Conservation officer identifies missing child in Oscoda County; credits group with finding her

Contact: Lt. Brandon Kieft, (989) 305-9376
Agency: Natural Resources

July 16, 2019

Lt. Brandon Kieft with the Michigan DNR holds Gabriella Vitale at the search and rescue command center. Lt. Brandon Kieft, conservation officer with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, was the first law enforcement agent to arrive at the scene when a group of people reported that they believed they had found Gabriella Vitale, a 2-year-old girl who went missing Monday morning.


More than 20 DNR conservation officers were working the search and rescue operation with several other law enforcement agencies, including the Oscoda County Sheriff’s Office and Michigan State Police.

Kieft was at the search and rescue command center when the call was received Tuesday morning from the group of people who believed they found Gabriella.

Kieft headed to the area and arrived at the cabin where Gabriella was reported to be located, which is about one mile west of M-33 in Oscoda. There, he was able to positively identify the young girl as Gabriella Vitale around 11:30 a.m. Tuesday.

“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 said.

Gabriella was wearing half her T-shirt at the time and was missing her pants and shoes. Other than some scrapes and minor bruises, she was in good condition for being on her own in the woods for over 24 hours.

One of the individuals at the cabin where Gabriella appeared transported Kieft and Gabriella back to the search and rescue command center. While waiting for Gabriella’s family and EMS to arrive, Kieft gave her food and water available from the command center.

“It was very emotional to see Gabriella reunited with her family – her mother took her into her arms and collapsed to the floor,” Kieft said.

EMS evaluated Gabriella at the command center and then transported her to a hospital for further evaluation.

The group of people that found Gabriella was a retreat group who had let law enforcement agents search their cabin’s property for the missing girl Monday night. Wanting to help aid in the search, the group monitored the media and kept watch over the property for any signs that someone may be wandering on it.

Tuesday morning, the group of people found Gabriella on the porch.

Gabriella and her family – who are from Monroe, located south of Detroit – were camping on state land, north of Reber Road in Oscoda County. The family reported that Gabriella went missing on Monday around 8:30 a.m. while they were packing up their camp gear to return home. After unsuccessfully searching on their own, the family called 911 to report Gabriella missing.

Several law enforcement agencies worked into the night Monday, stopping the search around 2 a.m. Tuesday due to low visibility. The search resumed at 7 a.m. Tuesday morning.

“It was great how many people came together to help. Gabriella’s family was there, also helping,” Kieft said. “There were several law enforcement agencies involved, we all put in hard work and were very lucky.”

Chief Gary Hagler, DNR Law Enforcement Division, said he was proud so many conservation officers were able to come together so quickly from more than 10 different counties to work with other law enforcement agencies for a successful outcome.

“I want to thank the individuals who found Gabriella and contacted law enforcement agents. Our conservation officers were searching the surrounding area at the time Gabriella was found,” Hagler said. “This is a great example of how conservation officers work with other law enforcement agencies to utilize their search and rescue skills.”

Michigan conservation officers are fully commissioned state peace officers who provide natural-resources protection, ensure recreational safety and protect citizens by providing general law enforcement duties and lifesaving operations in the communities they serve. Conservation officers undergo extensive search and rescue training to locate missing persons and have specialized equipment to navigate rural and difficult terrain.