The missing. They stare out at us from milk cartons, the back of trucks and on posters at the post office. At any one time there are 7,000 people in Canada who have disappeared. Sometimes they are children taken during a custody dispute, many are runaway teens and some are adults creating a new life.
But sometimes it's darker: an abduction or murder.
Few cases reek of foul play more than the mysterious disappearance of Melanie Ethier of New Liskeard, Ont. In 1996, 15-year-old Melanie was a beautiful young woman with a bright future. The teen left a friend's house at 2:00 a.m., for a quick, 10-minute walk to her home. She was alone and was never seen again.
"I'm still hoping for the one person that knows what happened to come forward," said her mother, Celine Ethier.
But so far there has been nothing but silence. With no crime scene, no witnesses and no body, police are left with few clues. Still, the investigation continues with police following up on 700 tips and 500 witness statements.
Even after all this time there is always hope for resolution. Police told W5 of a small but significant bit of information in the case.
"In recent months and weeks we've received witness information that causes us to believe Melanie actually made it as far as the bridge that crosses the Wabi River, within several hundred yards of her home," announced Det.-Insp. Ken Leppert.
Just one tip that could lead to more clues and move this case forward, and give Melanie's mother Celine a modicum of peace after waiting year after year.
"I'd like to know what happened to her," said Celine, "to have some kind of justice."
While some people disappear and are never seen again, some bodies are found and never identified.
Approximately 600 unidentified human remains lie in morgues and cemeteries across the country. Who they were and what caused their deaths are mysteries that can endure for years or even decades.
Take for example the woman whom police call The Nation River Lady. In May of 1975, a farmer spotted a body floating in the Nation River near Ottawa. Back then, forensics science was in its infancy and yet there was no doubt that the woman had been beaten and strangled to death.
Retired Ontario Provincial Police detective Joe Peltier was one of the first assigned to the case and remembers when they pulled the body out of the water.
"What we saw around her neck was one of those cable wires, said Peltier, "and her face was partly covered." The young woman's hands and feet were bound by men's neckties.
There were many intriguing clues. Blood was found on the bridge above the Nation River. The victim was wrapped in green curtains and a tea towel embossed with a traditional Irish song. Closer investigation revealed extensive dental work, including unique metal bridgework. She had well-manicured and polished nails.
Yet no one has been able to identify her and today The Nation River Lady is buried in a barely-marked grave in Toronto's Mount Pleasant cemetery, under a small stone with the number 1654.
Missing persons units
While investigative techniques for cold cases like the Melanie Ethier disappearance and the Nation River Lady have advanced enormously in recent years, they are handled by law enforcement across the country in different ways.
The OPP have a special unit dedicated to finding the missing and identifying human remains with the help of the public on the Internet.
The Missing Persons and Unidentified Bodies website was launched in 2006 with some controversy because it featured actual autopsy photos. So far it's generated more than 1,200 tips, located 33 missing persons and identified 10 human remains.
OPP Superintendent Dave Truax is in charge of the Missing Persons and Unidentified Bodies Unit and he knows first-hand what families of the missing experience. His uncle disappeared during a Thanksgiving weekend fishing trip and his body has never been recovered. For his father, Thanksgiving is always coloured with the loss.
"He gets quiet for a couple of days, thinking about his brother," said Truax.
The only other dedicated missing persons team is in British Columbia. Steve Fonseca from the Coroner's office has adapted a Geographic Imaging System (GIS) to track cold cases. The details of hundreds of missing people in B.C. are entered into a database, and can be cross-referenced with the cases of unidentified remains, all with the click of a mouse.
"In the past," recalls Fonseca, "we were just reading files. Now I can go into Google Earth. I can look at a dot on a map. It means cutting down on investigative time by weeks and months."
Hoping on DNA
But it's the science of DNA that holds out the most hope for families of the missing and may lead to the identification of the unidentified. DNA is taken from relatives of the missing and cross-referenced with unidentified remains.
In Canada it could easily be added to the national DNA databank in Ottawa, which is currently used to track violent criminals.Yet, for the past seven years, the government has done little more than talk about expanding the database. Two private members' bills failed to pass in Parliament. In 2009, a Senate Committee recommended the government amend the DNA Databank to include DNA from missing persons and unidentified remains but so far there has been no action.
This is despite urging from police chiefs, victims organizations and politicians from all political parties. Steve Sullivan, the former federal ombudsman for the Victims of Crime, told W5: "It comes down to political will and at this point we haven't seen that kind of political will."
The United States has cross-referenced the DNA of the missing with unidentified remains since 2003. The American databank has matched 500 missing people and unidentified remains. In 2010 alone, 83 cases were solved.
W5 requested an interview with federal Public Safety Minister Vic Toews about expanding the Canadian DNA databank to include information about missing remains and families whose loved ones have disappeared. Toews' staff wrote back to refuse the request. Approached later, as he entered a Toronto-area news conference, the minister said it was still being studied but added: "Quite frankly the public safety committee's agenda is already full."
With the federal government unlikely or unwilling to make changes to the DNA database, families of the missing are left wondering and suffering. Even though 14 years have passed since Celine Ethier's daughter disappeared, she still hopes to find out what happened to Melanie.
"I keep on hoping," said Celine, "that at some point I will have an answer."
If You Have Information...
Regarding Lindsey Nicholls investigation:
Comox Valley RCMP
Lead investigator Sgt. Paul West
(250) 338 1321
Case # 1991-10083
For anonymous tips contact local Crime Stoppers
Regarding Melanie Ethier investigation:
- Temiskaming OPP
- (705) 647 8400
- Case # 955-10-1996-175
- For anonymous tips, contact Crime Stoppers at 1 800 222 TIPS (8477)
Regarding Nation River Lady investigation:
- Embrun OPP, Russell County Detachment
- (613) 443-4499
- Detailed information available on the OPP's unsolved homicide website.
- The above link contains case photographs, contact information and a section where anyone can leave a message or tip.