a phone call, some word, just about anything that might ease their minds, or at least put...
VANCOUVER EASTSIDE MISSING WOMEN
Vanished, but not forgotten:
The stories behind some of Saskatchewan's 95 missing people
For nearly a year, Blaine Nokahoot and his wife Harriet Kahnapace have been waiting — for a knock at the door, a phone call, some word, just about anything that might ease their minds, or at least put the questions to rest.
Chief among those questions: Where is Wilson Grant Nokahoot. May 30 will mark a year since anyone has seen the 43-year-old Regina man, one of the last people to be added to the list of this province's 95 long-term missing persons.
"He used to always phone or pop around," says Blaine, Wilson's cousin. "He kind of went off the face of the earth."
Wilson often stayed with the couple at their Regina home — located only three blocks from the house where five-year-old Tamra Keepness, perhaps the city's best-known missing person, disappeared in July 2004.
It's but one of the tragic coincidences; Wilson isn't the only one to have simply vanished from their lives. Danita Bigeagle, the daughter of Blaine's cousin, disappeared in February 2007 from the 800 block of Victoria Avenue and has yet to be found. "She'd always phone her mom . . . then just no more phone calls," says Kahnapace.
Moments later, she remembers her friend, Elaine Dumba, and wonders at her fate. Formerly of Regina, Dumba was last seen around 1989 in Vancouver's downtown eastside, although she wasn't officially listed among the missing until nearly a decade later. Her friends suspect she was among Robert Pickton's victims at his now infamous B.C. pig farm.
Today, the couple tries to make sense of the rumours they've heard about Wilson — how he is a victim of murder.
"You hear stories all over, and you don't know what to believe," says Kahnapace. "He's really friendly. Maybe he got friendly with the wrong people," she adds, hoping someone "with a conscience" might step forward.
The couple describes Wilson as a slightly built, quiet, harmless guy, who never bothered anyone. Originally from White Bear First Nation, he spent most of his life in Regina except for the time he was at Gordon's Indian Residential School, one of the more notorious boarding schools that sparked hundreds of residential school claims. Like so many residential school survivors, Wilson never liked to talk about his time he spent there. But it clearly took a toll; at times, he lost himself in substance abuse.
In recent years, he'd begun collecting cheques from a trust set up when he received compensation for his years at Gordon's. He used some of his money to buy an engagement ring for his girlfriend in the months before he went missing. His absence was noticed when he stopped turning up to collect his cheques.
Blaine has resigned himself to the possibility that he may never see his cousin again. "I know he's gone. It's not like him just to disappear."
Still in the absence of any evidence, it's hard not to cling to hope.
"It seems when you hear a knock at night, it might be him," says Kahnapace.
From the most recent — 52-year-old Gordon Harvey, last seen swimming in the Saskatchewan River near Saskatoon in July — to the oldest — 29-year-old farm hand Anker Ljungren, who left home to find work in the midst of the Depression and was never seen again — Saskatchewan police agencies have 95 open files of long-term missing persons.
That's seven decades of heartache for families left to ponder what-ifs. Usually those missing for more than six months are added to the list, although exceptions are occasionally made when it's clear the person has not vanished of their own accord.
For some, traces left behind hint at the person's fate: A snow machine found in a hole in the ice (William Kacuiba, 1933, on the North Saskatchewan River near Prince Albert), a swamped canoe (Garry Stuart Allen, 1978, Turtle Lake near Glaslyn), or an inoperable boat and abandoned fishing nets (Louis Haineault, 1987, Cree Lake).
But many others are all the more puzzling because the people have seemingly disappeared without leaving any trail: For example, Draper Lee Jim, a 27-year-old who was dropped off on the side of Highway 4, about 20 kilometres north of North Battleford, on Feb. 21, 2006, and never seen again; Grace Johnston, 26, who vanished on Oct. 20, 1953, after getting off a city transit bus in Saskatoon on her way to work at a downtown cafe; and Emily Osmond, a 78-year-old recluse who lived on a small acreage on the northern edge of Kawacatoose First Nation. Last seen by her hired helper in September 2007, Osmond uncharacteristically left behind her vehicle and personal belongings, including medication, and her dogs unattended.
Fifteen of the missing are adolescents and teens, aged 13 to 18, like 14-year-old Myrna Montgrand who never made it home from a party in La Loche in 1979, or 15-year-old Norman Louison who vanished walking to a house on the Cowessess First Nation in 1977, and 13-year-old Courtney Struble, last seen walking towards her residence in Estevan on July 9, 2004. That was only four days after Regina was grappling with the puzzling disappearance of Keepness. She is among the four children under aged 12 on the list of long-term missing, with the youngest three-year-old Jonathan Uriah Molina. He was last seen travelling with his mother Maria and two-year-old brother Benjamin, all of Winnipeg. Their burned-out Thunderbird was found Oct. 29, 1985, in a slough on the White Bear First Nation near Carlyle. Police believed the car had become stuck, overheated and caught fire. Personal belongings, including bags of clothing, a suitcase, and the car keys were found in the bush, about 100 yards from the vehicle nearly six months later. Then on Oct. 1, 1986, the skeletal remains of his mother and sibling were discovered nearby, but not Molina. It remains a mystery why the family was in the Carlyle area or ended up on a remote road, two kilometres off the highway.
At the other end of life's spectrum, are seniors, like Tersilla Catterina Bonthoux. From her black-and-white photo on a police website that profiles the province's long-term missing, the diminutive, bespectacled 79-year-old strikes a kindly smile, posing in a Sunday-best print dress, its white lace collar complemented by a broach at her neck. Born in 1875, she disappeared on Oct. 25, 1954, while walking from Duck Lake towards the farm homestead where she used to reside, about 13 kilometres away.
For years, whenever family gathered, the topic often turned to Bonthoux and what became of her, says RCMP Staff Sgt. Fran Stevenson, who retires this month as NCO in charge of the Saskatoon RCMP's major crime and historical case unit. The case was brought to the RCMP's attention in recent years by Bonthoux's grandson.
"There was always a rumour that she was buried on a particular piece of property (in a cellar) close to where she used to walk."
Stevenson, who was a member of the Provincial Partnership Committee on Missing Persons, uses the case to illustrate two points: Firstly, the importance of documenting old cases, so that if remains are ever found, a link can possibly be made; and secondly, how investigative work can still be done on even the coldest of cases. Last year, investigators and Saskatoon archaeologist Dr. Ernie Walker, who has assisted police on a number of historic cases, used ground-penetrating radar on what is today a farm field to find that suspect cellar and dig it up.
"They didn't find her, but at least it satisfies the family, that 55 years later, the police will still look for her and eliminate that misinformation," says Stevenson.
Det.-Sgt. Brent Shannon, whose business card for the Regina Police Service reads simply "cold case," echoes that sentiment. In the past, cold cases were revisited by major crimes officers as time permitted. Today, there are 13 officers (eight RCMP and five with municipal forces) around the province dedicated to historic or cold cases, delving into unsolved homicides, long-term missing person files and cases of unidentified human remains. The officers meet regularly to compare notes and suggest possible avenues for further investigation.
"By going to cold case, it does not go in some cold, dark room and sit endlessly forever and ever," says Shannon. But he adds that unlike television, there isn't a team of people who jump into a vehicle and go off to solve a case in an hour.
"Unfortunately, they're not easy files to solve or they would have been. It requires long-term persistence."
A file falls into his domain when "it's really been exhausted at that point and there are no more current or hot leads."
However, both he and Stevenson say there is still plenty of work that can be done, even when the trail has grown cold.
The file gets a new set of eyes, removing any potential for so-called "tunnel vision," by officers who get entrenched in one theory. And the passage of time can actually work to an investigator's advantage.
"Sometimes a little time off really does help . . . because motivations and reluctances and relationships change," says Shannon. "Maybe they're in a close relationship with a husband or a wife and years later, after separation or divorce or years of unhappiness, you have different motivations now. You're more willing to talk about perhaps what that person did, said, saw."
Stevenson says the officers of old worked with the tools of the day. "Today we have new things. And technology is number one."
From DNA analysis, which can positively identify remains, to tools like ground-penetrating radar, and additional resources, such as criminal or geographic profilers (particularly useful with serial killers) and trained search teams, cold case units are simply better equipped.
Cold case investigators were the impetus behind a comprehensive database as well as a publicly accessible website (www.sacp.ca/missing/) that profiles every long-term missing person in the province as well as unidentified human remains, like those of a young drifter who killed himself on the train tracks near Regina in July 1995 and now lies in a grave marked "John Doe."
"He's missing from somewhere, we just unfortunately can't tell you from where," says Shannon.
Launched on the Saskatchewan Association of Chiefs of Police site three years ago, today the missing persons website attracts as many as 4,000 hits per month from countries around the world.
"It shows the families that there is a record, there is a police report, there is a department or agency responsible for investigating their loved one's case," says Stevenson, who is also optimistic the site will one day generate a tip that might unlock some of those mysteries. He notes Saskatchewan was a leader in creating the site, and other provinces have since followed suit. Long-term plans are for police forces across the country to create a common, national, missing persons database and website. Cold case officers hope one day for a missing persons DNA databank, that could be checked when remains are discovered.
Nine cases have been marked "located" since the website's creation. Unfortunately, only one person was found alive, a Regina man who chose to cut off ties with his family. The remainder are all deceased, including Mary Catherine Shanahan, a Moose Jaw woman who was found buried in a Toronto cemetery under a name she had assumed after leaving Saskatchewan 23 years earlier.
As a result of the found remains, five of those cases turned into homicide investigations, with murder charges laid in three — Daleen Kay Bosse, Victoria Jane Nashacappo, and Amber Tara-Lynn Redman. Two of the homicides remain unsolved: 19-year-old high school student and mother Marie Lynn Lasas, whose remains were found under a pile of lumber behind a vacant Saskatoon house in June 2007, nearly a year after she was last seen; and Melanie Dawn Geddes, a 24-year-old Regina mother of three found in the Qu'Appelle Valley near Southey in December 2005, four months after she disappeared while walking home.
Asked what proportion of the outstanding cases might involve foul play, Stevenson replies, "Through discussions with investigators . . . there's a high probability of foul play being involved in approximately 32 of those cases."
But he's quick to add that it's an educated estimate and not a firm figure. "Until the person is actually found or some very accurate or verifiable information is located, we can never really say for sure." He uses the example of a Saskatoon woman, Jacqueline Late, who mysteriously disappeared in January two years ago. She was subsequently found three months later in a garage, where she had apparently gone to seek shelter from the cold and died of hypothermia, no foul play involved. At other times, "the more the case is investigated, the more suspicious it can get."
Resolution of any sort is remote in some instances. Shannon mentions the case of Jaroslav Joseph Heindl. The 72-year-old Regina house painter disappeared in 2002 from a grocery store parking lot, where his vehicle was found. He was known to collect reusable cast-offs from dumpsters. Police later searched the Regina landfill — to no avail.
"I think there's a very good chance that unfortunately he fell into that dumpster or climbed into that dumpster, and whatever happened at that point, and I'm not suggesting foul play — how are we ever going to find him if that was the scenario? And without finding him, how are we ever going to truly know (what happened)?"
Even if they can't resolve all the cases, officers like Shannon and Stevenson hope families can find some comfort in knowing the lost loved hasn't been forgotten by authorities. "Someone is still working on the file, albeit maybe not every single day. But somebody still keeps that file and works on it and follows up and when information comes in, they know somebody's addressing it . . . It would be nice to solve several of them," says Shannon.
After her daughter's killer was sentenced earlier this year, Amber Redman's mother Gwenda Yuzicappi spoke of the draining, emotional toll of simply not knowing. Three long years passed before the remains of the murdered 19-year-old, who disappeared after leaving a bar in Fort Qu'Appelle in July 2005, were found.
"It's unbearable pain. Your mind is racing. You're thinking is my daughter being hurt? Is she being harmed? Is she being fed? Is she being tortured? Is she being raped? The nightmare. A mother's nightmare. It's living that every second of the day. Sleeping. You're constantly thinking, 'Maybe I should go looking again,' because I constantly searched. The whole family, we all did our own searches."
The pain didn't end when Yuzicappi finally got her answers, but she found solace in being able to lay her daughter to rest.
Too many others, like the family of Wilson Nokahoot, are still waiting.
© Copyright (c) The Regina Leader-Post
For nearly a year, Blaine Nokahoot and his wife Harriet Kahnapace have been waiting — for a knock at the door,
a phone call, some word, just about anything that might ease their minds, or at least put...
Updated: August 21, 2016