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Monday, Mar 27, 2017
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Community, deputies rally to bring a lost little girl home to Brandon

BRANDON — Sometime after 9 p.m. Tuesday, 11-year-old Jenna Irmler grabbed her plaid, monogrammed backpack and slipped away from home as her parents and three sisters went to sleep.

Those who know her say she's shy, but few knew she also struggled with Asperger's syndrome, which can cause behavioral problems. It would be 37 hours before a passing stranger and a store clerk spotted the girl some 30 miles from her Brandon home and still on the move.

But what happened between a brief 9 p.m. exchange with her parents in their kitchen Tuesday, and the police ride home from a dairy farm in Pasco County remained a mystery Thursday.

She could not have foreseen the explosion of concern and action it took to bring her home, most from a community fearful of how her story could end.

Neighbors and strangers blitzed social media, and businesses printed thousands of fliers for free, posting them in shop windows and on parked cars. Hundreds from throughout the area aided law enforcement in their search with dogs, bikes, ATVs, horses, helicopters, airboats, kayaks, dive teams and patrol cars.

It paid off.

"Clearly she was not ready to be found," said Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee, though it's unclear why that was the case. "We're assuming it's related to some of emotional situation she had going on."

Shortly after authorities expanded the search nationwide, a store clerk and Richard Brown, a north Valrico resident, called the Sheriff's Office after they saw a girl matching Jenna's description at a Circle K along the Paul Buchman Highway in southern Pasco County.

Brown, who had spent Wednesday night searching with his wife, spotted Jenna while riding his motorcycle.

She didn't answer to her name. Her dark brown hair was shorter than on the police flier. Brown called 911 anyway. After a deputy picked up Jenna midmorning, Brown called his wife, crying with relief.

"I could not imagine how her parents felt last night," he said. "She's safe. That's all that matters."

Jenna was returned to her home off Bell Shoals Road in a convoy of six unmarked sheriff's vehicles. With her mother's hand on her back, the girl quickly made her way inside the home, which was surrounded by police tape, media trucks and Sheriff's Office cruisers.

Parents Jason and Rebekah Irmler realized Jenna was missing about 5:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Jenna attends Nativity Catholic School in Brandon and went on a field trip to Nature's Classroom the day she disappeared. Teachers say she seemed to enjoy herself, jumping into waist-deep water in a nearby river and posing for pictures in a bear fur.

She likes reading, walking in the woods and Pokemon Go, friends said, but her closest friend had recently moved.

Jenna's great aunt, Sharon Deputy, wondered if she was trying to reach her great-grandmother, who lives next door to them in Crystal Springs.

"When it went overnight it was scary," the aunt said. "And when they were talking about the number of predators around, that was really scary."

With each passing hour that Jenna was missing, community members grew more anxious.

Staffers at her school blasted out emails, fliers and phone calls. Parents organized those wanting to join in the search outside the Beef 'O' Brady's off Bell Shoals Road on Wednesday night, as at least 100 filtered in and out with new batches of fliers and possible locations to search.

Within minutes of the group's arrival, patrons inside the restaurant went hungry to join in the search, including an inebriated patron so overcome with emotion that he had to be consoled.

The nearby Bloomingdale Chiropractic Clinic used its large LED billboard to display Jenna's photo and the Sheriff's Office hotline number. Employees at several fitness centers helped run fliers up and down intersections to drivers stopped at lights. McDonald's gave volunteers free cheeseburgers and parfaits, and a Riverview plumbing company set out portable toilets at command centers.

Once she was found, the outpouring of support for Jenna and her family didn't stop. Family members declined requests to talk to the media, but couldn't resist taking to social media to thank those in the community who had come to their aid.

"Thank you everyone for the tremendous amount of love, support and prayers!!" Rebekah Irmler posted to the "Find Jenna" Facebook group. "We could not have done this without you guys!!"

Staff writer Tony Marrero and Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Anastasia Dawson at adawson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3377. Follow @ADawson writes

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