ODESSA — It was the nightmare Mary and John Parrish had long feared.
As parents of five adopted children with special needs, one of whom is an infant, the couple check on their children every two hours throughout the night.
About 2 a.m. Wednesday, they discovered that their oldest, Hallden, a 16-year-old boy with autism, was gone.
They panicked, but figured they were ready for this moment.
Hallden had wandered from home before. So his parents bought their son a special bracelet two months ago that transmits a radio signal every second and helps authorities find missing people. Usually they can be found in about 30 minutes, said Hillsborough Sgt. Jeff Massaro.
Not Tuesday. Parrish was completely off the radar.
He had disabled the house alarm, sneaked around special door and window locks, and got away with both keys to the family's 2004 Suzuki Aerio, including one his mom keeps near her bed.
"We were mortified when we realized the car was gone," said Mrs. Parrish, 54.
Hallden was not licensed to drive and had never been behind the wheel. She feared the worst, that perhaps he had driven into a lake.
Instead, he went straight to Citrus Park Town Center, about three miles away. Security guards watched him for a couple of hours. Parrish told them he was waiting for the mall to open. They left him alone until he smashed his car into a tree in the mall parking lot, deploying both air bags.
Then they called deputies, who found him in the Aerio outside Dick's Sporting Goods. The rubber bracelet, which threads through the plastic transmitter, was still around his wrist. The transmitter was gone. No one knows where it went or how it came off. That's a concern, Massaro said. "This is the first experience like this that we've had," he said.
Parrish is the second Central Florida child with an autism-related disorder to wander from home recently. Nadia Bloom, an 11-year-old Winter Springs girl with Asperger's syndrome, was found in a swamp Tuesday after getting lost Friday.
She did not have the kind of tracking device Hallden has.
The Project Lifesaver program is meant for people with Alzheimer's disease, dementia, Down syndrome and autism. Six have signed up in Hillsborough County, including Parrish. All are males: three have Alzheimer's, two have autism and one has dementia.
Pinellas has 25 people in the program, including an autistic teen who frequently smashes the pins out of his transmitter, said Pinellas Sgt. Stacey Barrentine. Young children with autism are more likely to "bang it against things," he said.
Sheriff's volunteers replace the battery every 45 days. Parrish and her husband, 67, check the battery every day. "That's our safety net," she said.
Although the transmitter didn't work, Hallden returned home, his lip bloody, the car damaged, his shoes missing. But he came home, and his mom is glad he's alive.
But why did he leave?
Hallden had been disobedient that night, so Mrs. Parrish took away her son's iPod Touch.
When he got home, Hallden told her he left because "he wanted to go shopping and look for another iPod Touch."