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'The walker' John Kelly's brother is his tired keeper

After a beating in September, John Kelly walks out of HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital on Jan. 2 with staffers. John now can’t always find his way home, his brother says.


After a beating in September, John Kelly walks out of HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital on Jan. 2 with staffers. John now can’t always find his way home, his brother says.

WEEKI WACHEE — George Kelly was bone-tired after another long day that followed a tough night. Like so many days before, and who knows how many more to come.

Wearily, he fried up some eggs and bacon for his brother, John, who likely had not eaten in nearly two days. Not that John would appreciate the aroma or sizzle. While George cooked, John relaxed in his bedroom, listening to his radio.

Just another day for both brothers.

One of them wanders, and sometimes get himself into life-threatening and attention-getting trouble. He has become a local legend.

The other quietly searches for him, sometimes for hours on end, sometimes in three counties. He has become exhausted, physically and emotionally.

"This is the story of my life for the last year and a half,'' George said on a recent afternoon about caring for his 50-year-old kid brother, known to many people in Hernando County as "the walker'' for his habit of roaming area highways.

"I spend my life looking for him.''

• • •

In hindsight, George said, he should have seen what was coming the morning of Feb. 18. Rather than having to drag John into the bathroom to take a shower, George said his brother was uncharacteristically enthusiastic about the task.

"He doesn't have a reputation for great personal hygiene,'' George said.

George had just learned that his son-in-law had died and he was trying to deal with that crisis. He had to leave the house early that morning, and he told John to stay put.

When George returned home about noon to bring his brother some lunch, John was gone.

"My neighbor told me I wasn't around the corner and he left,'' George said. "He capitalized on this opportunity.''

Wearing a blue-green golf-style shirt, light green pants, gray sneakers and a baseball cap of an unknown color, John had walked away.


• • •

John has always been a wanderer. As George tells it, John gets some idea in his head and he's out the door, walking. It won't make much sense to anyone else, but it helps John fulfill whatever whim has hit him.

On Thanksgiving Day last year, George recalled, John walked to a convenience store near their Weeki Wachee home to get a can of soda. He didn't like the store's prices, so he set off for another store — in Brooksville.

John walked nearly 30 miles to save a few pennies.

"That's just how he thinks,'' George said.

George, 59, and his wife quit their jobs in New York and moved with John to Hernando County about 10 years ago, after John had been hit by a car.

John sometimes walks down the middle of the street. He often walks at night, and before he got a vest with reflective tape, he would be an unavoidable target for drivers. He has been hit by cars half a dozen times in New York, and at least that many times since moving to Florida.

Keeping up with his brother has cost George work and put him in a difficult financial situation. A home inspector who used to travel all over working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, he now is reluctant to leave his brother home alone and sometimes takes John along on the few inspection jobs he can get.

John did maintenance work in his younger days until his walking and getting hit by cars caught up with him. His income now is a monthly disability check, which he awaits with great anticipation. Its arrival often means John is out on the road looking to spend the money.

George said that between John's meager payments and the down real estate market's limited calls for home inspections, "We're not really making it.''

George's wife died several years ago, and a third brother is not directly in the picture. That leaves George as the sole caregiver.

For a while after they moved to Florida, John had his own place.

But not anymore. Not since the attack.

• • •

Shortly after 11 p.m. on Sept. 19, 2007, John strode briskly along the north side of busy Cortez Boulevard, heading west, heading home.

Blissfully unaware, as always, of being watched, John never noticed the three young men in ski masks who were following him.

Like many others in Hernando County, the trio had noticed the odd, gray-haired man walking along the roadsides, always in a hurry. Unlike the amused drivers who over the years had nicknamed John "the walker,'' the young men had him in their sights.

As John neared the Withlacoochee River Electric Cooperative building near the U.S. 19 intersection, they pounced. They pounded him in the head with wooden sticks and stole his backpack, including the $100 John had just withdrawn from an ATM.

They left him in a ditch along the road, bleeding and near death.

John staggered to a nearby Hernando County Fire Rescue station with head wounds so severe that a helicopter was called to fly him to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.

Deputies later arrested Michael Raymond Vann, 23, and Jamie Lynn Tyson, 17. Both have been charged with attempted murder and armed robbery.

Another 17-year-old, Anthony Steven Hawkins, was arrested on a conspiracy charge. He cut a deal with prosecutors and is expected to testify in the trials of Tyson and Vann in April in Lake County.

The judge moved the trials out of Hernando County because of the intense publicity surrounding the case. So many in the community have embraced John after his ordeal that picking an impartial jury here proved to be nearly impossible.

• • •

When John emerged from his hospital stay and extended care at a local rehab center, nearly four months after the attack, the press was waiting.

Television and still cameras captured the moment, a somewhat bewildered John moving under his own power. Once again, the walker was walking.

Behind John, blocked by the care center workers and in John's shadow, stood George. He was carrying various items for his brother. He was all but invisible.

Strangers and well-wishers, cheered by John's recovery from the brutal beating, urged John to keep on stepping.

George winced. He knew what that meant.

John would walk for hours; George would chase for days.

• • •

John has always been mentally challenged, but the savage beating left him with the onset of dementia, George said. John wanders as he always has, but now he can't always find his way home.

"I've kept him under fairly close watch. He just doesn't make rational decisions. He never did. ... Now his decisionmaking is even worse,'' he said.

As George set out once more to track down his brother on Feb. 19, he talked about his fears that John would end up beaten again, or even dead.

He was especially worried this time because he had not gotten any "John sightings,'' calls from people who have seen his brother out and about, especially at night.

John had not worn his reflective vest, which means that he would have been hard to see at night. And he had been gone for nearly 24 hours.

The Hernando County Sheriff's Office sent out a media bulletin and automated phone calls to hundreds of homes and businesses asking people to be on the lookout for John Kelly.

One of those residents spotted John near a county sewage treatment plant on Osowaw Boulevard and called authorities. Deputies found John toting a case of Ensure, a nutritional supplement drink. He told George he had been to Crystal River, nearly 30 miles north in Citrus County.

George had little reason to doubt him. He also marveled at how little John was aware of the flap he had caused.

"I love him to death. He's my brother,'' George said. "But this has got to change. It's no good for him, and it's no good for me.''

George said he has tried, without success, to place John in some sort of group home or other facility that can offer appropriate care. Until this latest incident, no one would have believed that John was a danger to himself. George is hoping that now, because of the law enforcement involvement, help will come.

"We just can't go on like this,'' George said.

Moments before he got the call that John had been found, he said he knew how he would react when he got his brother home. He would read him the riot act.

And then?

"I'll tuck him into bed,'' he said.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at or (352) 848-1434.

Fast facts

For caregivers of wanderers

The Alzheimers Association has a series of suggestions on how caregivers can deal with loved ones who wander. Here are some of them:

• Find out when the wandering events happen and try to keep the person active and engaged in something at those times of day.

• Reduce the amount of fluids given in the hours before bedtime to keep the person from getting up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom.

• Limit daytime naps.

• Place warning bells on escape routes.

• Be aware that some medications can cause restlessness.

• When a person tries to wander, don't try to talk him out of it. Rather, ask what is making him restless and try to eliminate that trigger.

• Add special locks to the doors and provide supervision when those locks are in use.

For more suggestions, visit

'The walker' John Kelly's brother is his tired keeper 02/28/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 28, 2009 1:30pm]
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