Rescued 7-year-old autistic boy is safe at home after being found in Merced River near Hilmar

01/03/2014 4:45 PM

01/04/2014 3:03 PM

After an eight-hour search that included more than 65 members of law enforcement and volunteers, a 7-year-old who went missing Thursday is safe at home.

“I cannot tell you how happy I am that this worked out so well,” said Capt. B.J. Jones of the Merced County Sheriff’s Department, who led the search. “I still can’t stop smiling about it.”

Isaac Sprague, who is autistic, had been on an outing near George J. Hatfield Park with his family and was practicing archery in the area of Kelly Road when he disappeared about 11 a.m. He apparently walked away from his family’s van, deputies said.

The boy was found about 7:15 p.m., less than a mile away from where he disappeared. The child was found in shallow water where the Merced and San Joaquin rivers meet. He was taken to Emanuel Medical Center in Turlock and later released, according to Jones.

The boy’s family had searched the area near the Merced and Stanislaus county line for about an hour without success and then contacted law enforcement officials, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

The department activated a search and rescue team, the department’s dive team, air support, and dogs from the K-9 division that are able to track missing people.

Jones said the search was made more difficult because Isaac’s autism prevents him from speaking. He wouldn’t have been able to respond to calls from searchers. Also, noises and lights can also agitate or cause anxiety in people with autism, so Jones said the department had to weigh which search tactics would be best. “You don’t want to drive a child or any person with autism to hide or add any stress to what’s already a terrible event,” he said.

The place where the boy was found, Jones said, had been searched earlier by family members. Deputies suspect the boy had been moving around and wasn’t in the spot where he was found when the family took its first pass through the area. Parts of the river were shallow enough to cross on foot.

“It’s a theory,” Jones said. “It’s nothing we can prove because we can’t interview him."

Isaac was found lying on his back in the riverbed with water up to his chest, Jones said. The dive team heard him moaning and found him. Deputies suspect he fell into the water after it became dark, he said.

Isaac was taken to the Turlock hospital, as authorities wanted to make sure he was not suffering from his exposure. His clothes were soaked with river water, Jones said.

“We’re ecstatic we found this kid with everything stacked against us,” he said.

Efforts to contact the child’s family by telephone were not successful Friday.

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