MEADS — When Josh Thompson woke up Thursday morning there was an indescribable, peculiar weight on his heart. He wasn’t sure why he felt this way.
He turned on the evening newscast to see Geoffrey “Braiden” Reffitt, an autistic 14-year-old, wandered away from his home around 7:48 a.m. after he got upset and darted into the woods.
Thompson, a father to two young children, knew he must search for a stray boy.
“As a parent, I don’t know how I’d feel if that was my child out there lost in the cold.”
Thompson once worked with troubled kids at Ashland Group Home. On Thursday around 7 p.m. he helped yet another, finding the boy – just wearing a t-shirt, shorts and sandals in nighttime, quickly-plunging temperatures. Thompson saw the teen hunkered in a ditch line on nearby Hatchery Road. Katie McDowell shared her cell phone so he could call police.
“Something was telling me I had to head out,” said Thompson, warming himself inside the makeshift mobile command center at AAA Storage Center on U.S. 60. His two kids were inside the family’s Toyota Tacoma when he spotted Braiden. His 3-year-old daughter, Leila, thought Braiden was playing hide and seek.
“I never take the back roads, but something told me to. I’m not really religious, but I had my heart set on finding this boy – and it played in my head,” said the 26-year-old Cannonsburg man. “Nothing has ever spoken to me so strongly. It kind of freaks me out.”
Driving by slowly, he saw young Braiden pop up from a culvert. He was cold and afraid to return home, worried his mom would be angry, Thompson said.
“I told him his mommy was gonna give him a big hug when she saw him,” he said, adding the boy told him he heard a helicopter searching for him earlier and hid in fear.
Braiden emerged from the mobile command center, a soft, white woolen blanket swaddling his shoulders. He blinked in the TV camera light and grinned. He was transported to King’s Daughters Medical Center for observation, said Tom Adams, director of Boyd County EMS.
Volunteer firefighters, EMS workers, Kentucky State Police troopers, and Boyd County Sheriff’s Department deputies searched the perimeter of Meade Springer Road to no avail earlier in the day. Air Methods Air Medical Service flew a 1-mile radius but didn’t find him either. Little Sandy Correctional Complex’s Lt. Mike Finch and Officer Tony Pennington brought trained search canines to assist.
As word of his disappearance spread via social media, texts, and word of mouth, 40 concerned volunteers drove designated sectors, said Adams.
As the sun set and a chill arrived, the KSP chopper – equipped with infrared, night vision sensors – was en route to Ashland to join the desperate search. Braiden was found with only 30 minutes left in their flight path to here.
Rescuers fed Braiden two barbecue sandwiches before whisking him off to an ambulance. The boy survived 12 hours without food or water.
“He fared really well considering the cold,” Adams said. “This is a very good outcome compared to what might’ve happened. Our biggest concern was hypothermia.”
Director of Boyd County Disaster and Emergency Management Brent Webster praised the local fire departments and community members who came out to help, a show of hands to help a young man in danger.
“I’m tickled with the outcome. It’s amazing how everyone came together and worked together, all agencies working as one to find Braiden.”
Boyd County Sheriff’s Deputy Dave White started his day at 5 a.m. His boots and uniform pant legs were plastered in mud and clay from his day-long pursuit in the woods and hollows near Rockdale and Marsh Hill Drive. He left the trek briefly for his daughter’s volleyball banquet. There, he received a call the teen was found. He left immediately, overjoyed.
“It’s nice to know a parent gets her kid back tonight – and I get to go home to mine,” White said.
“These are normal citizens. It’s amazing really, but not surprising at the same time. It’s what our community does when someone needs help.”
White praised Thompson for his lifesaving effort. “You could tell he’s a person with a conscience. He’s a heartfelt human being. He cares about kids. He’s a dad of two, just like me. He’s a hero.”