Rusty Fitchlee (left) and family stopped by The Ada News to thank the paper for helping to spread the word about the search for him Thursday evening. Fitchlee shook hands and posed for a photo with reporter Carl Lewis, who covered the story of his disappearance.

LeaAnn Wells / The Ada News

The family of Rusty Fitchlee, a 54-year-old man from Byng who suffers from Down syndrome, said they are grateful for his safe return.

On Thursday, Fitchlee did not return from what his sister, Janice Palmer, described as “a simple, routine walk” around 1:45 p.m.

“He was helping me pull weeds in the garden a little after 1:30,” Palmer said. “When I looked up, I saw him and the dog going off and I just thought, ‘Well, he’s going on his walk.’”

Palmer said she searched for Fitchlee for two hours but became concerned when he didn’t respond to her calls for him to come home.

She called Central Dispatch at 3:46 p.m. to report Fitchlee missing, and a search ensued.

Law enforcement officers, emergency personnel and volunteers searched the area around the family’s home into the night, but Fitchlee was nowhere to be found.

Around 9:45 a.m. Friday, Fitchlee emerged from the woods on the north side of the family’s property, relatively unharmed, notwithstanding a few scratches on his arms and legs and an abrasion and large bruise on his right thigh from what he described as a “fall.”

He walked out of the woods and approached his brother-in-law Tommy Palmer, who was speaking with Deputy Kenny Heck about the search.

Palmer said he was surprised to see Fitchlee stroll out of the woods like it was “no big deal.”

Fitchlee said he heard coyotes and an owl, but he never heard the voices of rescue workers calling out to him in the night.

The family said they believe Fitchlee simply became disoriented and accidentally wandered off the standard route he has taken on his walks for years.

The Palmers said they are relieved and grateful to have Fitchlee back home where he belongs, and they would like to thank everyone involved in Fitchlee’s rescue.

In a statement provided to The Ada News, the family said they wanted to specifically thank:

“Sheriff John Christian, all deputies, state troopers, police officers, firemen, Chickasaw Nation Lighthorsemen, search and rescue personnel, friends, family and strangers who unselfishly gave their time searching for Rusty.”

The Palmers said those who helped search, and those who prayed for Fitchlee’s rescue — sending thoughts and well-wishes on Facebook — will “always be in our prayers.”

The family also thanked The Ada News and reporter Carl Lewis for promptly getting the information out about the search for Fitchlee on the newspaper’s website and social media.