News

Missing Since April: Part 3

By Grant LaFleche, The Standard

Missing persons posters for Ashley Simpson and Deanna Wertz on the front of the Silver Creek General Store in Salmon Arm, BC. Photo by Grant LaFleche.

Missing persons posters for Ashley Simpson and Deanna Wertz on the front of the Silver Creek General Store in Salmon Arm, BC. Photo by Grant LaFleche.

This is the final part in a three part series.

Jamie Felhauer is a woman of the mountains.

Much of her life has been spent in British Columbia’s Shuswap Highlands nestled in the Columbia Mountains, a range west of the Rockies.

Felhauer knows the mountains intimately. She knows their rhythms. Their moods. She admires the epic beauty of the forests and respects their dangers. But she doesn’t fear them.

Still, Felhauer is uneasy about walking alone on the roads near her home.

“My son was down from Fort St. John and he said, ‘Mom are you sure that is a safe place for you to be?’ I said, ‘Remember when you and your sister were little and we had the ranch and your dad was out logging and we had grizzly bears in our yard? That didn’t bother me.’ Mind you that wasn’t as dangerous as this is,” she says.

“Let me put it this way. None of us ride around or go for walks around here by ourselves.”

By July, 2016 the comforting familiarity of Yankee Flats Road in Salmon Arm where Felhauer lives in a folksy, single-storey house with her husband Doug was tainted by a growing sense of unease.

Deanna Wertz, one of Felhauer’s neighbours, had vanished. Four months earlier, Felhauer’s next door neighbour Ashley Simpson, originally of St. Catharines, went missing. Two months before that, Catilin Potts, a young woman from Salmon Arm, disappeared.

Yankee Flats Road, normally a quiet serpentine street where homes are hidden from sight by walls of tall pine trees, was buzzing with police activity.

“Oh, the police were here several times after Ashley went missing,” says Felhauer. “They were all over that property and set up a command post. They came to talk to us so many times that I have a wall in my office that is just covered in police business cards. We could play 52 pick up with them.”

The RCMP would not discuss with Postmedia the cases of Simpson, Potts or Wertz, other than to say all three are open and active investigations. Family members of all three women say police have told them the cases are not connected.

Simpson disappeared from the camper she shared with her boyfriend Derek Favell April 27, but it would take more than a week before the first search for her began.

On April 29, Favell texted Simpson’s Cousin Bobbie-Lynn McGean, asking if Simpson had been in touch.

She hadn’t.

“I asked him if he had called the police or filed a missing persons report,” says McGean. “He didn’t.”

McGean messaged Simpson’s sister, Amanda Langlois who says she immediately told her mother and began working on a missing persons poster.

“As soon as Amanda told me this was what she was told by Bobbie-Lynn I knew,” says Simpson’s mother Cindy. “I knew something awful happened. So at the same time Amanda is working on the missing persons (poster) I am on the phone with the RCMP.”

In his texts, Favell told McGean he and Simpson had fought over money on April 27 and he “passed out” that night. He awoke around 10 a.m. the next day, and Simpson was gone. She had packed a bag and left wearing “shorts and a tank top or swim trunks of some sorts,” he wrote

“I’ve done everything I can I’m broke can’t get her money can’t feed my kids I’m so stressed I can’t sleepand [sic] all over us not treating each other with respect I’m losing my mind,” Favell texted to McGean.

So was her family. Total radio silence from Simpson was utterly out of character. Simpson was a constant presence on her Facebook page, posting multiple times a day, every day. Simpson’s father, John Simpson, describes his daughter as a “selfie queen,” forever posting pictures of herself.

Simpson stayed in close contact with her family in Niagara, he says, chatting with them via the video app FaceTime at least once a week

“Even when she and Derek moved to Salmon Arm from Pink Mountain, she would send a note whenever they stopped somewhere with WiFi,” McGean says. “She’d tell us where she was and where they were going next and when she would send us another message.”

It all stopped April 27. Her last Facebook post, a cartoon of a frog smoking a joint, was made at 12:34 a.m., before she went out with Favell for a day trip.

The next post on her page was made May 8 by Langlois.

“If you can see this I want you to know you can come home anytime! We are not mad at you. :-( We just want you home!!,” she wrote. “We will never stop searching for you.”

The initial focus of the police investigation was the Yankee Flats road property of Brent Cox where Favell and Simpson were living in a Dutchman Classic camper they hauled down from Pink Mountain.

Michael Sarrizan, a long-time friend of Favell, says he dropped the couple off at the camper after a day trip during which the couple engaged in prolonged and bitter fight. When he left them at Cox’s property, the argument was ongoing.

Cox says he wasn’t at home when Sarrizan dropped them off. When he returned home later that night, he found a door at his house open, but didn’t see either Favell or Simpson. He says he didn’t know Simpson was missing until Favell told him later the next day.

Cox says when police began their investigation, they seized property from both his house and the camper parked next to it.

“They took my phone,” Cox says. “They were all over this place.”

The phone was eventually returned, but in November police asked Cox to sign forms giving them permission to hold many of the items they seized during that initial search. Cox says he signed, but doesn't know how his property will help find Simpson.

“She could be anywhere,” says Cox. Simpson was last seen at the Silver Creek General Store a few kilometers away from his property, Cox says. “They have security camera footage that shows she was there.”

There are two missing persons posters tacked to the local grocery’s red wood-panel facade — one of Ashley Simpson and the other of Deanna Wertz. But the Silver Creek general manager says there is no footage showing Simpson at the store the day she disappeared or since.

On May 6, nine days after Simpson was last seen, road blocks went up around Yankee Flats Road. RCMP officers stopped drivers, asking if they had seen Simpson and handed out missing persons fliers.

Shuswap Search and Rescue joined in the RMCP in a systematic sweep of the area.

John Schutt, the manager of the search and rescue group, says the May search for Simpson was the first of several his group conducted.

The searches weren’t random shots in the dark. Working from the assumption that Simpson left Cox’s property on foot, Schutt says math and the limits of what the human body can do narrowed the search.

“We have formulas that guide us,” he says. “We know how fast a person can walk over a particular kind of terrain. We take into account what kind of supplies they have, do they have any survival gear, do they have food and water and so on. So we can calculate how far she could have gone on foot, and that gives us a pretty good search radius to work with.”

Nevertheless, even the most accurate calculations cannot always overcome the impenetrable vegetation of the mountain forests.

“We do 25 to 30 search and rescues a year, mostly for snowmobilers or hikers who get lost,” Schutt says. “But the terrain is challenging. If we’re looking for you, and we’re calling out for you and you can respond, we will be able to reach you 90 per cent of the time. But if you can’t respond … someone might walk right past you and not see you.”

For Sarrizan, the last person besides Favell known to have to seen Simpson, the time between the missing persons report and the start of the search was too long.

“They should have started looking as soon as she was reported missing,” he says. “It’s so easy to get lost out here. There are bears and other animals. The longer it takes to start a search, the harder it is to find someone.”

RCMP Cpl. Julie Morel of the National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains says cases of missing adults present unique investigative challenges for police. In the case of missing children, systems like Amber Alerts are issued rapidly when a person goes missing. But in the case of adults, the situation can be more murky.

Police will often issue public advisories when an adult goes missing, particularly in the cases of adults suffering from dementia, but adults are free to go where they like.

“Police will continue to investigate until that person is no longer considered missing. But the fact is because this person is not a minor, they have the right to go missing. They can leave and not tell anyone where they are. They have that right,” Morel says.

The searches found no sign of Simpson. Before May turned into June, the RCMP major crimes unit, which is primarily responsible for homicide investigations, took over the probe.

The family’s frustration and fear grew in equal parts. Simpson’s parents, sister and cousins arrived in Salmon Arm to conduct to their own search. Haunting the steps of RCMP investigators, the Simpson clan tried to hunt down their own leads.

When McGean arrived at Yankee Flats Road, she was shocked to see the squalid state of the camper Simpson and Favell were living in. There was hardly room to move, she says. Garbage, old food, clothes and the remains of a shattered television were strewn through the camper.

“You couldn’t believe anyone lived in there. It was truly disgusting. It wasn’t like her to live like that,” says McGean.

Family collected many of Simpson’s belongings and eventually turned them over to the RCMP.

More than once, police had to ask the family to back down because they were getting in the way of the official probe, McGean says. Family members say there were heated arguments between themselves and Favell and even Favell’s mother.

Favell’s camper remains on Yankee Flats Road beside Cox’s house, but Favell has left Salmon Arm. Sarrizan says Favell is afraid for his safety and is in hiding.

“I know where he is, but the RCMP has asked me not to tell anyone for his safety,” he says.

Favell did not respond to interview requests for this series. His mother Bernadine Favell also declined an interview request. In a Facebook message she says neither she or her son will talk about Simpson. He is being unfairly blamed for Simpson’s disappearance and has received death threats, she says.

In Niagara-on-the-Lake, all John Simpson can do is wait. Updates on the case come infrequently. Two weeks ago, the RCMP asked for Ashley Simpson’s dental records, but he hasn’t heard anything since.

He does what he can to raise awareness about his daughter and other missing women. Much like his daughter, he posts frequently on Facebook. Many are reposts of his selfie queen’s portraits — memories of a happier time in the life of the Simpson family preserved in digital amber.

In October, wearing a T-shirt with his child’s missing person poster printed on it, he joined the annual Walk a Mile in Her Shoes fundraiser for a St. Catharines women’s shelter.

It makes him feel like he is doing something. But none of it takes away the fear that gnaws at him, the kind of fear only a parent can feel.

“Some days it’s really hard,” he says. “I will wake up crying. Sometimes that’s all I need is a good cry and I can get on with my day. Sometimes I can’t stop.”

John Simpson’s mind runs through dozens of scenarios to explain what happened. They range from the tragically simple — she could have been hitch-hiking and been picked by someone with ill intentions — to the outright bizarre.

“One of the last times she was home, we were watching TV and there was something on about a reality show where people basically go off and don’t have contact with anyone for months or something. I remember her saying that was something she’d like to try. So, I thought maybe that is what happened. She is on that reality show,” he says. “I know how that sounds. But that is what this does to you.”

Lusia Dion, who operates Ontario Missing Adults, a resource site for relatives of missing persons, says the unrelenting uncertainty of these cases can wreak havoc on the emotional lives of families anxious to know what happened.

Knowing their missing loved one is either alive or dead would, at least, bring a sense of closure.

“These families don’t get that kind of closure in many cases,” says Dion, who connects families with resources to help them manage. “Part of the challenge is learning to live with that uncertainty so you can go on living.”

Cindy Simpson’s thoughts dwell upon her daughter. Her Niagara-on-the-Lake home is filled with photos of Simpson — from a baby picture of Simpson holding a white rose that won a photo contest, to a picture of her fishing last year.

Each new dawn brings another theory for Simpson’s disappearance. Cindy Simpson doesn’t see these scenarios as pointless, tormenting “what-ifs.” Rather, they are an emotional lifeline for her and her family.

“It’s hope. It’s not really a what-if. I hope that is she is out there and she is OK. I hope that is she on a reality TV show, or that is she off someplace having an adventure so that I can kick her butt when she backs back,” she says.

“We have to hope or we have nothing.”