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Sheriff: Autistic 5-year-old boy drowned in lake at Plant City farmers market

PLANT CITY — A 5-year-old severely autistic Polk County boy wandered away from his father at a farmers market Sunday and drowned in a nearby pond, authorities said.

Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee said the boy, Michael Bolden, probably drowned shortly after arriving at the Plant City Farm & Flea Market at 708 W Sam Allen Road about 9 a.m. with his father and a family friend.

The father searched for his son for 45 minutes to an hour before calling 911 about 10 a.m., the Sheriff's Office said. The boy's body was found about 3 p.m. by divers.

"It appears that it is probably an accident and the child was not being properly supervised," said Gee, who said investigators have not decided whether the incident rises to the level where child neglect charges would be filed. "It's so important that parents keep track of their children. They will be attracted to swimming pools and water."

The Sheriff's Office has not yet released the names of the boy's parents. Gee said the father was elderly and that the family lives in Waverly, a small agricultural community in eastern Polk.

Gee said the market is open as a flea market during the week and a farmers market on Sundays. Customers include restaurants stocking up on fresh produce, he said.

About 400 people were at the market when the boy vanished, Gee said. The Sheriff's Office launched a search at 10 a.m. that included a helicopter that flew over the pond. But the pond's water was too murky to see anything clearly under its surface, so divers standing three abreast had to feel their way, Gee said. Michael's body was found near the edge of the pond.

"They literally discovered the child by just feeling their way through the murky water," the sheriff said.

No witnesses saw the boy near the water. And the father, Gee said, lost track of his son shortly after arriving, so the assumption is that he drowned close to 9 a.m. The pond is only a short distance from the area of the market where produce is sold, the sheriff said.

The boy's autism is so severe that he could only communicate through baby talk, deputies said. Gee said deputies thought it possible Michael might have entered a car at the market and then been driven off without the driver even knowing he was in the back seat. But the water was always the primary focus of searchers.

"Our first assumption was the water," Gee said. "And unfortunately, that proved to be true."

The market is about a quarter mile east of the intersection of Sam Allen and State Road 39. The market opened in 1978 and is one of the largest independent farmers markets in the area.

The market's website says that 90 percent of the produce sold there is bought by restaurants, grocery stores and roadside fruit and vegetable dealers.

Donna Gardner, who lives near the market, said before Michael was found dead that tiny ponds dot the area and local woods, making for a dangerous landscape.

"I'm afraid he's more than wandered off," she said. "That's what's scary."

Staff writer Caitlin Johnston and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact William R. Levesque at levesque@tampabay.com.

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