Ozark County emergency personnel help find Drury-area boy lost in woods
In the wee hours of the morning Saturday, May 9, in the darkest part of the night, as Douglas County Sheriff Chris Degase prepared to search for a 6-year-old boy in a pond on a farm east of Ava and just north of Ozark County, he “felt like I was about to be sick,” he said Monday.
Degase was one of dozens of emergency personnel and volunteers from a wide area, including Ozark County, who had turned out to search for Teller Finch, a little boy who had been missing in the woods near his family’s home since Friday afternoon. After several hours of tracking the boy’s scent through the woods, two of the five dogs working the search had led their handlers to the dark pond, a scenario that, to Degase, immediately brought back memories of a similar search he had helped with last fall near Mountain Grove, where emergency teams had worked through the night to find a missing 3-year-old girl. That search had ended when the little girl’s lifeless body was found in a pond not far from her family’s home.
Fearing the worst, Degase quickly called for someone to bring him waders so he could go into the pond. Then, while he waited in his truck, “A guy came up and tapped on my window and said he’d been found,” he said.
“Thank the Lord!” Degase replied.
The gut-wrenching episode began when Teller and his 9-year-old brother, Rawley, went into the woods about 3:40 Friday afternoon to hunt morels on their family’s 27-acre farm on Douglas County Road 350 off AC Highway, northwest of Dora. Chad Finch, the boys’ father, told the Times Monday that the family, which includes seven children, had moved to Missouri about three years ago from Belen, New Mexico, settling in the Drury area.
Teller had only recently been allowed to go into the woods with his older brothers, Finch said. After the two boys were in the woods awhile, Teller wanted to go home, but Rawley wanted to stay. “They had words, and Teller stomped off,” said Finch, who’d been back at the house, working with his oldest son, 11-year-old Curtis, to repair a roto-tiller.
“We heard Teller scream, and I told Curtis to get down there and see what had happened, and I followed right behind him,” Finch said. Within three to five minutes of hearing his son’s scream, “I was calling his name in the woods, and he was already out of earshot,” he said.
He and Curtis quickly combed the area, searching through the woods and around their property. Then Finch and his wife, Laurel, started reaching out to neighbors, asking for help. “Then those neighbors notified their neighbors, and more people started looking. It slowly escalated,” Finch said.
At one point, “a lady in her 70s drove into the yard and asked what she could do. We told her, ‘You know everyone. Start talking to them and ask them to help.’ Before you knew it, quite a few people were here,” he said.
Despite the growing number of volunteers who were looking for Teller, the boy could not be found. At 7:20 p.m., nearly four hours after Teller and Rawley had gone into the woods, Laurel Finch called 911.
Degase immediately sent deputies, including the county’s canine team, to the scene. “I’d say it’s usually about a 45-minute drive from our office, out 14 Highway and then south on AC Highway to County Road 350,” Degase said Monday. He estimated that the deputies were “probably on scene in around 30 minutes.”
Degase asked the Mountain Grove Police Department to send its canine team. He also contacted Ozarks Correctional Center in Fordland, which sent two bloodhounds and their handlers. Chris Page brought another tracking dog. Emergency management agencies were alerted in Howell and Douglas counties, and within minutes, dozens of first responders from volunteer fire departments in the area, including Dora, were on their way to the scene. Two Ozark County Sheriff’s deputies were also among those who responded. The Missouri State Highway Patrol dispatched a fixed-wing airplane equipped with infrared scanning equipment from Jefferson City, and MSHP Sgt. Charlie Hogue and other troopers also responded.
Dora resident Cass Martin, an investigator with the Howell County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office in West Plains, headed for the scene, and so did his brother, Greg Martin, CEO of Shield Solutions, a security training school. Greg brought along thermal binoculars.
An army of responders
According to Degase, within a couple of hours of Laurel Finch’s 911 call, between 150-200 responders arrived at the Finch farm and began their search. A command post was established on County Road 350, and an area of about 160 acres bordered by two highways and two county roads was identified as the search area. “We had walkers about 20 yards apart stretching three-fourths mile down that dirt road, looking and calling for the boy,” Degase said.
Meanwhile, Chad Finch had continued to search in the woods, but he returned to the family’s house shortly after Cass Martin and the first officers arrived, including Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy Jonathan Harley and the department’s trained canine, Amigo.
“Jonathan wanted Teller’s pillow as a scent for the dog,” Finch said. “And he asked me if Rawley could take him into the woods where he saw him last.”
Rawley and his dad headed back into the woods with Harley and Amigo, along with Martin and some of the other officers.
“Amigo took us all around. We crossed fences and then crossed them again. We went through the thickest trees. We kept on until the dog was just worn out,” Finch said.
“They brought in another dog. Chris Page was its handler. That dog led us to the pond in a pasture up on some vacant land to the north of us,” Finch said.
The grim thought that Teller might be in the pond made the officers’ spirits sink, but that’s what the dog seem to be indicating.
Finch walked around the pond, looking. “Then Cass walked around it. The lily pads on top of the pond had not been disturbed. I’ve got to be honest. Something told me Teller wasn’t in that pond. If I’d thought he was, I would have jumped in and found him, but something just told me he wasn’t there,” he said.
“The deputies were pretty sure, though. The dog led us back to the pond several times,” he said. “At that point, they didn’t want me around. They were contemplating searching the pond, and they didn’t want me there to watch that. So Cass and Rawley and I returned to the house.”
As he neared the house, he was amazed to see all the law enforcement and volunteer fire department personnel who had arrived along with volunteers from the community. “I walked down the driveway and saw probably a half-mile of cars lined up, and probably 50-75 people in the command center. And a plane was flying overhead,” he said.
Officers were organizing another sweep to head west toward AC Highway when Finch arrived at the command post, and he offered to show them where they could go in. As part of that sweep, three young volunteers, Zach Hughes, Elijah Donaldson and Scott Schmude, told Degase they wanted to go west along an area that hadn’t been searched yet. Degase, waiting for waders, nodded OK. With Finch leading the way, the searchers moved out over a wide area, heading back into the woods.
As they walked through the new search area, “those three young men – they were troopers; they’d been at it all night, and they walked and walked and walked and walked – they yelled his name, and the boy answered,” Degase said. “They found him sitting under a big cedar tree – which was probably why the plane’s infrared couldn’t see him.”
It was 2:46 a.m.
‘How thankful we are’
The men carried Teller to the command center, where Degase took his face in his hands and told him, “You don’t realize how happy I am to see you.”
Teller “smiled real big” in reply, Degase said.
“What were you doing?” the sheriff asked.
“Looking for mushrooms,” Teller replied.
“Did you see the plane flying over?” Degase asked.
“Yeah,” the boy said.
“They were looking for you,” Degase told him.
“Really?” Teller answered.
As they started toward the house, Teller spotted Amigo, one of the tracking dogs that had been looking for him. He wanted a photo with him, and Cass Martin happily obliged.
Martin described how the sheriff reacted when Teller was found. “When it comes to kids, his heart goes all out. He was not going to stop that night until he found that boy,” Martin said. “He had been all over that property. He had to have been exhausted. But he was hard-jogging, carrying that little boy in his arms a good fourth-mile up to the house.”
Chad Finch was “behind Black Jack Church in the woods when some people walked in and started yelling for me,” he said. “They were calling my name, and when I answered, they said they’d found him. We were just blown away. I was so relieved.”
When Finch got back home, “Teller was waiting for me,” he said. “He jumped into my arms. And the first thing he said was that the boys who carried him out had a green flashlight. And there was a plane flying overhead the whole time. He’s a silly little guy, but I’m proud of him. He wasn’t really scared or upset.”
Finch estimates that Teller was a mile or so away from their house. “I asked him, ‘What made you sit under the cedar tree?’ and he said, ‘My legs hurt.’ Curtis, our oldest son, always takes a ‘walkabout’ on Saturday mornings. Teller said he thought Curtis would find him in the morning when he did his walkabout,” Finch said.
For Degase, knowing the boy was safe was “unbelievable. I didn’t want to think the worst, but when the dogs went to that area, when they kept going to the pond …,” he said. “We’re all just very fortunate. This was a community that came together to do something great. We needed a good, positive story right now, and good happened.”
Chad Finch said he “would love to tell everyone, from the bottom of our hearts, how thankful we are for them, how appreciative. Please make sure you tell them how much we appreciate them all, how very thankful we are,” he said.