WAYNESBORO, Ga. — More than 100 people gathered Friday at Burkeland Gardens to search for Arletha Diane Bennett, a 77-year-old Alzheimer’s patient who disappeared from her home on Herman Lodge Boulevard last week.
“I’m asking you to stick it out and go the full distance,” Waynesboro police Chief Augustus Palmer III told the crowd of paramedics, firefighters, police officers and volunteers moments before the search began at 10:30 a.m. “Don’t leave any stone unturned. If you see anything out of the ordinary, check it. It’s incumbent on us to do everything in our power to bring her home.”
Bennett taught for 35 years in the Burke County School System as an elementary teacher and is known for her caring but orderly approach to education and life.
Using all-terrain vehicles, police helicopters and paper maps, residents and public safety officials were split into teams and started by canvassing areas that Bennett is known to walk.
Groups started on Ninth Street and took Quaker Road past Lovers Lane to the Waynesboro city limits. They knocked on doors, distributed fliers and looked under and inside every house, building and vehicle they could find.
Police officers from at least 10 departments, from as far away as Atlanta and Savannah, covered the surrounding rural areas, 13 miles outside the city to where Georgia highways 80 and 305 meet.
The search ended about 4 p.m. with no sign of Bennett.
Bennett’s older brother, Hyland Bennett, traveled from Colorado Springs, Colo., to help with the search. He said his sister disappeared from her bed sometime between 11 p.m. Jan. 16, and 1 a.m. Jan. 17. Her caretaker called 911 when it was discovered she was gone.
“We want you to come back home,” he said to his sister, hoping she sees stories of the search in the news. “We love you.”
Bennett said that the farthest his sister would wander was next door and that police have not found any personal belongings she had when she went missing.
Lt. Teddy Jackson, the investigator in charge of Bennett’s disappearance, said Waynesboro police have held two briefings a day and conducted four organized searches since she disappeared. He does not suspect foul play yet.
“We’re going to double- and triple-check every block in hopes of finding anything that might link her to the area,” he said. “We want to bring her home safe.”
Bennett is black; 5 feet, 8 inches tall; and weighs 160 pounds. She has brown eyes and black hair, and was wearing navy blue pajamas with white polka dots.
Her brother, who last saw her in July while visiting for his daughter’s wedding at Fort Gordon, said she has a medical shoe on her fractured right foot and a slipper on the other foot.
Waynesboro residents and neighbors described Bennett as quiet but loving and said she is best known for her teaching career.
“She did not have any children, but she treated her students as if they were her own,” her brother said.
Chris Henry, the assistant superintendant for Burke County schools, said Bennett joined the district in 1959, one year after graduating from Fort Valley State College with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. He said she taught at Blakeney Elementary School until 1993, when she retired. During her career, Henry said, Bennett returned to Fort Valley State to get her master’s degree and did additional graduate work at Georgia Southern University.
“We’re at the point where people are just baffled and really scared for her well-being,” Henry said. “We hope she’s found safe.”
Jeff Phillips and his sister, Missy Kelly, volunteered Friday to search for Bennett, their fifth-grade teacher 40 years ago.
The siblings said Bennett ran an orderly classroom and had a structured lesson plan.
“When I found out she was missing, my heart ached,” Kelly said. “I had to help. That could have been my mother, my father.”
Phillips, a local surveyor, said he has searched the area on and off the job each day since Bennett’s disappearance.
“Every afternoon,” he said. “She gave me so much when I was growing up. It’s the least I can do.”
Anyone who sees Bennett is asked to call the Waynesboro Police Department at (706) 554-8029.