James Henry Towler, Sr. – Master Sergeant, United States Air Force

14 June 2007
Courtesy of the Laurel Leader

The family of James Henry Towler Sr. never held a funeral for the 77-year-old Laurel resident and Alzheimer's patient, who wandered away from his son's home on September 4, 2006 and was not seen for more than six months.

But now that a body discovered on March 27, 2007, near his son's home on Snow Acres Drive where he lived, has been identified as Towler's, the family will give the retired Air Force Master Sergeant a proper burial in Arlington National Cemetery.

“I'm an only child and he always told me he wanted to be buried at Arlington,” said Towler's son, James Towler Jr.

No date for the funeral has been set.

Although Towler's body was found by a neighbor in a wooded area about 200 yards from Towler's son's home in late March, it took medical examiners until May 28 to make a positive identification.

Towler's dental and other medical records were in military archives out of state, and his son said police told him “it takes a long time to get records from the military.”

Additionally, according to Towler's granddaughter, Keva Ballard, when the records arrived they were lost.

Police wound up bringing in a forensic dentist to help identify the body, she said.

No cause of death was determined by the medical examiner, but police officials said the skeletal remains did not show any sign of trauma.

“I can live with that,” the younger Towler said. “He could have had a heart attack.”

‘He'd bail you out'

Towler described his father as a strong disciplinarian, who, even during memory lapses, talked a lot about his 26-year military career and spent a lot of time helping others.

“My dad was always running something, like trying to get legal help for somebody, raising funds for a widows' club, and if you were in a jam, he'd bail you out. A lot of people depended on him,” Towler said.

To Ballard, Towler was “Pa Pa” — someone who joked a lot, took her swimming at Andrews Air Force Base and watched the airplanes take off and land with her when she was a child.

“He did a lot of traveling and we went white- water rafting in West Virginia when he was 70. We had a lot of fun but it was scary and he said he'd never do that again,” Ballard said with a laugh.

When Towler began to lose his memory, Ballard lived with him for several months in his home in the District before he moved to Laurel early last year.

“I knew he didn't need a nursing home and needed to be around people and not just alone in his house all day,” Towler said.

Ballard and her two siblings last saw their grandfather on Labor Day last year, at a cookout at their dad's home. She remembered him joking and playing with her eight- and four-year-old boys.

On the day Towler disappeared, his son said his memory seemed to be fine. The two had been sitting on a deck in the back of the house, talking.

“I went downstairs for a bit and when my wife went to make lunch, he wasn't there or in his room,” Towler said.

His father had wandered from the house occasionally in the past, Towler said, but had always been found. But this time, after searching for him with no luck, the family called the police.

Search dogs delayed

Ballard, who has been highly critical of the way her grandfather's case was handled by Prince George's County police, said it took four hours for search dogs to be brought in and it was days before a helicopter was used.

“I kept asking for a helicopter,” she said. “Three to four days later, they sent a helicopter, but it wasn't much use at that point. I feel they didn't treat it as an urgent matter.”

Her father agreed.

“I'm not going to say they did a bad job, but they didn't do an excellent job,” Towler said. “They didn't seem like there was any urgency. By the time the dogs got here it was dark.”

According to county police, the search dogs were not immediately available when the case was reported.

Police also said that even though Towler's body was found about 200 yards from his son's home, there may have been a lot of foot traffic in the area, which could have thrown off the dogs.

“The dogs did work all through the area,” said Corporal Debbi Carlson, a police spokeswoman.

Hard on family

The family said it was hard to learn that Towler's body had been so close during the many months he was missing — especially, his son said, because during the search he had walked about 25 yards from where his dad's remains were eventually found.

“The dogs weren't on that side of the street, but I was,” Towler said. “But I didn't think he could get up that hill into the woods.”

As she prepares for her grandfather's funeral, Ballard is also busy getting a petition drive together to ask Congress to establish a national alert for missing adults who suffer from Alzheimer's.

“I'd like to see an alert established like the Amber alert for (missing) children because I know we're not the only ones who have gone through this,” Ballard said. “I also hope the police will use our experience to help others and make these cases more urgent, and maybe get more training on how to search for Alzheimer's victims.”

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