BROOKSVILLE, Fla. — After a grueling evening, night and morning of searching, the search for a missing 2-year-old Florida boy is over. Joshua "JJ" Rowland has been found safe, according to the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.
"I got to admit, I'm a little emotional because I thought, surely, we were going to have bad news," Sheriff Al Nienhuis said. "It is a good day in Hernando County. Just a very good day."
Rowland had been at the center of a statewide Missing Child Alert after he was reported missing around noon Thursday from his north Brooksville home by his mother. By 6 p.m. Thursday, the statewide Missing Child Alert was activated and a full-blown search was underway.
"When a two-year-old is missing, everyone comes out [to search]," the sheriff said during a Friday morning news conference.
Credit: 10 Tampa Bay
A map showing where Joshua "JJ" Rowland was reported missing Thursday and the approximate area where he was found Friday morning.
Nienhuis said Rowland was found by volunteers south of Parrott Middle School and east of Cobb Road. Roy Link, who said he was a former Marine and retired Hernando County parks department employee, was the man who found Rowland and carried him to safety.
Link said he crossed a field and came up to some woods, listening intently during his search for the toddler. He said he heard "whimpering" and just knew it had to be Rowland.
"I listened good and I heard like a whimpering kind of noise and at that point, I was like, there's no kids here, it's gotta be JJ," Link said. "And sure enough, I went in the woods, [about] 100 feet from where I was at.
"I think he was in some stickers, but he was happy to see me. He put his arms, his hands up...he was real happy and he wanted mom. He started hollering for mom."
The toddler appears to be doing fine, the sheriff said, but he is still being taken to the hospital by his parents out of an abundance of caution.
He added Rowland was "very resourceful" to get that far in that dense of woods. "It is very surprising that he made it that far in bare feet and pajamas."
Nienhuis earlier stated there were a lot of volunteers, and between 75-100 law enforcement officers joined to search the area — one that is full of high grass, bushes, thick woods, ponds and other bodies of water.
Ultimately, More than 500 volunteers ended up assisting in the search — so many that at 10 a.m. Friday, the sheriff's office said no more volunteers were necessary.
To help streamline the search, volunteers were asked to download the app "Map My Tracks" to record their paths and then email that to email@example.com.
Volunteers were also asked to distribute flyers of Rowland to local businesses to help widen awareness about the missing child.
It's believed the toddler left home Thursday in the area of Cheever and Yontz roads while the parent was asleep, according to the sheriff's office.
During a news conference Thursday evening, Nienhuis explained that Rowland was reported missing just before noon. A witness reportedly saw the toddler playing with dogs in his front yard at around 10:40 a.m.
Nienhuis says a relative dropped off the toddler, who was sleeping at the time, at the house around 9:45 a.m. His caregiver was still sleeping at the time, too.
When Rowland's mother woke up from a nap, he was already gone.
Nienhuis said Rowland's family has been cooperative with the search and investigation. The boy's parents were not part of the search, he added, and instead were staying at a command center where they remained in constant contact with law enforcement.
Since the search began, authorities have used various techniques to assist — including drones and helicopters equipped with infrared tech. A dive team, K-9 and mounted units were also called to the scene starting Friday morning.
Search for missing Florida toddler enters second day