It could not have been more serene or more stunning in the blend of water and mountain as the hiker walked the rocky beach of this rather remote parkland. The large lake mirroring the surrounding mountains and trees, made even more dramatic by a quickly disappearing sun, ushering in the colder air.
As the hiker absent-mindedly hiked the beach he noticed a form in the water, about 20 metres from shore. The glass smoothness of the lake made this milky white lump, very noticeable, impossible to miss, but at first glance not easily distinguishable. As he focused, a sickening thought intruded and closed in on him. It looked like a body and maybe even worse, it looked like a small body. He called 911. This call then was diverted to the nearest RCMP detachment who had jurisdiction for the area known as Golden Ears Provincial Park.
The lake at the heart of Golden Ears Provincial Park, is Alouette Lake, and is about 11 kms north of the town of Maple Ridge, a distant working class suburb in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. It was a long forty-two kilometres from where Heather had been reported missing,
A busy tourist spot in the summer, with one road into and out of the Park. However, with the onset of Fall and the October colours, it becomes remote and almost deserted. The in and out access road is heavily treed with Western hemlock, red cedar and Douglas fir, all pushing close to the edge of the asphalt shoulders and sometimes overhanging the road. A few hearty campers would still camp and there was always day hikers, but for the most part, standing by the lake in these surroundings, you would not feel that you were close to any city.
Somewhat uniquely, the flow and level of the Lake is manually controlled by Park authorities, utilizing some sluice gates near one end of the lake. As winter approaches, and as a matter of routine the level of the lake is lowered. So if one was inclined to dispose of body in the lake, unbeknownst to him, her, or them, the physical lowering of the lake level would allow for a body to be gradually exposed. The closer to the shore, this would become even more self-evident. Mistake #1 ? Perhaps.
It was late afternoon, as the body once brought to shore; was naked from the waist down while a horizontally striped sweater covered the upper torso. It was a similarly described sweater to the one that Heather had been wearing when she was last seen.
The young person’s face was now unrecognizable, water having its unkind way with human flesh as it always does; both preserving and destroying certain parts of the body. The cold water would or could act as a preservative, but normal decay and the life in the lake could have the opposite effect, so they would work counter to each other, making trying to estimate the time in the water not an exact science.
The time of death would be hard to calculate with a degree of accuracy, and just as importantly, the actual “cause” of death, imperative to any “homicide”, may now also be hidden if not obliterated by this placid unassuming lake. If this was Heather, and we were quite sure it was, then dental records were going to be needed.
As I learned the descriptors of the body, in its shape such as it was, I felt that I had to get hold of the parents regardless of whether positive identity had been made. They couldn’t be the last to know, so I stepped outside of the protocol, and called Pat. There was no way to get over there before the press otherwise.
Notifying someone of this type of information is gut churning, followed by a feeling of emptiness, a feeling of uselessness, a time when you grasp for words, no matter how rehearsed. It is the hardest artificial human interaction. But, you are also responsible, you need to be the one that steps up, you owe it to them. After all, you told them that you would find their daughter.
Over the phone, Pat remained calm, or at least calmer than I would have been. However, twenty minutes after hanging up, I was alerted that we had had to send a couple of police in uniform to his house; his girlfriend was calling saying Pat ” was going crazy”. At last, at long last, he had broken, and his raw, abject misery was now on full display.
Mom was advised by the officers assigned to Jodie, Constables Helen Lavallee and Mike Wilson. I was not with her when she got the news, and for that I was thankful.
As Chris and I approached the Park gates it was six-fifteen, darkness had already fallen, and there was little we could do as a result. The media swarm had arrived, a few hours before us, with helicopters, and numerous reporters now being held back at the park gate.
There was nothing that could be done in the dark, so we agreed to assemble at the Maple Ridge detachment, to de-brief and prepare for the next day, and the further searching of the water and the Park that would be needed.
During the de-briefing, the attending officers described the media mayhem that they had faced. The intensity of days of pent up media demands can be overwhelming at times, and a media helicopter earlier in the day had to be forced out of the area, and a clear airspace established through Vancouver air traffic control. As it turned out, the helicopter had gotten so low to the half-submerged body, that the chopper blades were actually blowing the still semi-submerged body from its natural resting spot.
(The picture, or the “scoop” they obtained, was shown front page the next day; but it was a picture that angered many by its crassness and insensitivity; the Province newspaper lost 90,000 subscribers in the following days as a result.)
As decided the next day forty officers involved in the search were greeted with a bright and clear day, almost mocking the grim and painstaking task of walking arm in arm over the beach, looking for anything that could have belonged to Heather. If our theory was right, and Heather had been in the water for over two weeks, the water having retreated from the beach may mean that other belongings were actually on the stone beach, washed up.
After assignments were handed out, the searchers left City Hall the sight of our gathering, and began the process, aided by officers in boats, and a helicopter overheard.
Did I mention that within 20 kilometres of Alouette Lake there are six correctional facilities, three Provincial jails, two Federal prisons, and another for youth. At nearby Stave Lake there was a facility for convicted Sex Offenders. All of this adding to our list of things that needed investigative checking.
By this time, the investigative team was now working on over two hundred “persons of interest” as they say in the modern vernacular.
A few hours into the search, the officers on a skiff, located a large “hockey bag” submerged in 1.2 metres of water, but only a few metres from where Heather was floating. The lake was so clear, if you looked closely you could even see it in the notorious picture taken by the Province newspaper from the helicopter. The hockey bag had a broken zipper on the top, and it too looked like it had been in the water for quite some time. There was very little debris in the area underwater, other than the bag, and we began to immediately wonder if it had played a part in Heather being found in the lake. Had she been in the bag?
The search which also found a small hand made cloth bracelet on the rocky shoreline, near too where the body of Heather had been located. Later that afternoon, Heather’s mother Jodie, confirmed that in fact she believed that it did belong to her daughter, she had had made it herself. Another arrow through her soul and a death blow to her quickly waning optimism.
A technicians strike at the Lab delayed positive dental confirmation, but it would eventually come through. This was “our” Heather at long last. It caused us all to take deep breaths, even though we expected this result. It still caused a pause, an ugly affirmation of the task ahead of us, a deep sadness and a resolve intertwined in this death dance.
The background media noise, always present, swelled up once again, once again to a fever pitch. The media scratching their journalistic heads, trying to figure out a possible connection to the Maple Ridge area.
And of course, our investigative approach now shifted, and greater attention needed to be given to anything that hinted at a connection to this area with that of the Cloverdale area. The tip line, which had been slowing, now re-erupted, having drawn in the interest of those living in this 2nd geographic area north of the Fraser River.
Running in the background, other tips were coming in or being uncovered. The proverbial white van now showed up in Golden Ears, at least according to one caller. A stolen vehicle had been recovered on October 9th from the boat launch area in the park. Just two of the items which were contained in our nighttime review of the files, some re-assigned for further inquiries, all proving to be joining the growing pile of “unfounded” files.
The search however was proving to be very productive. By the end of the day at the Park, the bracelet was confirmed, but more significantly the hockey bag had been more thoroughly examined; and in that hockey bag, some undergarments, and jeans that would have fit Heather were found. Her shoes mysteriously were never found.
Some rocks were also found in the bag, no doubt with the intention of weighing the bag down. The speculation was now that Heather had been in the bag at some point, and as the lake lowered, she began to float free of the bag; only possible because of the broken zipper on the bag.
In this CSI age, everyone points to DNA as the magic elixir. To find DNA in this particular bag would be optimum of course, however, if the bag had been in the water for that presumed length of time, it may have destroyed any chance of extracting it. Reality versus television.
So this black “Winwell” hockey bag, a relatively common item, was now the first item found, that we believed likely belonged to the “suspect”. Not just a person of interest, we finally had a connection to a real suspect. We also had a 2nd geographic area, that somehow the suspect was connected to, as well as being associated to the original Cloverdale area.
As to the actual suspect, all we knew was that “he” (statistically at least) probably played sports. Rationally, it didn’t narrow things down much, but we believed that we now had an illusory “something”. We were heartened by the fact that we may be finally pushing the investigation at least in a forward direction. A slow grind for sure, but at least it seemed to be moving.
Unbeknownst to us, it would be only two days later, on October 24th, at four in the afternoon, that a Maple Ridge “connection” would in fact be revealed.
We were still unaware that this investigation and this team, was about to go into overdrive, and time would no longer be on our side. Time would be our enemy in fact.
We were about to get the “break” in the case, a break that would begin our descent into the abyss of pressure filled days, and anxious nights, but we would be in full adrenaline fuelled throttle. The hounds would finally be on the fox.
Photo Courtesy of the Commons by Waferboard Some Rights Reserved