You can spend a lifetime in journalism or scouring the pages of the local newspaper, and it’s hard to say what stories are your favorites through the years, but this one is surely among the finest kind.
On Saturday evening, an autistic teen in rural Kane County sets off on his Razor scooter to find something to eat. His relatives realize he has taken off on his own, they’re worried and they call the Sheriff’s Office. What happens from there is a testimony to good, old-fashioned hard work by law-enforcement and emergency crews, the involvement of a caring community, and yes, even a nod to the power of social networking.
The happy ending that took place a little before 10 p.m. Saturday is poignant in part because these types of stories don’t always end that way. We’ve seen too much evidence in news reports through the years, and even this weekend, in locales from Terre Haute to Tampa, where some missing persons were found dead and others remain missing.
So when 16-year-old Andrew Thompson of Big Rock was found Saturday night, after being missing for almost four-and-a-half hours, you can’t blame folks for being more than a little bit happy and grateful.
“I want to thank all of the officers for their efforts in finding my son, Andrew,” said David Thompson in a comment on the Kane County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page. “This took a lot of coordination with other agencies, and they did a remarkable job! I can’t tell you how happy I was when I found out he was safe. Thanks again KCSO!”
“I would also like to thank everyone for helping bring Andrew home safely,” Steffane Thompson said. “Words cannot express our gratitude!”
“Big shout out to Pat Gengler (for) calling me to let me know that Andrew had been found!” said Karen Fletcher, a teacher. “My daughter and I plus many others from Andrew’s school were on our way to help look for him when Pat called. A huge sigh of relief. Thank you very much.”
The Pat Gengler referred to in that post is Lt. Pat Gengler, who left a family party in order to join the search. That’s a detail Gengler probably wouldn’t want me to share, but it’s emblematic of the kind of response that took place soon after Andrew was reported missing.
It’s always a tough call for police or sheriff’s officials regarding when to sound the alarm on a missing-person report. Gengler made that call, sent out a press release to the media, sent out a Citizen Observer alert and posted on the Sheriff’s Office Facebook page. Still, he was worried that few people would see the posts.
“Trying to get that kind of message out on a Saturday night in rural western Kane County is a tough order,” Gengler said.
Almost remarkably, the response was off the charts.
As of Monday, more than 85,000 people had seen Gengler’s Facebook post, which had been shared by 1,034 people.
And almost as soon as the release and media posts were sent, the Sheriff’s Office started getting calls with information. One person spotted a young man matching Andrew’s description riding his scooter down a rural road. Another said they saw Andrew coming into an Arby’s in Plano. Someone else tracked him on a road north of Plano. And ultimately, enough reports came in to help officials triangulate their search.
An as-yet-unnamed firefigher from the Little Rock Fire Department found Andrew in good health — “a little wet because it had started raining, but in good spirits,” Gengler said — and sheriff’s deputies were able to take the young man home.
“Everything came together,” Gengler said. “A lot of people saw (the Facebook post) and responded. All of a sudden, the right people are sharing it. Even stuff that probably didn’t sound like much help had some value. And after a day like that, it was so good to be able to say, ‘Yes we found him. Thanks for your help.’
“With all the bad ones that have happened,” Gengler said, “it’s nice to report something good.”