I received a “page”, seventeen years ago, that irritating incessant beep which kept repeating every few seconds. The message was always a phone number to call and receiving it implied by its very nature a sense of urgency. In some messages the phone number would be followed by a -911, to further underline the urgent request, which was the case in this instance.
As a member of the Serious Crime Section of Surrey RCMP Detachment, it usually meant that there had been a death, or somebody was barely hanging on, closer to death than life; and that it was likely violent, but above all else, that it was somehow “suspicious”.
It was 10:15 pm, on October 1st, 2000 when I got the page from my Sargent in charge of Serious Crime, Mel Trekofski and he in turn asked that I call to “partner” with me that night, Constable Chris Drotar, also a member of our Serious Crime Section.
Unbeknownst to us at the time, this particular page would change our lives, it would alter our perceptions of man’s inhumanity to man, and it would test our physical and mental abilities to a limit that we likely didn’t feel possible at that time. And thankfully, it would not be often repeated through the course of our careers.
We knew from the initial information that a girl had gone missing, a 10 year old girl, in fact. Her name was Heather, and she was the daughter of Patrick Thomas who lived at the address. It was a little discomfiting to learn that she had in fact gone missing around 5:30 that afternoon. Already we would be starting with a time disadvantage, which in our world can sometimes mean the difference to success or failure.
The mother, Jodie Thomas was estranged from Patrick and lived in a different part of Surrey and would not be at the house.
Heather and her brother were at their fathers in Cloverdale, as part of that common suburban divorce dance of shared custody. It was his week-end, but this was Sunday, and the kids were due back at Mom’s. But then things changed.
Search and Rescue had been and were still involved, along with all the neighbours who lived in the complex. Nothing of significance had been found as of yet, but the officers who were in attendance felt that “Dad” was acting strangely, and it was for that reason that we were being called; to interview Dad. The implications were obvious and unstated.
It was a typical October night, wind slighting blowing, leaves beginning to fall but not yet in full decomposition, coloured, but still clinging to the trees. We were asked to attend to Unit 26 at 17722 60th Avenue, in the usually quiet suburban area of Cloverdale, part of the not so quiet City of Surrey, B.C.
As we arrived in the dimly lit complex it was quickly noted that directly across the street was the Cloverdale Fairgrounds and the Racetrack. This was a Sunday, and on this particular day the expansive parking lot during the afternoon became a massive flea market involving hundreds of people. At the time of Heather’s disappearance there could have been thousands within a few hundred yards of the housing complex.
The wood construction of the worn town homes showed the usual green tinge along the edge and rooftops, mold that comes with incessant rains. It was an older complex, u-shaped so you could drive in a semi-circle and go out the other side. It showed no signs of recent care, just the wear of years of many children, a complex of about 50 units, who through its life was mostly populated with single parents and young couples starting families. Blue collar, trying to make ends meet, with a tinge of a criminal underbelly always found skirting the edges of poverty flecked neighbourhoods.
As we arrived, it was quiet, as the people of the complex had by now retreated into their individual homes, no doubt staring out from behind partially closed kitchen venetian blinds. Almost all had been searching for Heather around dinner time, all likely knew that she had not been located, so one can imagine the variety of explanations given to curious children as they got ready for bed that night.
As we drove up to the residence, with that usual mixture of adrenalin and apprehension, we were fearing the worst, but not quite prepared for that being the case.
The greeting uniform officers, who were unusually quiet, told us that they had searched the residence thoroughly, which is the first place to look for a child. Dad’s vehicle was parked out front, and it too had been searched with nothing found.
Inside the town home, it was like hundreds of others I had been in; some worn furniture, some new, usually a prominent t.v. and the usual evidence of active children. Right at the door, in clear view, was a knapsack, clearly a girls adorned with the usual hanging customized knick knacks which signalled that a girl owned and cherished it. It was in a position clearly in anticipation of heading out of the residence. It was clearly Heather’s and clearly untouched from hours before.
Chris and I introduced ourselves to the father, who sat in the living room, emotionless, wearing jeans and a collared shirt. Blonde, and blue eyed, of average height and build, a good looking man, he was staring straight ahead, saying little, no tears, no anger. There was little in his eyes, which is almost always the giveaway. Nothing in his composure which indicated a reaction to the most hellish of torments for a father. So, it was quickly apparent what the original attending officers thought was “unusual”.
I asked Dad if it was o.k. if we conducted another search of the residence, and his vehicle and he quickly and quietly agreed. He did not question why we were being this thorough. I also asked Dad if he would come to the police office, where we could take a statement, which he also readily agreed to, with no questions.
So at quarter to one in the morning, we sat in the interview room with Pat, whose demeanour remain unchanged.
Pat’s story was this.
Pat had been working on some carpentry in his residence. The two kids, Heather and her 8 year old brother Chris had asked around 4:30 to go out and play around the complex while they waited to go to their Mom’s. He said yes, but told them that they had to be back by 5:30 so that he could keep to the proscribed schedule.
Around 5 Chris came into the house, but without Heather, and Pat told him to go get his sister so that they could get ready to leave. Chris went out, could not find Heather, and came back a few minutes later saying exactly that.
Showing the usual parent frustration, Pat packed up and went out into the complex. He began looking, talking to the various kids and parents as to whether they had seen Heather. It was learned after a short time from some of those parents, that she was last seen riding a 2- wheeled bike that she had borrowed from one of the other children.
A few minutes later, the borrowed bike was found, but no sign of Heather. According to one witness, the bike tire was still spinning when they found it, near the front of the complex, in a parking stall on its side.
After we finished the interview around 2 in the morning, we were still just as confused as to Dad’s reaction, or more accurately, his non-reaction. Throughout he was totally co-operative, but he never mentioned the proverbial elephant in the room, which was whether we suspected him as doing something to his daughter. He just answered our questions, calmly and without hesitation.
We left the room, and dropped Pat back at the now growing Search and Rescue group on the Cloverdale Fairgrounds. Still somewhat unsatisfied about Pat, however, we had come to one conclusion. The time-line, both drawn by the original officers, the neighbours, and our interview we felt excluded Pat from being involved. The circumstantial evidence did not leave any room or time for him to commit what would be an unthinkable act. Granted we were leaning on some years of experience and training, and trusting our judgement. Not always a comfortable feeling. And we were about to alter the scope or focus of an investigation as a result. If we were wrong, with the stakes this high, with the focus both within the police and the public that only a 10 year old girl victim can generate, it would be a decision that could haunt or taunt us for the rest of our lives.
In our opinion, we believed that Heather had disappeared, silently, although surrounded by thousands of possible witnesses.
Statistically, if this was a “stranger” abduction as we feared, the chance of Heather being alive was minimal, as too much time had passed since her disappearance. We also knew that there were only a couple of probabilities in terms of motive as to why a young girl is abducted.
If the suspect was not a family member, which was now our investigational theory, then we were now in our own personal criminal investigational nightmare. We were now looking for the needle in the haystack.
To be continued…….
Photo Courtesy of the Surrey Leader newspaper, a picture released to the public during the Search for Heather.