May 30, 1995 in Nation/World

Stuck In Woods, Man Clung To Life For 9 Weeks Victim Drank Water From Snow, But Had Little Or No Food

Associated Press
 

A Montana man, who died while stranded in his vehicle high atop southwestern Oregon’s Coast Range last winter, apparently survived for nine weeks hoping for a rescue that never came.

In letters he wrote to family and friends before he died, Dewitt Allan Finley, of Kalispell, said that his fate was in God’s hands and that he was prepared for whatever might come.

The Missoulian newspaper carried an account Monday of Finley’s final days and the letters he left behind.

The 56-year-old Finley was a newcomer to the Northwest who had spent most of his life in the Los Angeles area. He disappeared last Nov. 14 while on a sales trip for the S and S Camper manufacturing company near Kalispell, where he had worked for several months as a salesman.

His employer, Elmer Sieler, sent another company employee to search for him, called towns and sheriff departments across southwestern Oregon, put up posters offering a $5,000 reward and even hired an airplane to fly the rugged timbered country where Finley last had been seen departing Coos Bay en route to Grants Pass.

Sieler feared that Finley might have met with foul play or had an accident that left his vehicle hidden below a road somewhere.

Finley’s body was finally discovered on May 20, the same weekend that the story of his mysterious disappearance had been set to air on the “America’s Most Wanted” television series.

His missing pickup camper was found melting out of a snowbound forest road high in the mountains south of the Rogue River, according to Lt. Mike Andall of the Curry County Sheriff’s Department in Gold Beach, Ore.

Sieler said a couple trying to make it over the road got stuck down below Finley’s truck, spotted it and hiked up to investigate.

Finley had opted to take a scenic route to Grants Pass, following a national forest road that parallels the Rogue River, one of the locations for the filming of the Meryl Streep movie “River Wild,” which also was filmed on rivers near Kalispell and Libby.

Stranded without food when he was overtaken by an early-winter storm, the tall, burly man managed to survive for weeks on water from snow. He checked off the passing days on his calendar.

Letters he wrote on sheets from a legal pad were found in stamped, sealed envelopes addressed to his fiancee, his children and relatives, and to Sieler, who explained that Finley always carried materials to write to clients while on sales trips.

In his poignant letter to Sieler, Finley described how he attempted to drive via national forest roads from Coos Bay south to the Rogue River country, then east over the Coast Range toward Grants Pass.

But near the top of the range, even his four-wheel-drive failed to negotiate a road that had been coated with ice. Finally, the wheels slipped off the single-lane paved roadway into the gravel on the mountain side of the road, and Finley stopped for the night.

It’s unclear what happened next. Sieler thought Finley was carrying tire chains and perhaps hoped to wait until daylight, then put them on.

But the letter explains that the storm raged over the mountains for three days, stranding the pickup in deep snow.

It was still hunting season in the area, according to Andall, but the road Finley had taken is not maintained in winter and is not popular with hunters or snowmobilers.

Rather than attempting to hike out some 18 miles to Agnes, the last town he’d passed, Finley apparently resolved to try to wait out his ordeal in hope of eventual rescue, though he hadn’t told anyone which route he planned to follow.

“He believed his chance was best there” in the pickup, Sieler said.

Sgt. John Sevey of the Curry County Sheriff’s Department speculates that Finley could have gotten out in the first few days but was probably too weak to make it after 10 days or so without food.

“He was a strong Christian man,” Sieler said. The letter he wrote to Sieler after a month in the mountains expresses serenity and faith in God.

“He has met my needs daily and I’m alive, well and comforted. I have no control over my life. It’s all in His hands,” Finley wrote, still hopeful of rescue. “If not, I’ll see you in Glory. I know God will bless you and yours.”

“This was a man of strong faith,” Sieler said.

“He felt he probably would be saved by search and rescue or aircraft,” but at the same time, “he felt like if the Lord was ready to take him, he was ready to go.”

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© Copyright 1995 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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