NORCROSS, Ga. – One family is thankful beyond measure for the community’s efforts and keen eyes, which led to a lost grandmother’s return after going missing on Thanksgiving Eve.
“My family and I would like to first thank God. We know my grandma would not have made it home safely had it not been for some outside help,” Velma Harrison’s 21-year-old grandson, Ethan Monteagudo, said.
Everyone, including the detective on her case, is grateful that she was found alive and well—albeit, a little confused—after driving alone for nearly 36 hours and 400 miles across Georgia, traveling as far as LaGrange, Ga.
“You can have Thanksgiving any day of the year. [This is] something to be even more thankful for,” Dunwoody Police Lt. Fidel Espinoza said of finding the 79-year-old, nearly 75 miles from home, just after Thanksgiving night came to a close.
To the tremendous relief of her family, Harrison was spotted in Rome, Ga., just after midnight, by a good Samaritan who recognized her car and license plate from the Mattie’s Call alert which blasted and shared by the thousands on social media.
“I can think of a number of incidents where Facebook and social media has helped us find people, so this is not the first time, and not only social media, [but also] great partnerships with our local media is key,” Espinoza said.
“We appreciate the role local communities played as caregivers and watchdogs," Ethan said. "The endless love and support received from family and friends was truly great, but the concern coming from those we don’t even know is what’s truly remarkable about the whole situation.”
Harrison left her Village Oaks Drive in Dunwoody, Ga., Wednesday, Nov. 22, sometime after 4 p.m. She was en route, with the Thanksgiving Day turkey and an overnight bag, to her daughter’s Peachtree Corners home, nearby Norcross. They were going to get the holiday feast ready for Thursday’s family dinner.
But she never arrived for the sleepover.
Her daughter, Tracie Monteagudo’s house is a few miles from Harrison’s home, and Espinoza said, it should have taken her 10-15 minutes to drive the short distance. So, when she didn’t show by 9:30 p.m., her family grew increasingly concerned and reached out to the Dunwoody Police Department.
Over the next two days, she was spotted or traced back to three Georgia gas stations.
The last time Monteagudo had talked to her mom was Wednesday at 4 p.m. Before coming over, Harrison was supposed to stop by the grocery store for a few last-minute items for their “cook prep slumber party.”
When Monteagudo got off work at 7 p.m., she expected to find her mom already at her house.
Her daughter called police to report her missing, and a Mattie's Call was activated—triggering all Georgia law enforcement to be aware of her disappearance and be on the lookout for her.
The grandmother was seen at a Pilot Gas Station in LaGrange, Ga., on Wednesday night at about 10:30 p.m.—nearly 80 miles away—where she filled her gas tank with $20 from her Discover card, with the help of an attendant.
She was wearing a black, long-sleeved shirt, pants and a necklace, and was driving a white, four-door, 2002 Acura 3.2TL sedan, with the Georgia tag: PCX1377.
On Wednesday night, Espinoza made a plea on Facebook Live in an effort to locate Harrison.
“We’re certain now that she has become disoriented,” Espinoza said. “Ms. Harrison also suffers from dementia.”
At that point, however, police did not know her direction of travel.
Following the detective's pleas to the public on social media, her credit card was used again on Thanksgiving Day, at the Chamblee QT gas station for $30.
At approximately 2 p.m., her credit card was used at the Texaco near Piedmont Hospital, off Peachtree Road in Buckhead.
Tracie told 11Alive that her mom lived independently and that she has never worried about her safety or wellbeing before. Her mom, she said, is not only independent, but determined.
She left her cell phone at home and is probably driving around thinking, “I know I can figure this out... I got this,” Tracie said.
On Thursday, Nov. 23, just after midnight, Ethan, received an unexpected call from his mom sharing the urgent news with him. She was nervous, he said, having not heard from his grandma in hours.
“For her to be gone this long and not having called any of us, especially on a day like today, and she’s just such a family-oriented person—it’s definitely a surprise that she hasn’t at least contacted somebody to let us know what’s going on or where she might be,” he said.
The University of Georgia-Athens student drove straight home, where he and his family made nearly 100 flyers. Together, they went back to her last known locations.
“We kind of backtracked from 285 and headed towards Peachtree Industrial heading towards her house,” he said. “I just went anywhere that was open, handed out flyers, asked if anyone had seen her, put up flyers in windows, wherever I can find places to do it,” Ethan said.
But his family held out hope since police were tracking the activity from her credit card and was still active.
At approximately 12:05 a.m., on Friday, Nov. 24, Harrison’s car was spotted in Rome, Ga., and she was found unharmed.
A woman in her late-20s recognized Harrison’s car and the license plate from the Mattie's Call and followed the elderly woman, and called Rome Police. With the police on the phone, she followed Harrison until she saw the blue lights pulling Harrison over.
Ethan said that at first his grandma was frustrated with police because she knew she wasn’t doing anything wrong. Following her traffic stop, her family picked her up in Rome at 3 a.m.
The family knows that Harrison stopped for gas and to use the restroom, but they are not sure if she stopped to sleep or eat.
But, when Ethan talked to her on the phone after she was found, he said, her sense of humor had not disappeared.
He said she joked, “Oh, if I would have been a college student, the police would have been a lot more rough [sic] on me, but they were nice to me because I was a sweet old lady.”
Espinoza told 11Alive he had just settled in for the night when he got the news.
“It was great! I was in bed. I had just laid down after a long day’s work and I got a phone call saying, ‘We got her,’” he said.
“It’s a great emotion. Anytime someone is found and we are able to be a part of that, it’s huge for us. It’s one of those moments as a police officer that makes you feel good about doing what you do and being able to have a part of that,” Espinoza said. “It’s always good for everybody. It was a big sigh of relief across the department that she was located.”
He credits the community for their help—sharing and commenting and keeping her story active.
“I’m sure given the comments we saw on social media a lot of people were relieved and a lot of people were praying for Mrs. Harrison and her family,” he said.November 24, 2017
Harrison, according to her family, is now resting at her daughter’s home and spending time with her loved ones.
The first thing Ethan said he will do when she wakes up, is give her a big hug, kiss on the cheek and tell her, “I’m so glad to see you!” and “I love you.”
“My grandma is doing well. She’s currently inside right now, possibly dreaming of her next venture. All jokes aside, my grandma is elated to be safe and healthy with her family and we are equally elated to have her,” Ethan said, thanking the community, the police and everyone who helped.
Espinoza understands the challenges adult children face when having to take their elderly parents’ independence away from them.
“We all have family members who are getting older, maybe some dealing with some medical concerns and to take away their independence or even begin talking about talking away their freedom of driving, being able to do the simple things that we often take for granted... it’s huge,” the detective said.
This incident, he continued, could be the catalyst for the family to take the necessary steps to prevent this from happening again.