SPRING LAKE — The 81-year-old man was missing from his home again, and between his dementia, the darkness of the morning and the nearby thicket of trees, trouble seemed inevitable.
Harvey Earl Normington had been missing for about four hours Saturday when neighbor Kathleen Reid, a sergeant with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office, got the call around 8 a.m.
Reid and her husband, Ray Reid, a retired law enforcement officer, were waiting to search with the rest of the deputies when they decided to take off on their horses.
"I mean, we're still neighbors," Reid said. "We could still go out and look for him."
The Reids didn't go too far before they found Normington in a 5-feet-deep sinkhole, only a few blocks away from his home in the Hickory Hill area of southeast Hernando. The elderly man was confused, tired and a little shaken but not much worse for wear. In the end, it was the fruition of the best-case scenario.
The swiftness of the response was greatly aided by the Reids' horses, Gunner and Lightning, who play pivotal roles in the agency's fledgling mounted patrol unit. So far the 12-member unit, which includes nine civilians, has been dispatched mostly for parking-lot patrols and search-and-rescue missions like the one that found Normington.
"They can cover a lot of ground and go through brush, where it's difficult if not impossible for humans to go through and cover that much ground," Sgt. Donna Black, spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office and trainer for the unit, said Tuesday. "With these horses, we're able to traverse that sort of terrain."
On Saturday morning, Gunner and Lightning proved particularly resourceful in rolling pastures and dense brush of live oaks and pines in the Hickory Hill area.
Normington had wandered out of his home on Shirley Drive sometime around 4 a.m., his 76-year-old brother and 83-year-old sister told deputies. That didn't come as much of a surprise to the Reids, who had returned the man home after he had disappeared several other times.
"We've found him before," Ray Reid said. "We know what the situation is."
After taking a call from the Sheriff's Office about the man's disappearance, the Reids quickly began searching the area on horseback. The agency had already sent out several deputies and a helicopter to find Normington.
It didn't take long before the Reids came upon the sinkhole, only about a 10-minute walk from Normington's home. Normington was on his knees in about 2 feet of water, clearly disoriented and missing a shoe — he was unable to tell Sgt. Reid how long he'd been in the hole or where he lived.
"He was too weak to get out," Reid said. "We were worried at first that maybe he had drowned in the water. We were tickled to death that he was found well."
Normington was taken to Brooksville Regional Hospital for further examination. He remained in the hospital as of Tuesday for further observation, said his brother Robert Normington.
"He's doing fine," Robert Normington said. He also expressed his appreciation for his neighbors and the Sheriff's Office.
On Tuesday, Black pointed to Gunner, a 12-year-old Quarter Horse, and Lightning, a 6-year-old Spotted Saddle horse, as prime examples of the mounted patrol unit's potential. The Sheriff's Office plans to expand the program in the near future to include neighborhood patrols.
"Horses are just invaluable when it comes to circumstances such as this one," Black said. "They're good tools and they're trained to find things in their environment."
Joel Anderson can be reached at email@example.com or 754-6120.