While police, trackers, bloodhounds, helicopters and infrared cameras searched in vain, three volunteers on horseback finally found a 4-year-old Payson boy Monday morning.
Travis Mitchell spent a harrowing night in the woods after walking away from a family friend’s home, at 1606 Gina Point, to go to the bathroom.
Gary Chitwood along with Beth and Wyman Kendall found the boy at 11 a.m. Monday as they rode through the thick brush of a remote canyon, three-quarters of a mile west of Horton Canyon, calling his name.
Travis reportedly called out “I’m am right over here,” when he heard them calling his name. Although tired and thirsty, Travis had only a few bumps and bruises.
When Chitwood tried to get Travis on his horse, Travis wouldn’t budge until they said he would get to ride in a helicopter. In fact, Travis got two helicopter rides Monday — one out of the canyon and another to the Valley where he was checked for further injuries.
Travis’ grandmother Joan Mitchell said it was only through the collective efforts of Rim Country residents and officials that Travis was found alive and well.
“We give a big thanks to anyone who had anything to do with the search,” Joan said. “A million thank yous.”
Around 100 searchers from Tonto Rim Search and Rescue, the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, Department of Public Safety, Payson Police Department and dozens more residents used every means possible to find Travis, who was playing with his brother Alex, 10, and two family friends when he walked off to go to the bathroom around 5 p.m. Sunday.
Travis was reportedly building or playing near some forts in the woods. He told a girl he was playing with that he had to go to the bathroom and would be back.
When Travis did not return half an hour later, Travis’ mother Ginger and neighbors began looking for him.
Throughout the night, trackers scoured the area southwest of the airport for any sign of Travis, but found little more than a few faint footprints, said TRSAR Commander Bill Pitterle.
By Monday morning, crews continued to canvas the area, searching through garages and cars in the airpark while overhead, local residents took to the skies in their personal planes.
When Payson resident Heath Wacker heard Travis was missing, he called his friend John Hughes, who lives in the airpark and has a Cessna airplane.
Wacker and Hughes decided to go up in Hughes’ plane and see if they could spot anything.
From the air, Wacker and Hughes say they saw that rescuers were primarily searching an area behind the airport, but not a canyon farther west.
Wacker called his friend Gary Chitwood and told him to saddle up his horses because a boy was missing.
Chitwood along with Beth and Wyman Kendall drove their trailers out to remote, still undeveloped section of the airpark and unloaded their horses, Rooster and Chino.
Wacker said he told Chitwood just before he set off, “Gary go find that little boy.”
Wacker was confidant Chitwood would find Travis because of his knowledge of the forest. Within a few hours, Chitwood called 911 to report he had found Travis sitting under a cedar tree. Chitwood reportedly called out Travis’ name and he shouted back, “I am right over here.”
When Travis heard Chitwood tell dispatch he had “the missing boy,” Travis chimed in “I am not a missing boy.”
Chitwood said they found Travis in a clearing near a cliff, roughly two miles from where they left their vehicles.
Chitwood said he asked Travis if he had seen any animals and he said he had seen a few elk.
“He was happy to see us, a bit shaken up,” Chitwood said.
Wyman said Travis was quiet about the details of his night, but did say he had cried a little Sunday evening.
“He had half a pound of mud on him,” Wyman said, but was otherwise OK after an 18-hour jaunt through the forest with little on but a football T-shirt, shorts and sandals.
Beth said she gave Travis water and a packet of raisins, which he promptly scarfed down.
“We got lucky. I was just praying we would find him,” Beth said. “When we did, I gave him a big hug and said I know your mom wants to give you one of these.”
When Chitwood told Travis they would need to carry him by horse, Travis said he didn’t want to go because he was scared of the horses. Chitwood promised Travis that if he got on the saddle, they would ride him up a ridge, where he would get to go in a helicopter. Travis agreed to this arrangement.
“It was a lot of luck, but you got to go with your hunches,” Hughes said. “I am so happy it worked out.”
Travis was taken to Payson Regional Medical Center where he was checked for further injuries. He was later airlifted to a Valley hospital for additional tests.
Travis is dehydrated and his blood sugar is elevated, but he is very alert, Joan said Monday night.
“He looks like someone who you would expect to see who has just gone through that ordeal,” she said. “He looked like a pincushion because he got tangled up with some cactus.”
When Travis saw Joan shortly after he was rescued, he told her, “I am a trooper Grandma.”
“He wasn’t even scared,” Joan said. “He was surprised they were out looking for him.”
Travis told Joan he did not sleep throughout the night and continued walking for hours.
Joan described Travis as a talkative boy who liked to be around his family.
“He was never a wanderer,” she said.
Joan said Ginger is emphatically thankful for the efforts of volunteers and searchers.
“God worked everything magically,” she said.