Missing man found: The search for Herb Spencer
A 62-year-old man was missing for close to a week before someone found him while walking in the Hilltop Ski area Tuesday night.
According to the Anchorage Police Department, Herbert Spencer left his home around 6:45 a.m. on July 18 in the area of Lake Otis and Waldron Drive. His disappearance led to days of searching, all while his family couldn't get in touch with the detective assigned to the case.
During the search, sightings from concerned citizens led family members to believe Spencer may have stumbled upon homeless camps in Campbell Park and got confused.
"It's likely that he's found himself in a homeless camp and may even think he's a homeless person at this point," family friend and search volunteer Carrie DeBaron said. "Dementia has a way of twisting your mind and you don't know anymore. Maybe he doesn't know his family is searching for him. He's so close to home, home is right across the street."
DeBaron and her daughter Courtney Kearns led the volunteer search efforts — each putting in six to eight hours a day looking for Spencer.
They passed out and hung flyers with information. They checked park benches and walked the trails made in the forest by the homeless toward small camps and sleeping areas. DeBaron said they had a lot of help from homeless people in the search.
"A lot of times these people have parents with Alzheimer's and they're very sympathetic to our, to this cause. They want to find him, too," she said.
Spencer, a smoker, had been linked to a person bumming for cigarettes in the Campbell Park area, near Waldron Drive and Lake Otis Parkway and behind a local post office. Search teams volunteered their own time and dogs to find him and fanned out across the area.
"We don't want to startle anyone," Kearns said."No one wants to be startled, I wouldn't, so. From a bit of a distance saying hey, hello. We're just looking for someone."
Spencer wore a dementia tracker, which gave authorities some hints to his whereabouts, but it only worked when he was within a mile and a half.
A communication error
While the search for Spencer continued, his family had difficulties connecting with APD.
Julie Slack, Herb's step-daughter, expressed growing concern Tuesday morning. Her mother, Linda Spencer, said she couldn't bring herself to go out on the searches, afraid of what she might find.
"I'm beginning to get really disheartened," Linda said. "I'm not getting any answers. We've got lots of volunteers helping, I'm getting no answers from the police."
Slack and Spencer showed up at APD headquarters and asked to speak to the detective on their case twice Tuesday morning. Both times they were given numbers to call that went to voicemail.
Later in the day, they said the detective returned their call. An APD spokesperson said the detective assigned to the case was out of the office Friday through Sunday, but that the department had not stopped looking for Spencer.
"It sounds like there was a gap in communication for the family, a mistake we acknowledge, and we apologize for that," said communications director MJ Thim. "But we have never stopped looking for their loved one."
Thim said if residents are ever having difficulty getting something they need from APD, they can ask to speak to a supervisor. In cases of emergencies, he said call 911.
From lost to found
Spencer was found by "an alert citizen" who was walking in the Hilltop Ski area Tuesday night.
Officers with APD responded and found Spencer around 7:13 p.m. The family was notified and and APD sent an updated alert about 15 minutes later, thanking the public for their help in the search.
The hikers who found him called 311, the police non-emergency number, then gave GPS coordinates to officers and stayed with Spencer until help arrived.
"He is the hero of the story," said Dean Cox, assistant director for Anchorage Search Team, Inc. "He did what everyone should do.
Cox said had they not reported him, Spencer might not have lived through the night.
What frustrated search teams was when people would call in sightings, but wouldn't stay in the area.
"They'd go home and report it two or three hours later," Cox said. "If you see something, like someone needs help, call then [and] stay there. Help guide recovery and resources in."
Herb's family had begun to fear the worst just before the good news came in.
"It was just a giant sigh of relief," Slack said. "We were obviously starting to fear the worst after six days. Carrie just burst through the door and was like, 'We found him!' It was like wow, just the relief knowing he was safe and alive."
Soon after he was rescued, there was a face Herb recognized.
"My mom said she went over and kissed him and he said I love you and he knew exactly who she was and it was just a great moment," Slack said.
Herb is recovering in the hospital and Julie says the doctors say his vitals are good. The family will soon face some hard decision on what to do next.
Herb has cut off his tracking device twice. They may have to opt for in-home care or a care facility to ensure Herb doesn't wander off again.
For now, Herb's family is grateful to have him home.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include response from the family following Herb Spencer's rescue.
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