Toddler’s disappearance brings the community together to find him.
For over twenty-four hours, we collectively held our breath. A precocious two-year-old Joshua ‘JJ’ Rowland was lost in the woods. This story could have had a number of outcomes, and many of them were bad. Yet there was hope through prayer that it would turn out with a tired but safe JJ being found in the woods.
JJ was last seen playing in his front yard in rural north Brooksville on Cheever Rd of Yontz Rd by a neighbor at 10:40 am on Thursday, Feb. 23. His mother woke up and realized he was missing around 11 am. JJ and his mother had been napping together since 9:45 am when JJ was dropped off at his house asleep. After searching for an hour, JJ’s family called the Sheriff’s Office.
Thursday’s search included between 50 and 60 law enforcement personnel, patrol K-9s, Hernando County Fire Rescue, the Department of Corrections with their bloodhounds, and the Pasco Sheriff’s Office with their bloodhounds. The Citrus County dive team searched bodies of water close to the home. The Sheriff’s Office helicopter was deployed in the search, but it was challenging to see into the heavily wooded search area. The Sheriff’s Office did not utilize volunteers on Thursday because they wanted to preserve JJ’s trail. Law enforcement also checked in with nearby sexual predators, who were all compliant and allowed searches of their homes.
Other agencies assisting included FWC, Citrus County Sheriff’s Office, Pasco dive team, FDLE (7 people), US Marshals (10 people), Marion dive team, Hillsborough dive team, and Department of Transportation. The Sheriff’s Office contacted local residents and asked them to search their property for JJ, including sheds and unlocked vehicles. They thought JJ could probably get about one or two miles away from his home.
An Amber Alert was sent out around 5:45 pm. JJ would spend the night in the woods. Fortunately, the weather was mild.
Early Friday morning, HCSO put out a call for volunteers to help search for JJ. Over 500 volunteers showed up, and the Sheriff’s Office announced that they had all the volunteers that they could use at the moment. At 10:42 am, one of those volunteers, Roy Link, came across JJ in a densely wooded area about a half mile north of his home. Link is a former Marine and former Parks and Recreation employee.
He called 911 after finding JJ to tell them JJ had been found. When the operator answered, Mr. Link succinctly said, “I found him,” not needing to provide information about who he found. JJ could be heard in the background of the call saying, “I want my mommy.”
Trish Graeme was searching alongside Roy Link.
“I saw the curly hair, and I screamed, ‘That’s JJ!’ Graeme recounted that she then ran over to the child. “He didn’t look scared or act scared. I said, ‘Are you okay, baby?’ He said, ‘I’m okay, I want Mommy,” Graeme recalled.
In a later interview, Nienhuis introduced Link as “The man of the year in Hernando County.”
“Little JJ glommed onto him and didn’t want to let go. He was so excited to see him,” said Sheriff Nienhuis.
Nienhuis gave thanks to Link on behalf of the HCSO, the entire county, “and probably the whole United States.”
The story of a two-year-old lost in the woods and then found after 24 hours quickly went viral. On Friday, there were many news crews from the Tampa stations in town covering the story. The story was carried as far away as the Daily Mail in England.
JJ’s uncle Gavin Fitzgerald wrote on social media, “A massive, massive, massive thank you to everyone who came out. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Hernando County Sheriff’s Office, and all other Law Enforcement agencies involved. As well as my deepest appreciation for every single volunteer who came out to help look for JJ. Some of y’all searching the woods with me this morning were the same ones searching the tracks and the access roads with me at 3 in the morning. Every one of you will hold a special place in my heart. JJ is safe, with mom and dad, who are beyond joyful. He was very excited to tell all of us about his time in the woods. This was truly a one in a million.”
Lt. Tom Valdez, HCSO, wrote, “I hardly ever post on Facebook anymore, but the past couple of days have been exhausting. I have lived in the community my entire life, but the support that came out the past two days was amazing. I have served this community for almost 22 years and this case will never be forgotten. I was assigned to handle the volunteers that came out to assist. It was an unbelievable turnout from community members that really wanted to help. I was trying to assign search teams as fast as possible. I sure hope I seemed as if I had everything under control!!! I was trying to hold the anxiety inside as much as possible. The number of people that showed up to assist was way above what I could have imagined. Thanks again to everyone!”
Sheriff Nienhuis told the Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday, Feb. 28, “I do believe prayer works. The 500 volunteers were a very small representation of the number of people who were actually praying that JJ be found alive and well.”
He said in law enforcement you see a lot of bad things. He did not expect a positive outcome, but he was praying for one.
He told commissioners that a search like the one for JJ is a logistical nightmare and the weight of the world is on your shoulders.
He stated in his thirty plus years in law enforcement as well as in the experience of many in his command staff with also thirty plus years in law enforcement or more, “We have never had a situation where we didn’t find a very small child in a very short amount of time.”
He said that put them on edge. He described the assumptions they have to make during the search effort.
“We have to assume he walked away.”
“We have to assume that if there are any bodies of water that he made it into a body of water.” They also have to consider that a family member may have done something to the child. “We also have to assume that he was taken by a complete stranger,” said Nienhuis.
“All those things are happening simultaneously. Behind the scenes there are people working around the clock on each of those different areas.”
“When the search is going on, it’s a balancing act because your instinct is to just send a bunch of people out looking for him, but it literally is trying to find a needle in a haystack.”
The first thing they did was use bloodhounds and the helicopter equipped with infrared technology in the search. Nienhuis explained neither of those work well when there’s a lot of people on the ground.
They were hoping that the infrared would work better after nightfall, but fog rolled in and it didn’t pan out.
Another consideration with volunteers is that they may not understand the terrain where they will be searching. There were a couple of instances on Friday morning where volunteers needed assistance getting out of the search area. “But again it is hard to argue with success. It worked out well. Of course we would have liked to have found him a lot faster,” said Sheriff Nienhuis.
He roughly estimated that JJ was found about a half mile give or take from his house. “He actually had to cross a small residential road behind the property and go through some barbed wire fences, which was extremely unusual. We certainly did not anticipate that. He was a lot further away than you’d typically expect a two-year-old to get.”
Nienhuis was again thankful for all of the volunteers and especially Roy Link who “happened to be in the right place at the right time… he heard something and actually went towards the noise and found little JJ.” Sheriff Nienhuis remarked about his agency,“We don’t have a lot of people on the bench, so getting 50 or 60 people out there is a huge contingent of the agency, considering we still had to answer calls in Spring Hill.”
“JJ was everybody’s little boy that day.” The community came together to make sure JJ made it home safely. His safe rescue put a little spring in everyone’s step. His ordeal brought out the best in people. He inspired a local locksmith to offer free deadbolts to parents of young children who need, but cannot afford them.
For years to come, we will remember how community members joined together in prayer and action for JJ’s safe recovery and his story will continue to inspire hope through prayer in desperate situations.