It was just two days since Heather had been found, and I was sitting, head down in a concentrated effort to get through the neatly arranged stack of reports, fighting the late afternoon doldrums, when I was approached by Gary Burke. Gary, was a former troop mate of mine who was currently working for the E Division Major Crime team, and their unit had been brought in to help.
Gary always had a smile on his face, whether delivering good news or bad news, but as he plunked himself down in front of me, his grin was a little wider, he looked like he might burst. “I think we have something good for you” he said.
He began to tell me his story. Two investigators in his unit, Laura Livingstone, and Randy Hundt had just called from the road. They had some promising information on a lead they were following up on in the Maple Ridge area.
The day before, a Maple Ridge dispatcher had called our desk. She, like everyone else it seemed had been watching the tragic news and the recovery of Heather in the Park. She had strong recollections of the day Heather had actually disappeared, and in fact had been working in Maple Ridge on that same date, when Surrey announced the search for Heather in Cloverdale on October 1st.
Hearing that Heather had now been found in Maple Ridge, more importantly in her detachment area was numbing. She began to replay the time and events of those days in early October, the files she may have dispatched at that time. Disconcertingly I suspect, she thought she remembered having had a call that day, one specifically concerning Golden Ears park. It stood out in her memory as the Park was usually quiet at that time of year.
She was hazy on the details, remembering it being something about a vehicle. As she sat home that night reflecting on the news it continued to bother her. She needed to find out more and try and fill in the blanks for her sake even if there was nothing to it. So she drove down to the Maple Ridge detachment to try and find the dispatch ticket.
She found the ticket by scrolling through the daily dispatch tickets, but it was actually on October 2nd, not the 1st, that she had the call that involved Golden Ears park. It quickly came back to her as she re-read the information. It was in fact a call of a reported “suspicious vehicle” that had been called in by park staff working there. The dispatch information was brief, but indicated that an officer had in fact been dispatched, but there was no licence plate, and the eventual patrols closed the file saying that the vehicle was G.O.A. Gone on Arrival.
Nevertheless, even though she was let down somewhat, she called our office saying that we might want to look into it further, if possible. So a new investigative tip was created, as were many that day, and Laura and Randy had been given the assignment to see if they could do any follow up on it.
Before I go any further I should point out that Laura is an extremely affable person which often belied an intelligent and investigative mind. Randy, a big guy with a flair for practical jokes, was smart, as stubborn as I, and a no holds barred approach to investigations. Paired up as they were on this date, it could be assumed that they would not miss anything, there would be no cutting of corners, or an un-checked investigative path.
They pulled the old dispatch ticket and identified the complainants as the campground workers; Mike Zabaglia, Michelle Mackie, Kyle Johnson and Stuart Paul.
So Randy and Laura set about finding and speaking with the workers, and they learned that: on October 2nd at 0650 in the morning, the employees were driving into the park heading to their office to pick up their respective work vehicles.
As they drove in their car pool, a slow moving “big boat” of a car appeared in front of them, the driver wearing a hoodie. It was difficult to pass, so they followed it for quite awhile, until about 1 km south of the boat launch. They thought the behaviour was rather strange, but on they went to the office, got their vehicles and headed out, some going south towards the entrance to the park; in other words back from where they had just come.
One employee, began his work assignment, and was driving back towards the entrance to the park, and is somewhat startled to see this same questionable vehicle, this time parked, also facing south. The hood was up but no driver could be seen in or around the vehicle.
So the park employee drives by but calls on his radio into the office, and reports this second sighting. It was agreed that it was too suspicious to ignore, and decided to call the local police to see if they could come and check on the vehicle.
Meanwhile a second employee around 1030 or 1100, also driving towards the entrance to the park, and after hearing the previous report of the vehicle being parked alongside the road, had driven by and noticed that the vehicle was no longer pulled over on the roadside. So he continues on, heading to do some work at the boat launch area.
As he drives into the normally deserted parking area, there is the vehicle again. This time parked on the boat ramp, again with no sign of the driver in the area. He too calls into the office via his radio, and gives them the updated information.
The Maple Ridge RCMP were now sending a police officer to check it out some the employee continues on his work schedule, and eventually leaves the boat ramp area. The vehicle was still parked and vacant on the ramp as he left.
More minutes go by and now this same employee circles back to the boat launch as much out of curiosity as anything else, but as he approaches the general vicinity of the boat launch, he meets the suspicious vehicle, now heading out of the park, this time driving at about 80 kms an hour. He later describes the vehicle as “large”, and “blue or grey” in colour.
Needless to say by the time the RCMP patrol they do not find the vehicle. Too much time had passed prior to their arrival. The officer concludes his file, typing GOA into the electronic dispatch system. A routine call had ended with little or no effort.
Laura and Randy press on with their inquiries, and they learn from one employee that he thought they had written down the plate number, possibly on one of the park log books, but he could not be certain. They decide to go back with the employee, now with their interest slightly peeked, to try and locate the logbook. Sure enough they find the logbook. And there in a corner of the book, under the date of October 2nd, there is a hand written inscription, written at an angle along the edge of the page simply stating “DRE -666”. Clearly a licence plate number.
Now hearing the numbers 666, if you don’t know, it is often referred to as the number of the “Beast” in the New Testament; a symbol of the devil, or used to invoke the devil, a symbol of the anti-christ. So at this stage of the story it gives me a bit of a pause and I look at my story teller with a raised eyebrow. To say that I was not in the mood for a black humoured prank would have been an understatement. “No, No” Gary says, picking up on my look. And then he goes on with the story.
The vehicle licence plate, now checked, comes back to a 1971 Chevrolet Impala ( a big boat of a car would be a fitting description), green, and the registered owner was one:
Shane Ertmoed, born December 22nd, 1977. making him 23 years old at this time. The vehicle was associated through registration records to an address in Vernon.
But it got better, as Gary continued. They had learned on October 2nd, one day after the disappearance of Heather, and on the day that the vehicle was spotted in Golden Ears Park, Mr. Ertmoed had renewed his drivers licence, and dutifully provided his new address, which was now:
Unit #8 at 17700 60th Avenue, Cloverdale, British Columbia. The same address as Heather’s complex.
We both exhaled, and I sat back in the chair, Gary just looking at me. A few seconds went by in silence as if by talking we would have broken a magic spell, the news too good to be true. If I was tired before, that was now all gone. A nervous energy began to build in both Chris and I, as we began to realize the enormity of this information. We may have just caught the the break of our lives. Another mistake by the suspect may have just been uncovered, a big mistake.
Coincidence is defined as a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection. I don’t believe in coincidences, never have, and I did not believe for a moment that this was going to turn out to be a coincidence.
Was it possible that an individual named Shane Ertmoed, who lived in the same complex as Heather, just happened to go for a drive in a park some 40 kilometres away, one day after her disappearance, and it was the same remote park where Heather was found half-naked floating face down in the lake?
Although all the neurons were now firing, I still needed to restrain initial impulses, needed to be alive to it actually being a coincidence and nothing more. I needed to be alive to the fear of all investigators, the dreaded “tunnel vision”.
After briefing the investigative team, we all headed home around ten that night, exhausted but needing a rest from the marathon, but a marathon that now had become a head long sprint.
There was also one thought that overrode the excitement of the day, one idea, one realization that seemed to be intent on beating the investigative break Gods into submission.
There was no evidence.
We had nothing.
We had a young male that we suspected was involved, but nothing tying him to Heather. No evidence to tie him to the killing in any way, other than proximity to two separate and diverse crime scenes. To know of him, to identify a possible child killer and to not be able to prove it may be a worse fate than not knowing at all.
Exhaustion provided a few hours of sleep, but a very early morning was met with the same mangled thoughts, the testing and re-testing of investigative options, most reviewed and discarded in a few seconds.
But from this filtering and deciphering, this constant give and take, clouded with fatigue, resuscitated by coffee, something emerged.
I now had a plan.
It was a relatively simple plan, a plan reliant on a single elemental investigative tool, but a tool relished by investigators. We still had the element of surprise.
Photo courtesy of Creative Commons via Flickr by John Lambert Pearson entitled “Clue” Some Rights Reserved