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Two missing men in Wheeler County found, back home

'It's certainly a blessing,' search organizer says

MITCHELL, Ore. - (Update: Comments from Josh Peplin's thankful parents)

Josh Peplin and Kenneth Matthews probably have never met each other, but the 22-year-old Redmond man and the 71-year-old Clatskanie resident have one big thing in common – both became lost in separate areas of rugged, remote Wheeler County last Thursday, prompting extensive private and public ground and air search efforts that ended in happy reunions with their families.

Frontier 911 regional dispatchers sent out an emergency alert Thursday morning for the public to help look for Peplin. The Redmond man had last been seen late the previous afternoon after his work shift, near milepost 24 on Highway 207.

They said there was no associated vehicle or direction of travel, and deputies said he might have gotten a ride from someone. Deputies noted that Peplin suffers from narcolepsy and takes Adderal.

Peplin turned up Saturday afternoon at the search command post on BLM land north of Highway 26 and west of Burnt Ranch Road, an area with canyons and very steep hills, sheriff’s Deputy Dave Dobler said Sunday.

“He did walk out to our command post and requested aid,” Dobler said, adding that Peplin had gone with little food or water for about three days.

Dobler said it was one of the largest searches to involve primarily private volunteers that he could recall in the county.

“At one point out there, we had 30 or 40 volunteers,” he said. “It’s always good to see family and friends that care about them (out searching), as long as we coordinate and work together.”

Dobler said Peplin had been in a work vehicle and “went for a walk and got turned around. He thought he was heading in one direction, got turned around and deeper into an area he was not familiar with.”

Temperatures in the area over the three days had climbed to nearly 100 degrees, dropping to 50 overnight – a rough situation to go without any food or water. He turned up weak, but otherwise OK, Dobler said, adding: “That says something about being young, 22 and in good shape.”

Peplin's parents, Todd and Candy Peplin, offered thanks to many for their support and help during the search. They said Josh had survived by drinking water from springs on the hillsides and eating bugs and scorpions.

Candy Peplin said she was on two phones and online connecting resources like ice and batteries and food, as well as a private helicopter hired by a family member and friend the first day and an AirLink helicopter that came out twice to help.

Family members came from Seattle and several others offered to come, while volunteers brought food, water, fresh horses and the line.

Off-duty National Guard members and a dozen of her co-workers from St. Charles also went out to help search.

Todd Peplin offered special thanks to Wheeler County Sheriff Chris Humphreys for his professional coordination of the search effort for their son.

"His leadership was impeccable," the said. "The last day, we had over 50 friends and family there searching."

The Peplins also offered special thanks to their oldest son, Mike, whose "two tours overseas and Army training was invaluable. His leadership was incredible."

The couple also wanted to thank the SAR teams from several counties, as well as the Wheeler County Sheriff's Office and the city of Mitchell.

"We are so pleased to have Josh home safe," Candy Peplin told NewsChannel 21 Sunday night. "He is a tough, resourceful young man."

The Frontier 911 center issued its second alert of the day around 3 p.m. Thursday for Kenneth Matthews, a 71-year-old Clatskanie man with dementia who was last seen in the Ochocos. Dispatchers said it was not known if he’d made it to a road or not.

Dobler said Matthews had been left unattended in the area of the Cottonwood Pit Campground, about 14 miles east of Mitchell and south of Highway 26.

The search for Matthews involved agencies from Crook, Deschutes, Grant and Morrow counties, as well as the Oregon Office of Emergency Management’s joint operations center, the deputy said. The Oregon National Guard in Salem also sent a Black Hawk helicopter to help in the search.

“Our SAR team talked to campers, started piecing together where he was, what direction he was going – that took a day, with everyone out hunting,” the deputy said, but learned he was generally moving south and west, expanding the search effort.

They eventually determined he was going west along Forest Service Road 4270, then the 42 Road, a large, improved road that runs into Highway 26, Dobler said.

So as they’d come to expect, Matthews had gotten a ride on Highway 26 and called from Portland, alive and well. He apparently had gotten “confused on why he was there” in Wheeler County, Dobler said.

All in all, both searches had the kind of outcome everyone hopes for.

“It’s certainly a blessing to have our neighboring partners put in long hours, and to also have good support from families,” Dobler said. “We were very happy it turned out the way it did, for both of these folks.”


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