Rescue Me

Bill Slaughter of Ojai finds people lost in the woods

Published in 2017 Southern California Super Lawyers — February 2017

On a rainy day in February four years ago, attorney Bill Slaughter was visiting San Francisco when he received a phone call. Eight hikers were lost in the Topatopa Mountains north of Ojai. As a volunteer captain with Upper Ojai Search and Rescue Team, Slaughter rushed home to coordinate the search. By the time he got there, the number of lost hikers had grown to 30. 

“These groups had all gone up without bothering to check the weather,” Slaughter recalls. “There was torrential rainfall and snow at higher elevations. So I had to get my crew organized and send them to three locations.”

Setting up his command post, Slaughter triaged the situation and communicated with each search volunteer via radio, tracking them with GPS. At one point he lost touch with some members of his team, so he hopped in his truck and drove to meet them. Along the way, he spotted something high on a mountainside and pulled over. “Sure enough, it was four headlamps on top of a cliff. It was just dumb luck I saw those lights. They wouldn’t have made it through the night. When we got to them an hour later they were soaking wet, covered in snow, and hunkered down.”

As the saying goes, luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, and Slaughter is nothing if not well-prepared—during a mountain rescue or in a court case. 

Slaughter has always loved the outdoors. As a kid he raced sailboats, then took up hiking and mountaineering. When he was 16, a group of his buddies went on a backpacking trip, but Slaughter stayed behind. On that outing, one of his friends fell from a cliff and died. “I decided then,” he says, “that search-and-rescue was something I wanted to do.”

Since 1987, he’s dedicated thousands of hours to Upper Ojai Search and Rescue. He’s continually on call, ready to coordinate with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office and assemble his team of volunteers at a moment’s notice. In addition to searching for lost and injured hikers, his team has responded to plane crashes, murder investigations, and searches for Alzheimer’s patients who wandered off. “There’s a problem-solving component to every single rescue I find interesting,” Slaughter notes. “It’s kind of like my day job.”

Slaughter is the founding partner at Slaughter, Reagan & Cole, a Ventura-based firm focused on commercial and real estate litigation, as well as insurance defense. “I’ve got junior partners and associates and paralegals,” he says. “And I have a similar structure for the rescue team. I have a couple people I rely on extensively. Then you work your way down the chain of command. Everybody has different roles and different strengths you have to take advantage of.”

He adds: “Every one of these rescues, just like a law case, is different. The call starts out, you gather your information and figure out what you’re going to do. And you find yourself in circumstances you never would have been in otherwise: walking through some mountain valley at three in the morning, or getting dropped out of a helicopter in some dicey place. ... The people we rescue are very grateful and fun to help out.”

More than a few times he’s had to leave a deposition to participate in a search. “My opposing counsel, my law partners, and, not least of all, my wife, have all been very accommodating,” he says. “Although she doesn’t like when I have to leave on Christmas to look for somebody.”

But when people need rescuing, it can’t wait. “Somebody has to roll up their sleeves and get the job done,” he says. “I’m happy to do it.“ 

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