Autistic Teen Found Two Years After Running Away From Home

From a Washington Post story by Jonathan Edwards headlined “An autistic teen was found over two years after running away from home”:

Suzanne Flint didn’t know that, as she made lunch, she was losing her son.

But when it was time to eat the quesadillas she’d made one day in September 2019, 17-year-old Connerjack Oswalt was gone, the Associated Press reported. Oswalt, who had previously been diagnosed with autism and mental health conditions, had a history of running away and had already done so earlier that year.

His mother spent the next two years looking for him. She put up fliers, scanned social media posts and scoured national databases for missing children, the AP reported. She checked morgues. When a wildfire severely damaged her home in Clearlake, Calif., she fled to Idaho, hoping her son might return to his birth state.

“I never stopped looking for him. There wasn’t a day I wasn’t searching for him, in some form or fashion,” she told the AP.

Her husband and Oswalt’s stepfather, Gerald Flint, was right there with her as every promising lead withered into disappointment. They feared they would never see him again, according to the AP.

“We’ve had a lot of false hope over the last two and a half years,” Gerald Flint told KSTU.

Then, earlier this month, the couple got another lead: a call from sheriff’s deputies in Utah who believed the 19-year-old man they had found sleeping and shivering outside a gas station on April 9 was Oswalt, according to a Summit County Sheriff’s Office Facebook post. Their hunch grew stronger when they found a birthmark on the man’s neck similar to what his mother described, CNN reported.

Gerald Flint left work and started driving the 240 miles to Summit County to see if they’d finally found his stepson or if it was yet another dead end.

Residents in Summit County had grown worried about the man who appeared homeless and had been spotted the past few weeks pushing a shopping cart — some so much so that they called law enforcement. Each time sheriff’s deputies checked on him, they found the man obeying the law and unreceptive to their offers for help.

Deputies sent him on his way.

Then, on April 9, “a truly concerned” resident told the sheriff’s office about a young man sleeping outside a local convenience store. When deputies arrived, they discovered the man they’d dealt with before. By this time, he appeared to have been homeless for a couple of weeks and was shivering and “obviously [having] a rough night,” Summit County Sheriff Justin Martinez told KSTU.

Deputies persuaded him to sit in their cruiser to get warm. Although he would not give them his name, he let them scan his fingerprint. They got a hit: “Connerjack Oswald” — spelled with a “d” — who had an arrest warrant from February out of Nevada.

Instead of arresting him, the sheriff’s office kept digging, in part because “it was clear to deputies that the man communicated differently,” and they felt there was more to the story, according to the sheriff’s office. Dispatchers started going through the database of cases from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. After 16 pages of names and photos, they found one for Connerjack Oswalt, a teenager who’d vanished from California 2½ years earlier. Investigators tracked down and contacted the Flints once they “felt confident with the identification.”

After Gerald Flint arrived from Idaho Falls and inspected the man who was supposedly his stepson, he pulled out his phone. With deputies flanking him, Flint called his wife.

“Is it him?” she asked.

“A little older,” Gerald told her, “but yeah.”

“My sweetheart’s alive,” she said as she sobbed over the phone.

Social workers responded to help Oswalt after he was identified, USA Today reported. He is still receiving care at a treatment facility in Utah, although the Flints plan to eventually bring him back to their home in Idaho Falls.

Investigators are still trying to figure out how he ended up in Utah and what happened between his disappearance and April 9.

“This remains the big question,” Summit County Sheriff’s Lt. Andrew Wright told USA Today. “Where did his journey take him over the past two and a half years?”

At the moment, his mother is just happy to know where he is.

“We’re just grateful that he’s safe and he’s alive and we have our son back,” she told KSTU. “That’s the most important thing ever for us.”

Jonathan Edwards is a reporter on The Washington Post’s Morning Mix team. Before joining The Post, he covered public safety for The Virginian-Pilot and Lincoln Journal Star.

Speak Your Mind

*