New Mexico man safely returned home

Valerie and Doug Steen of Cresson are pictured with their Piper Malibu Jetprop airplane at Bourland Field in Cresson.

Public servants serve, and volunteers volunteer. That combination produced a safe ending for an elderly New Mexico man who is suffering from dementia and lost his way.

The 80-year-old Alamagordo resident reportedly told his wife he was driving to a store to buy cigars but instead drove his late-model Toyota all the way to Granbury - 525 miles away. At about 3 a.m. on Sept. 14, a Hood County Sheriff's Office deputy almost had a head-on collision as the man was driving on the wrong side of the road in the 200 block of Highway 377 in Granbury.

A news release emailed by Hood County Sheriff's Office Lt. Johnny Rose noted that the elderly man was "displaying dementia or Alzheimer's symptoms. He told the deputy that he "left his home to buy cigars and got lost."

After "a few phone calls with Alamagordo Police and the man's wife, it was determined that no one could come get him or help him get home," the news release states. "The man was taken to the Hood County Sheriff's Office and was fed and (cared for) while other arrangements were searched out.”

Hood County Fire Marshal Jeff Young received a call from the Sheriff's Office about the incident, then contacted Cresson Volunteer Fire Department Fire Chief Ron Becker. Young knew that "four or five" of Cresson's volunteer fire fighters are pilots who have planes based at Bourland Field, a small public-use airport there.

"He was a very pleasant, happy gentleman, but he was very confused," said Becker, who spoke to the man briefly. "He introduced himself to me."

Becker said that when the man was told that he was going to be taken home via airplane, he asked about his "luggage" more than once. Of course, there was none.

"He certainly had dementia, and also possibly had Alzheimer's," said Becker said. "He was not upset. He knew something wasn't right. He told me, 'My memory is going out.' He was a very mentally confused gentleman."

The man also mentioned that he is a military veteran, Becker said.

"He was quick to tell details of his career as a Navy veteran. Apparently he had something to do with electronics and submarines," said Becker, who has been with the Cresson VFD for 16 years, the last six as fire chief.  

Valerie Steen, who has been with the Cresson VFD for five years and lives next door to Becker in the gated community known as Bourland Field Estates, was contacted by Becker. Steen, who has been a pilot for years, volunteered to fly the elderly man home at her own expense.

Steen and her husband, Doug, own a Piper Malibu Jetprop airplane. Valerie Steen was the pilot who flew to return the remains of Cresson VFD firefighter and EMT Diana Jones, who died just over a year ago as a result of an accident while working in Temaha County in California as a contract firefighter. Steen's husband, Douglas, is a military rescue pilot and works for a medical rescue company.  

The Sheriff's Office assigned a deputy, Casey Wilkins, to accompany Steen and her passenger, on the flight.

The sheriff stated in an email to the HCN, "Sometimes being a lawman has nothing to do with the law," Deeds said. "We just couldn't let him leave on his own, knowing he may never make it back home."

 Steen noted, "I was very thankful, having support from the Sheriff's Office," adding that the elderly man "told me he was looking forward to seeing his wife, and he knew she missed him."

The sheriff stated in an email to the HCN, "By 6:30 p.m. (Sept. 15) the man was safely returned to his home and his family will make plans on how to get the man's vehicle back to New Mexico."

Driving from Granbury to Alamagordo, according to a Google search, takes almost eight and a half hours. Steen told the HCN that the flight took only two hours each way. Coincidentally, Steen's father lives in Albuquerque (about 150 miles north of Alamagordo), so she got an unexpected reward when she also flew there for a brief overnight visit before heading home to Cresson.

When asked about helping out, Steen responded by saying she was "happy to do it."

If not for the option of flying, getting the man home "would have taken many days and resources they (the Sheriff's Office) didn't have," said Steen, who said she was back in Texas by about noon Wednesday.

"This was an important flight for me. I was really happy with the way things turned out," said Steen, who has been a small business owner since 2016 at her avionics shop at Bourland Field called Semiplane, LLC. Steen said that just a few weeks earlier, she had received a Master Aviator Award from the Malibu Meridian Owners Pilots Association.

mark@hcnews.com | 817-573-7066, ext. 269