The Search and Rescue encampment at two o’clock that morning was across the street from Heather’s townhouse complex; in the parking lot of the Cloverdale Race Track, which only hours before had hosted a few hundred people attending either the harness racing, or the weekly flea market that was encamped there every Sunday.
It now had gone into night time mode, a few persons walking in and out of darkness, three or four vehicles, lit by headlights, and some tents with hanging lanterns. A quiet had settled in, a quiet amplified by the surrounding darkness, and it was here that I dropped off Pat Thomas. As I drove away I saw him receiving some hopeful assurances from those search leaders that had remained to organize for the coming morning. He looked alone, impenetrable, in a haze which could not be dispelled by any spoken words.
As we drove out and headed back to the office, the size of the search, and the undertaking we were going to embark on, began to take shape. After discussing the matter with the search masters, we had decided to organize and plan for a one mile radius search pattern, with the townhouse complex being the epicentre; a circular mile in all directions. At first blush that does not seem very big. We were a touch optimistic and naive.
This would include, earthen ditches and metal culverts, smith rites, overgrown brush, playgrounds, residential yards, businesses large and small, under houses and sheds, and hundreds of garbage cans. Any receptacle or place that could hide a small 10 year old girls body, and any clothes or objects that could belong to that young girl. A search of this intensity turning up all sorts of detritus, that may or may not relate to Heather, and each piece of “possible” evidence had to be screened by investigators, catalogued, and eliminated or confirmed.
We were also very close to the centre of the village of Cloverdale, and 176th St which was the main thoroughfare to the U.S. border which just a few miles away. The thought of having to search the farmland, every street which was interlaced with eight foot deep ditches, as well as the public parklands, and the myriad styles of condo and single family residences was daunting.
In the back of our minds, there was an omnipresent uneasiness, that maybe this was all for nought. Maybe Heather had been put in a car or truck and may have been literally out of Canada in thirty minutes.
The hub of the investigation, and what had to be at the centre of our concentrated search was the townhouse complex itself. About fifty residences, with an unknown number of occupants in each, children, teenagers, and adults. Parents that could be uncooperative at times, overly cooperative at other times. Adults from all cultures and levels of socio-economic status. Some may be unwilling to point to anything suspicious either to safeguard their neighbours, or to hide something else that may be going on in their own sphere. And canvassing and seeking the help of all would be voluntary on their part. There were no evidentiary grounds to get warrants for individual residences. Each residence had the potential to be hiding Heather, dead or alive.
By five in the morning, now back at the Detachment, fresh coffee in hand, Chris and I began to organize the file, and prepare for the oncoming police shifts. The night had provided us some privacy, and gave us a false sense of quiet. Daylight we knew would bring chaos, and awaken the RCMP policing giant which would demand and need to be force fed the “latest” information; so they could in turn feed others in the police food chain. Briefings would become part of my core existence, often taking away valuable time, maybe relevant, but never usually forwarding the investigation, and sometimes it seemed only to feed the voyeuristic nature of police command.
As the sun rose, the search groups went into full throttle, and vehicle after vehicle started to become part of the encampment in the parking lot, taking on the air of an invasion group. The nearby 7-11 convenience store would draw numbers like a WalMart, all manners of uniform, buying the staples of policing; coffee, sunflower seeds, chocolate bars and pepperoni sticks.
Over the next three days, the searches would grow to over ten different Search and Rescue and Police Agencies. They came from Vancouver, Washington State, Squamish, North Vancouver, Coquitlam, Burnaby, and all points in between. Many of the police and fire that showed up were off duty and were also volunteers.
Dive teams would eventually swim the ditches, feeling for or hoping to bump into something solid, as in the mud filled waters, visibility was zero. Bloodhound dogs were in boats on the water areas, able to smell below the surface. Our own police dog services checked yards and fields incessantly. The constant whirring of helicopters overhead was endless, as they supported the ground searchers, creating a sense of dramatic urgency.
A call went out for volunteers from the community to assist the other searchers as the geographic size of the search began to hit home. By day three, 1200 volunteers from the community would show up. Even more were turned away. It was amounting to one of the largest searches ever conducted by the RCMP in Canada.
Could the suspect be in amongst the volunteers? Watching, keeping track of the investigation, or getting some sort of adrenaline rush. Maybe.
Upwards of 1500 people were walking through the wet fields, an arms length separating them. Some were carrying sticks and prods, to poke at anything underfoot. All walking in line, covering a mapped out grid, a human wave slowly rolling over the centre of Cloverdale.
Nothing is too small to be interpreted as evidence, especially with the voluntary searchers who intensely wanted to be part of a solution to Heather. They uncovered and pointed out sanitary napkins, clothing, footwear, letters, anything and everything that could be left or thrown to the ground. Garbage cans were emptied, leftover food, bottles, papers, baby diapers covered in ashtray refuse, were all dumped on the ground and then sorted by hand, letting the debris fall through ones fingers to act as a rudimentary screening device . Your olfactory organs were tested, but by the end of the day your senses became numb to the stench. Hundreds of items were seized for further examination.
For the first few days, the media scope and attention grew, daily leading most newscasts on the three television networks; now being spurred by international attention in the U.S and Europe. All started with the picture of Heather, the pretty girl in her school photo who with her staring eyes reflected your typical pre-teen, anyone’s daughter. Her photo was everywhere, stacks of her posters always on our desk, always watching over your shoulder, and as the clock ticked away, and days and nights were less discernible, it seemed to me to became more personal.
As we entered day three, the media broadcasts which had initially focused on the need to “find” became more sombre, there was a shift in tenor, the term “hope” was less used. They interviewed every passing person, child or adult, especially those who lived in the complex who would be willing to say a few words to the camera and the desperate nature of the search.
Still no tangible sign of Heather. The bike used by Heather which was found by neighbours within minutes of her disappearance was still the only single piece of evidence we could tie to Heather. There was no suitable DNA or fingerprints on the bike. On one of the days, in order to both keep up the public interest in the search and to help feed the media, I brought out the bike to be viewed by the news groups and to answer questions. Every 6 o’clock news broadcast led with the story of the search for Heather Thomas, as it would for the next several weeks.
One of the investigative thoughts was the possibility that if this had been an “opportunity” type offence, then maybe the suspect had her hidden, but not in a spot with which he or she was comfortable, and would therefore, when the neighbourhood scrutiny died down, the suspect would move the body to a better hiding spot.
So, in an effort to prompt the suspect to move the body, after three days of searching, we officially cancelled the Search, much to the dismay of the general public who inundated our office with frustrated messages. But then, after waiting a few days, letting a form of normalcy to return to the complex, we re-organized another search day to go over the same ground near the complex. It too was to no avail.
A sex related homicide was now, statistically, becoming more of a real and eventual outcome. A dark outcome for sure. We had also spent a great deal of the crucial hours and days on the search, that first 48 hours, without anything to show for it.
Hundreds of items had been seized, checked and eventually discarded as not belonging or related to Heather.
Hundreds of people from the community went home each night a little more discouraged with their search efforts.
It wasn’t for lack of trying, or for a lack of attention as every post or hydro pole in Surrey had stapled to it a picture of the missing Heather. Heather was now known to the community and the City, her fame though not wanted by any parent. A parents purest form of mental hell.
Admittedly, in the few quiet thoughtful moments, which were getting rare, I just wished that Heather would walk through the door, apologizing for running away, worried only about facing the wrath of her parents.
Did I mention that I was a single parent with an eight year old daughter at home? Always late getting home, I would visit her in her bedroom where I would always find her sleeping peacefully, her chest rising easily with each breath, thankfully oblivious, thankfully warm and dry.