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  1. Narratives

A USF student left home on a February morning. Two years later, he’s still missing.

Gabriel Cordova Tejada’s family in St. Petersburg waits for answers, closure.
Angela Tejada recalls the day her son, Gabriel Cordova Tejada disappeared, two years ago. Angela believes Gabriel is dead although her two other sons believe he could still be alive. At the family's home on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020 in St. Petersburg. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

Editor’s note: This story includes discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat/ or call the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay by dialing 2-1-1.

Click here to read this story in Spanish

Gabriel’s mom keeps replaying that night.

She wanted him to clean the kitchen: Wash the dishes, she told him. Clear the counters. There’s no room for groceries.

Gabriel Cordova Tejada, 20, was lying on the living room sofa, studying for an exam he had to take the next morning at the University of South Florida.

“Okay,” he said, without looking up from his laptop.

But when his mom and younger brother came back from Costco — on Feb. 21, 2018 — Gabriel was asleep on the couch. The sink was full, the counter cluttered with schoolwork and mail.

Angela Tejada, then 55, woke him, fussing.

She was stressed out, a little more angry than normal, said Gabriel’s brother, Emilio, who is two years younger. But Gabriel didn’t argue. He seemed upset with himself.

He carried his computer into his bedroom and shut the door.

Over the last few months, he had been spending more time in his room. His family thought it was because his college classes were getting harder.

“I didn’t think anything of it,” Emilio said.

The next morning, about 5:30, Emilio left to catch the bus to high school. An hour later, Gabriel drove his mom to her job at a nearby medical office, where she works in collections. Gabby, are you okay? Do you have your lunch? his mom asked.

“He said yes, and good-bye, like normal,” she said.

Gabriel was supposed to go back to their St. Petersburg condo, get his backpack, then drive across the bridge to Tampa to take his 9 a.m. exam.

When Emilio came home from school just after noon, he saw his brother’s phone on the coffee table and thought: Maybe he forgot it. Minutes later, he noticed that it was scratched.

Someone had etched numbers into the screen: Gabriel’s passcode.

“I unlocked it,” Emilio said. “That’s when I found the note.”

• • •

Almost two years have passed now, and no one has seen or heard from Gabriel. Police have run out of leads.

His mom is certain she knows what happened.

His brothers hope she’s wrong.

• • •

In the Dominican Republic, where Gabriel grew up, most of his family lived nearby. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, scores of cousins all scattered around the capital city, Santo Domingo. His parents had split up when he was small, but his dad was close by. Gabriel and Emilio went to the same school for 10 years, had known classmates all their lives.

A class photo from the Dominican Republic. Gabriel is at lower right. Courtesy of Emilio Cordova Tejada

But in 2013, Angela grew scared for her sons. They were teenagers then, and gangs were gathering in the streets after dark. “A lot of bad stuff started happening around us: robberies, assaults, even the police were involved,” she said. “I wanted my boys to be safe.”

Her oldest son, Mario, had moved to Florida eight years earlier and become a pilot. He and his wife were raising three sons in Seminole. Angela, who worked in finance at the U.S. Embassy, secured residency 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 everyone else. But Gabriel came after everyone already had their groups.”

Gabriel took art classes, painting still lifes of potted palms against sunshiney backgrounds. He tried out for the swim team but couldn’t quite keep up. After school, he volunteered in the gift shop at St. Anthony’s Hospital and, though he was painfully shy, forced himself to make conversation with customers and co-workers.

At home, Gabriel played Call of Duty and Zelda with his brother. He cuddled his cat, Kikita. Watched Marvel movies. Made up songs on his guitar. “He was really pretty good,” Emilio said.

One day, when Gabriel was 15, he started singing loudly, prancing around the living room, grinning and strumming his guitar. “He was really, really happy. Really hyper,” said his mom. “Which wasn’t him. He kept saying he was going to write love songs and make the world a better place.”

“All of a sudden, he was so manic,” Emilio said. “It caught us all off-guard.”

The next day, Gabriel was sobbing, saying he wanted to kill himself. His mom took him to the pediatrician, who sent 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 another episode. Never mentioned suicide again.

• • •

Graduation photos show Gabriel smiling with his family. In the 2015 yearbook, beneath his senior portrait, he chose this quote: “Time has no refunds. So spend it right.”

Gabriel on his graduation day from St. Petersburg High School. Courtesy of Angela Tejada

He earned a Bright Futures Scholarship, enough to cover tuition at the University of South Florida in Tampa. He enrolled in the engineering school, though he wasn’t sure what field he would follow. He got a job on the top floor of the student center, 20 hours a week, processing purchasing requests from undergraduate groups.

Some days, he drove the 45-minute commute in his mom’s old Camry. Other days, he rode the bus, which took twice as long.

He was never late. Never complained, said his supervisor, Mike Stuben. “He spent all day surrounded by students who had more privilege, but he was never bitter or grumpy. He talked with gratitude about all he had,” Stuben said. “We knew he had this really strong family he loved and was committed to.

“He seemed shy, but never unhappy.”

Genane Bien-Aime, who worked with Gabriel at USF, said he was quiet. “Literally quiet. When he did speak, which was rare, you had to lean in to hear him.”

Bien-Aime is from Haiti, and she called Gabriel “my island brother.” She made it her mission to draw him out, coaching him to talk louder, shake people’s hands, look them in the eye. “He started opening up, at least to me,” she said. “He’d talk about politics, his family, food. He never bought lunch, always brought it from home in these little Tupperware containers.” He told her about a dish his mom made, sweet beans with sugar. “The next day, he brought some for the entire office.”

He was respectful, professional, always wore long pants and Polo shirts. He was the only student in the office, she said, who kept his desk clean. He didn’t seem to have many friends.

“You could tell he was close to his mom,” she said. “His face lit up when he talked about her. He would walk to the bookstore sometimes, after work, and buy her little things with the USF logo.”

Photos featuring Gabriel with family and at the University of South Florida are on a hall table. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

In the fall of 2017, Gabriel told co-workers that he had to find an internship in his field, engineering. He was going to have to quit working in that office. Even on his last day, his boss said, “he was taking notes on how to get better, so he could leave information that would help train the next student to do the job.”

He came back a couple of times, to visit. His classes were going well, he said. Near the end of that semester, he stopped by to wish everyone happy holidays.

The next time co-workers saw him was at the student center, in the food court, his face peering out from a missing person poster.

• • •

The note was in Spanish, a memo typed in Gabriel’s phone. Emilio read it twice, trying to make it make sense. The time stamp was from three hours earlier: 9:06 a.m. It wasn’t addressed to anyone. It started with a question mark.

“You have every right to be disappointed,” Gabriel had written. “I’m taking advantage of you, of your generosity, your sacrifice, your patience, your health, your life. … I’m an anchor, don’t blame yourself … ”

From age 7 or 8, Gabriel wrote, he had thought of himself as “dysfunctional and dim … slow, bipolar, socially isolated … ” Maybe it was because of a chemical imbalance, he typed, or “because I’m possessed by Beelzebub

“Today, I’ve decided to take the most selfish action for someone in my privileged position,” said the note. “No, please don’t cry for me … I don’t want any more attention than a smashed ant.”

It ended with a cryptic message: “I won one of Darwin’s prizes.”

Emilio thought he knew what that meant: Gabriel had set out to do something supremely stupid. Darwin Awards are bestowed annually to people who die in the dumbest ways.

Shocked and scared, Emilio called his mom, who didn’t answer. So he called his oldest brother, Mario, then 30, who rushed to pick up their mom at work. When they got home, the Camry was in the parking lot, the keys on the hook just inside the door.

Emilio had found Gabriel’s backpack, laptop, wallet, lunch, even his favorite sneakers. He handed his mom Gabriel’s phone. Mario dialed 911.

An officer arrived quickly, but he told Angela that Gabriel was old enough to walk away.

He was legally an adult, though also considered endangered under Suzanne’s Law. Part of the Amber Alert system, the federal mandate says police should not wait to start investigating a missing person under age 21.

“I thought maybe if they started searching sooner, they could find him before he did … whatever,” his mom said.

A timeline from the St. Petersburg Police Department says that officers called hospitals and the jail that afternoon, searched the immediate area.

Gabriel’s brothers, and the maintenance man from the Enclave condo complex, also scoured the four-acre property. It’s fenced in, with a passcode to get through the gate. In the back, there’s a spring-fed pond, surrounded by woods, which they combed.

Emilio becomes emotional talking about his missing brother. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

His mom stayed home — in case Gabriel came back. “He wasn’t really independent. He wouldn’t just go off by himself, or go camp out or something,” she said.

Was he going to kill himself? she wondered. He had no gun, that she knew of, not even a hunting knife. Had he already done it? Maybe he got hurt? Or just walked away — to escape, to punish his mom, to make it easier on everyone.

Outside the family's home at The Enclave complex. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]
Police and family members searched woods near The Enclave after Gabriel went missing. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

Angela kept picturing Gabriel alone, cold and frightened, lost or injured, desperate. As the hours dragged on, she imagined black water and alligators. The next morning, she went to police to demand a deeper investigation.

That afternoon, almost 30 hours after Emilio found Gabriel’s note, officers called in bloodhounds from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and a helicopter from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. The dogs sniffed Gabriel’s hoodie but only followed his scent to Martin Luther King Jr. Street. The helicopter turned on infrared lights that detect body heat but didn’t find any beneath the dense foliage. Officers scoured local businesses, but no one had seen Gabriel.

They entered him in a national missing persons database, shared his case on the police Facebook page, called TV stations, told his story in English and Spanish. It’s unclear whether they checked cameras from the city bus, which stopped a few blocks from his home. Or talked to anyone at the downtown Greyhound station. “There’s no log of who was interviewed in this case,” said St. Petersburg Police Sgt. Al Cope. He supervises the personal violence unit now but wasn’t involved in the search for Gabriel.

“There’s no difference in protocol for people with mental illness, or who might be suicidal,” Cope said. “There’s a lot of places to hide if you don’t want to be found.”

Four days after Gabriel went missing, police brought over cadaver dogs. The next day, they contacted friends and co-workers from high school and college. They searched his cell and laptop. His brothers looked through Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter accounts, checked YouTube downloads. Nothing suspicious, no clues. His mom called the bank. His account hadn’t been touched.

A week after he disappeared, his family found a private investigator, who helped them print fliers. Angela hung them up all over St. Petersburg and kept a stack in her car, to give to strangers. “Last seen wearing jeans and a gray T-shirt,” the flier said. It included two photos, one of Gabriel in front of a sky-blue background, staring straight ahead, expressionless. The other of him holding his black-and-white cat.

“People I didn’t even know kept telling me to have faith in God. But that made me mad,” Angela said. “I’m not a churchgoer. I don’t pray. I know it’s not real.”

What was worse, she said, were all the people offering theories about what might have happened.

What if he had amnesia, they said, and didn’t know who or where he was? What if he had fled to join ISIS? What if he had gone to the Dominican Republic and was hiding down there? What if someone had kidnapped him? Maybe he was being sex trafficked.

• • •

About 600,000 people go missing in the United States every year, according to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. Many are found within a couple of days, unharmed. Others are victims of crimes, whose bodies get discovered. Some wander away, confused. A few plan their own escapes.

An estimated 100,000 cases remain open annually.

In Florida, 1,399 missing persons cases are open — dating to 1960.

Pinellas County has 67 ongoing investigations, including five from 2018, the year Gabriel disappeared.

A post by Emilio pleads for information about his brother's disappearance the previous day. Courtesy of Emilio Cordova Tejada

His case is different, police and other experts said. He wasn’t known to do drugs, drink or stay out overnight. His circle of friends and family was small. There was no crime scene, no signs of violence. “Here’s a healthy young man, with no history of risky behavior,” said St. Petersburg police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez.

Gabriel’s disappearance was written up in the student paper, and Spanish-language stations aired short segments.

Of all the people who go missing, white, college-age women draw the most media coverage, said Bryanna Fox, an associate professor in USF’s criminology department. Her Spruce Lab studies missing people and helps plot patterns about who gets found and found fastest.

Michelle Jeanis, an assistant professor in the criminal justice department at the University of Louisiana Lafayette, said it’s hard to get exposure for men who go missing. “Maybe we see them as less vulnerable, or think they can better handle what’s out there in the world.”

Gender and race don’t seem to play into police investigations, Fox said. “Unless it’s a baby or elderly person, then they respond faster because that person could be in more danger.”

After two days on the streets, people start to need food and money, and might be lured into scary situations. After 72 hours, she said, the chance of being found unharmed decreases exponentially.

• • •

Spring crawled by, each week more agonizing. Angela went back to work, but couldn’t concentrate. Emilio struggled to finish his last year of high school.

In March, police got a tip to check mental health facilities in Manatee County. But there was no sign of Gabriel. In April, a cousin called to say someone had seen Gabriel in Largo. Then someone else said they saw him at Crescent Lake Park. His mom drove there and saw a young man who looked like her son — but wasn’t. She sat in her car, shaking.

The private investigator got a lead that Gabriel might be in California. That didn’t pan out, either.

In May, a body washed up in the Weedon Island Preserve, on Tampa Bay, not far from Gabriel’s home. Detectives asked his mom for his dental records, then for DNA from her and his brothers. They determined that the remains were from someone who jumped off the Skyway Bridge. But it wasn’t Gabriel.

Angela wrote to the police chief that month, critical of how the case had been handled. They should have acted sooner, she said. All she’d heard were excuses.

Her son had time that morning to change his appearance or his clothes. He could have been picked up by someone.

On Sept. 21, Gabriel’s 21st birthday, his mom posted old pictures of him on both of their Facebook pages. That day, she said, was the last time she handed out fliers. If he had run away, she said, surely he would have come home — or at least contacted her — by then.

Angela with her son Gabriel in an old family photograph. Courtesy of Angela Tejada [Times]

• • •

How do you go on when there’s nothing to go on?

You soar at the slightest hint of hope. Slump when you hit another dead end. Crave answers, even if they’re awful.

You can’t mourn at your son’s grave or cradle his urn.

On Feb. 22, 2019 — the anniversary of Gabriel’s disappearance — his mom and younger brother went to USF. His mom hadn’t driven over that bridge to Tampa in a year. She had never met his co-workers.

She cried, as she realized how much he meant to them.

Gabriel was “absolutely the most incredible student worker we’ve had,” his supervisor told her.

That April, he invited them to an awards dinner and presented a new plaque: The Gabriel Cordova Tejada Award for Student Excellence, for the best employee in the Student Business Services office.

“I want to mention that this honor is not about Gabriel disappearing,” Stuben told Angela. “But about how he lived.”

Schea Shackelford, who had worked with Gabriel, won the award. That night, at home, she broke down. “I was happy, but the reality of the situation started to sink in,” she said later. “We do not know where he is. We only hope he is okay.”

• • •

Gabriel’s mom blames herself. Looking back, she said, she should have seen the signs.

When he started retreating to his room, was it to study? Or because he was depressed? Maybe she should have made him go to the psychiatrist more regularly. Maybe if he’d been on medication …

“He had insomnia,” she said. “I’d hear him pacing the house. He tried sleeping pills, but they gave him a headache. I made him Sleepytime tea, but it never seemed to help.” She asked her son how he was feeling all the time, she said. He never admitted anything was wrong.

Sometimes, people with mental illness don’t know what they’re dealing with, can’t put words to it or want to protect others from their problems, said Jon Rottenberg, a psychology professor who oversees USF’s mood and emotion lab. Some people have just one bipolar episode and it’s over. Others struggle all their lives.

“Life stressors can trigger manic or depressive episodes,” he said. “It’s not easy to predict what will bring on mood changes, but once they start happening, things can spiral.”• • •

Gabriel’s mom wants to clean his room: Throw away all his old highlighters, cluttering his desk. Give away his clothes. At least make space for her sister to sleep over.

But his room remains untouched. His artwork still brightens the moss green walls he helped paint. His Yamaha guitar still hangs above his bed.

Gabriel's bedroom looks nearly as it did when he left. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

His mom couldn’t bring herself to change anything. What if, some day, he comes home?

She doesn’t believe that will happen. She has stopped waiting for his phone call. She’s sure her son killed himself.

“I have nightmares of him hanging from some tree, decomposing in quicksand, drowning,” she said. “By now, if he were alive, he’d be here with us.”

Pictures of Gabriel are throughout the house, including the refrigerator. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

She blew up a picture of Gabriel, the one with his cat, and hung the poster-sized portrait by the front door. He looks over her, she said, every morning when she leaves for work, every evening when she comes home. At her office, his face is her screensaver.

Police say they need help, someone who saw something, anything to go on. Gabriel’s case has gone cold.

The private investigator also is baffled. She, too, has exhausted every lead.

His story was featured on The Vanished Podcast and on a YouTube series called Searchlight. But neither brought any tips.

Until someone comes forward with a clue, all anyone can do is wait for the coroner’s office to call. Without a body, his mom can’t even get him declared deceased.

“I need closure,” she said. “I just want to know.”

There’s no one she can talk to about Gabriel anymore. Her friends are afraid to ask. Her boys don’t believe he’s dead. “Mario is certain he’s going to show up again some day.”

On an afternoon in late January, Mario stopped by his mom’s condo. Gabriel didn’t kill himself, he said. He just disappeared.

“He hitchhiked somewhere, maybe to Canada or Mexico. Maybe he got on a bus,” Mario said.

Gabriel left his ATM card, said his mom, left $7,000 in the bank. He left a warm home, pampering mom and brothers who loved him. Would he have left all that and reduced himself to begging?

“You don’t know if he had other cash,” Mario said. “Maybe he’s too ashamed to come back. Maybe, some day, he’ll turn up here at the house. Or his kids or grandkids will come find us, wanting to know what he was like.”

“Would he be brave enough to do that? Just disappear?” asked his mom.

Mario stared at her, then looked down. “Would he have been brave enough to kill himself?”

Emilio isn’t sure what to think. His big brother could be living 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 just having a regular day. Then I wake up and, sometimes, I don’t realize he’s not still here,” Emilio said.

Other times, in his dreams, Gabriel turns his back and walks away. “I always try to stop him from leaving,” Emilio said. He closed his eyes, shook his head. “But … ”

Angela and Emilio pose next to a photograph of Gabriel. Angela believes he is dead, but Gabriel's brothers think he could still be alive. [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

If you have information, call police at 727-893-7780. Visit Gabriel’s missing person page at: https://www.facebook.com/findgabrielcordovatejada/

Senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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