Editor’s note: This adventure includes altercation of suicide. If you or addition you apperceive is because suicide, acquaintance the Civic Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/ or alarm the Crisis Centermost of Tampa Bay by dialing 2-1-1.
Click actuality to apprehend this adventure in Spanish
Gabriel’s mom keeps replaying that night.
She basic him to apple-pie the kitchen: Wash the dishes, she told him. Clear the counters. There’s no allowance for groceries.
Gabriel Cordova Tejada, 20, was lying on the active allowance sofa, belief for an assay he had to booty the abutting morning at the University of South Florida.
“Okay,” he said, afterwards attractive up from his laptop.
But aback his mom and adolescent brother came aback from Costco — on Feb. 21, 2018 — Gabriel was comatose on the couch. The bore was full, the adverse chaotic with schoolwork and mail.
Angela Tejada, afresh 55, woke him, fussing.
She was fatigued out, a little added affronted than normal, said Gabriel’s brother, Emilio, who is two years younger. But Gabriel didn’t argue. He seemed agitated with himself.
He agitated his computer into his bedchamber and shut the door.
Over the aftermost few months, he had been spending added time in his room. His ancestors anticipation it was because his academy classes were accepting harder.
“I didn’t anticipate annihilation of it,” Emilio said.
The abutting morning, about 5:30, Emilio larboard to bolt the bus to aerial school. An hour later, Gabriel collection his mom to her job at a adjacent medical office, breadth she works in collections. Gabby, are you okay? Do you accept your lunch? his mom asked.
“He said yes, and good-bye, like normal,” she said.
Gabriel was declared to go aback to their St. Petersburg condo, get his backpack, afresh drive beyond the arch to Tampa to booty his 9 a.m. exam.
When Emilio came home from academy aloof afterwards noon, he saw his brother’s buzz on the coffee table and thought: Maybe he forgot it. Minutes later, he noticed that it was scratched.
Someone had categorical numbers into the screen: Gabriel’s passcode.
“I apart it,” Emilio said. “That’s aback I begin the note.”
Almost two years accept anesthetized now, and no one has apparent or heard from Gabriel. Badge accept run out of leads.
His mom is assertive she knows what happened.
His brothers achievement she’s wrong.
In the Dominican Republic, breadth Gabriel grew up, best of his ancestors lived nearby. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, array of cousins all broadcast about the basic city, Santo Domingo. His parents had breach up aback he was small, but his dad was abutting by. Gabriel and Emilio went to the aforementioned academy for 10 years, had accepted classmates all their lives.
But in 2013, Angela grew abashed for her sons. They were teenagers then, and gangs were acquisition in the streets afterwards dark. “A lot of bad actuality started accident about us: robberies, assaults, alike the badge were involved,” she said. “I basic my boys to be safe.”
Her oldest son, Mario, had abashed to Florida eight years beforehand and become a pilot. He and his wife were adopting three sons in Seminole. Angela, who formed in accounts at the U.S. Embassy, anchored address permits for herself, Gabriel and Emilio, and followed Mario to Tampa Bay.
She enrolled the boys at St. Petersburg High.
“It took awhile for him to adjust,” Emilio said of his brother. “I came as a freshman, starting new with anybody else. But Gabriel came afterwards anybody already had their groups.”
Gabriel took art classes, painting still lifes of abridged accolade adjoin sunshiney backgrounds. He approved out for the bathe aggregation but couldn’t absolutely accumulate up. Afterwards school, he volunteered in the allowance boutique at St. Anthony’s Hospital and, admitting he was acutely shy, affected himself to accomplish chat with barter and co-workers.
At home, Gabriel played Alarm of Duty and Zelda with his brother. He cuddled his cat, Kikita. Watched Marvel movies. Fabricated up songs on his guitar. “He was absolutely appealing good,” Emilio said.
One day, aback Gabriel was 15, he started singing loudly, prancing about the active room, animated and strumming his guitar. “He was really, absolutely happy. Absolutely hyper,” said his mom. “Which wasn’t him. He kept adage he was activity to address adulation songs and accomplish the apple a bigger place.”
“All of a sudden, he was so manic,” Emilio said. “It bent us all off-guard.”
The abutting day, Gabriel was sobbing, adage he basic to annihilate himself. His mom took him to the pediatrician, who beatific him to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed him as bipolar. Gabriel kept seeing a counselor, on and off, for years. But his mom said he never took any medication, never had addition episode. Never mentioned suicide again.
Graduation photos actualization Gabriel animated with his family. In the 2015 yearbook, below his arch portrait, he chose this quote: “Time has no refunds. So absorb it right.”
He becoming a Bright Futures Scholarship, abundant to awning charge at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He enrolled in the engineering school, admitting he wasn’t abiding what acreage he would follow. He got a job on the top attic of the apprentice center, 20 hours a week, processing purchasing requests from undergraduate groups.
Some days, he collection the 45-minute drive in his mom’s old Camry. Added days, he rode the bus, which took alert as long.
He was never late. Never complained, said his supervisor, Mike Stuben. “He spent all day amidst by acceptance who had added privilege, but he was never absinthian or grumpy. He talked with acknowledgment about all he had,” Stuben said. “We knew he had this absolutely able ancestors he admired and was committed to.
“He seemed shy, but never unhappy.”
Genane Bien-Aime, who formed with Gabriel at USF, said he was quiet. “Literally quiet. Aback he did speak, which was rare, you had to angular in to apprehend him.”
Bien-Aime is from Haiti, and she alleged Gabriel “my island brother.” She fabricated it her mission to draw him out, apprenticeship him to allocution louder, agitate people’s hands, attending them in the eye. “He started aperture up, at atomic to me,” she said. “He’d allocution about politics, his family, food. He never bought lunch, consistently brought it from home in these little Tupperware containers.” He told her about a bowl his mom made, candied beans with sugar. “The abutting day, he brought some for the absolute office.”
He was respectful, professional, consistently wore continued pants and Polo shirts. He was the abandoned apprentice in the office, she said, who kept his board clean. He didn’t assume to accept abounding friends.
“You could acquaint he was abutting to his mom,” she said. “His face lit up aback he talked about her. He would airing to the bookstore sometimes, afterwards work, and buy her little things with the USF logo.”
In the abatement of 2017, Gabriel told co-workers that he had to acquisition an internship in his field, engineering. He was activity to accept to abdicate animate in that office. Alike on his aftermost day, his bang-up said, “he was demography addendum on how to get better, so he could leave advice that would advice alternation the abutting apprentice to do the job.”
He came aback a brace of times, to visit. His classes were activity well, he said. Abreast the end of that semester, he chock-full by to ambition anybody blessed holidays.
The abutting time co-workers saw him was at the apprentice center, in the aliment court, his face analytical out from a missing actuality poster.
The agenda was in Spanish, a announcement typed in Gabriel’s phone. Emilio apprehend it twice, aggravating to accomplish it accomplish sense. The time brand was from three hours earlier: 9:06 a.m. It wasn’t addressed to anyone. It started with a catechism mark.
“You accept every appropriate to be disappointed,” Gabriel had written. “I’m demography advantage of you, of your generosity, your sacrifice, your patience, your health, your life. … I’m an anchor, don’t accusation yourself … ”
From age 7 or 8, Gabriel wrote, he had anticipation of himself as “dysfunctional and dim … slow, bipolar, socially abandoned … ” Maybe it was because of a actinic imbalance, he typed, or “because I’m bedevilled by Beelzebub …
“Today, I’ve absitively to booty the best egocentric activity for addition in my advantaged position,” said the note. “No, amuse don’t cry for me … I don’t appetite any added absorption than a burst ant.”
It concluded with a cryptic message: “I won one of Darwin’s prizes.”
Emilio anticipation he knew what that meant: Gabriel had set out to do article chiefly stupid. Darwin Awards are bestowed annually to bodies who die in the dumbest ways.
Shocked and scared, Emilio alleged his mom, who didn’t answer. So he alleged his oldest brother, Mario, afresh 30, who rushed to aces up their mom at work. Aback they got home, the Camry was in the parking lot, the keys on the angle aloof central the door.
Emilio had begin Gabriel’s backpack, laptop, wallet, lunch, alike his admired sneakers. He handed his mom Gabriel’s phone. Mario dialed 911.
An administrator accustomed quickly, but he told Angela that Gabriel was old abundant to airing away.
He was accurately an adult, admitting additionally advised endangered below Suzanne’s Law. Part of the Amber Alert system, the federal authorization says badge should not delay to alpha investigating a missing actuality below age 21.
“I anticipation maybe if they started analytic sooner, they could acquisition him afore he did … whatever,” his mom said.
A timeline from the St. Petersburg Badge Administration says that admiral alleged hospitals and the bastille that afternoon, searched the actual area.
Gabriel’s brothers, and the aliment man from the Enclave address complex, additionally scoured the four-acre property. It’s belted in, with a passcode to get through the gate. In the back, there’s a spring-fed pond, amidst by woods, which they combed.
His mom backward home — in case Gabriel came back. “He wasn’t absolutely independent. He wouldn’t aloof go off by himself, or go affected out or something,” she said.
Was he activity to annihilate himself? she wondered. He had no gun, that she knew of, not alike a hunting knife. Had he already done it? Maybe he got hurt? Or aloof absolved abroad — to escape, to abuse his mom, to accomplish it easier on everyone.
Angela kept picturing Gabriel alone, algid and frightened, absent or injured, desperate. As the hours abject on, she absurd atramentous baptize and alligators. The abutting morning, she went to badge to appeal a added investigation.
That afternoon, about 30 hours afterwards Emilio begin Gabriel’s note, admiral alleged in bloodhounds from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Appointment and a helicopter from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. The dogs sniffed Gabriel’s hoodie but abandoned followed his aroma to Martin Luther King Jr. Street. The helicopter angry on bittersweet lights that ascertain anatomy calefaction but didn’t acquisition any below the close foliage. Admiral scoured bounded businesses, but no one had apparent Gabriel.
They entered him in a civic missing bodies database, aggregate his case on the badge Facebook page, alleged TV stations, told his adventure in English and Spanish. It’s cryptic whether they arrested cameras from the burghal bus, which chock-full a few blocks from his home. Or talked to anyone at the city Greyhound station. “There’s no log of who was interviewed in this case,” said St. Petersburg Badge Sgt. Al Cope. He supervises the claimed abandon assemblage now but wasn’t circuitous in the chase for Gabriel.
“There’s no aberration in agreement for bodies with brainy illness, or who ability be suicidal,” Cope said. “There’s a lot of places to adumbrate if you don’t appetite to be found.”
Four canicule afterwards Gabriel went missing, badge brought over anatomy dogs. The abutting day, they contacted accompany and co-workers from aerial academy and college. They searched his corpuscle and laptop. His brothers looked through Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter accounts, arrested YouTube downloads. Annihilation suspicious, no clues. His mom alleged the bank. His annual hadn’t been touched.
A ceremony afterwards he disappeared, his ancestors begin a clandestine investigator, who helped them book fliers. Angela abashed them up all over St. Petersburg and kept a assemblage in her car, to accord to strangers. “Last apparent cutting jeans and a gray T-shirt,” the flier said. It included two photos, one of Gabriel in advanced of a sky-blue background, staring beeline ahead, expressionless. The added of him captivation his black-and-white cat.
“People I didn’t alike apperceive kept cogent me to accept acceptance in God. But that fabricated me mad,” Angela said. “I’m not a churchgoer. I don’t pray. I apperceive it’s not real.”
What was worse, she said, were all the bodies alms theories about what ability accept happened.
What if he had amnesia, they said, and didn’t apperceive who or breadth he was? What if he had fled to accompany ISIS? What if he had gone to the Dominican Republic and was ambuscade bottomward there? What if addition had kidnapped him? Maybe he was actuality sex trafficked.
About 600,000 bodies go missing in the United States every year, according to the Civic Missing and Unidentified Bodies System. Abounding are begin aural a brace of days, unharmed. Others are victims of crimes, whose bodies get discovered. Some aberrate away, confused. A few plan their own escapes.
An estimated 100,000 cases abide accessible annually.
In Florida, 1,399 missing bodies cases are accessible — dating to 1960.
Pinellas County has 67 advancing investigations, including bristles from 2018, the year Gabriel disappeared.
His case is different, badge and added experts said. He wasn’t accepted to do drugs, alcohol or break out overnight. His amphitheater of accompany and ancestors was small. There was no abomination scene, no signs of violence. “Here’s a advantageous adolescent man, with no history of chancy behavior,” said St. Petersburg badge backer Yolanda Fernandez.
Gabriel’s dematerialization was accounting up in the apprentice paper, and Spanish-language stations aired abbreviate segments.
Of all the bodies who go missing, white, college-age women draw the best media coverage, said Bryanna Fox, an accessory abettor in USF’s criminology department. Her Spruce Lab studies missing bodies and helps artifice patterns about who gets begin and begin fastest.
Michelle Jeanis, an abettor assistant in the bent amends administration at the University of Louisiana Lafayette, said it’s adamantine to get acknowledgment for men who go missing. “Maybe we see them as beneath vulnerable, or anticipate they can bigger handle what’s out there in the world.”
Gender and chase don’t assume to comedy into badge investigations, Fox said. “Unless it’s a babyish or aged person, afresh they acknowledge faster because that actuality could be in added danger.”
After two canicule on the streets, bodies alpha to charge aliment and money, and ability be absorbed into alarming situations. Afterwards 72 hours, she said, the adventitious of actuality begin complete decreases exponentially.
Spring crawled by, ceremony anniversary added agonizing. Angela went aback to work, but couldn’t concentrate. Emilio struggled to accomplishment his aftermost year of aerial school.
In March, badge got a tip to analysis brainy bloom accessories in Manatee County. But there was no assurance of Gabriel. In April, a accessory alleged to say addition had apparent Gabriel in Largo. Afresh addition abroad said they saw him at Crescent Lake Park. His mom collection there and saw a adolescent man who looked like her son — but wasn’t. She sat in her car, shaking.
The clandestine investigator got a advance that Gabriel ability be in California. That didn’t pan out, either.
In May, a anatomy done up in the Weedon Island Preserve, on Tampa Bay, not far from Gabriel’s home. Detectives asked his mom for his dental records, afresh for DNA from her and his brothers. They bent that the charcoal were from addition who jumped off the Skyway Bridge. But it wasn’t Gabriel.
Angela wrote to the badge arch that month, analytical of how the case had been handled. They should accept acted sooner, she said. All she’d heard were excuses.
Her son had time that morning to change his actualization or his clothes. He could accept been best up by someone.
On Sept. 21, Gabriel’s 21st birthday, his mom acquaint old pictures of him on both of their Facebook pages. That day, she said, was the aftermost time she handed out fliers. If he had run away, she said, absolutely he would accept appear home — or at atomic contacted her — by then.
How do you go on aback there’s annihilation to go on?
You arise at the aboriginal adumbration of hope. Slump aback you hit addition asleep end. Crave answers, alike if they’re awful.
You can’t ache at your son’s grave or cradle his urn.
On Feb. 22, 2019 — the ceremony of Gabriel’s dematerialization — his mom and adolescent brother went to USF. His mom hadn’t apprenticed over that arch to Tampa in a year. She had never met his co-workers.
She cried, as she accomplished how abundant he meant to them.
Gabriel was “absolutely the best absurd apprentice artisan we’ve had,” his administrator told her.
That April, he arrive them to an awards banquet and presented a new plaque: The Gabriel Cordova Tejada Accolade for Apprentice Excellence, for the best agent in the Apprentice Business Services office.
“I appetite to acknowledgment that this account is not about Gabriel disappearing,” Stuben told Angela. “But about how he lived.”
Schea Shackelford, who had formed with Gabriel, won the award. That night, at home, she bankrupt down. “I was happy, but the absoluteness of the bearings started to bore in,” she said later. “We do not apperceive breadth he is. We abandoned achievement he is okay.”
Gabriel’s mom blames herself. Attractive back, she said, she should accept apparent the signs.
When he started beat to his room, was it to study? Or because he was depressed? Maybe she should accept fabricated him go to the analyst added regularly. Maybe if he’d been on medication …
“He had insomnia,” she said. “I’d apprehend him pacing the house. He approved sleeping pills, but they gave him a headache. I fabricated him Sleepytime tea, but it never seemed to help.” She asked her son how he was activity all the time, she said. He never accepted annihilation was wrong.
Sometimes, bodies with brainy affliction don’t apperceive what they’re ambidextrous with, can’t put words to it or appetite to assure others from their problems, said Jon Rottenberg, a attitude abettor who oversees USF’s affection and affect lab. Some bodies accept aloof one bipolar adventure and it’s over. Others attempt all their lives.
“Life stressors can activate berserk or depressive episodes,” he said. “It’s not accessible to adumbrate what will accompany on affection changes, but already they alpha happening, things can spiral.”
Gabriel’s mom wants to apple-pie his room: Throw abroad all his old highlighters, abashing his desk. Accord abroad his clothes. At atomic accomplish amplitude for her sister to beddy-bye over.
But his allowance charcoal untouched. His artwork still brightens the moss blooming walls he helped paint. His Yamaha guitar still hangs aloft his bed.
His mom couldn’t accompany herself to change anything. What if, some day, he comes home?
She doesn’t accept that will happen. She has chock-full cat-and-mouse for his buzz call. She’s abiding her son asleep himself.
“I accept nightmares of him blind from some tree, decomposing in quicksand, drowning,” she said. “By now, if he were alive, he’d be actuality with us.”
She blew up a account of Gabriel, the one with his cat, and abashed the poster-sized annual by the advanced door. He looks over her, she said, every morning aback she leaves for work, every black aback she comes home. At her office, his face is her screensaver.
Police say they charge help, addition who saw something, annihilation to go on. Gabriel’s case has gone cold.
The clandestine investigator additionally is baffled. She, too, has beat every lead.
His adventure was featured on The Vanished Podcast and on a YouTube alternation alleged Searchlight. But neither brought any tips.
Until addition comes advanced with a clue, all anyone can do is delay for the coroner’s appointment to call. Afterwards a body, his mom can’t alike get him declared deceased.
“I charge closure,” she said. “I aloof appetite to know.”
There’s no one she can allocution to about Gabriel anymore. Her accompany are abashed to ask. Her boys don’t accept he’s dead. “Mario is assertive he’s activity to actualization up afresh some day.”
On an afternoon in backward January, Mario chock-full by his mom’s condo. Gabriel didn’t annihilate himself, he said. He aloof disappeared.
“He hitchhiked somewhere, maybe to Canada or Mexico. Maybe he got on a bus,” Mario said.
Gabriel larboard his ATM card, said his mom, larboard $7,000 in the bank. He larboard a balmy home, accommodating mom and brothers who admired him. Would he accept larboard all that and bargain himself to begging?
“You don’t apperceive if he had added cash,” Mario said. “Maybe he’s too abashed to appear back. Maybe, some day, he’ll about-face up actuality at the house. Or his kids or grandkids will appear acquisition us, absent to apperceive what he was like.”
“Would he be adventurous abundant to do that? Aloof disappear?” asked his mom.
Mario stared at her, afresh looked down. “Would he accept been adventurous abundant to annihilate himself?”
Emilio isn’t abiding what to think. His big brother could be active a new life. Or he could be “shark food” by now. Like his mom, Emilio dreams about Gabriel. “Sometimes, he’s still with us. We’re aloof accepting a approved day. Afresh I deathwatch up and, sometimes, I don’t apprehend he’s not still here,” Emilio said.
Other times, in his dreams, Gabriel turns his aback and walks away. “I consistently try to stop him from leaving,” Emilio said. He bankrupt his eyes, befuddled his head. “But … ”
If you accept information, alarm badge at 727-893-7780. Appointment Gabriel’s missing actuality folio at: https://www.facebook.com/findgabrielcordovatejada/
Senior account researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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