BRANDON — About an hour after deputies placed a tracking device used to locate missing people on Christopher Simmons, the dementia patient disappeared.
Deputies had visited Simmons, 68, at his home on Tarah Trace Drive just before 5 p.m. Tuesday to activate his SafetyNet device, a small transmitter that helps authorities find people who have a tendency of wandering away.
At 6 p.m., Simmons walked off from his house and didn't return. His family reported him missing, and deputies searched his home about 7:30 p.m. Then they activated the LoJack SafetyNet equipment at 8 p.m.
Patrol cars and a helicopter searched the area for a signal. That's when a deputy driving in a patrol car detected one. He circled around the River at Tampa Bay Church at 3738 River International Drive, about 1.5 miles from Simmons' home.
The signal didn't fade.
Moments later, other deputies arrived and asked church staff to help search. They found Simmons seated in the audience during a live broadcast of a service.
A church member approached Simmons and asked him to step out for moment. Once outside, he was met by deputies.
Among them was Sgt. Jeff Massaro, who had been at Simmons' house hours earlier to activate the SafetyNet device.
By 10 p.m., Simmons was home.
"When you look at the fact that we found him inside a building a mile and a half away, that's huge," Massaro said.
Simmons had previously been reported missing in May and August, Massaro said.
Those enrolled in the SafetyNet program wear a small transmitter around a wrist or ankle that emits a signal authorities can use to locate them if reported missing.
The Sheriff's Office partnered with SafetyNet, owned by LoJack, in September 2009. Tampa police also signed up.
In Hillsborough, about 35 people are enrolled for SafetyNet, Massaro said.
Families interested in the program can call LoJack and sign up for the program, which costs $99 to enroll and $30 a month. The equipment is then shipped to the Sheriff's Office, which makes an appointment to meet the family and activate the device.
Other missing Hillsborough residents have been found because of SafetyNet, including a 75-year-old man with Alzheimer's located 35 minutes after leaving home in October 2010.
"This just makes all the difference in the world," Massaro said.
Laura C. Morel can be reached at (727) 893-8713, or [email protected]