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Happy ending to three-hour search for missing woman

Community rallies to find 88-year-old mom who wandered off in the rain
by:  Sally Harmon took this photo of her mother, Elsie Harmon, the day the 88-year-old woman disappeared in West Linn.

An 88-year-old woman who disappeared Monday evening from an adult care home in West Linn was found safe, although a bit cold and wet, after a community-wide search.

Elsie Harmon wandered away from a care facility in the 2700 block of Lancaster Street, near Parker Road, Monday at roughly 6 or 6:30 p.m.

Her daughter, Lake Oswego resident Sally Harmon, said her mother has Alzheimer's disease, but she hadn't wandered off like this before. She moved to Oregon from the Washington, D.C., area after her husband passed away.

'She was looking for my dad,' who died about a year ago, Sally Harmon said.

And she apparently walked quite a ways in her lightweight Nike Mary Jane shoes: through 3-foot-tall grass in a large field, across West Linn's signature hills and in multiple downpours.

No one knows exactly what her route was, but Elsie Harmon ended up about five blocks away from where she started, behind a home on White Salmon Court.

The search for Harmon lasted about three hours and drew support from the entire city.

Sally Harmon was driving in Southwest Portland when she found out her mother was missing. She turned around and headed to West Linn to go door-to-door near the adult care home, located in the Sunset neighborhood.

'We were fighting against time,' Harmon said.

She was quickly joined by a woman named Deb who was out walking her dog. A car full of teenagers checked in with her multiple times during the search.

And the couple who finally found her missing mom not only invited the 88-year-old inside their daughter said.

'She's such a marvelous, sweet woman,' Sally Harmon said. 'There she was, shivering and muddy and slightly scraped up, freezing cold and sopping wet. … When the woman of the house asked her to sit down, my mom didn't want to sit. She said, 'No, I'm wet. I don't want to mess up the furniture.''

Sally Harmon expressed gratitude to the entire community.

'The police were wonderful, and the people of West Linn completely rallied,' Harmon said. 'With all my heart, I have never been so moved by a community. People everywhere were looking for her.'

And she doesn't harbor any ill feelings toward the care facility. The people who run the home were also working hard to find her mom.

'These things happen,' Harmon said. 'My mother is very quick, and she can walk for miles.'

Police Sgt. Neil Hennelly said it helped searchers to have a cell phone photo taken of the missing woman that day, when she was wearing the same clothes she had on when she disappeared.

Police shared the picture with Troy Bowers, president of the Sunset Neighborhood Association, who forwarded a copy to his wife; it turned out she had spotted the missing woman walking east on Lancaster toward Cornwall earlier that evening.

Thanks to a change in shift, the search had not only the three police units from the day crew to rely on, but also three more cars as officers showed up for the night shift. Police issued an alert using the county's reverse 9-1-1 system, sending an automated message about Harmon to all landlines and registered cell phones within a half-mile radius of the Lancaster care home.

Lake Oswego Police Officer Josh Day brought a search dog to help, and passersby also pitched in, looking at the woman's photograph and then heading to areas police hadn't fully covered.

It was just around the time Clackamas County's search and rescue team was setting up and coordinating volunteers that Harmon was found lost in a grassy area next to someone's house. The homeowner was pulling into his driveway when he noticed her standing outside in the dark.

With aging family members of his own suffering from issues like dementia, Hennelly said he empathized with the Harmons and what they were going through.

'These kinds of calls tear at your heart,' he said. 'Luckily we were able to rally a lot of resources.'

These sorts of cases aren't uncommon he said, and they're different from instances when children wander off. Often, adults have clues to where their children might have headed.

'When folks have Alzheimer's or dementia, those things don't always come into play,' Hennelly said. 'It's harder to track.

'Often these things don't turn out so well; we feel very lucky to have found her so quickly and to find her in such great shape.'