The Philadelphia Inquirer

AUGUST 1, 2004
The closet door was ajar. The kitchen light off. The television silent.

It was 9 p.m. on Feb. 23, and Joan Glackin instantly knew that something was wrong.

As she’d left for her Monday bowling night just a few hours earlier, her husband, Dermott, was ending his meat-loaf dinner with a cinnamon bun and tea.
Now he was gone, his coat and jeff cap missing from the closet.

A month before, Joan, 69, had become frantic when her 85-year-old husband failed to return from a walk around the block. That time, he had become confused on his journey, and police brought him home three hours later.

Staring at the open closet door, Joan was frantic again.

Within an hour, her neighbors were on the streets, shouting Dermott’s name, and the couple’s three daughters – the “wee’uns” that had come to him so late in life – were speeding toward the family home on Ardleigh Street in Chestnut Hill:

Fran and Brian Dougherty from Pittsburgh; Beth and Jeff Breault from Wayne; and Carrie and Brad Smith from Sellersville.

“Brad and I honestly thought we’d find him, bring him home, give him a little talking to, and be home that night,” Carrie said.

The search for Dermott Glackin had begun.


Most people with dementia wander, and it is no small problem for America.

An estimated 4.5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s or some other reason for having lost their memories, their bearings. The vast majority of them are cared for by their families, at home.

So concerned are families that 3,000 people locally are registered with the Alzheimer’s Association Safe Return program. This year, it has aided 24 families, including Dermott’s, in their searches. Almost all were found safe.

Most wanderers are found within 24 hours, within a mile of their homes, in good condition.

But after 24 hours, their chances of survival drop to 50 percent.

That night

Neighbor Dan Lau, an architect, was among the first to hit the streets that Monday night, calling Dermott’s name.

Like Lau, most of the people on Ardleigh Street knew Dermott. For years, he’d run a successful landscaping business in the area. After retiring in the late 1980s, he would often sit on his front porch, praying and blessing anyone who passed, or shuffle up and down the blocks, stopping to pick errant leaves from the sidewalk and tuck them into the grass.

Lau and his wife, Mary, were driven to help: In November, their 3-year-old son, Gabriel, died from an undiagnosed heart condition. On the night the ambulance came for him, at least four neighbors rushed to the Lau home with offers to watch their 9-year-old daughter.

Now it was the Glackins who needed them.

About 11 p.m., Lau was still outside, calling, “Dermott! Where are you? Joan’s looking for you!” when Beth, Carrie and their husbands arrived.

Beth, 28, the youngest daughter, was four months pregnant with Dermott and Joan’s first grandchild.

Carrie, 32, the oldest, had a surprise for the family: She, too, was expecting. The next day was her father’s birthday, and instead of giving him his usual gift – chocolate – she was going to announce the baby with a framed photo of the ultrasound.

The couples divided Chestnut Hill and began searching.

It was a mild night for February – about 30 degrees – but Beth was so cold she wore two coats. Although she knew her father had taken his wool coat, Beth feared for him.

Following up her mother’s 911 call and missing-persons report, Beth called Philadelphia police several times that night, asking officers to join the search. She hadn’t seen any patrol cars pass by.

They told her that they’d notified their officers, that they were looking. And, she said, they assured her that no one would die of hypothermia on a night like this.

“We were just driving with the heat blasting, looking on curbs, between cars,” she said. “It was almost like you were trying not to be hysterical, but at the same time I remember looking at the clock and thinking, ‘My God, he’s been gone three hours, four hours, five hours.’ ”

The other time Dermott had disappeared, a stranger found him sitting on a curb two blocks from his house and offered him a ride. Dermott directed him on a confusing route through Chestnut Hill before the man realized something was wrong. He bought Dermott hot chocolate and popcorn and called police.

Three hours after he’d left home, Dermott strolled through the door on Ardleigh Street.

“He walked in and said, ‘What’s for dinner?’ ” Carrie recalled. “My mother said, ‘I’m going to kill him.’ ”

That was one of the few solid signs the family had that something wasn’t quite right with Dermott. He seemed misty, true, but when Joan took him to a neurologist, he passed the initial tests, counting backward by 7s and playing memory games. The doctor recommended more testing.

“Nobody realized how bad it was,” Fran said. “You just don’t see it, because you’re in it.”

After all, Dermott was “the Iron Man,” as one son-in-law called him. He stood 6-foot-2 and had always been so strong, easily tossing his young daughters in the air, carrying them up the stairs to bed at night. He had come back from a stroke, battled colon cancer, survived countless accidents while on the job.

He once fell while trimming a tree, breaking both feet and some ribs, and still insisted on taking a shower before going to the emergency room.

About 2 a.m., the third sister, Fran, 31, and her husband, Brian, reached Ardleigh Street, having sped from Pittsburgh in silence, the radio off. Fran had tried to call her father earlier that evening and gotten the answering machine. Worried, she had planned to call home again around 9 p.m.

Instead, Joan called her: “Your father’s missing,” she said.

One of the first people Fran and Brian saw was Dan Lau, now riding his bike to cover more ground, still shouting Dermott’s name.

The couple went to search in nearby Pastorius Park, where Fran was struck by the moon: It was a crescent, the kind her father would point to and say, “It’s going to be a good day tomorrow because it’s a moon you can hang your hat on.”

“It was very calm, quiet,” Fran said. “I wanted to just scream so everybody could just wake up and look outside for my dad.”

By 4 a.m., the family had collapsed in the living room of the Ardleigh Street home, stretched on the sofas and on the floor, exhausted, upset, scared.

When the girls were younger, Fran recalled, they used to watch television together in this same living room, on these same sofas. When the front door would open about 5 p.m., they would jump up and scream, “Dad!” and run to him.

Now they wanted to jump up and run to him again.

It was quiet, inside the house and out. Then they heard a car moving slowly down the block, as if the driver were trying to find an address, or bring a lost person home.

It was someone delivering newspapers.

Dermott’s birthday

No one slept much. And as morning broke on Dermott’s 86th birthday, his family was putting together the first missing poster, featuring a photo from Fran and Brian’s 2000 wedding.

Commuters that morning would see the posters in area SEPTA stations, along Germantown Avenue, in the windows of Chestnut Hill businesses. The family also took copies to the local police station on West Haines Street.

At home, they worked the phones, contacting hospitals, homeless shelters, nursing homes. They called and e-mailed the media, urging them to alert the community. They recruited friends for a larger search the next day if Dermott was not home by nightfall.

And they went out walking, driving, calling his name. To Holy Sepulchre Cemetery about a mile away in Montgomery County, where Dermott’s sister is buried. To Germantown’s Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal about three miles away, where he prayed to Mary weekly. To East Gravers Lane, a few blocks north, where one man was sure he had seen Dermott about 7 p.m. the day before.

He couldn’t have gone too far, they reasoned. He was a slow walker who often stopped to rest or chat. Someone must have seen him. Someone might have let him come inside to rest. Someone knew where he was.

And if he was confused, Dermott was wearing a metal tag with his name, address and phone number around his neck. Joan had gotten it for him about four months before, afraid he might have another stroke or be hit by a car while out walking.

As the sun sank that Tuesday, the family shuddered.

“The hardest thing to picture in your mind was that he needed you and you didn’t know where he was to help,” Beth said. “He would have done it for you. He was always thinking of everybody else first.”

The youngest of eight children born in County Derry, Northern Ireland, Dermott had cared for his mother until her death in 1953, then immigrated to the United States. He met his future wife, Joan Grimes, through their church bowling league. He was 52 when they married in 1970. Their three daughters soon followed.

Dermott always insisted on giving his girls “good food and good rest.” Each night, he would sit with them while they said their prayers. Beth used to pray, “Just let me have my dad here for my eighth-grade graduation.” Then it became “my high school graduation,” “my college graduation,” “my wedding.”

Sometimes, Dermott would croon Irish classics to his daughters – such as “Johnson’s Motor Car” or “Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ra” – while they lay in bed.

Then he would tuck them in, the sheets so snug they couldn’t move. They would wait until he left the room to free themselves, Fran said, because “we wouldn’t want to make him sad.”

“My dad was always so concerned that we were tucked in and warm,” she said. “It was breaking my heart to think he might be lying out there alone, cold and scared.”

Tuesday evening, 24 hours after Dermott disappeared, it started snowing.

Day 3

The next day was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Dermott and his family would have attended Mass.

Instead, his family was at McNally’s Tavern in Chestnut Hill, where a friend brought ashes for them.

More than 100 people had gathered for the first door-to-door search.

“I can still remember people’s faces,” Fran said. “All ages and races, one woman with leukemia. It didn’t really make a difference why they were there. They were there.”

Among the volunteers were 22 members of the Greater Philadelphia Search and Rescue team and eight of their search dogs. The volunteer group, based in Montgomery County, had been called in by Philadelphia Police at the family’s request.

“You could feel the tension,” recalled Mark Hopkins, the group’s chief. “You could feel the clock was ticking.”

Hopkins knew Wednesday’s search wouldn’t be easy, even with the dogs. Most dementia patients leave few clues: no dropped wallets or purses. They are resilient, and once they start walking – often downhill and for some unknown reason to water – they keep walking until their path is blocked or they’re exhausted.

Dermott had more than a day’s head start. His scent would be blurred with those of the thousands of other people in Chestnut Hill.

And it was initially hard to find an object that only Dermott had touched. Joan had taken tender care of her husband – combing his hair, fluffing his pillow – and her scent was mingled with his on the most mundane items. “You’re so good to me,” he would say when she carefully shaved his face or buttoned his shirt.

But having picked up Dermott’s scent on a jeff cap and some shoes, the dogs headed north toward East Gravers Lane. Within four blocks, they lost any trail.

Everyone had theories. Fran’s husband, Brian, thought he might have wandered to the Wissahickon Creek. Carrie’s husband, Brad, suspected he had gone toward Valley Green. John Fowler, who used to do landscaping work with his Uncle Dermott, suspected he’d gone to one of the properties he used to tend.

Hopkins said he usually tells people to let go of their theories, that theories can block a search, but he had a few of his own. He sent a team to Oreland Quarry, four miles away in Montgomery County, because a few weeks earlier Dermott had mentioned an urge to visit “McPeak’s Quarry,” which his family assumed was in Ireland. He called on Montgomery County’s Wyndmoor Hose Company for help, using their equipment to search city streets.

When someone thought they’d seen Dermott crossing Lincoln Drive, Hopkins sent the dogs into Fairmount Park.

When it got dark, he made sure his volunteers carefully searched Holy Sepulchre Cemetery using thermal imaging equipment. By 1 a.m., with the temperature down to 1 degree, the volunteers, both human and canine, called it a day.

“It was very disconcerting, that somebody everybody knew and everybody loved and everybody talked to could walk though that neighborhood and vanish,” Hopkins said.

And Hopkins noticed something else:

“I’ve never been on a search where so many people wanted to help.”

Tips and sightings

Over the next several weeks, dozens of people called the Glackin home with Dermott sightings.

On March 1, he was at the bus station in Trenton, asking about tickets to Tampa, Fla. Two weeks later, he was in a Wilmington restaurant, telling the hostess he was waiting for his wife. A few days after that, he was in Atlantic City, having soup and crackers at Trump Plaza.

In between, he was all over Philadelphia: taking a train in Olney, getting into a black car in Center City, talking about the Bible in the Northeast.

The family checked out as many tips as they could.

They had become detectives.

Thousands of people are reported missing in Philadelphia each year – 6,399 in 2003. Inspector David Jardine, who oversees the department’s detective bureaus, said that police officials followed their usual missing-persons procedures with Dermott: They notified all officers. They contacted the media and put Dermott’s face and information on their Web site.

They searched the streets in cars and the park on horseback. A number of reports that Dermott was on Wissahickon Avenue merited a police helicopter and several cars.

“We investigated tips with negative results,” Jardine said. Some missing-persons cases “can be difficult.”

But what would aid police in such cases is “if every person could generate the volunteers and help as this family did.”

Still, the police response frustrated the family. They tired of calling for updates and hearing, “Dermott who? How do you spell your dad’s name again?”

Once, when Fran and Carrie went to talk to officers after roll call, they heard themselves introduced as “two daughters of that old guy who’s missing in Chestnut Hill.”

“I’m not asking for a pep rally, but you could see they totally didn’t make eye contact. They totally didn’t care,” Carrie said. “No, it wasn’t a serial rapist, but it was a life-or-death situation.”

The family turned the first floor of Ardleigh Street into their headquarters, complete with a new Internet line, computers and a fax machine, given to them by a cousin who came from Ireland to search. Dermott’s unopened birthday cards and gifts – including Carrie’s ultrasound photo – were pushed into a corner as the family worked.

Gone were the old flyers with the blurry photo. The new ones – 20,000 of them, some in Spanish – featured two crisp photos. On one, Dan Lau had drawn in the jeff cap Dermott always wore. Soon his face seemed to be on every block of Chestnut Hill and Mount Airy.

So many people were looking for Dermott that one older man who worked at a nearby supermarket joked that he was afraid to go outside because strangers were grabbing him, demanding his name: “Do you know how many times I’ve had to pull out my wallet this week?” he asked.

Two psychics offered their vibes. Dermott, one said, was on an embankment, covered by thick brush. The other said he was on a street that began with a “Wa,” between two buildings.

In all, more than 200 tips came in. Carrie compiled them in “the binders.” “Where are the binders?” became a common phrase on Ardleigh Street, where the scraps grew into three three-ringed books filled with maps, phone numbers, exchanges with police, fax cover sheets, and more.

The sisters took on different roles: Carrie, a media coordinator, tried to find new angles to keep the story alive. Beth, an accountant, calmly evaluated each day’s situation and delegated tasks. Fran, a nurse, called hospitals, answered the tip line, and often stayed home with Joan.

It could have been awful, seven adults crammed into one home as weeks went by, with everyone tired and frustrated and scared.

It wasn’t, the sisters say. They managed to laugh. They found time to cry. Dermott had told them to cherish their time together. “You’ll be far away from one another yet,” he’d say.

“You can imagine being with your sisters day in and day out,” Fran said. “If you’d have told me we wouldn’t fight, I wouldn’t have believed you. We just kept thinking in the back of our heads, ‘What would Dad say if we fought?’ ”

A coming together

Large Saturday searches became standard. Each Friday would find the three sons-in-law – a construction manager, an engineer, a veterinary associate – in the back room on Ardleigh Street, staring at maps and dividing the area into walkable pieces. They bought cases of water for volunteers, prepared sign-in sheets, and called former searchers to come out again.

The searches attracted people from across the region – close friends, old friends who had lost touch, family from here and abroad, complete strangers who had seen the posters, a former mailman, dozens who had worked for Dermott.

There was the Irish contingent, three men in their 70s who had known Dermott since he first immigrated. They had lost touch, but the searches brought them together again. They checked in with the family every day and mounted their own hunts, their own jeff caps in place.

“They were just tireless,” Beth said.

Megan Lynch, a Philadelphia police officer whose father died three years ago, looked for Dermott between radio calls and on her own time. She had seen Fran, red-eyed and tired, at the West Haines Street station as other officers bustled by, ignoring her.

She gave Fran her phone number. She spoke to the family every day.

“It’s what I hope someone would have done for me,” Lynch said.

And the Laus continued to help.

On one search, Mary Lau found herself inexplicably drawn to an upbeat woman in her 70s. During their hours together, Mary revealed that her 3-year-old son had died.

The woman nodded. She knew how it hurt, she said. She had lost her own 3-year-old many years ago.

Tearfully, they shared stories of their little boys.

The woman told Mary she needed to stay strong, to keep her faith in God.

“I looked at her and I thought, ‘If she can do it, I can do it,’ ” Mary said.

On March 12, a stranger e-mailed the Missing You Foundation, a Michigan-based organization that helped publicize Dermott’s disappearance. She advised the foundation to check out the family. “Somebody knows something and they are not telling. Especially check their reactions to him missing, if they show any emotions or true concern,” she wrote.

The implication stung.

“There were strangers who we got to know because they called every day and prayed for us. And then to have a freak point a finger at us, you want to blow it off, but it was a nagging thing, like ‘God, I hope no one else suspects us,’ ” Carrie said.

The family tried to stay focused. For the city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade on March 14, they tied more than 2,000 yellow ribbons – tedious work that prompted the three sons-in-law to balk with the chant, “Hell, no, we won’t bow!”

Still, the men rose at 6 a.m to wrap ribbons around phone poles and hang flyers along the parade’s two-mile route. They gave out hundreds of yellow ribbons to marchers and to people leaving Mass at St. Patrick’s Church on 20th Street.

A few days later, on March 18, the family organized a prayer vigil at the water tower near their home. It had rained all day, and the family was afraid that few people would come. But more than 100 did, holding candles and praying for Dermott.

It was what Dermott would have done for them, his family said.

After the vigil, a newspaper reporter approached Fran.

“At what point are you going to stop looking?” he asked her.

She stared at him.

“When we find him,” she said, and walked away.

Day 32

About 3 p.m. on Friday, March 26, another tip came in to the Glackin home. Fran took the call.

“I’m driving to Glenside, me and my Mom, and we saw somebody who totally meets the description of your dad. His pants are falling down,” the woman said. “If you want, we can turn around.”

The tip sounded good, better than the others. Excited, Fran called the Northwest Detective Division. The lieutenant on the other end of the line didn’t seem to be listening. She tried to talk while her mother screamed in the background at the unseen officer, “Time is of the essence! Listen to her! It might be her father!”

The police officer shouted Fran down.

“Didn’t anyone tell you?” he asked.

He sighed.

“Listen, they found your father and it’s not good,” he said. “Where do you live? We’ll send a car up.”

Fran started yelling: “You don’t even know what you’re talking about! Are you sure? Is this definite information?”

It was.

A short time earlier, the family would learn, the owner of an estate on West Hampton Road – just over a mile from the Glackin home – had returned from vacation and was outside gardening when something glinting in the sun caught his eye. He found Dermott’s body in the side yard, tangled in bushes. Dermott was still wearing his metal name tag. His jeff cap lay on the ground near him. It was his wedding band that had caught the light.

Fran hung up the phone and, for a second, couldn’t move. Then she looked at her mother, who suddenly seemed so frail. She put her arms around her.

“They found Dad,” she said.

Mother and daughter wept together.

Although deep down they had known it could end this way, for almost five weeks they had believed that he was out there somewhere, alive and waiting to come home.

At that moment, Fran said, “that final ray of light went out.”

Soon, almost everyone in the family was in the living room on Ardleigh Street, crying, comforting each other, praying.

They talked about how to break the news to Carrie and Brad, who were at an ob-gyn appointment. No one wanted to tell them while they were driving, so the family waited, watching the door, hoping the couple didn’t hear the news on the radio.

At one point, Brian moved the coffee table out of the room to make more space. He was quickly chastised.

“We said, ‘No, put it back. Carrie will know something’s up,’ ” Fran recalled.

Just before 5 p.m., Carrie and Brad arrived, ready to burst with their news: They had heard the baby’s heartbeat.

But struck by the sight of everyone sitting in the living room, looking dazed, they caught themselves.

“They found Dermott,” Jeff said.

A funeral and a birth

For Dermott’s funeral, the Mass cards listed his last day as March 26, although an autopsy would show he probably died in the first 24 hours, of hypothermia. He had defied conventional wisdom and walked uphill.

He would have loved the affair at Our Mother of Consolation. People lined up outside for blocks to get in. Six priests stood at the altar, and the daughters joked that their father was in heaven, jabbing his equally religious brother: “Bet you didn’t have six priests at your funeral, did ya?”

The coffin was closed, but inside, Dermott wore his wedding ring and Beth had tucked some chocolate into his jacket pocket.

Beth gave a short eulogy. Her father had been alive for almost 32,000 days, she said. He had been missing for 32. And although the pain and tears during those 32 days seemed overwhelming, what the family wanted to remember were those 32,000 days when Dermott was alive.

“We can appreciate now that even as we searched for him, he was right here with us: for he unified this community in a way that has never been seen before,” Beth told the congregation.

At 3 p.m. on Friday, July 16, Dermott’s first grandchild was born.

Beth and Jeff named him Dermott Christopher.

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