Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

With temperatures dropping and rain in the forecast, the weather last Friday posed a danger to one Macon County man who was reported missing Friday afternoon. Wesley Gillette, 71 left this residence on Jacobs Branch around 2 p.m. on Friday and didn’t return. Macon County dispatch was notified just before 5 p.m., with concerned family members requesting assistance because Gillette suffered from mild dementia.

“Macon County Sheriff’s Office and the Franklin Fire Department responded initially and along with friends and neighbors, conducted a hasty search in the immediate area around the house which included the use of a MCSO K9,” said Macon County 911 Director Todd Seagle. “The K9 was able to track the gentleman for about 500 feet east of the house through a wooded area, but due to other searchers that had previously been through the area, the K9 lost the trail.”

Macon County Emergency Management responded and set up communications and a command post near the end of Jacobs Branch Road.  Franklin Fire Department requested assistance for manpower and an ATV team from Cowee Fire Department and also requested MAMA to fly the area just before dark in an attempt to locate the individual.  Emergency Management made a request to the state emergency management office for the North Carolina State Highway Patrol (NCSHP) helicopter with FLIR (Forward Looking Infrared camera) located in Salisbury, NC.  Foot teams and the ATV team began an expanded search of the area.  The ATV team with members from Franklin and Cowee searched along a U.S. Forest Service road south of the residence calling out for the individual.

At approximately 8:10 p.m., a member of the Franklin Fire Department radioed back to the command post advising he had made verbal contact with someone and reported his position to be about three quarters of mile to a mile from the command post on the Forest Service road.  He was able to locate the individual  about 150-200 yards above the road on the ridge and confirm that this was the person reported missing.

The ATV team was able to help Gillette to the road and then transport him to the command post where he was met by Macon County EMS.  After being checked out by the paramedics and warmed up in the ambulance, he was released and returned home with his wife.  He told his rescuers that he had gone for a walk in the woods and had gotten turned around but was trying to find his way home.

The NCSHP helicopter had already left Salisbury and was nearly to Asheville on its way to assist but was cancelled after the individual was located.  The MAMA helicopter, which had to divert to an emergency call in Jackson County, returned and also offered to resume searching using night vision technology.

“As night set in and the temperature started to fall, it was imperative that we locate this gentleman quickly,” said Seagle. “Due to the well-trained professionals from every agency involved, we were able to accomplish that goal and provide a successful outcome for this family.”

Macon County Sheriff Robert Holland noted that for situations such as the one that occurred Friday, the sheriff’s office offers Project Lifesaver, a free program the helps monitor elderly individuals or residents with developmental disabilities.

Project Lifesaver is a search and rescue, rapid recovery program that targets persons enrolled in the program that have the tendency to wander due to Alzheimer’s, Autism, Dementia, Down-Syndrome, age related macular degeneration (ARMD) and other conditions or disorders.

Project Lifesaver deploys radio technology to locate, rescue and return to home missing persons enrolled in the program. Each client enrolled in the Project Lifesaver Program wears a personalized wristband transmitter that emits a tracking radio signal 24 hours a day / seven days a week. Each wristband has a separate and unique radio frequency.

The Macon County Sheriff’s Office has members that have been trained and certified as instructors and operators with six additional officers trained in the operation of the search and rescue radio equipment in the event a client wanders and the Sheriff’s Office is alerted. Training was provided by designated Project Lifesaver trainers.

The Sheriff’s Office has two Project Lifesaver receivers that have the capability of being used by hand during a foot search as well as from a patrol vehicle’s mounted antenna in the event a vehicle search of a wider area is required. The highest priority is to make a quick and safe recovery of an enrolled wanderer in the shortest time possible. In addition, this program can reduce the time and cost of a traditional search from hours to minutes. Nationally, the average recovery of clients enrolled in this program is about 30 minutes.

The Macon County Sheriff’s Office is now accepting applications from interested caregivers or families of loved ones that they may want to enroll into this program. There are no costs to the family. The entire program is nonprofit. If you would like to learn more about this program or make a donation, call the Macon County Sheriff’s Office at (828) 349-2104. A qualified Project Lifesaver member of the Sheriff’s Office will either be available to answer your call or will re-contact you if a return number is provided.