Life

WHEN A LOVED ONE VANISHES

Two years ago CHRIS TENOVE’s friend suddenly disappeared. He’s still struggling to accept that.

November 11 2002
Life

WHEN A LOVED ONE VANISHES

Two years ago CHRIS TENOVE’s friend suddenly disappeared. He’s still struggling to accept that.

November 11 2002

WHEN A LOVED ONE VANISHES

Two years ago CHRIS TENOVE’s friend suddenly disappeared. He’s still struggling to accept that.

Life

IT WAS JUST over two years ago, on a warm afternoon in late August, and Jutta Bentz was working among the bedding plants and seed racks of Edmonton’s southside Revy Home & Garden Centre. She was 27 at the time, a university graduate, a singer fluent in four languages, an attractive woman in that uncomfortable stretch in your late 20s when you feel you should know what you’re going to do with your life. I find it easy to imagine Jutta manning the cash register or helping a customer pick out a pot. These are the predictable routines that make up our lives.

Jutta’s father, Bruce Bentz, came to pick her up that night at the end of her shift at 10. Instead, he learned from a co-worker that she had begged off work three hours earlier, claiming she wasn’t feeling well. Bruce returned to the home he and Jutta shared, but she wasn’t there. Now worried, he started to look for her. He also contacted the police, but the approaching long weekend meant that their investigation would be limited to calling hospitals and other police units.

Bruce tracked down some leads himself. He learned that Jutta had taken a Co-op cab from Revy to the Greyhound Bus Terminal. Security cameras there showed her going to the ticket counter, making an inquiry, then sitting down in the waiting area. She spent several minutes there, then made another inquiry at the ticket counter and left the depot. There’s no evidence she bought a ticket. Shortly after, a camera in a drugstore a few kilometres away caught her at a bank machine. Jutta looks completely normal in that video, dressed in her fall jacket and dark slacks. She withdraws $80 and then walks out of the store.

That’s the last trace of my friend.

AFTER JUTTA disappeared I started to follow the stories of the missing, tracking them in newspapers, talking to the families of

people who had disappeared. The tales all feature one of those fateful ruptures—the moment when a person skips the groove of their expected behaviour. Most cases are resolved within 48 hours—barely enough time for those left behind to make some panicky calls and try to find clues in the immediate past. But when someone remains missing you start to look farther back, hunting in his bedroom, her e-mail, trying to remember stray remarks about a new friend, a wish to see the ocean, a growing sense of hopelessness.

Jutta had always travelled widely. I have a clutch of her letters from Spain, Sweden and Mexico. Still, I don’t believe her disappearance was the start of a new trip. For the last few years I have lived in Vancouver, but

had met with her during a visit to Edmonton just weeks before she disappeared. She was not her old joyful self that afternoon. She told me she had become increasingly unhappy, and seemed fixated on the idea that her previous use of antidepressants had damaged her mind.

Several days after Jutta went missing, Bruce learned that she and her co-workers had talked about a mental wellness centre in Canmore, Alta. We latched onto a hopeful scenario. Jutta loved Canmore, tucked in the mountains near Banff, and friends had an empty condo in town. She had to be there. I drove to Canmore the next day. No one had seen her. I showed her picture to hospital staff and police—nothing. I placed an article in the local newspaper, but

no one called in with a tip.

I’ve since learned that family and friends of the missing become compulsive storytellers. In the beginning, they create reasonable narratives to explain the disappearance-crashing at a friend’s place, say, or an impromptu visit to a distant relative. But investigation gradually disqualifies the sensible and tolerable stories. Loved ones start spinning tales of survival, some so far-fetched they’d make a soap opera writer blush. They also imagine graphic stories of suffering and death. As the mother of one missing daughter told me, the imagination will not limit itself. “You are so terrified that they’re dead, so you think of them as being taken,” she said. “But then you start to imagine: was someone forcing drugs on her, was he engaging

in horrible sexual acts? All these things go round and round in your head.”

Bruce believes Jutta wanted to drop out for a while, to escape to a place where living is simpler. He suspects she might have retreated to a small community in northern Alberta or British Columbia. Somewhere, he thinks, where she could “put everything back on track again.”

But can a person really disappear for two years? Jutta’s mother, Ragnhild Löfgren, flew from her home in Switzerland (she separated from Bruce when Jutta was 12) to help in the search. She later returned again. Ragnhild believes her daughter likely committed suicide, an opinion Bruce understands but disagrees with. “If you want to assess the evidence, and have it add up to

that, it’s possible to do that,” he says. “You can take any conclusion you choose and build a case for it.”

We have a clear picture of where Jutta was, and what she was doing, on that August afternoon. We’ve used those last sightingslike the final blips from a plane before it goes off the radar screen—to devise different trajectories she might have taken. But they have provided no answers. Was her disappearance planned or impulsive? Her choice or someone else’s? Is she dead or alive? As the months roll by without a single new piece of information, all we are left with is our guesses.

IN THE WAKE of Jutta’s disappearance, I began to notice the faces on Visa envelopes, the constant stream of stories on front pages or buried in crime sections. Last year in Canada, police opened 21,465 missing persons files for adults and 66,994 for children. The great majority of those are soon closed. More than 53,000 of the missing children, for example, were runaways who were quickly found, and the total accounts for the same youths having run away several times. The actual number of people who go missing and stay that way is much smaller, perhaps a couple of hundred, but is disturbing nonetheless.

Depending on the circumstances, it can also be disturbing when they are found. This is especially true in Vancouver, where the issue of missing persons has taken on a new urgency with the disappearance since the mid-1980s of more than 60 women from Vancouver’s gritty Downtown Eastside. That matter is now in the hands of a special task force, as some of the missing women have been traced to a Port Coquitlam pig farm where they, and perhaps many others, were murdered.

The missing persons unit in Vancouver consists of three detectives. Their office space is plastered with the faces of the recendy missing, captured in family photos or, in some cases, police mug shots. Another wall has pictures of “chronic runaways”—teens, often from foster homes. Det.-Const. Dan Dickhout, one of the three investigators, often has 100 cases he’s actively pursuing. There is a high turnover—while we spoke he answered a call that brought a smile: a missing person had been contacted, a file closed.

I was more interested in cases where the leads run dry. At the time of my visit, there were 150 historic files, as they are called,

dating as far back as 1960. Those cases with the most detailed information were kept in black binders, containing the documents that weave together the police version of the missing person’s story: interviews with family, a few snapshots for posters, jottings on yellow Post-its, dental records (for identification in case a body is found), and the logged notes of officers as all leads are extinguished.

It’s much the same across the country. These cases remain active, technically, but are unlikely to advance without an unsolicited tip or the discovery of human remains. It’s a disquieting state, a limbo. That’s where Jutta’s file remains.

Of course, families and friends of the missing are not able to put their hopes and fears into a black binder and shelve it. But after all the plausible leads have been followed, all the friends called and favourite spots checked, there is little for families to do. Ragnhild once asked Bruce if he had searched the shores of Lac Ste. Anne, near where the family has a cabin. Bruce wondered how he could restrict himself to just one Alberta lake. “There are a lot of lakes,” he says, “and once you’ve walked along the shores of all the lakes, then you want to search the shores of all the rivers and all the streams. And then

there’s the shore of the ocean. It doesn’t mean it’s not worth looking, just. . His voice trails off. Then, he adds, “There’s a lot that goes through your mind, especially in a two-year time.”

IN FEBRUARY, police descended on the Pickton farm in Port Coquitlam. Dozens of missing persons files suddenly coalesced into a single, massive case. I felt drawn to the investigation and took on the assignment for a British newspaper. I drove out to Port Coquitlam to stare down what I thought was the worst-case scenario for a missing person story.

The Pickton pig farm—especially in those first, overcast days of the investigation— was an eerie place. My first thought when

Family and friends of missing people become compulsive storytellers as they attempt to rationalize what has happened

I saw it was that it would be terrifying to be there at night. Bony trees, wrecked cars, the smells and sounds of the animals.

Lynn Frey’s stepdaughter Marnie is one of the missing women from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. One night, several months after Marnie disappeared in August, 1997, Lynn, following tips from Mamie’s fellow sex-trade workers, ended up at the Pickton farm. She felt the “heebie-jeebies,” she now says, and sensed that her daughter had met her end there. Robert Pickton has now been charged with the murder of 15 of the missing women. Mamie’s name isn’t on that list. But Lynn hopes Mamie’s remains will be found at the farm. “It would be devastating,” she tells me. “But at least if we can find her, we can bring her home to rest. But not knowing, and always wondering what happened—not knowing, the agony of not knowing...” Her voice breaks. “I just hope they find something.”

Dickhout is not surprised by the longing for certainty, however terrible. “People can deal with a death,” he says. “They usually have the support, they have the guidelines. Most people have had a death in their life— whether it’s a parent, a friend, even a grandparent—so there’s a mapping process where they know how to deal with a death. But no

one has a mapping process to deal with a loved one who is missing.”

A year after Jutta disappeared, her family organized a memorial service at St. Joseph’s Chapel at the University of Alberta. The university choir, of which she’d been a long-time member, sang her favourite songs beautifully. A friend testified to her appetite for joy by describing a wild toboggan ride they shared in the Swiss Alps. In the church basement we had refreshments and looked at pictures ofjutta. I can’t put my finger on how it differed from a funeral, but it did.

I WENT TO talk to Liz Tuck because she got what families of the missing want: the Reunion. Her 15-year-old daughter Natalie disappeared on Sept. 12,2000. No clues were found for two weeks, at which time the RCMP asked Liz for her daughter’s dental records “just in case.” A week after that, a motel clerk noticed a teenaged guest who resembled a missing girl he had seen on TV. He phoned the RCMP, who promptly came and collected Natalie.

A 30-year-old drifter had taken advantage of Natalie’s overly trusting nature—a result of Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism—and convinced her to sneak off with him. While she was away, Natalie wrote letters to her mother about what had happened. The man took each letter, promising to mail it, then threw it away.

Liz was a wreck when she arrived at the police station, exhausted from days of searching for Natalie and sleepless nights waiting for the phone to ring. When she saw that Natalie was alive and in reasonably good health, she felt overwhelmed. “I don’t know how to describe it, it was a feeling of excited and exhausted at the same time,” she tells me in the kitchen of her home in Cobble Hill, a village on Vancouver Island. Although she looks young for 51, there are patches of grey at Liz’s temples, grey that came when Natalie was missing. “The whole family felt really blessed to get her back, although a little element of fear is always there,” Liz says. “She could go missing again.”

In fact, the man who took Natalie away did return. Several times he convinced her to accompany him again, and for a while she lived with him in Victoria. During that time Natalie became pregnant. She also became convinced that she had to get away from the man and return to her mother. There was

a custody battle for the baby, which Liz and Natalie won. Police have since laid charges against the man, for assault of Natalie and for the date rape of three other girls. Now, Natalie and her daughter are living safely in Liz’s home.

But there is still a residue of fear in the household. At one point, as we talk, Liz’s 14year-old son Joseph walks past to leave the house with a friend. “What are you doing? ” Liz shouts. “Where are you going?” Her son pops his head in through the door. “I’m just going to the bank.”

“He never does that, he never just leaves,” Liz says quietly when the door closes again. “He’s very conscious of my nervousness, so normally he would tell me what he’s doing.” She pauses, then adds, “I think people should have photographs ready of their teenagers all the time, recent up-to-date photographs. I know it’s a terrible thing to say, but keep an eye at least on the coat they’re wearing when they leave in the morning.”

When someone you care for has gone missing, the dangers in the world become more apparent. It’s as if you looked at a negative of a picture, and the empty spaces in the original image are now obvious, sub-

stantial—and frightening. What else might disappear if you take your eye off it?

I HAVE OFTEN dreamed of a reunion with Jutta. In one dream, she was the ticket-taker at a theatre, treating me coolly. In another, I found myself on a tropical island populated by the missing. Their pale faces, as seen on police posters, were now brown from the sun. In that dream, Jutta recognized me immediately, her face blooming in joy. All these dreams are bittersweet: the instant I wake, the happiness of discovery turns to renewed loss.

The evening after the memorial service for Jutta, I went for drinks with several mutual friends. We spoke lovingly of her, and then confessed our own guesses about her fate. There were suggestions of suicide, abduction, and the possibility that one day she will walk back into our lives. All of them seemed plausible. At the end of the night I felt better, if only because I wasn’t grieving alone.

But Jutta has been gone for more than two years, and I still struggle to accept that someone I know could simply vanish. I share this feeling with everyone I talked to who has had a loved one go missing. We had all assumed that if there is one certainty in life, it is that no matter how tragic, all stories have endings. This is not an ending. lí1]