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OPP Constable Scott McNames carries three-year-old Jude Walter Leyton, who went missing from his family near Verona, Ont., on April 1, 2021.

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On his 53rd birthday, Constable Scott McNames had supper and cake with his three kids before heading off around sunset to search for another family’s missing boy.

His own kids understood the absence. Their dad had been a member of the Ontario Provincial Police emergency response team in Lanark County for 19 years. Search-and-rescue made up a good part of the work.

The family of three-year-old Jude Leyton reported him missing around noon on that Sunday, March 28. He had wandered away from a fishing cabin on Folsom Lake, 37 kilometres due north of Kingston.

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The first request for the emergency response team came at 2 p.m.

Missing three-year-old found safe near Kingston, Ont., days after disappearing

Constable McNames was off duty and said in an interview he was hopeful his colleagues would find the boy in daylight. Three-year-olds wander, but rarely far. He knew this from experience. At age 3, new worlds open up. Trees must be climbed. Doors must be opened. Forests must be explored.

As daylight faded, he knew the search was hitting an urgent phase. He arrived on scene and took over as one of the search managers that night, dispatching others in a predetermined pattern.

The search area stretched out in all directions across lakes, marshes, beaver dams and sheer cliffs. The OPP consulted statistics to inform their search pattern. A three-year-old boy would traverse a maximum of 1.2 kilometres, they were told. But many of the 50 OPP officers and 50 volunteers tromping through the woods thought that distance would be a stretch for such a small boy in such rough country. They focused initially on a 300-metre radius.

“It’s beautiful country, but difficult to manoeuvre, especially with the cold, wet weather we’ve had,” Constable Curtis Dick said. “It was tough for searchers.”

The temperature dropped to the freezing mark. Jude had been wearing a wool sweater with a blue winter jacket and rain boots. As night descended, the mood among searchers turned.

“The more time goes by, especially the nights, the likelihood of finding somebody in good condition goes down considerably,” Constable McNames said.

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He went home on Monday morning, returning for a few hours later, this time joining ground search teams.

By then, the OPP had brought in two helicopters and a dive team. Monday ended with no trace of Jude. So did Tuesday.

On Wednesday morning, Day 4 of the search, Constable McNames was placed on a team with three other members of the emergency response team who are also fathers: Mike Ball, Greg Verney and Peter Wrigglesworth. Their task was to push the search radius a full kilometre to the east. Constable McNames took up the rear, tying coloured flagging tape to trees to mark completed search areas.

It was tedious work, especially because many searchers assumed by then that the dive team would be the ones to bring the search to a sad conclusion.

“We weren’t finding any clues or anything out in the bush,” Constable McNames said.

A little after 3 p.m., his eyes caught a hint of contrast in the woods as he was tying some tape to a branch.

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“Up ahead of me and off to the right, I saw something blue,” he said.

He called to Constable Verney. The two men ran toward the speck of colour. There, they saw a child among some grass, lying on his stomach.

“Verney got to him first and his eyes were closed,” Constable McNames said. “And then he lifted his head and looked up.”

Constable Verney let out a shocked exclamation. After four days and three nights, they were stunned to find Jude, and just as stunned to find him in good shape, aside from some dehydration.

“Hi Jude, we’re here to help you and we’re going to take you to your mom and dad,” the officer recalls telling the boy.

They gave him water and wrapped him in warmer clothing. His jacket, pants and boots were wet, but the wool sweater was warm to the touch.

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One of the officers sent the news over the radio.

“We have located the male, he’s 10-4,” he said.

“He’s alive?” came the response.

“10-4 … He’s in all his clothing. We’re keeping him warm. He’s drinking. He doesn’t appear to be injured. We’re going to find a trail and walk him back.”

With that, Constable McNames scooped up Jude and carried him the one kilometre toward the command post at the cabin.

Two hundred metres out, Jude’s parents came running towards them.

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“That was good,” Constable McNames said, careful not to betray a private family moment. “Best day on the job in 25 years.”

Paramedics whisked the family, who have requested privacy, to Kingston Health Sciences Centre. Jude’s mother, poet Katherine Leyton, took to Twitter on Thursday afternoon with gratitude.

“We can’t begin to express how we feel to have our incredible, resilient son Jude back safe in our arms,” she wrote. “Our entire extended family is beyond elated after what was undoubtedly the worst experience of our lives. Jude was returned to us due to the unrelenting dedication and perseverance of the OPP’s search-and-rescue ground, air, and underwater teams and tireless effort of community volunteer searchers, firefighters and paramedics.”

Back on the job, Constable McNames was still marvelling at the boy’s journey. “How he got so far back there, I’ll never know,” he said. “Four days and three nights out there, that’s a long time out there for a little guy.”

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