Shiflett's instinct: Deputy locates missing men
Relying on nothing more than his training and an apparent knack for locating elderly wanderers, Chief Deputy Bobby Shiflett of the Albemarle County Sheriff’s Office, with the help of the Sheriff’s Office Volunteer Search and Rescue Team, saved the lives of two elderly gentlemen last week. In separate incidents, an 85-year-old man and a man in his seventies went missing while out for afternoon walks. Thanks to Shiflett and a dose of good fortune, they were found alive.
“I’ve gone through a bunch of training and there’s certain questions you have to ask when you’re looking for someone,” Shiflett says. “Simple things like how many times have you tried contacting him, where does he normally walk, those kinds of things.”
On Thursday, July 18, according to Sheriff Chip Harding, the 85-year-old man told his wife he was going for a walk and when he failed to return to his Key West residence more than three hours later, his wife called the Albemarle County Police, who, after conducting a quick search, called the sheriff’s SAR Team. It was a scorching summer day, and rescuers were worried about dehydration. Though the man was carrying a cell phone, he had spotty cell service and attempts to reach him initially failed.
“I tried calling him and luckily I got him," says Shiflett. "He said, ‘I’m behind my house and I’m near the creek,’ and just as he said that his phone died.”
“Bobby said [the man] was hysterical probably because he was dehydrated. [The man] said, ‘I think I’m going to die,’” Harding added.
Once Shiflett was able to get the missing man on the phone, he asked him to describe his surroundings. Not long after that, the rescuers found him and immediately administered IVs.
Just two days later, on Saturday, July 20, another man left his daughter’s Hydraulic Road house for a walk around noon and five hours later had yet to return. The daughter called the county police, who put out an alert for the septuagenarian and began to search, but had no luck.
Fortunately, a woman reported seeing a man near Blue Hole— a popular swimming spot at the base of the Shenandoah National Park in western Albemarle, nearly 15 miles from where the man was last seen. Despite the distance, the man matched the description and appeared to be “confused,” according to Harding, but when the woman offered him help, he declined and asked to be pointed towards the road. When police still couldn’t find the missing man at 1 am, they called Harding who mobilized the SAR Team, which includes volunteer (and vineyard owner) David King, who lends not only his time, but his helicopter to searches.
The search was also the maiden voyage of the SAR mobile command, which cost $32,000 and will need $4,000 to $5,000 in equipment, in sharp contrast to the Virginia ABC's new $750K command center.
At 5:30 am, Harding, Shiflett and the volunteers on the SAR Team set up in the area near where the man was thought to be missing.
“We get ready to start the search and Bobby went up to an area where he assumed the guy might go,” Harding says. “And darned enough if he didn’t see him.”
Despite spending the night in the woods and the great distance he walked in soaring temperatures, the man was physically fine and was driven back to his daughter’s home.
And while Shiflett and Harding are delighted both cases had happy endings, he hopes to avoid similar searches that might not end so well.
"When older people start with dementia to the point where it might be a safety concern, we encourage loved ones to contact us and get them transponder bracelets," Harding said. "If we can get within a mile and a half of the transponder on the ground or five miles in the helicopter, we can locate the person."