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Family of missing St. Helens woman fundraising to pay for search efforts

Plans to hire K9 search team off the table, family still organizing searches


SCREENSHOT OF THE GOFUNDME SITE - An online fundraiser started by family members of Cheryl Hart has collected more than $4,000 to help pay for private search costs in one week. The family has set a goal of raising $10,000 on the popular crowd-funding site GoFundMe.The family of Cheryl Hart, who was reported missing to the Eugene Police Department in early August, is continuing its search for the woman, leveraging a crowdfunding website to collect donations to pay for search expenses.

As of Thursday, Aug. 25, the webpage reflected $4,010 from 76 donations toward a posted $10,000 fundraising goal.

Late last week, Hart’s grandmother, Burnice Melling-Van DeZande, set up the page with the goal of using the money to pay for a private K9 search and rescue operation. Those efforts have since been called off.

Harry Oakes, the owner of International K9 Search and Rescue Services based out of Longview, Wash., was hired by the family to conduct a one-day search Thursday, Aug. 18, for $2,000. Oakes told the Spotlight this week his search yielded some evidence in Klamath County that he turned over to investigators working the case.

Oakes, who according to his website has been working with search and rescue operations for more than 30 years, said he contracts to all clients before beginning search efforts. Costs include a $200-per-hour search fee in addition to travel expenses like gas, lodging and meals.

Oakes said he was willing to donate his services to the family after reaching the initial quote of $2,000, something he often offers to clients. When the family continued to express concern to Oakes about a lack of finances to pay for his services, he withdrew himself from the case, urging the family to solely rely on search efforts being conducted by the Eugene Police Department and the local sheriff’s office, which are ongoing.

Despite walking away from the search, Oakes said he can sympathize with the family.

“I’ve been through this as a parent myself, when my son disappeared for a month, and it’s horrible,” Oakes said.

“I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.”

HartKaren Melling-Price, Hart’s aunt, organized a small personal search party last weekend in the area around Chiloquin, a small town approximately 30 miles north of Klamath Falls, an area she and other family members believe Hart may have been.

On Monday, Aug. 22, Melling-Price said she had no new information regarding Hart’s whereabouts.

The family continues to fundraise online.

“We are raising money to help pay for obtaining help in the search and for other related expenses of my missing granddaughter,” a message from the family on the GoFundMe page reads.

Dozens of messages posted to the GoFundMe page reflect a range of sentiment, including offers to volunteer in the search, prayers for the family and advice about how to proceed.

Police reports indicate Hart was last seen at a residence in Eugene with her boyfriend, Jeremy Milutin, on Thursday, Aug. 4, before security videos show Milutin alone at several stores in Eugene and Klamath Falls on Aug. 5.

Members of Hart’s family said they have not had contact with her since Aug. 5.

Milutin was arrested Aug. 5 in Eugene on charges of unauthorized use of a vehicle and attempting to allude a police officer on foot, according to court documents. Milutin remains in custody in Lane County Jail and is scheduled for a 12-person trial on Sept. 28. Since his arrest, Milutin has been identified as a person of interest by Eugene police in Hart’s disappearance.