Toddler goes missing while parent slept. Then former Marine finds him in Florida woods

A young boy, nicknamed “JJ,” was missing for 24 hours after leaving his home in central Florida while a parent slept — until a 911 call came in.

More than 500 volunteers joined law enforcement in the search for Joshua “JJ” Rowland, trekking deep into the woods and through buggy swamps after he disappeared from Brooksville the morning of Feb. 23 wearing a gray Batman shirt and gray pants, according to the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office.

Alongside searching for the 2-year-old on foot, authorities deployed drones, helicopters and used canines to track the toddler’s scent, the sheriff’s office said in several updates shared to Facebook.

But the blonde, curly-haired boy was still missing the early morning of Feb. 24.

Then, a former Marine, who volunteered in the search and is now being hailed as the “man of the year” by Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis, phoned 911.

“I found him!” Roy Link told a dispatcher about JJ in the 911 call shared by the sheriff’s office. In the background, the toddler is heard calling out for his mother.

Link found JJ unharmed and in the woods several miles north of his home after the boy spent the night outside, according to the sheriff’s office.

“Little JJ climbed onto him and didn’t want to let go,” Nienhuis said in a video with Link. “He was so excited to see him.”

Link said he prayed about 10 minutes before spotting JJ.

“The good news is he did not end up in any water obviously, and he was not abducted,” Nienhuis said in another video shared to Facebook. “He was found in the woods and he seems to be fine.”

The morning of Feb. 24, Link, 62, entered an open field while searching for JJ and chose between pursuing one of two wooded areas on his right and left side, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Following his intuition, Link picked the woods on his left and heard JJ whimpering before finding him about 100 feet away, the Tampa Bay Times reported.

While discussing the search for JJ, Link described his amazement at finding JJ safe in a phone interview with the outlet.

“You know all that bad stuff starts going through your mind, but then finding him healthy and alive, it’s just...wow,” Link said.

This photo shows Roy Link holding JJ after finding him safe.
This photo shows Roy Link holding JJ after finding him safe.

The sheriff’s office expressed its gratitude for those who helped search for JJ and the people who dropped off water and snacks for the volunteers.

In regards to JJ’s rescue, Nienhuis said the boy will have a story to tell his children and grandchildren one day before adding “I’m sure mom and dad are going to keep a closer eye on him from this point forward.”

Brooksville is a city about 50 miles north of Tampa.

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