published Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Chattanooga police end search on Tennessee River for escaped patient

Officers and rescue personnel prepare to search for Waylon Farless, who escaped from Moccasin Bend Mental Health Facility. Witnesses saw Farless in the middle of the river, struggling before he became submerged.
Officers and rescue personnel prepare to search for Waylon Farless, who escaped from Moccasin Bend Mental Health Facility. Witnesses saw Farless in the middle of the river, struggling before he became submerged.
Photo by Angela Lewis.
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Police concluded the water search for a man who escaped a local mental health facility by leaping into the Tennessee River on Wednesday. The man remains missing more than 24 hours after witnesses say they saw him sink in the water.

But good news surfaced in a separate, alcohol-fueled river incident when police located a 27-year-old woman alive and well at her Chattanooga home after she jumped into the river about 1 a.m. Wednesday and couldn't be found.

Officials with Moccasin Bend Mental Health Facility reported to police that Waylon Farless, 36, escaped one of their buildings and went into the river at about 7 p.m. Tuesday. Witnesses told police they saw him swim about halfway across the river before calling for help, then submerging.

Searchers still had not determined if Farless was able to reach the shore or drowned but finished operations on the river Wednesday evening, police said.

At a news conference Wednesday morning, Chattanooga police Chief Bobby Dodd advised anyone who sees Farless to contact authorities. If Farless did drown, it will likely be two to three days before the body surfaces, Dodd said.

Farless was in Moccasin Bend on a criminal hold from DeKalb County, Tenn. Before Farless was admitted to the mental health facility, he had been charged with driving on a revoked license and theft of property over $1,000, according to a blog kept by DeKalb County Sheriff Patrick Ray.

The 156-pound, 5-foot-9 man was last seen wearing a black T-shirt and gray shorts. He has red hair and blue eyes.

A few hours after Farless' escape, in an unrelated incident, William Toner, 40, and Ashley Smart were seen jumping into the river near the Market Street bridge. Patrol officers were able to rescue Toner with the help of a private boater, but they couldn't find Smart.

Dodd said the search operation was called off early this morning as divers encountered problems in the dark waters. Police had planned to resume searching for Smart this morning but investigators discovered she'd made it out of the river and walked home.

Police say the pair had been drinking downtown before the swim. Toner was arrested on charges of public intoxication and reckless endangerment, Dodd said. Both he and Smart may face civil penalties for the cost of the searches, Dodd said.

The speedy current, unseen underwater obstacles and other dangers create a risky environment and swimming in the river at night and under the influence of alcohol was simply "stupid," the chief said.

A Chattanooga visitor saw much of the incident.

Spencer Heselden, 17, said that, just before 1 a.m., he heard a splash in the water as he sat with friends on a houseboat docked at the riverside. Within minutes, police officers rushed to the waterside and three of them loaded onto a small speedboat and rescued Toner about midway in the river, the Columbus, Ohio, resident said.

"They got right out there," said Heselden, who is on a week-long houseboat trip from Spring City, Tenn., to Chattanooga. "Another two or three minutes and that guy would have been dead."

Staff writer Kate Harrison contributed to this report.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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