Trudy Gunn, left, who rescued Tameka Boone, right, when she was a toddler.

Woman taken as a baby reunites with her swamp rescuer. But questions linger over her disappearance

Updated 1249 GMT (2049 HKT) April 27, 2021

(CNN)When Tameka Boone walked into a Virginia dentist's office in late February for a six-month checkup, she never expected to come face to face with the woman who saved her life when she was a toddler.

Tameka, nicknamed "lost and found" as a child by her family, recognized the name "Trudy Gunn" on the appointment screen while being prepped for teeth cleaning.
Tameka, 36, told her story to the dental hygienist, asking if she could meet the woman she had been told rescued her from a swamp after she went missing from her home when she was 19 months old. Even though family members told her she had met Gunn in passing as a young child years later, Tameka said she had always wanted to talk to the woman -- not only to thank her but to hear for herself what had happened.
Gunn, 61, was not expecting to see Tameka at the dentist's office either but told CNN she never forgot about the toddler she found sitting alone on a tree stump in the swamp. Tameka's request was granted and it was a joyous reunion as the two tearfully hugged, took photos and talked about that terrifying day.
"I was excited to meet her, but the emotions she had in the moment made me emotional," Tameka said. "I was especially emotional when she said she thought about me all the time ... I wasn't just an afterthought, it's the caring for me."
Vowing to keep in touch, the women exchanged numbers. But the surprise meeting reignited Tameka's curiosity about her disappearance.

'Lord, let me find her and let her be OK'

On April 27, 1986, Shelia Lewis, Tameka's aunt, and Julia Boone, Tameka's mother, left the family house in Branchville, Virginia, early in the morning to go to the store while Tameka stayed behind with other family members, Lewis told CNN. When the sisters returned hours later, children were playing in the yard, but there was no sign of Tameka. Her mother called for her, the family looked around the house and the neighbor's house for about 30 minutes before realizing that she was missing. The family was "afraid, frantic," Lewis told CNN.
After calling the police, a communitywide search began, with a helicopter from a nearby hospital, search dogs, search and rescue organizations and local and state police officers assisting in the nearly eight-hour effort, according to a local news report.
Gunn was home nearly three miles away when a friend and then volunteer firefighter, Bob Beatty, told her a child was missing. Gunn and Beatty drove to the search area with her two horses and began looking for Boone in a wooded area. While on horseback, Gunn and Beatty waded through swamp water that she says was "up to the stomach of the horses" and searched for hours while calling Tameka's name.
"I kept praying, 'Lord, let me find her and let her be OK,'" Gunn told CNN.
Tree stump where Tameka Boone was found by rescuers Trudy Gunn and Bob Beatty in 1986.
At dusk, their prayers were answered, for when she called out Tameka's name that time, she heard a cry.
Gunn said she and Beatty followed the sound to a large tree lying in water and behind it the toddler was sitting on a stump surrounded by two to three feet of swamp water. She was wearing one shoe, her sweater was missing and there was a bump and small scratches on her forehead, according to Gunn and a sheriff's office records.
The pair were joyous with relief. Beatty rode ahead to let search crews know Tameka had been found while Gunn said she walked her horse out of the woods while holding the toddler in her arms, talking to her "to reassure her she would be OK." Once out of the woods, Gunn recalled handing Boone to a paramedic to check her for injuries before the child was taken to a nearby hospital.
Lewis said the family was "excited, happy, joyful" when Tameka was found, but also "were even more careful to not let her out of our sights for even a minute."
"Life was always good, but we were more protective of her and each other," she said.

Shoe prints and tire tracks

Investigating officers declined to speak to CNN and one has since died, according to the Southampton County Sheriff's Office, but the case file, obtained by CNN via a Freedom of Information Act request, sheds light on the investigation.
According to Southampton County Sheriff's Office records, Tameka was reported missing from the family house at 12:20 p.m. and was found at 7:30 p.m. a mile away. Photos taken at the scene by investigators show shoe prints and tire tracks on a path near where she was rescued. There is also a hand-drawn map by investigators of the search area that shows a trail of shoe prints. An investigator noted in one report there were signs someone "scrambled over the tree trunk" and that Tameka had been placed on the stump. There was an "undistinguishable footprint leaving the area" that did not belong to Beatty, who was with the investigator at the time, according to the report.
Tire tracks at the scene near where Tameka Boone was rescued in 1986.