Nearly six months ago, recovering drug addict Steven Moline got into a car full of people who were barely more than strangers and headed for a hot springs resort in the Cascade Range to celebrate his 30th birthday.
ESTACADA — Nearly six months ago, recovering drug addict Steven Moline got into a car full of people who were barely more than strangers and headed for a hot springs resort in the Cascade Range to celebrate his 30th birthday. As dusk deepened on a switchback road, Moline stepped out of the Honda Accord and wandered into the Oregon woods. He has not been seen since.
Although police have turned up no evidence to suggest a crime was committed, many details remain unclear about the trip to the remote roads leading to Bagby Hot Springs on June 30. Moline's mother, Carol Degagne, has expressed suspicions about others in the car during interviews with news media. She told The Associated Press she wonders whether her son — who has epilepsy, is ill from hepatitis and is HIV positive — had a medical emergency and people who were with him "just left him" in the woods.
Three of the people who were in the car contacted The Associated Press to give their version of Moline's disappearance, insisting that he wandered into the woods by himself and they didn't know why. They also say they wasted no time in going to authorities to report him missing and get a search going.
The Clackamas County Sheriff's office directed 20 search-and-rescue volunteers to spend a day looking for Moline. They found no trace of him. The three — Ruth Lockwood, Brian Dean and Tom Bush — have been in contact with investigators but have not previously talked with reporters.
"This whole situation has been a nightmare," Bush said in an email to The AP. "We did nothing wrong. We were merely trying to make another human being happy in his sad life."
People in Oregon go missing regularly. By choice, by force or by accident, 18 people have disappeared since May 2010. They include a 7-year-old boy who never returned from a school science fair, a man accused of shooting a police officer before fleeing into a coastal forest and, now, Moline. Moline, who battled a heroin addiction, was staying at Portland's refurbished Martha Washington Hotel, a federally funded low-income housing facility. There, he met Lockwood and Dean, who were staying overnight at the Martha Washington with a friend. Even though they barely knew each other, Moline bugged Lockwood for a ride to Bagby Hot Springs for his birthday, Lockwood says. She complied. Also in the car were Dean, Bush and a male friend of Bush's named Jon.
The following account is based on interviews with Lockwood and Dean, and a statement from Bush:
Moline told people in the car he knew the Bagby Hot Springs and surrounding area well. The springs are at 3,500 feet above sea level and miles from anywhere. The forest is dotted with hot springs that send thick clouds of steam over the highway. Night comes early when the sun slips behind a high tree line. On the way to the hot springs, the 6-foot-8 Moline told Lockwood which roads to take as she drove. Bush says his friend, Jon, had gotten out of the car at a convenience store to catch a bus to Portland.
Gas was running low. Lockwood pulled over. "I don't have enough gas, I'm not going any farther," Lockwood said she told Moline.
Bush told The AP: "We all decided we should head back. Steven urged us to go on. Almost desperate, like he didn't want to go back."
Moline stepped out of the Accord and began walking. Lockwood honked the horn and people in the car called for him to come back. They didn't follow him as he disappeared into the woods.
"We weren't splitting up," Lockwood said. "We may lose one more person,"
After Moline got out of the car, Lockwood and Dean said they waited for half an hour and drove to Estacada, about 40 minutes away.
"He wasn't dead, so all we were focusing on was (making) a missing persons report," Lockwood said. "We told them his life may be in peril."
Dean said they told authorities that Moline was in immediate danger because of his illnesses. But they didn't know Moline's last name at the time or any way to contact his family.
James Rhodes, a Clackamas County sheriff's deputy, said Lockwood discussed Moline's HIV diagnosis in a 911 call, but never made mention of epilepsy. The Associated Press reviewed a recording of the call, but medical details were redacted by the sheriff's office to protect Moline's privacy. It was early summer and Moline had a backpack, leading the initial search-and-rescue responder to conclude Moline wasn't in any immediate danger. A search wouldn't be conducted for more than two weeks, after Moline's mother filed a missing persons report and a deputy connected it to Lockwood's call.
Degagne says her son has disappeared before. He once ran away to Montana but he called within a couple of days. She blames the people in the car for not going back to where they last saw Moline and looking for him after they refueled at the Estacada gas station.
"You'd think after they got that gas they'd go back up the hill," Degagne said.
In her effort to drum up financial support for a search, Degagne has also accused the police of failing to spend the time and resources on a search. Rhodes said such claims are unfounded.
"Carol's suspiciousness does not meet the legal standard for legal suspicion," said Rhodes, the Clackamas County deputy. "He was neither lost, nor missing, nor injured. As it was portrayed to us that evening, he was an adult male who walked into the woods.
"There was no indication that he wanted to be found."
Lockwood, Bush and Dean insist Degagne's suspicions about them are misplaced.
"It just didn't happen that way," Dean said. "But it's a mystery, and not a good one."