At the peak of the crisis, an estimated 1,500 individuals were involved in the mission to find the missing boy.
Tommy, the son of Carl and Johanna Richardson, had been playing hide-and-seek with his younger brother and children of neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Medley Huffman near their Robinson Township homes when Tommy spied three male “strangers” in a vehicle come to a stop. A report stated the strangers talked to some of the boys, which alarmed Tommy. He imagined his friends might be abducted, so he ran.
The “strangers” had presented no danger and there was nothing suspicious about them. The three men were friends from Grand Rapids who were at the woods to hunt for mushrooms. But, nevertheless, Tommy was gone.
Fearing for the worse, a massive search party organized by sundown. Deputies, state troopers, Civil Defense units, Explorer scouts, police officers from area cities, firemen, National Guardsmen and citizens combed an area between 104th and 112th avenues, between Osborn and Johnson streets.
After a single shoe identified as belonging to the child was discovered, two bloodhounds were brought in. The dogs lost the scent in the woods and the trail went cold. So did the temperature, as night set in.
By now, about 100 state troopers were involved in the search, and the American Red Cross and Salvation Army set up stations to provide searchers with food and beverages.
Adding to the fear was a reminder of a similar search in magnitude that had taken place near Holland less than a year earlier. In that case, two girls — Margaret Chambers, 12; and Carol Gee, 11 — went missing and were discovered dead two days later. A 16-year-old neighbor boy was arrested and confessed to shooting the pair to death.
The next morning, on May 8, deputies seemed to be preparing Tommy’s mother for the worst.
“They said something about God gives life and takes it,” Mrs. Richardson told the Grand Haven Tribune.
It was feared that Tommy might have perished. But at about 1:30 that afternoon, 38-year-old volunteer Henry VanderWall was combing the woods when he heard a voice.
“I was about three blocks in from the north side of Johnson when I heard something,” VanderWall told the Tribune. “Every once in a while I would hear something. I kept moving back.”
Then he unmistakably heard the voice of a child say, “Dear Lord, get me out of here! Dear God, get me out of here!”
It was Tommy. He was found hiding in a swamp about 2 miles from home. VanderWall heard Tommy praying and asking God for help as he approached.
“What are you doing here?” Tommy reportedly asked.
“Looking for you!” VanderWall replied. He then picked up the child, draped his cold body with his coat, and Tommy was off to the hospital where he checked out remarkably after his 20-hour exploit.
The story was carried by The Associated Press and published in newspapers around the country; and for Ottawa County residents, it was an experience that united the community.
Almost 50 years after Tom Richardson went missing, he can be found still living in Robinson Township. In fact, he makes his home with his wife, Jordan, and five children next door to his childhood home. What remains of the undeveloped woods is within eyeshot.
“There are only a few things you might remember from age of 3 or 5,” Richardson said. “And that’s one thing I’ve never forgotten.”
Richardson, now 54, still recalls seeing the strange men that frightened him that day.
“They were carrying buckets and big knives — you know, to cut the mushrooms off,” he said. “At that age, my imagination got carried away. You’d think after that experience I’d be scared of the woods, but I’m not. I love to hunt and hang out there, it’s a place you can relax.”