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Missing 78-year-old woman found safe

JSO Director Tom Hackney: 'Thankfully, this one ended with a happy ending'

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The mother of a longtime police officer is safe, but in the hospital after fears she was abducted from her Westside home.

Police said they found 78-year old Susan Boxx safe in Georgia this morning after 10 hours of searching was sparked by a burglar alarm in her home.

Boxx's son, Nassau County Sheriff's Office Director of Operations Roy Henderson, responded to a burglary alarm at her home at 10:30 p.m. Wednesday and found the door of the home kicked in, her television stolen and her car missing.

Based on that evidence, detectives first believed Boxx had been abducted.

"You have to work some of these cases as a worst-case scenario and work backwards," JSO Director Tom Hackney said. "Thankfully, this one ended with a happy ending."

But Boxx -- by herself -- had ventured 240 miles from her Sonora Drive home, all the way to Americus, Georgia.

Police tracked her there through credit card charges and found her on the side of Interstate 75 after she ran out of gas.

"Having spent my entire life in law enforcement, being on the side of helping people, I felt the role of the victim for sure," said Henderson, who is a former JSO chief. "I just thank everybody in law enforcement and in Jacksonville, the FBI and all the law enforcement in Georgia that assisted in locating her."

Boxx's daughter said she was diagnosed with mild dementia a couple years ago, but she's never shown any signs of confusion before. Boxx has been living in the Sonora Drive house for about 50 years, but her daughter said she won't be staying there alone anymore.

A neurologist with the Mayo Clinic said when people start developing problems with memory and thinking, one of the first skills affected is the ability to plan, prioritize, problem solve and make decisions.

"Frequently, we'll find that people are driving and maybe the memory problem is still rather minor, but what will happen is they'll get on a road, they'll go out to run an errand -- sometimes it's as simple as going to the grocery store -- and there will be a detour, and they have to turn right when they want to turn left, and they can't recover from that right turn and then they can't get themselves back, so they just keep driving," said Francine Parfitt, director of Mayo Clinic's Memory Disorder Center.

That's exactly what happened to Boxx, who left her home Wednesday morning to go to the store and made a series of wrong turns.

She ended up driving about 3½ hours from Jacksonville to the middle of Georgia.

Police traced Boxx's credit card activity and found she had made a purchase in Georgia about 12 hours before thieves broke into her home.

"She is a very sweet lady," Henderson said. "She's a typical little gray-haired lady that's just easy-going. She's my mother. I love her." 

Parfitt advised loved ones to be aware of behavioral changes in the elderly.

"Let's say dad has always been kind of a neat dresser, and you go by and visit dad and you start to notice he's not changing his clothes, or he is just not being as careful in his selection of his clothing," Parfitt said. "Or a woman for example, maybe she's always been very meticulous about doing her hair and makeup and you start to notice these sudden changes."

If that happens, take them to a doctor, Parfitt said.

"If somebody is having even the beginning of memory problems, and a physician asks a question, they'll answer as appropriately as they can, and their social skills are wonderful, so they'll answer appropriately, but the answer may not be accurate," Parfitt said.

Florida has a Silver Alert program to help find people who our driving who might have cognitive problems. Loved ones can call any local law enforcement agency and ask for a Silver Alert to be issued. The program is incredibly successful in getting people home safe.

Mayo Clinic is one of 15 memory disorder clinics in Florida. It's responsible for following up on Silver Alerts in the Jacksonville area and working with police to get reports to try to work with families on any resources they need, diagnoses or driving assessments.

From a medical standpoint, drivers can be tested to see if their score is in a danger zone range, but some drivers don't go through testing. If a loved one is starting to get lost while driving or is being vague or has problems with decision making, they probably shouldn't be driving, experts say.

Timeline overnight

When Hackney first addressed the media about a possible abduction at 4:35 a.m. Thursday, he said there were several indicators pointing to this being an abduction after a forced entry into her home.

"We're hoping that it isn't as sinister as it seems, but all these factors have led us to believe it is what it looks like," Hackney said overnight. 

After following her credit card trail, JSO expanded the search into Georgia.

Her granddaughter provided News4Jax with a photo hoping to help people to be on the lookout for Box.

Before dawn Thursday, police learned more details about Boxx's credit card use and found a Georgia purchase that occurred almost 12 hours before the burglary. 

News4Jax looked into the Sonora Drive neighborhood. According to the JSO Crime Map, 130 incidents were reported within a 1-mile radius. This includes 51 home break-ins, 22 car burglaries, six break-ins at businesses, 17 robberies, and one kidnapping.

About the Authors:

Lifetime Floridian anchors weekends and reports weekdays on issues in Nassau and Baker counties and beyond.