By Rebecca Sherman
ON THE MORNING of February 23, 2023, toddler Joshua “JJ” Rowland was fast asleep. His grandmother, who had been caring for him, dropped him off at his parents’ house at 9:45 a.m. With JJ’s mother still asleep, his grandmother quietly placed the drowsy boy in his bed. And all was quiet when she left. But that peace would be broken within an hour, when JJ’s mother awoke to find the front door open, the family dogs in the front yard, and her son nowhere to be found.
JJ’s mother began a frantic search of their property in Brooksville, Florida. The Rowland home sits on an expanse of land surrounded by dense areas of trees and brush that characterize this rural region of west-central Florida. The land also has a deep pond, plus barns and sheds—all potential hazards and hiding spots for their lost 2-yearold. After an hour of searching for JJ, his mother called 911.
Hernando County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) deputies arrived and quickly combed the area for the blond curly haired toddler who was wearing a Batman T-shirt and space themed pajama pants. A witness reported seeing JJ playing in his front yard at 10:40 a.m., but he had not been seen since. By this point, JJ had been missing for nearly an hour. And time was not anyone’s side.
As a search operation got underway, law enforcement began canvassing the area. They interviewed family members and neighbors, and contacted registered sex offenders in the area, all of whom gave permission for their homes to be searched. But after five hours, there was still no sign of the toddler.
“As of now, we have no indication [whether] he was abducted, or if he just wandered off,” Hernando County Sheriff Al Nienhuis said during a roadside press conference near the Rowland home. “We’ve been scouring the woods with bloodhounds and our K-9s. Deputies have been coming back just covered in sand spurs looking for little JJ.”
Nienhuis described JJ as a “rambunctious” child and more mature than his age would indicate. “He might have gotten farther away than we might anticipate, and [may be] hiding in someone’s shed or garage,” he said, acknowledging that chances for a positive outcome were dwindling as the hours passed. “Our hope is to find him alive and well.” (Story continues below)
A massive search and rescue effort involved nearly 100 law enforcement officers from area agencies, including sheriff’s deputies from four nearby counties, members of the state’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Highway Patrol, Department of Corrections, and Probation and Parole.Due to the vast and complex terrain involved, specialized search and rescue operations were deployed to thoroughly examine woods and water using drones, K-9 units, horseback patrols, dive teams, and all-terrain vehicles.
“It’s a difficult area to search,” Nienhuis told a gathering of reporters. “The woods make it difficult to see even a few feet—the grass is so high—and JJ is so small.”
At 6 p.m., as daylight faded and spirits waned, a statewide Enhanced Missing Child Alert was issued. Within hours the ground search for JJ would be called off due to darkness, but Hernando County deputies continued their desperate quest to find the boy from the air, using helicopters and drones equipped with heat-sensing infrared cameras. Then fog rolled in, hindering the air search. The long night ended without locating JJ.
At dawn the next day, nearly 100 Child Abduction Response Team (CART) members from five agencies arrived on the scene to assist. An amazing 500 volunteers also joined the search, led by a Volunteer Coordinator from the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO). Thanks to the voracity of the first day’s efforts, and the swift and comprehensive response with vast resources enlisted on day two, all those involved in the physically taxing search would see their efforts rewarded.
Volunteer Roy Lick was well-suited for the task at hand. The former U.S. Marine and retired Hernando County Parks Department employee knows the area well, so when volunteers were needed in the search for JJ, he answered the call. His pre-planned fishing trip would have to wait.
By now it was about 11 a.m.—some 24 hours after JJ had disappeared. Link was crossing a field about a half-mile behind the boy’s house when he heard a soft whimpering. Link followed the sound about 100 feet into the woods. He then spotted JJ’s curly blond head. Standing barefoot in briars and covered in bug bites and scratches, the boy instantly held out his arms to be picked up. Link obliged.
“He then started hollering for his mom,” Link told local reporters. “I kept telling him, ‘Your mama’s comin’, your mama’s comin’.” Everyone involved in the search was elated to hear JJ had survived the 24-hour ordeal with only minor injuries. “Not many adults would want to be in that place at night … where who knows what’s out there? We have coyotes and other wild animals,” Link said.
Sheriff Nienhuis noted that JJ had crossed a residential road behind his house and crawled through barbed wire fences, “which was extremely unusual and unanticipated.”
After JJ was given water and treated by EMS for cuts and scrapes, he was reunited with his family—while the community cheered. “I’ve got to admit, I’m a little emotional. I thought we were going to have bad news,” Nienhuis told reporters. ”It’s a very good day in Hernando County.”