Police are hours into the desperate search for missing two-year-old Gabriella Vitale. The toddler vanished in a swampy stretch of woodland where she and her family were on vacation. And despite efforts to locate the vulnerable child, there’s no sign of her anywhere. However, just as the night is drawing in, concerns escalate when Gabriella’s distinctive pink coat is found discarded in the wilderness.
In July 2019 two-year-old Gabriella was enjoying a camping trip with her family in some woods near Comins Township in Oscoda County, Michigan. The location offers visitors a taste of rural living, boasting an attractive range of lakes, rivers and forests. Nestled in the Huron National Forest, visitors can go fishing, hunting, walking and camping.
Gabriella and her relatives had traveled to Oscoda County from near Monroe, MI, for a camping vacation. But on July 15, when the family were due to return home, the unimaginable happened. While they were packing up their belongings, they apparently lost sight of their daughter – and she vanished.
At roughly 8:15 a.m., with Gabriella nowhere to be seen, her family alerted police to her disappearance. Local deputies subsequently arrived on the scene, and the hunt for the missing toddler got underway. The investigation would later scale up to involve voluntary search parties, Michigan State Police troopers, conservation officers, air crews and police canines.
Announcing the news of Gabriella’s disappearance on Twitter, the Michigan State Police wrote, “MSP, the Oscoda County Sheriff’s Office and the DNR are mounting a search for two-year-old Gabriella Vitale. She wandered from her campsite on Reber Road west of M-33 this morning and hasn’t been seen since. Anyone with info should contact police ASAP.”
Then, in a follow-up tweet, Michigan State Police provided an update on how the family were holding up in the midst of Gabriella’s disappearance. The post read, “[It is a] very emotional situation for them… and all who are searching for her.” Plus, alongside the tweet, the police department shared two images.
One photograph showed Gabriella wearing a lifejacket and water wings. In the sweet snapshot, she is seen with shoulder-length curly brown hair and has seemingly been caught mid-sentence. The second image, meanwhile, contained a statement from the Oscoda County Sheriff’s Office, which provided some information to help the public find Gabriella.
In the statement, the Sheriff’s Office revealed in great detail what Gabriella may have looked like when she went missing. It read, “She was last seen wearing a pink zip-up coat and pink bottoms. She is believed to be wearing tennis shoes and to have a gray shirt under the jacket. A recent photo will be forthcoming.”
Understandably, the cops were eager to receive any information that could help bring Gabriella to safety. They asked anyone with details that could lead to the discovery of the missing child to contact the Oscoda Central Dispatch Center. What’s more, the Michigan State Police kept the public updated on the search for the youngster via their Twitter feed.
Gabriella’s family also turned to social media in a bid to raise awareness of the search for the toddler. One relative, Sandi Vitale, urged the Facebook community to “be on the lookout for Gabby.” In her heartfelt post, the worried family member added, “And everyone please keep praying to bring this baby back home. Please someone find her…”
Gabriella’s father, Dominic, meanwhile, was seemingly not present on the camping trip. In a July 2019 interview with WNEM-TV, he revealed that he’d only learned that Gabriella was missing when a friend had alerted him to a news story detailing the incident. Presumably, finding out that his daughter had vanished in this way came as quite a shock.
Dominic explained to the Michigan-based TV channel, “I got a message from my friend saying, ‘Did you find your daughter?’ I didn’t know what she was talking about at first – until I saw a link.” He added, “When I saw the link, my heart just dropped. I didn’t really know what to think. All I could think of was holding onto the hope that she’s okay.”
Unfortunately, the first major development in Gabriella’s disappearance did nothing to ease her family’s worry. Hours into the search, police discovered a piece of the toddler’s clothing several hundred feet from the spot where she had last been seen. And yet there was still no sign of the little girl. That same day, Michigan State Police reported the find on Twitter and updated the description of Gabriella’s outfit that they had shared previously.
The tweet from the Michigan State Police provided some information that they presumably hoped would be crucial to finding Gabriella. It read, “She’ll [now] be in the gray shirt. Thanks to neighbors who are on the lookout. Call dispatch with info. If you find clothing, please don’t touch (to keep your scent off).”
Meanwhile, Michigan State Police Lieutenant Travis House reiterated this request in a statement obtained by 9&10 News. He said, “I know we have a lot of public out there that want to help, and we may get to that point. But right now, we’re asking people to stay out of the woods in this area because we have active canines working, and we want to make sure the area is [as] clean as possible when it comes to scent.”
What’s more, Michigan State Police advised volunteers about what to do if they came across an item that they believed could be linked to Gabriella. The department tweeted, “The best thing to do if you find something is to note the location and back out. This will keep the area as fresh as possible for our canine helpers.”
With no further developments, however, the search for Gabriella continued. And as darkness descended over Oscoda County, there was still no sign of the missing toddler. As a result, it looked likely that the efforts to find her would spill over into a second day. Although police promised to keep searching for the two-year-old through the night, the thought of her wandering alone in the dark worried some of those who were following the search on Twitter.
A concerned post from one Twitter user read, “Really hoping to hear good news on this. I won’t be able to sleep thinking of this little one out there tonight. Please keep us posted!” Meanwhile, another person tweeted, “[Gabriella] is two years old; she couldn’t have wandered that far. She [probably] sat down and cried herself to sleep. Hopefully she is found soon and in good health!”
Of course, for parents following the search, the situation was terrifying. One mom with a child the same age as Gabriella tweeted, for instance, “I was just checking for an update, hoping they had found her. My two-year-old is laying in my bed, and I’m just thinking how scared he would be alone in the woods. And now it’s dark, too.”
In the early hours of July 16, Michigan State Police provided another update. It came in the form of a video, which had apparently been taken at the search area. The clip shows a group of people wearing hi-vis vests standing beside a large police truck. By the looks of it, the individuals in the footage are cops and volunteers getting to work before dawn.
The caption that accompanied the clip on Twitter read, “The amount of volunteer search and rescue teams who’ve reported to the command center is remarkable. Plans are being made for overnight and first thing in the morning. Keep Gabriella and her family in your thoughts as the search continues.” And it wasn’t just volunteers who were aiding the police in their search efforts.
In a true display of community spirit, one local fast-food outlet had been keeping those involved in Gabriella’s search fed and watered. A tweet from the Michigan State Police revealed, “The MSP Mobile Command Center has arrived and will become the incident command post. Thanks to the Mio McDonalds for all the food and drink they’ve provided to the search teams and staff.”
The search for Gabriella was largely confined to the woods where she had been camping in when she went missing. But despite the efforts of volunteers, police, a helicopter and sniffer dogs, 24 hours after the toddler disappeared, there was still no sign of her. And in the end, none of these resources would prove to be successful in the search for the child.
However, that’s not to say that there wasn’t a happy ending for Gabriella and her family. Approximately 27 hours after the toddler was reported missing, she turned up on the porch of a cabin. The property is located half a mile away from where the youngster disappeared. And at the time, it was being used by an Oscoda retreat group, who had been following the search for Gabriella via the news.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources later revealed that the individuals using the cabin had assisted in the search for Gabriella. The department told The Detroit News, “The group of people that found [her] was a retreat group who had let law enforcement agents search their cabin’s property for the missing girl [on] Monday night.”
As a result, when the retreat group spotted a little girl outside of their cabin, they were confident that she was indeed Gabriella. They subsequently alerted the Department of Natural Resources. And when Lieutenant Brandon Kieft – a conservation officer – arrived on the scene, he knew that the search for the missing toddler was finally over.
In a statement obtained by USA Today, Kieft revealed Gabriella’s joyous reaction to being found. The first responder said, “I asked her if she wanted to go see mommy, and she lit up. She came right to me and gave me a big hug.” Kieft subsequently transferred the little girl to the natural resources station, where she was given a cookie and some water.
And although Gabriella wasn’t in tip-top shape – she had showed up at the cabin without her pants and footwear and with only half of her shirt – she had nevertheless survived her overnight stint in the woods with just a few bruises and cuts. What’s more, the little girl was in high spirits and seemingly hadn’t suffered any obvious emotional trauma from her ordeal, either.
Just to ensure that Gabriella was well, though, authorities took her to the hospital for a check-up. Giving an update to WNEM-TV, her father, Dominic, said, “Right now, she’s getting fluids and vitals, [and doctors are] making sure everything is normal. She’s a little distraught from not seeing her family for so long – for about 24 hours – but she’s definitely accepting all the love. She wants hugs, [and] she doesn’t want to be let down, so she’s doing good.”
Before arriving at the hospital, Gabriella had enjoyed a spirited reunion with her family at the natural resources station. The hunt for the toddler had involved over 50 searchers, ten dogs and a helicopter. So, given the happy outcome, Gabriella’s relieved mother, Alyssa Bijarro, thanked the many agencies that had tried tirelessly to locate her daughter.
In a statement obtained by The Detroit News, Alyssa said, “We would like to express our thanks to God for keeping our sweet Gabriella safe.” And while the mother’s ordeal was thankfully over, she nevertheless asked people to keep her in their thoughts. She said, “Please continue to keep our family in your prayers as we hold Gabriella in our arms.”
Police later revealed that Gabriella had turned up at the cabin at around 11:30 a.m – just after authorities had resumed their hunt. Since the property was on the edge of the search area, officials were apparently due to check it next. That said, it was nevertheless a surprise that Gabriella had wandered so far. Lieutenant House told The Detroit Post, “She covered quite a bit of ground.”
Meanwhile, Michigan State Police celebrated the happy news that Gabriella had turned up safe and well on its Twitter account. On July 16 the department wrote, “Great news! Gabriella has been found alive. Details to follow when available.” And the tweet was followed by an image of Gabriella enjoying a cookie and a drink of water.
Commenting on Gabriella’s seemingly upbeat attitude, the accompanying caption from the Michigan State Police read, “What a trooper! The searchers are all clearing, and the command center is packing up.” And perhaps unsurprisingly, the update was received positively by the public, attracting close to 450 likes and almost 100 retweets.
Plus, the comments that the photo of Gabriella inspired seemed to capture the sense of relief that many were presumably feeling. One user wrote, “She’s never eaten a cookie that tasted [so] good! Outstanding job to all!” Meanwhile, another user said, “Best news story of the year! She is a miracle. Hugs for the family.”
But while there was widespread happiness that Gabriella had been safely located, some mystery remained around her disappearance. You see, those who’d searched for the little girl seemed surprised that she’d emerged from her ordeal practically unscathed. As Lieutenant House later explained to The Detroit News, “[Gabriella] seems relatively unfazed for a two-year-old who’s been in the woods overnight.”
In a separate statement, which was given to WNEM-TV, House confessed that those searching for Gabriella had been concerned for her safety. He said, “We were all very worried about her wellbeing, and for her to pop up relatively healthy and even in good spirits, we couldn’t be happier.”
It’s worth noting that the woods in which Gabriella got lost could have posed a number of risks for her. They contain wetland areas and swamps, after all. That said, Gabriella did get lucky with the weather, which was apparently unusually warm for northern Michigan at that time of year: overnight temperatures only dropped to 72°F rather than the average of 56°F.
So, the warmer-than-normal weather certainly aided Gabriella. But the fact that she’d survived overnight in a forest and come to minimal harm was remarkable for a two-year-old. And we’ll likely never know just how she managed to keep safe. Lieutenant House explained to The Detroit News, “She’s only two and not overly verbal. So, exactly what she experienced might be a mystery.”
However, those searching for Gabriella were just glad to have found her before she did come to any harm. And, given her astonishingly young age, she deserves credit for approaching the cabin where she could be spotted by concerned adults. Lieutenant House told The Detroit News, “We are ecstatic she’s been found. She certainly helped by finding a residence.”