In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Shelley Fillipoff and her youngest son always enjoy opening a box of ornaments and decorating the tree inside her Ontario home.
Occasionally the pair come across an ornament that was Emma Fillipoff’s favourite. Emma was the heart of Christmas in the home. Her absence from the holiday season is glaring.
“When her younger brother and I decorate the tree, we are really heartbroken because it was always the three of us that did the tree,” said Shelley from her home in Perth, Ontario. “We don’t speak of it much.”
It’s been four years since Emma disappeared on the night of Nov. 28 from the streets of downtown Victoria. The five-foot-five woman with long brown hair was last seen walking barefoot by the Empress Hotel. She was questioned by police to determine her mental state, then allowed to leave, vanishing without a trace.
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.
After two or three months in her new city, Emma developed a transient lifestyle, taking on odd jobs, living at a hotel and sometimes sleeping in the woods. One night in November 2012, Emma revealed to her mother that she’d been staying at a women’s shelter and wanted to come home, then later changed her mind.
Despite the request not to come, Shelley flew to Victoria on Nov. 28, arriving at the shelter Emma had been staying only to discover she wasn’t there. Emma was soon reported as missing.
Shortly before her disappearance, Emma began to distance herself from others, becoming fearful, withdrawn and paranoid. In mid-November she told a friend she was leaving Victoria and possibly heading to Salt Spring Island or Tofino. Friends recall her other plans — sailing on a boat to Mexico, heading to San Juan with a man she barely knew, moving to California, moving to Costa Rica, traveling to Japan with her father, living off the grid somewhere in the woods, visiting an aunt in Lantzville and surprising her family by going back home to Ontario.
On the day Emma went missing, she purchased a prepaid cellphone and a prepaid credit card for $200, leaving her loved ones even more confused.
Police maintain the case continues to be actively investigated and tips are still being received.
Shelley never imagined four years would pass without any trace of Emma’s whereabouts. Every month gets harder to maintain some shred of hope that Emma will ever be found.
Suffering from post-traumatic syndrome, Fillipoff has since quit her job as a french teacher and finds it difficult to get through each day. Emma is always with her, the disappearance weighing heavily on her shoulders.
“I feel her in my heart, I take her with me wherever I go,” said Shelley, who recently began reading books again. “I have struggled with going out. People are very kind and supportive, but I don’t like seeing the look on their face when they look at me with pity and it just reminds me of how sad our lives really are.”
Shelley is now surrounded by a group of volunteers scattered across the country, doing everything they can to keep Emma’s story alive. They handle tips, follow up on unconfirmed sightings, conduct interviews and have created a detailed in-depth timeline outlining the days leading up to Emma’s disappearance. Their support means the world to Shelley.
Every now and then, Shelley looks at a pair of patchwork pants that Emma made. They’re among the items stored in boxes belonging to Emma that Shelley moved from Victoria to Ontario in the summer of 2013 and act as a constant reminder her daughter is still missing.
Consisting of books, clothing, shells, rocks, art work, several pieces of writing and a journal that paints a picture of a mentally distraught young women, Shelley hasn’t been able to go through all of the items in the boxes yet. She’s not sure if she’ll ever be able to until she knows what happened to Emma.
“I don’t really want to see her things. She was so private. When I touch the journals I think how devastated she would be to think that people have touched her things,” said Shelley, who started looking through some of the stuff one day, but had to stop. “It’s very sad. It just makes me want to cry.”
Anyone with information on Emma’s whereabouts is asked to contact police at 250-995-7654.