News

The Missing Women of Salmon Arm

By Grant LaFleche, The Standard

The headlines should have been background noise. Yet even in the midst of the panic and the grief, they stung.

The local press in Salmon Arm weren’t being mean. The headlines weren’t written to hurt. But their benign ignorance still made Alanna Wertz wince.

“When they wrote about it, they would write that she was ‘another missing aboriginal woman,’” Allana says of the some of the press coverage of her missing sister Deanna Wertz. “Deanna would never have described herself that way.”

The First Nations label wasn’t the issue. Deanna Wertz carries aboriginal and German blood in her veins.

It was that word. “Another.” That is what hurt.

“Deanna isn’t a just another missing person. My sister is a human being. She is not a number. That is what she would tell you. She is a human person,” Alanna Wertz says.

Deanna Wertz went for a walk from her Salmon Arm home on July 19, 2016.

She never returned.

No one knows what became of the 46-year-old avid hiker who knows the mountain community she lives as well as the lines on her own face.

“She went for walks all the time, so that is not usual,” her sister says. “I had talked to her on the phone just a few days before and we were making plans for a visit. She sounded happy and wanted meet her nieces.”

Wertz loved the outdoors, her sister says, and would often go for day-long hikes, usually with her dog. Wertz did not take her dog with her when she left her Yankee Flats Road home July 19.

There has been no sign of Wertz. Her sister says Wertz gave no indication where she was going and her husband called police when she didn’t return home that evening.

“There has been nothing. Absolutely no information and that is really the worst part. We don’t know what happened,” Alanna Wertz says. “The police have told us there has been some progress on other missing persons cases, but they don’t have any information about my sister.”

Wertz’s family joined searches of the area, but no sign of her has been found. By late fall, the family began to panic.

“That was the worst feeling, that winter would fall and she would be out there somewhere,” Alanna Wertz says. “It’s hard to think that you’re at home, safe and warm, with your kids, and your sister could be out there in the mountains, freezing and alone. That keeps me up nights.”

Wertz was the third woman to go missing from Salmon Arm in six months.

On April 27, 32-year-old Ashley Simpson, who lived on Yankee Flats Road a short walk from Wertz’s home, disappeared.

And on Feb. 22, Caitlin Potts, a 27-year-old woman, vanished from Salmon Arm.

The RCMP is investigating the disappearances but declined interview requests about the cases.

Potts sent her her sister, Codi Clark, a message on Facebook to say she was coming to Calgary to see her. Potts, an aboriginal woman, said she found a ride to Calgary on Kijji and was leaving that day.

That was the last anyone heard from Potts.

Clark says Potts left Edmonton to live with her boyfriend in the Salmon Arm area. But the relationship turned abusive.

“She called me crying one night. She was hiding from him in the bathroom and he was yelling that he would kick the door down,” she says.

Potts escaped to a women’s shelter in Salmon Arm. For a few months, it seemed Pott’s life was turning around. She found a roommate and left the shelter. She had a job at Tim Hortons and was attending classes at a local college.

“She messaged her roommate (on Feb. 21) saying she had met a guy at a bar,” says Clark, who says her sister is sometimes prone to impulsive behaviour. “Then she messages me saying she was heading to Calgary on that rideshare from Kiijji.”

Clark said Potts had used rideshare connections to travel before, so on its own that wasn’t unusual for her. Not hearing from her, however, was out of the ordinary.

First Nations communities around Salmon Arm rallied for more to be done to find Potts and Wertz. Salmon Arm is located off of Highway 97, one of the connecting arms of the infamous Highway of Tears that was the focus of RMCP probes into murdered and missing aboriginal women.

The local search and rescue organization joined police on searches for the women, but found nothing.

For both Clark and Alanna Wertz, not knowing what happened to their sisters gnaws at them.

“I don’t understand why anyone would do something to Caitlin,” says Clark. “It’s been very depressing, not knowing where she is or what happened to her.”