Missing Since April: Part 2
Ashley Simpson with her boyfriend Derek Favell in Salmon Arm.
This is the second in a three part series.
The text message was incomprehensible.
It was a simple, single sentence. Ten words. But they made little sense to Bobbie-Lynn McGean.
“Hey bobby has ash got a hold of you yet.”
The April 29, 2016 text came from Derek Favell, the boyfriend of McGean’s cousin Ashley Simpson. The two women grew up together in St. Catharines. They were thick as thieves.
McGean and Simpson were last together three months prior to Favell’s text. They worked together at the isolated workers’ lodges along the Alaska Highway on Pink Mountain, in northern British Columbia.
Simpson was being trained to take on more responsibility at the lodges, but against the advice of her friends and family she decided to quit and drive 16 hours south with Favell to Salmon Arm.
The women stayed in close contact. Simpson was attached to her smartphone. She posted a steady stream of material to Facebook and often talked to McGean through FaceTime.
“When she’d FaceTime, Derek was usually there,” McGean says. “He and I didn’t really talk. It would be polite. You know, it would be ‘Hi Derek. Hi Bobbie-Lynn.’ But often he was there but she wouldn’t put him on the phone at all … I think because she knew we didn’t approve.”
The digital staples of Simpson’s life — the photos, messages, the video chats — came to a sudden halt on April 27. But McGean didn’t know that. Not at first.
She didn’t know the last time she heard from her cousin would be the last time.
Not until Favell’s text two days later.
“What do u mean,” McGean wrote. “Where is she?”
It didn’t make sense. The two were always together.
“What’s up,” she wrote when she got no reply from Favell.
“idk we had a fight on when’s [sic] day and then she f---ed off Thursday morn she won’t answer my texts,” the next message from Favell read. “So I figured you would have talked to her.”
McGean hadn’t heard from Simpson. A stream of panicked messages from Favell followed.
They’d fought over money two days before. Ashley must have left while he was passed out. He didn’t know if she had any money. She had not sent a message since.
“I kinda figured she was just trying to make a point but it’s gone to [sic] far now I’m scared,” he wrote. “I’m sitting here f---ing dyeing [sic] with fright my f---ing kids are worried my whole family is worried.”
Within days, McGean and other members of Simpson’s family were on their way to Salmon Arm to find her.
They never did.
Before she vanished, family and friends in Ontario had pleaded with Simpson to come home. Her mother says she talked about coming home for her sister’s baby shower and staying. But she refused all offers to help her pay for a trip east. She wanted Favell to pay back money she loaned him when they moved from Pink Mountain. Then and only then would she return to Ontario.
“Three days before she went missing, I told her I would buy her a plane ticket but she didn’t like accepting help,” says her mother, Cindy Simpson. “That was money that she was owed, and she said Derek was getting his pogey cheque in a few days, and she should get a ticket then.”
That was typical of Simpson’s stubbornness, her mother says, and it was expressed in every facet of her life.
“She wanted to do things her way, even if it was not the way I wanted them done. She’d always come around, but more than once I had to have a pretty stern talk with her,” says Mel Magaton, owner of the Sasquatch Crossing Lodge and Buffalo Inn on Pink Mountain where Simpson worked.
She inherited her father’s love of the outdoors and his restless nature. An office job was never in the cards for Simpson. She needed grass and soil underfoot, and an open sky above her.
“That’s just who we are,” John Simpson says. “We love being outside, exploring. Seeing what is out there. Seeing the trees and the animals and nature. We’re not city people.”
Family was the counterbalance to Simpson’s wanderlust. No matter how far she travelled, home always drew her back like gravity.
“She could never be gone for very long,” her mother says. “Even while she is away, she stays in touch.”
She was also driven by a desire for a family of her own, something nature would not permit. Simpson had ovarian mesothelioma, says her sister Amanda Langlois, and could not have children as a result. But she was drawn to men who did.
“Kids were her favorite thing. She loved kids and they loved her,” says her sister Amy Simpson.
To entertain children at family events, Simpson dressed up as a clown called “Mrs. Sweets.” She built her own puppet theatre and taught herself to create balloon animals.
“She was really good at it, and she loved doing it,” her father says. “I told her she could make something of that. Make it a business. But she never pursued that.”
Alcohol and drugs were also part of Simpson’s lifestyle, as was a string of dysfunctional, sometimes abusive relationships.
“She thought she could fix these guys somehow,” Cindy Simpson says.
John Simpson wanted a better life for his daughter. That’s why he brought her north to Pink Mountain. Far from her life in Niagara, working alongside her father and cousin McGean, Simpson could reboot her life.
For two of the three years she went north, the plan worked.
There is little to do at the Alaska Highway lodges except work. The nearest city, Fort St. John, is a two-hour drive away if the weather is clear.
“It’s hard work and there isn’t much else to do, but the money is good,” says John Simpson. “Ashley could earn more working at camp in a few months than she would working all year part-time in Niagara.”
Magaton says Simpson’s natural charm made her a hit with customers. She did so well in the kitchen at the Sasquatch Crossing, she wanted to promote her this year.
McGean was assigned to train Simpson to work the front desk of the somewhat more upscale Buffalo Inn, a few kilometres down the highway.
“Things changed when she started seeing Derek,” says McGean.
Favell worked at K&L Oilfield Holdings, directly across the Alaska Highway from the Buffalo Inn. The company provides water for oil drilling sites in the area. Its small wood-cabin style storefront also acts as the local grocer and liquor store.
K&L’s co-owner Lory Ollenberter says Favell was a good employee who worked for her for about four months, but refused to say anything else about him.
Tammy Chrzasz, manager of both the Sasquatch Crossing and Buffalo Inn, says Favell was not a welcome sight at either camp.
“I threw him out a few times because he had too much to drink and was causing problems,” she says.
McGean says Simpson drank more after she started dating Favell. It was not uncommon, she says, for the couple to start fighting while Simpson was working, shouting at each other over customers trying to eat.
“I kicked him out of there a few times too,” McGean says.
In February, just after she was trained to work the Buffalo Inn front desk, Simpson quit to move with Favell to Salmon Arm where he had family, including his children.
“I will admit, at the time I was very annoyed,” says Magaton. “You invest time and energy in someone and then they just decide to leave? My attitude at the time was, ‘OK, fine. Your choice.’
“Looking back at everything that has happened, I still wonder if I had pushed it, if I had really talked to her about how this wasn’t a good move for her, maybe she would have stayed and maybe she wouldn’t be missing.”
Simpson told her father and cousin she and Favell were going to “live off the land” in Salmon Arm and pan for gold. Neither of them could dissuade her from leaving.
“She liked the country and the outdoors, but didn’t really like the job. She would go out with Derek and set his traplines. She learned how to skin (animals),” John Simpson said.
“So I understood the attraction for her of going to Salmon Arm. It had the mountains. She could explore and pan for gold and gems.”
Favell did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.
The couple hauled his white and red Dutchman Classic camper from Pink Mountain to Salmon Arm, parking it on the Yankee Flats Road site owned by Favell’s friend, Brent Cox, who lived there in a ramshackle house with his children.
The property is dotted by used tires, a broken down car, kids’ toys and garbage. The cracked wood of the front door has a hole through it slightly smaller than a peep hole. The camper was propped up on blocks under some pine trees beside the house.
Cox says neither Favell nor Simpson found work in Salmon Arm.
Simpson was great with Favell’s children, Cox says. She built obstacle courses on the front lawn for Favell’s and Cox’s children to play in.
He says the couple argued, “but not any more than any other couple.”
Cox’s neighbours, Jamie and Doug Felhauer, however, say it wasn’t unusual for late night arguments to become heated and loud. One night in particular, a few weeks before Simpson went missing, Favell’s screaming woke them.
“It must have been around one in the morning, and I could hear him yelling at her,” Doug Felhauer says. “I could hear him yelling, ‘You broke my f’n TV! You broke my f’n TV!’”
McGean and other family members say Simpson sent them pictures of bruises on her arms. According to Simpson family members and Favell’s long-time friend Michael Sarrizan, Favell had injuries of his own.
“She told us she had put out cigarettes on his arms,” says Simpson’s father, John. “It was not a healthy relationship.”
By early April 2016, Simpson frequently talked about returning to Ontario, but wouldn’t do so without the money she said Favell owed her.
Sarrizan says one evening he got a phone call from Cox. Favell and Simpson had argued and Simpson left.
“He said she stormed off down Yankee Flats Road and could I go and pick her up,” Sarrizan says.
“I found her walking down the road, drinking a can of Palm Bay (vodka cooler). She said she was going to hitchhike back to Ontario.”
Sarrizan says he convinced Simpson to stay at his home for the night in Salmon Arm, and he brought her back to Yankee Flats Road in the morning.
“I dropped her off and everything was fine with them,” he says.
But he says tensions between Favell and Simpson exploded again on April 27 when the couple went with Sarrizan to Margaret Falls — a hiking trail through a dense forest to a waterfall north of Salmon Arm across Shuswap Lake.
The trip started well enough, Sarrizan says. Cox was gone for the day with his children, so Sarrizan picked the couple up.
When they got to the falls, Simpson and Favell, who had both been drinking and smoking pot according to Sarrizan, began to argue.
On the drive back to Salmon Arm, it intensified. Simpson poured cans of Palm Bay over Favell, who in turn spat in her face.
“At one point I told them if they didn’t knock it off, I was going to pull over and they could get out and walk the rest of the way,” Sarrizan says.
“They are both my friends, but it was out of control and now I had vodka all over my truck seats.”
By the time they reached Yankee Flats Road, the argument had simmered. Sarrizan says Cox wasn’t home, and Simpson invited him to stay for dinner. But the argument flared back up. Having seen enough, Sarrizan says he left.
Two days later, Favell sent a text to McGean, asking if she had heard from Simpson.
“She f---ing left me cause I told her to get the f--k out and now I f---ing hate myself for that,” Favell wrote in a text.
McGean hadn’t heard from Simpson.
No one has.