The Ontario police officer who found a toddler “alive and well” after the child was lost in the woods north of Kingston, Ont., for more than 72 hours is telling the nearly miraculous story of his recovery.
“That’s the best day I’ve had in the OPP in 25 years,” said provincial Const. Scott McNames, who found three-year-old Jude Leyton in the woods of South Frontenac, Ont., Wednesday just after 3 p.m. He was taken to Kingston General Hospital by Frontenac Paramedics Wednesday, and remains there in stable condition. The hospital says he’s expected to recover.
Katherine Leyton, Jude’s mother, posted her thanks to Twitter Thursday for all those who responded to Jude’s story, and to those who worked to find him.
“Jude was returned to us due to the unrelenting dedication and perseverance of the OPP’s search and rescue ground, air, and underwater teams and tireless effort of community volunteer searchers, firefighters and paramedics,” Katherine said.
She also posted pictures of Jude recovering in hospital.
The toddler went missing Sunday before noon. OPP believe he wandered away from his grandfather’s rural retreat property, which sits off of Canoe Lake Road.
Search and rescue efforts led by OPP’s East Region spanned days and nights. It included helicopters, drones, trained volunteers with OSARVA and water search and rescue teams. Despite these extensive efforts, time passed and Jude remained missing for three agonizing days.
Wednesday, around 3 p.m., more than three full days after the boy disappeared and with no sign of the child, OPP decided to send some of its ground search officers home and focus on water recovery. Still, some officers remained on the ground.
McNames, a long-time OPP officer with the Lanark County detachment, and three other emergency response team members were tasked with searching the bush on the other side of a beaver pond, about one kilometre away from where Jude was last seen.
“As I was tying a piece of flagging tape to a tree branch, I saw something blue up ahead and just off to the right — you don’t see a lot of blue in nature in the bush — and it stood out,” McNames said in an interview with Global News Thursday.
The officers realized it was Jude, sleeping near the pond.
“Then Jude, the little boy, raised his head and opened his eyes and (another officer) said: ‘and he’s alive,'” McNames said.
Not only did Jude survive, but McNames said he seemed in good condition.
“I just picked him up and he was really thirsty,” McNames said.
OPP are unsure how Jude did so well out in the sometimes below zero, rainy and blustery weather, but the answer might be his clothes.
“When I picked him up, he was warm, he wasn’t cold, he wasn’t shivering. He was wet, but the wool sweater might have saved him,” McNames said. “He’s a tough little guy.”
Although Jude remains in hospital Thursday, according to his grandfather Chris Fisher, the boy is doing “quite well.”
“It’s just amazing he survived. I don’t even know if I would have lived for that long,” Fisher said.
Fisher explained that Jude and his parents, who live in Ottawa, were staying at Fisher’s Bing Retreat property, something they do often on the weekends.
“This is Jude’s favourite place,” Fisher said.
As for how Jude disappeared Sunday, Fisher says it happened very fast.
“He just kind of got out of our sight for a few seconds and you know, we were looking all over for him,” Fisher said.
Sunday night was stormy and then Monday became quite cold, and Fisher said the family started to fear he might get hypothermia, especially as search efforts were coming up empty.
Nevertheless, Fisher had nothing but praise for the search teams scouring his property day and night.
“You can’t say enough for the Eastern Division of the OPP and the dive squad and just the whole rescue,” Fisher said
By Wednesday afternoon, the family was waiting for the worst, and then suddenly, OPP told them Jude was alive.
“We just burst into tears and everybody started hugging,” Fisher said.
Fisher said the family shared the emotional moment with OPP and search teams, who he knew had been desperately working towards this result.
“It’s just unbelievable how they persevered through the whole thing. And it must have been frustrating because they were going for hours and hours and days and days and and nothing. And then all of a sudden, you know, they found him,” he said.
It is a nearly unbelievable outcome that shocked the nearby community, with thousands reacting to a tweet sent out by OPP when he was found.
His search became a touchpoint for those in Kingston region, with several volunteers wanting to join in despite pleas from OPP to stay away.
Neighbours who had felt helpless during the search, which was restricted to trained volunteers and emergency response crews, said they would leave their doors open and their lights on at night, hoping that little Jude would wander up for shelter.
“He didn’t make it this far, but at least he was found and we’re all really happy about it,” said nearby neighbor Mike Wells, who said he got “choked up” when he heard that Jude was alive.
It’s not the outcome McNames was expecting either, who has been participating in searches for almost 20 years. But, he said, it was the result they were all working for.
“The longer time passes, the less likely you’re going to get a successful outcome, and we’re all aware of that, but we still keep doing what we’re doing. You never give up,” he said.
For the teams tasked with finding Jude, the terrain was what Fisher called “treacherous”– hilly in places, wet and swampy in others — with a lot of tree cover. OPP say some officers and rescue volunteers covered something like 50 kilometers over the three-day stretch searching for Jude.
But this time, against the odds, McNames said the searchers got lucky, and he, the luckiest, was able to hand Jude back to his parents.
“That was a nice moment,” he said.
McNames is a father of three himself. He said the family’s suffering during the search efforts spurred rescue teams on, despite coming up empty day after day.
“Almost all of us on the emergency response team are parents. We see Jude’s parents out — to see how upset they are in his family and everybody else there — everybody cares,” he said.
Finally, McNames said although he was the one to carry Jude out of the forest, the happy ending was the result of a massive team effort.
“It just happened to be me that was in that position. So no different than anybody else,” he finished.
Finally, Fisher extended his thanks for the mass outpouring of well-wishes the family has received over the last week. He says he is being contacted from people across the country, just pleased to hear some good news in an otherwise bleak year.
“The last year has been just horrendous for everybody, and this is something that should be uplifting to everybody across the country,” Fisher ended.
— With files from Global News’ Kraig Krause