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Searching for a man long gone

Leo Wood, an Alzheimer's patient missing for a week, isn't the man he once was, making the search so much harder.

By VANESSA DE LA TORRE
Published August 22, 2006


CLEARWATER - Branches cracked underneath Betty Aki's sneakers as she stepped into thickets that poked her skin. There were wasps, a butterfly and a black snake.

It was Monday, another day in the search for her father. Aki is 67 and has arthritis. She has spent hours looking for Leo Wood in places that sometimes have broken bottles. On this afternoon, she searched alongside railroad tracks.

"He's an Alzheimer's patient. He's 90 years old. He's the one that's missing," Aki told someone who called her cell phone.

Sometime on the evening of Aug. 15, Wood shuffled away from the Highland Pines Nursing Home in Clearwater. Around his ankle was a monitor that is supposed to beep loudly whenever he left the building. Highland Pines administrators say they are investigating what happened, if no one heard the alarm.

It's been days now. Wood has not been found. His family is hoping for at least a body.

Many people have searched - church volunteers, the homeless, law enforcement, loved ones. Great-granddaughters have looked under bushes.

Wood was last seen walking east on Budleigh Street, just east of the nursing home, about 10:30 p.m. Aug. 15. He was wearing a white-collared shirt and gray sweatpants. Saturday night, bloodhounds picked up his trace behind an Albertson's on Missouri Avenue, about a mile and a half from the nursing home. The trace ended there, family members said.

Monday afternoon, divers from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office were going to start searching the large ponds the city recently created on Court Street. But then came the thunder and downpour, delaying the divers until today.

Hoping for closure, Wood's family did their own search. It meant trying to imagine the mind of a man stricken with Alzheimer's disease since 1989. And it meant envisioning the movements of a former master carpenter, and World War II veteran who had lost his sense of balance.

Family members are stunned that he could travel more than a mile. He can only shuffle now. He can barely talk. He can no longer read or write. He can't swallow liquids. He has the mind of a 4-year-old because of the disease.

"I really think he's looking for his home," Aki said.

This hunch took Aki and other family members to a stretch of railroad tracks in Clearwater. Because by home, she meant her father's childhood house in a fishing village on Lake Erie. Coal cars often rumbled past on the railroad tracks in front of the house.

Maybe he thought he was a child again. Or maybe he walked toward a lake, or pond, loved ones speculated.

Wood used to be such a good swimmer, his family could see only a pinpoint of his head as he swam farther and farther away from them.

On Monday, Aki and others searched near a pond near the tracks. Walking near a lake, Mary Wood Lowery, a 46-year-old granddaughter of the missing man, batted at marsh plants with her umbrella.

Lowery says she was a nursing assistant at hospitals and nursing homes for 30 years. She often had to chase after patients who went AWOL.

"This is the first time I've heard of them being gone for so long," she said of her grandfather.

Aki searched near a sign warning of alligators. She says she has trouble sleeping but no nightmares.

"I just see his face when I close my eyes," she said. "But that's just natural. That's your mind doing tricks on you."

Overhead, the clouds had grown thicker, grayer. Soon it started sprinkling. A heavy downpour followed. At the lake off Court Street, the sheriff's divers would have to call off the search.