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February 9, 2004

Hiker's friend tried in vain for quick aid

From: Oregonian, OR - Feb 9, 2004

Luana Pollock cites problems being understood and says darkness, not an argument, separated the pair


The friend of a Monmouth hiker who died after wandering off a trail said she tried to get help immediately, but no one would communicate with her because she is deaf and cannot speak well.

Luana Pollock, 25, of Silverton, speaking through her mother Sunday, described her frustration at trying to tell other hikers on the trail that she'd lost sight of her friend, Richard Thomas Melton, 26, who was deaf and sight-impaired.

"Her speech isn't good, and they just thought she was a weirdo and shrugged her off," said Pollock's mother, Sherry Pollock of Silverton. "If someone would have taken the time to listen to her, they would have known they were in trouble."

Melton was found dead late Saturday in a snow-covered area about 200 yards off the trail to the popular Bagby Hot Springs, which is 41 miles southeast of Estacada. Clackamas County sheriff's officials said Melton probably died of hypothermia.

Police first reported that Pollock and Melton had argued and separated during their hike back to Pollock's car. But Pollock said Sunday, and police agreed, that sheriff's officials had misunderstood her. She said she and Melton became separated because it was pitch dark. For most of the hike back to the car, Pollock said Melton had been in front of her, flicking his lighter so she could see him.

Their disagreement was earlier in the day over whether they should even try hiking to the springs. Pollock said she was concerned because they had no flashlight and Melton's shoes were inappropriate for the rough terrain, which is narrow and slippery with 20- and 30-foot drop-offs in some areas.

The pair left home Thursday evening to go snowboarding and arrived at Timberline Lodge about 10 p.m. Too tired to tackle the slopes, they drove back down the mountain and ate dinner. Then they drove toward Bagby with plans to sleep in Pollock's car. They each got in their sleeping bags but spent most of the night talking, using American Sign Language under the car's dome light.

Before dawn, they walked from her car to the Bagby Springs parking lot with the help of the moonlight. When they arrived back at the car about 9 a.m., they discovered that its windshield had been smashed. They drove to Estacada to report the vandalism, and Pollock said she tried to talk Melton out of returning to the springs.

"She thought it was a bad sign and that they didn't belong there and they weren't prepared for it," Sherry Pollock said. "Tom persisted and said he loves the water, that it would really cheer him up and nature was just what he needed."

Trail thick with snow The pair hiked about 11/2 hours to the springs, where they spent the day. It was dusk by the time they started back. Pollock said Melton was in front of her for most of the hike. But after a while, she couldn't see his lighter anymore. The moonlight that had helped them in the morning was blocked by clouds and trees. The trail was thick with snow, and they were cold.

Pollock passed some hikers on the trail and tried to ask them for help, but she said they couldn't understand her. A witness later reported seeing Melton on the trail about 9 p.m.

Once she arrived at the trailhead parking lot, Pollock said she stopped at an RV, where a man let her warm up. She asked him for a flashlight, but he didn't have one, so she returned to the trail with a lighter and tried to find Melton.

Pollock also tried to get the attention of others in the parking lot, to no avail. She flagged down a motorist shortly after 2 a.m. Saturday and wrote a note about Melton. The motorist called police, who met Pollock about 45 minutes later.

Communicating using a pen and notepad, he wrote, "Are you OK?"

"Just cold and hungry," she wrote back. "I am so worried about Thomas."

Her report prompted a full-scale search. By 10:30 a.m. Saturday, two dozen search and rescue volunteers, snowmobilers and trained dogs scoured an estimated five square miles around the springs, and three National Guard helicopters swept the area. About 5 p.m., Melton's body was found 200 yards off the trail.

Melton, who couldn't see without his glasses, was found without them. Pollock said he had them on when they started back up the trail. Detective Jim Strovink, a sheriff's spokesman, said police think Melton, who was found wearing sweat pants, a T-shirt, and a hooded pullover sweat shirt with a fleece lining, may have suffered from hypothermic delusions and wandered off the trail. He and Pollock were wet from soaking in the springs.

Friends for years Melton and Pollock were friends since their days together at the Oregon School for the Deaf in Salem. The pair graduated together in 1997, the year they were crowned prom king and queen.

Pollock described their relationship as "good friends, like brother and sister." They got together frequently to play chess and video games. Pollock said Melton had been feeling down lately, and she thought snowboarding and hot tubbing would cheer him up.

Melton was unemployed, said his aunt, Louise Melton-Breen. After graduating from high school, where Melton was a star basketball player, he briefly attended Chemeketa Community College in Salem. Later, Melton-Breen said, her nephew worked for a time with developmentally disabled people in private group homes, a job he loved. Lately, she said, he was "searching for himself," and "caught up in this awful job market."

Melton tried cabinetmaking, but it wasn't a good fit. And it was difficult to find employers willing to hire a deaf man, said his mother, Patricia Huillet of Sisters. Even so, "he accepted his deafness and liked who he was," she said, adding that her son rarely let his disability stop him from trying new things.

On Sunday, the mothers of Melton and Pollock shared one regret:

"There is this thing about people not wanting to connect with someone who's deaf," Sherry Pollock said. "Maybe this could have come out differently if someone had just tried to communicate with my daughter.

"Aside from that, two deaf kids never should have been up there by themselves in the first place."

Michelle Roberts: 503-294-5041;

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