Missing autistic boy found in Laurens by huge search party

About 350 people, including law enforcement officials, firefighters and residents, banded together in Laurens County to find a missing autistic boy who had wandered away from home.

Matthew Branum, 8, was found in the woods about three or four miles from his home in Rentz, officials said Wednesday. Laurens County Sheriff Bill Harrell said a volunteer firefighter who was part of the search found Branum at about 1:15 p.m.

“It was a blessing,” Harrell said. “I’m glad it had a positive outcome. It could have been bad. ... I told a member of the media, ‘You want to see what Laurens County is about? Turn around and look.’ We had about 300, 350 people. We had folks everywhere.”

Harrell said Branum was hungry and dehydrated but was otherwise in good condition. Gregory Branum, Matthew’s father, said Wednesday afternoon that Matthew was at the hospital, receiving fluids and getting checked out, but that he was in good shape.

Branum said the family went to bed at about 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, and discovered the boy missing when they awoke Wednesday morning.

“We all went looking for him,” Gregory Branum said. “We called the local authorities, and they called all these other people. ... I’m thankful for everyone who came out. I know if it happened to someone else, I’d want to go out (and help). A lot of folks I didn’t know were out there looking.”

Members of the sheriff’s office, Laurens County Rural Firefighters, the Georgia Department of Corrections, Georgia State Patrol and the state’s Department of Natural Resources joined with civilian volunteers to search for Matthew.

Officials also used dogs from the Department of Corrections and a helicopter from the Georgia State Patrol Aviation Unit.

In addition, Harrell said other members of the community provided food and water to the searchers.

Harrell said he spoke with family members, offering suggestions to help make sure the situation didn’t happen again. Harrell said those who wanted to cast blame on Matthew’s family should be aware that there’s no foolproof system no matter how much a family tries to childproof a home.

“We’ve talked to the family and recommended some things,” he said.

Harrell said given Matthew’s autism, one thing he recommended was necklaces and bracelets usually given to Alzheimer’s patients. The jewelry contains a tracking chip that allows law enforcement to respond quickly if a patient wanders off. Gregory Branum said he plans to get a tracking device.

He said Matthew had left once before but was found quickly.

“I put all the locks up real high and did the things people told me to, but he still got out,” Branum said.

Harrell said it’s not easy childproofing a home.

“You can put all the locks and alarms you want to in your house, but a child will find his way out if he wants to,” he said.

Gregory Branum said the six-hour search for Matthew was extremely difficult.

“All kinds of stuff is going through your head — anything you can imagine,” he said. “I’m feeling real good right now. I’m happy to have him back.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334. To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.