— Pamela Roth
For the last three years, Shelley Fillipoff has often found herself feeling sick and distraught.
The items that belong to her daughter Emma are packed in boxes and stored at her Perth, Ontario home. They’re a constant reminder that Emma has now been missing for three years.
Consisting of books, clothing, shells, rocks, art work, several pieces of writing and a journal that paints a picture of a mentally distraught young woman, Shelley hasn’t gone through the boxes since they were packed and moved from Victoria to Ontario in the summer of 2013. Eight months prior, she was supposed to be moving Emma back home, but she’s still nowhere to be found.
“I felt that having her things close to me would make me feel better and it actually has made me feel worse,” said Shelley with a shaky voice. “When I look at the boxes I think to myself, this is what remains of Emma?”
Described as a free spirited intelligent woman with a love for life, Emma left Ontario in the fall of 2011 and headed for Victoria to experience life on the West Coast. She was 25 at the time and had no home or job lined up prior. Her plan was to figure things out when she arrived.
The five-foot-five Emma with long brown hair was a private person who shared little about her new life with her family back home. Her main communication was through emails with the odd phone call in between.
“Everything was always wonderful and beautiful, life couldn’t be better,” said Shelley, noting Emma was a master at hiding any problems.
“I know she was couch surfing and did all kinds of different jobs. She really wanted to pursue her art and her writing, even though she had worked as a chef. I think the plan was to make enough money to live on for a while, pursue her passions and go back to work when she needed to.”
Things changed one night in November 2012 when Shelley received a phone call from Emma, who revealed she had been staying at a women’s shelter. The pair began speaking off and on, with Emma mentioning on a few occasions she wanted to come home.
One conversation was particularly emotional when Emma confided she couldn’t make the move on her own because she had too much stuff. For Emma to reach out and ask for help was unusual, said Shelley, who booked a plane ticket and told her daughter she’d be there as soon as possible.
The next morning, however, Emma called again, advising her mother not to come, she was just having a bad day and would figure things out on her own. But Shelley could sense something was terribly wrong.
“There’s no way she would have called me in tears like that had it just been a rough day,” said Shelley. “I was very distraught. I wanted to go right away, but for every call that would come, shortly after I would get one that said please don’t come.”
Despite her daughter’s requests, Shelley booked a plane ticket and flew to Victoria on Nov. 28. She arrived at the shelter Emma had been staying only to discover she wasn’t there.
Shelley noticed staff were unsettled that Emma had not shown up to claim her bed that night and had been witnessing her behaviour significantly change in recent weeks.
“She was paranoid, she was doing bizarre things like disposing of all her clothing as if she was planning her suicide,” she said. “They had made a call to a mental health facility and were told to keep an eye on her if she got worse.”
Shelley later learned Emma had left the shelter earlier that morning and was last spotted a few hours earlier, walking barefoot on the cold street by the Empress Hotel. Her red Mazda 1993 van was found in the Chateau Victoria parking lot with almost all her belongings inside.
Shelley never imagined the next two months would be spent searching for the daughter she was preparing to bring home — and would never see again.
“I was so distraught. I would go out believing I was going to go around a corner and find her. I believed that it wouldn’t be long before our paths would cross,” said Shelley, who posted flyers throughout the area and soon had a group of volunteers that helped with the search.
But there was no sign of Emma, who had purchased a pre paid cellphone and a pre paid credit card for $200 on the day she went missing, leaving her loved ones even more confused.
Three years later, Shelley isn’t any closer to finding Emma and grapples with all the unanswered questions on a regular basis. Given Emma’s mental health problems, her mother hasn’t ruled out the possibility of suicide, but questions why she would purchase a cell phone and credit card if she was planning to end her life.
With so little information, Shelley figures there’s a 50 per cent chance Emma is still alive and doing well, and a 50 per cent chance she’s dead or being held against her will. Thinking about all the possible scenarios sends Shelley’s mind spinning into overdrive.
The case has garnered national attention and was the focus of an episode of the CBC’s The Fifth Estate in November 2014. A $25,000 reward for information leading to Emma’s whereabouts is still up for grabs, but so far there has been little response. A billboard will also be posted Nov. 1 along the highway leading to Swartz Bay.
“It’s completely debilitating. Finding her alive will be closure. Finding her not alive will not provide closure,” said Shelley, who’s biggest fear is that people will forget about Emma, which is why she purchased a billboard.
“All I have is hope. She crosses my mind every single day. I walk around in a bit of a fog. It feels as if I have a lead blanket on top of me.”