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Transmitter on lost man aids search

Published Aug. 24, 2005

The Sheriff's Office has gotten its first real test of a radio tracking system for finding dementia sufferers who have wandered from home.

Deputies on Tuesday tracked a mentally impaired man who was wearing one of the system's transmitting bracelets. He was found in less than an hour, a couple of miles from where he had started.

Sheriff's officials say it was a small win for the new tracking program, though in the end, the transmitter was not directly responsible for the man's rescue.

Donald Walkowiak, 62, was reported missing at 10:23 a.m. from the Gallo House assisted living center on Star Trail. Caregivers there said they thought he had been gone for about two hours.

When sheriff's officials got the call, they sent a helicopter over the area. Inside, a deputy held a locating device resembling a small rooftop television antenna.

Within minutes, the deputy picked up the signal, then lost it. It had come from somewhere just east of State Road 52 and Little Road.

The deputy radioed the location to patrol deputies below, who began to search the area. But it wasn't those deputies who found Walkowiak. It was Thomas Hendricksen, a detective in the sheriff's Warrants Unit, who just happened to be driving by.

Hendricksen had been listening to the search over his radio as he drove east on State Road 52 to work on an unrelated case. He saw the white-haired man on the sidewalk near Hicks Road. He seemed unsteady on his feet.

"Are you Don?" Hendricksen asked after he pulled over.

Walkowiak said he was.

"Are you lost?"

"Yeah. Can you take me back home?"

Walkowiak is one of 10 patients in the county who wears one of the tracking bracelets. Project Lifesaver was started in Virginia in 1999 and has been used across the country. The Sheriff's Office began participating in March.

Costs for individuals to participate are about $390 for the first year. That includes a transmitter, a battery tester and a year's supply of batteries. Sheriff's officials have sought sponsors for patients who can't afford the program.

For more information, call the sheriff's Crime Prevention Unit at (727) 834-3376.

Deputy Jim Campbell returns Donald Walkowiak, 62, to the Gallo House assisted living facility in Port Richey on Tuesday after he wandered off. "He said he was tired and thirsty when we found him," Campbell said.