Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe recently created a volunteer group to dig into cold cases. (Malheur Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

VALE – May Hori’s death has lingered for Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe.

Near the end of March 2001, the 43-year-old Hori, a nurse at what was then Holy Rosary Medical Center, was found clad in thin pajamas and floating in the Snake River just north of Ontario.

Law enforcement officials investigated the incident off and on for five months before officially closing the case in August 2001. The manner of her death was listed as drowning, a conclusion Wolfe doesn’t dispute. But why she drowned is still a question for the sheriff.

Hori’s home was situated along Oregon Highway 201 near Ontario State Recreation Site. After Hori’s body was found, police searched her home. All three of her vehicles and her dog were at the house.

At the time of her death, Hori, an Adrian High School graduate, had been a nurse at the hospital for nearly 15 years. Hori was last seen alive five days before her body was found in the river.

 “She was definitely afraid of water,” said Wolfe, who was the county undersheriff when Hori died. At the time, Wolfe said, police were “not convinced the victim’s death was accidental.”

Hori’s death, though, will get another look after Wolfe announced recently the creation of a volunteer cold case unit.

The nine-member unit of four women and five men also serves on the sheriff’s advisory board. The cold case unit met for the first time in February and plans to convene monthly.

Wolfe said he wanted to create a such a unit for a long time.

“We haven’t felt like we had the right person in place until recently,” said Wolfe.

Wolfe said Ontario resident Chuck Wade, a retired Portland safety and security officer, will spearhead the effort. Wade, a Nyssa High School graduate, said after he retired he was searching for “something to occupy myself.”

“I approached Sheriff Wolfe, back before Christmas, and we both took the time to think about it and he said, ‘Let’s try it out,’” said Wade.

 “He expressed an interest and it was something I had been thinking about doing anyway,” said Wolfe.

Along with Hori’s case, the new unit is working on a missing person case from last year. On April 19, Barry Howard of Atlanta was reported missing by his friends near the microwave station and Halliday Road about eight miles southwest of Ontario. The U.S. Army veteran was last seen near the Snake River Correctional Institution.

Wade said the unit is going over Howard’s entire case.

“We believe looking at that case again could be beneficial,” said Wolfe. “Mr. Wade and the committee are poring through it and they spent time out at the site.”

Howard’s case was never officially closed, said Wolfe.

“Off and on we’ve had people following up on different pieces of it but not to the extent the cold case unit will,” said Wolfe.

Howard was described as an African-American male, 5-foot-7 and 145 pounds.

Wolfe said the sheriff’s office will provide support to the team and some limited funding.

“It will be very little cost to the county. On the Barry Howard case, for example, we’ve provided copies of the case to each member so there has been a little bit of printing costs,” said Wolfe.

Howard was unemployed when he disappeared. Wade said he had been in Oregon just under a year. Howard’s pitbull was found by the sheriff’s office about three weeks after he vanished near Halliday Road.

Sgt. Bob Speelman will act as a liaison between the group and the sheriff’s office, Wolfe said.

Hori’s case was the second assignment for the team, Wolfe said.

“We want to look into every case that has not been resolved. That case has been closed but I think there is possibly other work that can be done on it,” said Wolfe.

Wolfe said he did not know how many unsolved cases are in the sheriff’s office files.

“There are a few. After they get done with others we will start looking deeper into the files,” said Wolfe.

Wade said he is excited to be delving into the Howard case.

“It is very strange. I am glad we got this one basically because it makes you want to go out and check every single thing that is there,” said Wade.

Wolfe also said anyone with an interest in becoming a volunteer for the new team can contact the sheriff’s office at (541) 473-5126. A criminal background check is required for all applicants.

Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.