Dozens respond to Mo. sheriff’s late-night call

KANSAS CITY (AP) — When a disoriented woman showed up at a stranger’s home on a late Saturday night and said she left her baby near a creek, Saline County Sheriff Wally George knew he had to find the girl quickly if she had any chance of survival in the extreme July heat.

For only the second time in his 33 years in office, George got on the phone to a friend who works at the local radio station and asked to be put on the air.

“When that momma showed up at that house Saturday night, I knew that baby was out there in the woods,” George said. “I decided I’m going to get on the radio, get some folks together and get out there and find this little girl.”

Less than an hour after his plea for help was broadcast just after midnight, 78 people were standing outside the jail in Marshall, a small college town 90 minutes east of Kansas City, waiting to begin the search. The group found the 18-month-old a short time later on the bank of the small Blackwater River, but she was already dead from severe dehydration and heat exposure.

Her mother, also suffering from severe dehydration, was taken to a hospital where she remained a week later, out of George’s reach.

“We have not seen her, we have not talked to her,” George said. “We have a warrant for her on a probation violation.”

George said the only other time he had to make a public plea for help searching for someone happened more than a decade ago when a local man disappeared.

“We had a gentleman, a businessman, who was an avid biker. A bicycle biker, with a little helmet and little rear view mirror. He went bicycling one morning and never came back.”

Similar to Saturday night, dozens of people stopped what they were doing and showed up at the jail to help with the search. The man was quickly found, but he too was already dead after running off the road and breaking his neck.

Ken Lewellen, news director at KMMO radio in Marshall, said he didn’t hesitate Saturday when George woke him up just before midnight and asked him to get down to the radio station.

“He said, ‘This is what we need to do.’ I said, ‘I’ll meet you there,’” said Lewellen, who marked his 31st year at the radio station on July 1 and graduated from high school with George 48 years ago.

George, with his trademark Wilford Brimley-style mustache and good ol’ boy demeanor, said he has always considered the media crucial to maintaining public safety.

“I’ve had a lot of my fellow sheriffs disagree with me,” he told the Associated Press. “A lot of them consider the media the enemy, a big pain in the butt who won’t leave them alone. I have never looked at you guys that way.”

Eric Crump, editor of the Marshall Democrat-News, also was woken up that Saturday night by George, who asked if he could get something on the newspaper’s website seeking volunteers to help find the girl.

“There aren’t too many people who push information at the media like he does,” Crump said.

George, the only sheriff many of the county’s residents have ever known, is running for re-election this year. His campaigning mainly consists of fliers and buttons with a logo of a big mustache, occasional public speaking gigs and reminders to people that he’s on the ballot again.

“There’s not a whole lot I can tell these folks about me that they don’t already know,” he said.

Not everyone is on the “Sheriff Wally” bandwagon, especially his Republican opponent in the general election.

Leo Grothaus, a former Missouri Highway Patrol trooper and longtime reserve deputy who has worked with George, said more could have been done in the days before the baby went missing. He didn’t elaborate, saying he didn’t want to be overly critical of George and would rather “take the high road.”

The mother’s car was discovered abandoned near a field July 5 — two days before the child’s body was found — with a baby bag inside and car seat and stroller in a nearby ditch. Later that day, the woman is believed to have then taken a pickup truck that had been parked near the highway before abandoning it in a different field.

Grothaus, who had considered himself a friend of the sheriff’s, said his relationship with George became chilly after he announced he was going to run against the incumbent.

“He’s been in office 33 years, and I think some things have set in that need to be addressed,” Grothaus said. “There needs to be some change. I tell everybody we need to say thank you for 33 years of service, but the time has come for some fresh ideas and fresh management practices.”

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