Every time someone goes missing in Victoria, the file lands on the desk of Detective Chantal Ziegler.
Last Thursday, she had two new cases to review. Someone usually goes missing every day.
Many of the files often deal with an elderly person suffering from Alzheimer’s or high-risk youth with a history of running away. Ziegler is tasked with doing a risk assessment on each person, finding out why they are missing and whether there’s any foul play.
The first 24 to 48 hours are crucial as police gather as much information as possible to get a better understanding of the risks to the missing person. Their name, description and circumstances are entered into a police database to alert other departments.
If someone is a chronic runaway, officers will look at where they were last found, who their associates are and their lifestyle. If someone has a medical condition, contact is made with the hospital. If the case involves a child, however, officers immediately go into search mode.
“For an adult, it all depends on the information we get. Sometimes they are a needle in a haystack, but sometimes people just lost sight of somebody and haven’t heard from them for a long time,” said Ziegler. “It’s very time consuming.”
Victoria police have 20 historical missing person cases. The oldest dates back to 1956 and the most recent is from 2012. Advancements in DNA have opened up a number of resources for police to move the investigations forward. Last year, detectives matched a missing Esquimalt person with someone who committed suicide.
Although the cases are hard to solve, Ziegler said they haven’t gone cold. Some of the city’s most high-profile cases such as Michael Dunahee and Emma Fillipoff are still getting tips from the public.
Last week, police received five tips on the Dunahee case — a four-year-old boy who went missing from a playground at the former Blanshard Elementary School on March 24, 1991. As the 25th anniversary of his disappearance draws near, Ziegler expects more tips will pour in.
Fillipoff was last seen on Nov. 28, 2012, walking barefoot on the cold street by the Empress hotel. The 27-year-old’s red Mazda 1993 van was found in the Chateau Victoria parking lot with almost all her belongings inside.
Her mother, Shelley, spent the next two months searching for Emma. Three years later, she isn’t any closer to finding her daughter and grapples with many unanswered questions on a regular basis.
“It’s completely debilitating. Finding her alive will be closure. Finding her not alive will not provide closure,” said Shelley, who recently flew from Ontario to Victoria to purchase a billboard for Emma along the highway leading to Swartz Bay.
“All I have is hope. She crosses my mind every single day. I walk around in a bit of a fog. I feel as if I have a lead blanket on top of me.”
Ziegler and her team take every tip seriously, even if it’s information that’s already been reported.
As for the chronic runaways, Ziegler said it’s important they don’t get dismissed by the media whenever they go missing — such as a 16-year-old “at risk” aboriginal girl who’s missing yet again.
“I heard the media is reluctant to forecast her as missing because she goes missing all the time. We have to understand that kids that go missing all the time, they are the ones at most risk,” said Ziegler. “There is a reason why she goes missing all the time. She feels misunderstood, there’s a lot of stuff going on in her life and she has no tools to cope with them. We need to look for her. We need people to care for these kids and we need to make sure they know the resources are available to them. We don’t give up on these people.”