Insider extra: Osceola sheriff shows how deputies respond when someone goes missing

Free Project Lifesaver bracelets also help prevent Silver Alerts

OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. – What’s it really like to try and find someone who has gone missing?

News 6 has reported on several high-profile missing persons searches over the past few months, most of which ended successfully but some ending in tragedy.

Osceola County Sheriff Marcos Lopez said much of the search effort is “behind the scenes” and “all hands on deck,” especially when it’s a child missing.

At least in Osceola County, there is no missing person’s unit—it’s everyone, all night and all day, sometimes for days or weeks at a time.

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When a person has disappeared, the longer that person is missing, the bigger the search area gets and the chances fall of finding that person.

The sheriff’s office helicopter is almost always activated immediately, as it was several weeks ago in Osceola County when an elderly man with dementia and other medical issues walked away from his home.

Deputy John Kuyper, a Tactical Flight Officer (TFO) who operates Osceola County Sheriff’s Office helicopters, was sent up to search the woods.

“It was about two hours after the gentleman went missing when the agency got the call,” Kuyper said. “We were over the site and kept expanding the search for about 45 minutes.”

Hear the full interview with Deputy John Kuyper:

Kuyper was the first to spot the man in the woods.

“Every time I get one of these calls, I treat it as if it were someone from my own family,” Kuyper said. “So it adds that urgency and the dedication of, ‘I’m going to find this person.’”

Lopez said most missing persons cases are solved with 24 hours, often on their own.

“Sometimes our agency alone, our county alone, reports up to 3,000 missing people a year,” Lopez said.

When a child or young person or someone with special needs has vanished or been abducted, bloodhounds are always first on scene.

“You have a missing person, we find out if they have disabilities, we find out the circumstances behind the disappearance, then we activate our bloodhounds,” Lopez said.

K-9s are tracking the person’s scent from the last known location while detectives are going door to door and crime analysts are running down leads and social media connections. Patrol deputies of course are on the lookout for the person or vehicle in the last known location.

“We’ll call the bus stations, we’ll call the hospitals,” Lopez said. “We usually work until we’ve exhausted all means to try and find someone.”

During the search for the man with dementia, Kuyper was the first to spot the man laying face down in the woods between branches. He had fallen and could not move.

“It’s literally a needle in a haystack,” Kuyper said.

Kuyper jumped out of the helicopter with his medic bag as soon as the pilot dropped the helicopter down low enough.

“To my surprise, I thought CPR would have been required based on what I was seeing,” Kuyper said. “When I ran up to him and announced myself, I was quite happy to hear him responding to me verbally. He was in severe pain and very, very dehydrated.”

Patrol deputies are often the first to find someone who has disappeared under suspicious circumstances, but the helicopter crew is often the first to find someone who has disappeared into the woods.

“Our watch commander arrived on scene, he was talking about the pilot and I, he said, ‘You guys are like superheroes and came out of the sky and did what you have to do,’ jokingly,” Kuyper said.

But seriously, Kuyper and his pilot saved the missing man’s life.

“Ultimately yes,” Kuyper said. “Had we not found him and had he been in that position overnight, I have no doubt he would not have fared well.”

Kuyper said the man was not wearing a Project Lifesaver bracelet, a radio-frequency wristband that is quickly and easily detected by a receiver that deputies carry in the helicopter and in certain squad cars on the ground.

Lopez said right now in Osceola County, only around 100 people are wearing Project Lifesaver bracelets, but the sheriff’s office has many more to give out.

Anyone or any family member who would like to obtain a bracelet for a loved one can do so for free by calling the sheriff’s office or filling out a contact form here.

Deputies will come to you and fit the bracelet.

The Orange County and Brevard County sheriff’s offices are among several other local agencies that offer the free bracelets.

You can search for the closest agency offering them here.

Lopez said the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office’s success rate for finding someone wearing a Project Lifesaver bracelet is 100%.

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About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for WKMG-TV News 6 (CBS) in Orlando and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting. Erik joined the News 6 News Team in 2003 days after the tragic loss of space shuttle Columbia.