Thursday, 18 July 2024

Former county resident shares details of search for missing couple

Fremont couple Viola Liu and Ryan Barrett at the location on Elk Mountain were they were found by family, a hired pilot and Folsom resident Ryan O'Keven on Saturday, January 23, 2010. Photo by Ryan O'Keven.



UPPER LAKE – For a Fremont couple stranded in winter weather on Elk Mountain last week, the concern and persistence of a stranger helped bring them safely home.

Ryan Barrett and Viola Liu, both 31, were discovered on Forest Road M-10 near Elk Mountain Road on Saturday, as Lake County News has reported.

On Monday, Lake County News was able to catch up with a former Lake County resident who is credited with helping find them.

Ryan O'Keven grew up in Kelseyville, but left in 1999. Since then, the young man has lived in Folsom, where he works as a mortgage broker.

He was visiting his mother, who lives in Kelseyville, last weekend when he saw a Bay Area news broadcast Friday evening about Liu and Barrett having gone missing after leaving Jan. 16 on a camping trip.

O'Keven said he and his wife go backpacking in the Snow Mountain Wilderness area all the time, and he believed that Barrett and Liu may have been headed that way after gassing up in Upper Lake.

He also had driven that road numerous times, and said it's not a road to travel in winter.

O'Keven tried calling the Fremont Police Department Friday evening after the news broadcast, but he said the message on the tip line said they were only open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and would return the call the next business day – which was Monday. Although he left a message, he never heard back.

So using an Internet phone book, he tracked down Patricia Jenkins, Ryan Barrett's aunt. Jenkins' husband, Richard, was traveling to Lake County the following day to post flyers.

He said the family “didn't sound like they were getting help from anywhere,” so O'Keven shared with them his knowledge of the Upper Lake area.




Viola Liu and pilot Dave Everson on the way back to Lampson Field in Lakeport, Calif., on Saturday, January 23, 2010. Photo by Ryan O'Keven.



The next day, he and his mother were running errands and decided to drive to Upper Lake to see the conditions. When they passed the Mendocino National Forest's Upper Lake Ranger Station, he spotted Richard Jenkins' car and gave him a call.

Jenkins then asked O'Keven to come along and help guide him and pilot Dave Everson of Redding-based Air Shasta Rotor & Wing, who Barrett's family had hired to help with the search, because search and rescue wasn't deployed. O'Kevin agreed and joined them and a cousin of Barrett's the four-person helicopter, which left Lampson Airport outside of Lakeport at around 3 p.m. Saturday.

Helping guide the group using a forest map, O'Keven said he believed the couple might have made it to the Summit Springs trailhead. If they hadn't gotten that far, they might have hiked down the hill to Bear Creek.

He suggested they fly to the Bear Creek Campground and follow Forest Road M-10 toward the ridge. As they flew over, he spotted a pile of firewood on a picnic table. Later, the couple would tell their rescuers that they had built the pile and put a note inside with information about their movements.

The searchers looked for signs of the couple's red Toyota Tacoma pickup, but didn't see it, said O'Keven.

There was a lot of snow on the ground, making it hard to follow the road, said O'Keven. Then, after about 15 minutes in the air, he spotted the couple's footprints and those of their three dogs.

He estimated they followed the footprints about four to five miles before they spotted the couple, who had started hiking back toward Upper Lake that day. In all, it took less than a half hour to find them.




Viola Liu looks on as her tired Labrador retriever catches a nap in the helicopter's backseat on Saturday, January 23, 2010. Photo by Ryan O'Keven.



O'Keven said Liu was “ecstatic” when the helicopter arrived to pick them up in the area of Elk Mountain Road and M-10. They left Jenkins, Barrett's cousin, two of the dogs and their backpacks behind while Everson flew the couple, one of their dogs and O'Keven back to the airport.

Although Everson was concerned about the dog, the tired animal fell asleep in the helicopter's backseat on the trip back to Lampson, O'Keven said.

When they arrived at the airport, a female deputy sheriff arrived to ask them some questions and close out the missing persons' file, according to O'Keven.

The couple told their rescuers that they had gotten up on the mountain when it was dark; they had gassed up around 5 p.m. in Upper Lake but weren't aware of the weather conditions in the area.

On the way a ranger had stopped to ask where they were headed, but didn't tell them about road closures. Along the way they crossed two creeks in their two-wheel-drive pickup.

Jenkins said the couple’s car battery died when they were at their initial camping location, which is why they couldn't get off of the mountain when the first storm hit. He said they searched the area for help but couldn’t find anyone. Finally, they removed the battery from the truck and warmed it in their tent. “This worked – they were able to get the truck started but by then the streams had swollen and they couldn’t get across,” Jenkins said.

On Monday, as they were attempting to ford a creek in the pickup, Barrett and Liu said the truck started floating downstream and they had to escape. They told O'Keven and their relatives that they had to break the windows to get out.

The truck floated down and lodged under some thick vegetation against an embankment, which explained why the searchers couldn't see it despite flying over the area several times, O'Keven said.

The couple had camping gear and spent a few days in their tent before they happened across a cabin on Wednesday. O'Keven said the cabin was located near M-10 on the east side of the Bear Creek crossing.

Barrett and Liu were able to keep warm by burning firewood in the cabin's potbellied stove, and they and their canine companions ate tomato sauce and popcorn over the coming several days, O'Keven said.

On that Saturday morning, the couple had left the cabin and started hiking. O'Keven said they related that they had set out camping on a previous occasion and were heading toward Stonyford but turned back.

O'Keven said he believed that if they hadn't been found, Barrett and Liu may have been able to hike out by Sunday, noting that they had experience and some equipment, although they were traveling through deep snow with no snowshoes.

Jenkins credited two Lake County residents – whose names he didn't have – who proactively contacted the family and offered information the Elk Mountain area and the Bear Creek Campground, which he said gave the family the confidence that hiring a helicopter was worthwhile. A Calistoga resident, Jens Vidkjer, also offered information for the search.

An experienced outdoorsman, O'Keven said a critical issue in this case was that the couple hadn't told anyone where they were headed.

“That was their sole issue,” he said. “They would have been found much more quickly if they had told someone where they were going.”


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Follow Lake County News on Twitter at and on Facebook at .




Pilot Dave Everson of Air Shasta Rotor & Wing of Redding flew the rescue mission on Saturday, January 23, 2010, landing at Lampson Airport in Lakeport, Calif. Photo by Ryan O'Keven.

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