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One year after tragedy, Tonya Kilmer reflects on her life with Ben

On the anniversary of heartbreaking search that galvanized the Island, wife reflects on late husband

The morning of Wednesday, May 16, 2018 began with promise in the Kilmer household.

Ben Kilmer had been struggling in recent weeks, agonizing over the painful process of building his dream home, a beautiful house near Shawnigan Lake. He envisioned it as the ideal place to raise his and wife Tonya’s two youngsters, meanwhile providing them with rental income from both suites and ultimately serving as a legacy for their children.

In 2010, Ben had begun looking at properties and eventually found a piece of paradise; 10 acres on a mountaintop overlooking the Malahat with a view of spectacular Mount Baker dead centre in what would be the panorama from the great room that would include a grand wood-burning fireplace. Tonya reflects on this, acknowledging “it was just like Ben — the core of our family, the light, the fire, exuding strength and warmth.”

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There were few homes in the area and those that had been recently built were spaced far apart. There was solitude, a back country lifestyle that the young couple had dreamed of. A small, pristine lake was nearby and the Trans-Canada trail ran below the property line.

It was everything Ben and Tonya had desired and worked hard to accomplish.

“Ben brought me up there to see it for the first time and I’ll never forget standing on that rock with him. He asked me, ‘can you see our life here?’” Tonya Kilmer recalls.

After eight years of setbacks and red tape, Ben got the approvals he needed to start construction. Despite starting his new electrical business and his busy life as a loving father of two young children, Ben threw himself into the ambitious project. Never one to let anything get in the way of his dreams, he persevered.

“Although the cautions arose, I confidently said, ‘if anyone can do it, it’s Ben,’” Tonya explains.

But the dream unraveled.

At first, things went reasonably well. But as the project moved along, problems arose. Before long, it also became clear that completing the fabulous home on budget would be impossible, due to the rising cost in construction.

Despite his persistence, hopes of completing the dream home were fading. Tonya tried to convince her husband that it would be OK to walk away and move on to another plan.

By May 16, Ben had accepted the reality that the dream for this house was over and the couple waited on their approval from BC Housing to sell the house at lock-up.

“He was up early, 4 a.m., but he’d slept for six hours, which was huge for him given his seven-month history of insomnia,” Tonya remembers.

“We cuddled for a couple of hours, talked about the plan to sell the house and reflected on the things we looked forward to, in an attempt to get back to living the way we always had — simply — and having fun adventuring in the great outdoors, as a family.”

By 6 a.m., Ben was on the phone, talking to a colleague about a work-related issue.

“I could sense his anxiety increasing and he seemed a bit off to me. But he helped make the kids’ lunches and then we both got ready to leave. Ben got his stuff and left quickly. I ran after him. ‘Always kiss,’ I told him. I told him I loved him and kissed him goodbye, not knowing it would be for the last time.”

Tonya was scheduled for a short shift away for work, then would have an extended break. She considered cancelling but, with Ben’s encouragement, opted to carry on.

“He had plans to go backpacking and fishing with friends that weekend. There were plans to pick up the kids after work. All these plans were in place. It was going to be OK.”

It wouldn’t be.

The following day, the name Ben Kilmer would be broadcast on television and radio, social media was buzzing, the Citizen began to delve into a local mystery.

Forty-one-year-old Ben Kilmer was missing.

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His white work van had been found with the engine running on the side of Old Lake Cowichan Road, a rural area west of Duncan. Ben’s personal effects were in the vehicle. There were traces of blood in the van, which the family is now able to disclose, in conjunction with the RCMP, were most likely from a nosebleed. Ben was nowhere to be found.

Cowichan Search and Rescue was called in and a vast search mobilized quickly.

Speculation began, Facebook groups sprang up overnight, espousing hurtful, sensational and false theories that would inevitably make their way back to a family that was struggling to deal with the uncertainty and new reality, while holding on to the hope that he may one day return home, even as the months ticked by.

“Ben’s disappearance sparked a massive search, bringing professionals, family, friends, and people from all walks of life into the beautiful outdoors of Vancouver Island,” observes Tonya.

“The love for this man and the devotion of the Island that he was born to on Jan. 19, 1977, was incredible. Albeit not the way any of us wanted to come together, Ben successfully brought thousands of people to the great outdoors of Vancouver Island.

“Ben’s disappearance sparked a movement, an outpouring of love, that I have never before witnessed or been a part of in my life. The RCMP and Search and Rescue teams attest to the same.”

Ben was found dead near the Chemainus River on Oct. 17, 2018.

Now, on the anniversary of Ben’s disappearance, Tonya Kilmer calls his death “an unfathomable outcome to anyone who knew him.”

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However, she takes comfort in knowing the man she loved lived a short, but full, life and that his life was anything but a tragedy.

“Rather it was a life full of laughter, adventure, fun, hard work, incredible friendships, an unprecedented devotion to his family, and a love that will transcend a lifetime.

“Ben had a great sense of humour and could always make us laugh, yet he was also a leader, strong and driven in his electrical field.”

A skilled electrician, Ben was never one to turn down a challenge, Tonya says.

“His desire to further his career took him up north to Kemano B.C. in 2012, where he literally accomplished the impossible. Not knowing what was in store, Ben was commissioned to lead a team of guys, under his safety and supervision, to pull thousands of feet of cable up a mountainside to power a large sub-station. To Ben, the care and safety of his team was always paramount, so he got the best of the best in the area to train them to harness-up and belay down the cliffside, while electrically outfitting the mountain. The pressure, intensity and demand of this job is something that most electrical foremen will never experience.

“It was, by far, the proudest accomplishment of his career. ‘The safety of my guys was in my hands; there was no room for error’ he told me. His perfectionism and meticulous eye to all details was essential to the role and served Ben and his team well.”

By 2017, Ben was ready to strike out on his own. He formed his own electrical contracting business, Norpac Power Ltd.

“Ben’s business skyrocketed quickly and his two children were on cloud nine: getting to play in daddy’s work truck, wearing his Norpac-branded hard hat, helping with his tools as they ‘built’ together, climbing the Norpac ladders, and enjoying visits from their daddy to their daycare. Daddy rolled up in his work van with treats for all the kids and joined them at their little lunch table for a time they will always remember,” Tonya says.

Natural athletes, Ben and Tonya shared their love of the outdoors and travelling. They backpacked, snorkeled, dove and climbed their way through B.C. the U.S., Thailand, Mexico and the Grand Caymans.

“I have incredible memories of mountain biking in Moab Utah, spelunking, skydiving in Las Vegas, and rock climbing in Squamish, Canmore, on Vancouver Island, in Utah, Washington, and Montana. Our two-month trip of a lifetime took us through the western United States; backpacking, hiking and climbing through nine national parks, as well as living it up at Disneyland, Universal Studios, Six Flags Rollercoaster Park, in Napa Valley, and driving up the Oregon coast.”

The adventures were spectacular, but Tonya says nothing surpassed their wedding day.

“I know that both of us would say that our most epic adventure together was, without a doubt, our wedding in Turks and Caicos in 2011. We dove twice a day, every day, except for our wedding day, and we’ll never forget the incredible high of the post-wedding ceremony catamaran cruise, where no one stood still!

“The whole boat shook over the Caribbean waters, as everyone took to the dance floor, jumping and hitting the roof to the sounds of the DJ. It was the best natural high that you could ever imagine!

“The next was, of course, the birth of our two children. Nothing could have prepared us for that tidal wave of love to hit. For anyone who knew Ben, there was no experience like it in the world.”

Tonya Kilmer has spent the last 12 months trying to come to grips with a life-altering tragedy that has taken an immeasurable toll on the entire family. She has spoken to counsellors and friends, devoured books and mounds of research, and has prayed deeply in an effort to understand what happened.

“I am grateful to have spent 13 of the best years of my life with Ben,” she explains. “When we met on the Cowichan River in 2005, it was electric. Ben always said the most important thing in a relationship is to have fun together, and did we ever.

“To say that Ben will be greatly missed is an understatement. Never have we known a man with a stronger love or devotion for his family. Losing him has shaken us to our core, something that none of us ever expected. Ben will continue to forever live on in my heart and the hearts of his two young children; his loving parents, Bob and Elaine Kilmer and David and Maureen Corry, by marriage; his sister and best friend, Amy Kilmer, and his sweet little nephew; and his siblings by marriage, Ryan (Nicole) Corry and Michelle Corry; his 15 cousins and their spouses; his 13 aunts and uncles; his extensive family by marriage; and, of course, his family of incredible friends.

“Although Ben’s life on earth ended in tragedy, his legacy will live on with love and hope. He inspired and touched the lives of many and we got to see the power of that through our search, through strangers coming together to help, inspired by his story.

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“The search for Ben Kilmer created a movement. The outpouring of love and generosity was nothing short of staggering,” affirms Tonya.

“Although the sadness that we feel and the emptiness in our hearts will always be there, we wouldn’t trade one moment or one memory with Ben to make it hurt any less.”