his Jeep got bogged down in a snowdrift; he was trying to hike to safety.
And in 1995, a Montana man died of starvation in his pickup as the vehicle lay stranded in a snowdrift. For as many as nine weeks, authorities said at the time, he had sat in the cab of the truck, checking off the days of the calendar in his day planner and writing stacks of letters to his sons, his fiancee and his boss.
Times staff writer Lynn Marshall in Seattle contributed to this report.