Ron Hanefeld of Abbotsford was moved by the hard-luck story of the hitchhiker he picked up on his way to Kamloops during a trip in September.
The two became fast friends, and the drifter moved in with the family for six months, as they tried to help him get back on his feet.
Now, Ron and his wife Henriette believe their 16-year-old daughter, Stephanie Neumann, has run away to be with the 35-year-old man. Police believe she has either already joined him on Vancouver Island or is on her way there, and is panhandling to make money.
The Hanefelds have not heard from Stephanie since April 28, two days after her birthday. She has never before left home, and the couple describe her as somewhat “naive and innocent.”
“We’re really, really worried,” Ron said this morning (Thursday) at a press conference at the Abbotsford Police Department (APD).
Const. Ian MacDonald said the man, whom police are not naming, left the family’s home on April 17. He was checked by police in Victoria on April 21 while panhandling and by authorities in Nanaimo on May 3, when he was alone.
“It’s still our theory that they (Stephanie and the man) are together or that she’s trying to get enough funds to get to him,” MacDonald said.
Ron said he bonded with the hitchhiker after picking him up near Chilliwack on Sept. 29 and dropping him off in Kamloops. The man said he was divorced with four kids, and out of work.
A week later, he was back in the Lower Mainland, and he called Ron, who soon invited him to stay with the family, including four other children – ages 2, 5, 7 and 12.
“He was a real likable guy with a hard-luck story … I wanted to help him get back on his feet again,” Ron said.
He said everyone in the family became attached to their new housemate. In particular, Stephanie became like his “shadow,” helping him as he worked on the family car and worshipping him like a big brother, Ron said.
A rift developed last month when the Hanefelds discovered that the man had taken Stephanie panhandling with him around Abbotsford. Friends and family reported having seen her, and Stephanie herself admitted to the activity.
The couple also realized that some of the stories the man had told them were not matching up, and he no longer seemed interested in the help they were offering him – for example, with trying to find work. He left the home.
Ron was the last one to see Stephanie, at about 1 a.m. on April 28 before he went to bed. Henriette went to her daughter’s downstairs bedroom several hours later, and discovered she was gone.
Stephanie had taken a few clothes, her laptop computer and her cellphone, but not her charger. The family has not heard from her since nor has there been any activity on her phone or on any of her online accounts, such as Facebook.
Ron said he can’t stop blaming himself for having brought the man into their home.
“I feel really guilty because I’m supposed to be the protector of the family,” he said, breaking down.
Stephanie is described as 5′ 6″ tall with straight blonde hair and a thin build. She may be wearing a grey hoodie and a blue puffy jacket. Anyone with information is asked to call the Abbotsford Police at 604-859-5225 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.