Last fall, Ann Marie Potton hiked up Whistler Mountain—and vanished without a trace

MARCI McDONALD July 24 1995


Last fall, Ann Marie Potton hiked up Whistler Mountain—and vanished without a trace

MARCI McDONALD July 24 1995



Last fall, Ann Marie Potton hiked up Whistler Mountain—and vanished without a trace


At dusk, the fog drifts in off Lake Ontario, lapping against the shoreline just beyond George and Maureen Potton’s backyard fence. When they first moved to this manicured cul-de-sac on the sprawling outskirts of St. Catharines, Maureen warned her two school-age daughters about the lake’s mercurial moods. But that was before other perils shattered the serenity of their Niagara peninsula community—before the spectre of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka’s bungalow only 10 minutes away had confirmed every parent’s most horrific nightmares. Now, Maureen Potton cannot read the daily news accounts of Bernardo’s trial and refuses to follow the lurid details on TV. She has her own acquaintance with a parent’s worst fears—a tale that she is still trying to make sense of as she recounts the Thanksgiving weekend nine months ago when the phone rang at 10:30 p.m. in the family’s Collingwood ski chalet.

“That’ll be Ann Marie,” Maureen Potton said as she reached for the receiver. Two nights earlier, her eldest daughter had called from Whistler, the British Columbia ski mecca where she had just arrived for a second winter on the slopes. At 24, Ann Marie had been wistful at the thought of spending her first Thanksgiving away from home. But she had assured her mother that, after finishing work at the resort’s Mad Cafe, she was going to meet friends for a potluck feast. She had volunteered to bring the squash, but she confessed that she didn’t have a clue what to do with it.

Maureen Potton had chuckled as she dictated the recipe. “It’s my fault she doesn’t know how to make squash,” she thought. She had encouraged her two girls in sports and music, not domesticity. Twice a week for six years, she had chauffeured Ann Marie between after-school rowing practice in St. Catharines and rehearsals with the Toronto Children’s Chorus two hours away. Now, in her daughter’s pink bedroom upstairs, rowing medals dangled from colored ribbons across from a 1982 commendation signed by then-Toronto mayor Art Eggleton after the children’s choir won first prize at the Llangollen international festival in Wales. Over the bed hung another framed note from Mila Mulroney congratulating her on running the 1992 Shinerama fund-raising campaign for cystic fibrosis at the University of Western Ontario, which broke campus records, a Accomplishments had come easily to Ann Marie. But, as her g family loved to tease her, culinary prowess was not one of them.

When Maureen Potton picked up the phone, she was pre-

pared to hear the chronicle of a madcap Thanksgiving meal. Instead, Cpl. Darryl Little of Whistler’s RCMP detachment was on the line. “I just want to let you know your daughter is missing,” he said. “She was last seen hiking on the mountain yesterday afternoon and she didn’t turn up for work this morning. We’re starting a search now.”

Missing. The word hangs in the air as heavy as the evening dew settling over the poolside patio table where a floral-covered photo album sits unopened. George Potton still struggles to get his tongue around it, no matter how many times he has related the details. At 2:30 a.m. on the night he learned Ann Marie had disappeared, he dialled Air Canada to make a reservation for Vancouver, only to discover that the planes were fully booked. Then, he phoned a pilot friend and explained his plight. It was the first time he would call on the contacts built up over a lifetime in the advertising game and Conservative politics. But it would not be the last.

Over the next nine months, as he set out on a search that would become a testimonial to one family’s love and grit—and unique connections—he blazed a trail that he is turning into a resource manual for other families to follow. For as he discovered, Ann Marie’s case fell into a limbo for which no ongoing search facilities or support systems exist. Had she been under 18, she would have qualified for the RCMP’s Missing Children’s Registry, which last year recorded almost 52,000 reports of kids gone astray (page 40). But as a missing adult, she became—after the initial search— just another entry on the computers of the Canadian Police Information Centre. Since so many adults who disappear have no desire to be found, police tend to regard those cases with less urgency—unless there is evidence of foul play.

That prospect—abduction or sexual assault—was a possibility Potton could not allow himself to contemplate. There were initial fears that a suspect in the murder of an eight-year-old Kelowna girl named Mindy Tran might have made his way to Whistler that weekend. But by the time Potton arrived, the search for Ann Marie had turned up no sign of such a

possibility. Still, it had not turned up anything else, either. Not a single shred of clothing nor even the camera she was last seen toting. “There was not one clue,” he puzzles still.

The police had worried about a bear attack, but there were no grizzlies in the area, only brown bears preparing for hibernation. Nor was Ann Marie unacquainted with that threat. For three summers, she had earned her tuition planting trees in the Northern Ontario bush and the foothills of the Rockies, digging holes for saplings on steep inclines, primed for bear sightings. “In the history of that mountain no one has ever been eaten by a bear,” Potton notes. Besides, bears might injure or even maul â human to death, but they invariably leave evidence behind. And they do not consume cameras or clothes. Still, every night the rescue teams trudged in from the mountain empty-handed.

As George Potton set out on his journey, he fought back disbelief and mounting dread. How could his outdoors-sawy daughter, five-foot-eight and 145 lb. of sinew after a summer sculling with Toronto’s Argonaut Rowing Club, have vanished without a trace? “If there’s anyone you’d want to be stuck on a mountain with,” he says, “it’s Ann Marie.”

Tanya Moore started to worry when her roommate failed to show up at Citta’s bar late Saturday night, Oct. 8. They had agreed to meet for the Octoberfest bash in the Whistler convention centre, and it wasn’t like Ann Marie not to turn up or call. By 3 a.m., when Tanya got back to the chalet they shared on Nancy Greene Drive at the foot of Blackcomb Mountain, there was still no sign of Potts, as Tanya dubbed her. She slept fitfully, then found herself jolted awake at 10 a.m. by the phone: Ann Marie hadn’t reported for work at the Mad Cafe that morning. “I knew right away something was wrong,” she says.

At 10:25 a.m., her fingers shaking, Tanya Moore dialled the RCMP. But when she reached a Vancouver duty officer, not the Whistler detachment, he sloughed off her alarm. “They were just taking it in their stride,” she recalls. “They were giving her 24 hours, saying she’d probably show up or maybe she’d taken off for Vancouver.” Tanya insisted that Ann Marie would never do such a thing: she was a stickler for punctuality and always phoned when she was going to be late. If anyone could vouch for her habits, it was Tanya, her best friend since they were born in the same Etobicoke maternity ward in July, 1970, 10 hours and 15 minutes apart.

Long before that, their parents had been skiing and teaching buddies. And at the time, George Potton was already an ardent Tory—so ardent that Conservative Leader Robert Stanfield had wired his congratulations to the hospital. So close were the two couples that they lived in the same lakeside Mimico apartment complex, where their girls played together long before they could walk. When both families graduated to houses in Mississauga, they lived only a block apart. Tanya could not remember a time without Potts.

To an outsider, they might have seemed opposites. Ann Marie was a jock, all blond cheer and gregarious energy, with a clear, muscular soprano that had won her solo roles in an assortment of choirs. Tanya was a quiet brunette, a willowy dancer who eschewed sports during the seven years she spent at the National Ballet School. But even after the Pottons moved away when the girls were 12, they remained, as Tanya’s mother put it, “thick as thieves.”

In St. Catharines, Ann Marie had enrolled at Holy

Cross, the same Catholic high school later attended by Kristen French, one of Paul Bernardo’s alleged victims. She had sported the same regulation green Vneck and plaid skirt that French wore in Bernardo’s macabre home videos. In 1986, when Ann Marie graduated as an Ontario Scholar, she won the award for Outstanding Student Contribution, and last winter,

Holy Cross tried to return the favor. To raise money for her search fund, the rowing team held an ergometer challenge—a timing race on indoor rowing machines—and rewarded participants with a purple Tshirt reading “Erg of Hope.” At a school still suffering through the trauma of the French murder, teachers had encouraged the fund-raiser as an act of healing— one which seemed singularly apt for the student who had sung at her graduation mass nearly a decade earlier, That’s What Friends Are For.

lier, That’s What Friends Are For. Ann Marie had first come to Whistler the winter after her graduation from Western. And when Tanya had followed months later, she had arranged a job for her behind the deli counter at the Mad Cafe. In fact, Tanya had to work on the afternoon that she waved Ann Marie off on her last hike before the mountain ‘I knew had urged her to

bring along Molson, a friend’s golden retriever. But dogs were not allowed in the gondola that Ann Marie planned to take to Pika’s, the panoramic restaurant at 6,000 feet above sea level, where the serious ascent to the peak began. “I can still see her going out the door,” she says.

The next day, she had no trouble giving the RCMP a description of her friend’s attire: Ann Marie had been wearing Tanya’s clothes. As she rattled off the details of her dark green fleece jacket and leggings, the officers had exchanged a rueful glance. Ann Marie was wearing a perfect camouflage outfit that would make her doubly hard to find.

By then, Tanya was beside herself, teary with anger that the search-and-rescue team was starting out so late. Another friend, Paige Bell, had galvanized authorities into action by checking the electronic scanner that read every visitor’s pass at the bottom of the Whistler Mountain gondola ride. Sure enough, Ann Marie had been clocked in at 2:30 p.m.—one of more than 1,000 tourists that day on the privately owned mountain.

As local papers and radio stations aired news of her disappearance, Robert Colquhoun, a Vancouver hiker, called in to report that a woman answering Ann Marie’s description had stopped him and his family near the summit at about 4:20 p.m. She had asked if they would mind taking her picture on her Fuji automatic, posing against the distant backdrop of the jagged peak known as Black Tusk. Then, she had inquired when the last gondola went back down the mountain. “5:30,”

Colquhoun told her. But the gondola operator, who remembered her ride up, had no recollection of her descent

By the time Tanya arrived at their planned Thanksgiving dinner, the gang was tense. Ann Marie’s chair sat in empty reproach. Finally, Tanya and Paige had piled into the car with Molson and driven up to the bottom of the Singing Pass trail, Ann Marie’s favorite route. They shone the headlights into the vast blackness and shouted her name in the chill night air. But they were met only by silence. They had stayed there, taking turns trying to sleep in the back seat until dawn broke and the formal search resumed.

Tanya was convinced that Ann Marie had fallen

‘I knew right away something was wrong’

and that, within a matter of hours, they would encounter her gamely limping out of the wilderness. She was always tripping over things when they were younger. Once, when she was rushed to the hospital after breaking her leg in a Collingwood ski accident, the nurses had been all aflutter when flowers arrived with a card from the man about to be elected prime minister—Joe Clark. “She was pretty klutzy,” Tanya assured the searchers, trying to stay upbeat. “She was probably one of the most accident-prone people I’ve ever known.”

Cpl. Darryl Little had been on his day off when he heard about Ann Marie Potton’s disappearance. He was coming down Whistler Mountain after Sunday Thanksgiving brunch at Pika’s when he strolled by the detachment office. His colleague, Cpl. Sharon Woodburn, had a worried look on her face. Already, the temperature was plummeting and the first snow flurries were swirling down the tree line. “There’s a girl missing,” she said.

As the search began, he and Woodburn tried to patch together a missing person’s profile. But Ann Marie Potton had no motive for dis-

appearing from the place she most wanted to be. She seemed to have no drug or boyfriend problems, and her friends scoffed when asked if she was the depressive or foolhardy type. Her wallet was still in the chalet where she had left it that morning after a trip to an automatic teller machine. And her bank accounts were too modest for anyone plotting a getaway.

Over the next week, as he spent time with George Potton, Little found himself increasingly obsessed by the case. He had two kids of his own, aged two and five, and he marvelled at Potton’s strength as he encouraged the search-and-rescue crews each morning. Even the psychics who materialized, wanting to hold George or Tanya’s hand to pick up Ann Marie’s vibes, turned out to be upsetting: the RCMP flew one woman up the mountain only to find her scooping dirt into her mouth. Over the next nine months, Little and Woodburn were haunted by the mystery of Ann Marie, often calling St. Catharines to check in with the Pottons, who had come to regard them as family. “It’s baffled me,” Little says. “In 20 years of police work, I have never had a case like this. We just don’t have any clues to go on.”

When Robert Ramsay heard that his new assistant was the daughter of one of Paul Curley’s political friends, he was not exactly thrilled. He assumed he would have to spend the summer handholding some sheltered innocent whom Curley, the chairman of

Advance Planning & Communications who had been a former Conservative party national director, said he had known since she was a toddler. Then, Ann Marie Potton bounced into Ramsay’s Toronto office, with “this big guffaw from the gut” She took to PR work as if she had been born to it, which in a way she had been: Maureen Potton worked for the St. Catharines’ Chamber of Commerce, where she was a whiz at event planning, and George Potton was an executive in the billboard business. Ann Marie had a way of soothing the raging egos of clients on the phone, then sailing into Ramsay’s office to roll her eyes. “She was able to stickhandle anything,” he says.

Famous people did not faze her. When Tory pollster Allan Gregg wandered into the office, she thought nothing of chatting him up about the rock band he managed, The Tragically Hip. “She was total balls,” says her colleague Christine Mulkins. She helped orchestrate a news conference to announce a prospective stadium site for the Raptors basketball franchise. And she had barely been on the job two weeks when she was thrown into a brainstorming session to plan a news conference for one of the company’s biggest accounts: announcing Allan Gregg’s appointment as the new Canadian president of Viacom, which had just taken over Paramount’s movie and communications empire. As the Advance planners pondered how to spice up the event, it was Ann Marie who came up with the idea of handing out bags of popcorn in Viacom’s corporate colors, pink and purple.

Curley was ready to hire her full time. But at the end of the summer, Ann Marie told him that she had decided to follow her dream. When he visited her in Whistler the following winter, she took him out on her favorite runs. “She was a helluva skier,” he says. For months, she had been mailing joke poems to the office, arguing why he should hire her back for the next summer, which he did. But when she made it clear that she wanted another winter skiing, he warned there might not be a job waiting again.

All through that summer of 1994, she had anguished over the dilemma. At lunch with Mulkins, she worried that she was throwing away the career opportunity of a lifetime, but her heart was still in Whistler. At the time, she was sharing the third floor of a house with an old buddy from Holy Cross, Sean Charlevoix, and late at night, she fretted that she was not yet ready for the daily corporate grind. “After Whistler it was very difficult for her to adjust to getting up every morning, taking the subway to work, then rowing every night,” Charlevoix says. “She felt something was going to give, but she didn’t want to let her parents down.”

Ramsay, too, had tried to talk her out of going west. When she left, his goodbye present was a copy of the popular career guide, What Color is Your Parachute? Three weeks later, when news of her disappearance arrived, the Advance staff went into shock. Soon after, Ramsay received a call from his wife saying that his 14-year-old stepdaughter had failed to turn up at school. He had hurled himself home in a panic, only to find she had overslept. “But I thought, don’t tell me people can’t disappear from the face of the earth,” he says, “because now I know they can.” Later, he mentioned to colleagues that he had an image: he would walk into some B.C. bar or Mac’s Milk and there would be Ann Marie, amnesiac or in the thrall of some captor, and he would save her. “I told three people,” he says, “and it turned out all three had the same fantasy.”

Eight days after George Potton arrived in Whistler—eight days spent scouring the mountainside with trained dogs, and overflights by an RCMP helicopter equipped with heat-detecting sensors—authorities called off the search. A snowstorm had blown in, blanketing the trails, and experts insisted that a person, even uninjured, could only survive 100 hours. Potton was distraught. As he thanked the trained rescue team who had fanned over the icy terrain, unpaid and ill-equipped, his bulky frame heaved with unaccustomed sobs.

But George Potton refused to give up. He had not spent 20 years as an advance man, organizing whistle-stops through even the most hostile political terrain, for nothing. Over the next nine months, he and a band of family friends marshalled an unprecedented private search and awareness campaign. That campaign was a tribute to the group’s determination and unique connections, but also to the crowds of volunteers, drawn by some memory of Ann Marie, that Potton found trooping through his house when he arrived home last fall.

On the second day of her disappearance, Maureen Potton’s best

friend, Judith Kennedy, watched her frustration and announced, “We’ve got to get a project, Mo.” They bought metres of blue denim, and, as more than 500 people came through the house over the next weeks, offering food and solicitude, she asked each to embroider a small denim square for what became their Quilt of Hope. ‘We’d have these football players sitting at the dining-room table embroidering with their great big hands,” Maureen Potton says. “It gave people something to do, something to focus on besides the pain.”

Then, gradually, the Ann Marie Potton Search Committee took shape. The first meeting was on Halloween night, after the Pottons flew home from a second futile trip to Whistler. Sean Charlevoix, who had dropped out of his last year studying intellectual history at McGill, showed up in costume in a tribute to all the Halloween parties that he and Ann Marie had thrown over the years. He volunteered to publish a newsletter.

Another university friend arranged to have a letter, appealing for any relevant photographs, sent to everyone who used a credit card in Whistler that day. Among the 278 snapshots mailed in was one from a doctor who had been visiting from Limoges,

France. At first glance, his film showed only a sea of boulders with Pika’s in the distance, but Charlevoix spotted a shadow. He kept enlarging the negative until a grainy blond figure emerged among the rocks. “Anybody who knows Ann Marie recognizes that posture,” he says. The photo, blurred and elusive, had been taken nearly an hour before Robert Colquhoun’s last conversation with Ann Marie, but it became a totem of what the group could accomplish.

For Charlevoix, it was a labor of love. He still had her last message on his telephone answering machine and he couldn’t bring himself to erase it. “She’s the one who taught me how to live,” he says. “She’d always say ‘Carpe diem’—grab the day. And you know that if this happened to somebody else, Ann Marie would be the first one out there looking.” Corey Tkachuk, a triathlon contender who had dated Ann Marie for nine months at university, won a spot for her case on a May 20th episode oí America’s Most Wanted. The segment prompted five tips on its 1-800-CRIMETV line—all long shots reporting sightings from Seattle to Maryland—but Cpl. Darryl Little has begun to follow them up.

Others printed up missing posters and pamphlets, plying every conceivable outlet. When the mountain’s summer season opened last month, tourists found Ann Marie’s likeness plastered everywhere from B.C. Hydro construction cabins to the inside of each gondola— 7,000 flyers in all. “We don’t want anyone walking by a clue,” Charlevoix says, “and not knowing it’s a clue.”

In the process, the group assembled a resource guide for other families of missing adults who might find themselves battling public indifference, with nowhere to turn. “As we found out, there is no group in place to help all those parents,” George Potton says. ‘We hope some other family will be the beneficiary of our experience.”

On June 8, the Pottons and 21 friends flew out to Whistler for one last search before the summer’s vegetation took hold. The money

*ln 20 years of police work, I have never liad a case like this*

that had poured into the Ann Marie Potton trust fund had bought the mountain’s search-and-rescue team new equipment, including a communications box that allowed crews to contact each other on the mountain. The group’s spirits were high as they set out each morning from the Whistler fire hall. But as the days wore on, bringing cold and rain, the mood grew dark and confused. “People kept coming up to me, saying, ‘I hope I’m not the one who finds her,’ ” Charlevoix recalls. “And I know I felt that way. But then when we didn’t find anything, there was a lot of anger and frustration, too.”

Charlevoix recalled that Jhan Derpak, a Whistler mental health counsellor, had cautioned them that a death brought closure and funeral rites. But when someone went missing it left uncertainty and unfinished business, which she advised them to regard as their own personal quest. “Ann Marie is taking you all on an odyssey,” she had said.

“I knew what she meant,” Charlevoix recalls. “My life will never be the same.”

When Ann Marie disappeared last fall, her 22-year-old sister Karen was so devastated that she switched to parttime studies at Wilfrid Laurier University. This summer, with two courses to make up, she chose to study the differences between the coverage of the Paul Bernardo trial in a Toronto newspaper and in her home-town St. Catharines Standard, which she had expected to concentrate on the victims’ families’ pain. She had been in the same class at Holy Cross with Kristen French’s brother, and hoped it would bring her insight into the media’s treatment of her own family.

Now, moonlighting between summer jobs as a lifeguard and as a singing waitress at a Niagara Falls cabaret, she confesses how angry the ordeal has made her. Under any other circumstance, she would have turned to Ann Marie. “Every small thing that happened to me as a teenager, whether it was breaking up with my boyfriend or a tiff with my mother, Ann Marie was always there,” she says. “And here, the biggest thing that’s ever happened and she’s the one it happened to.” On Whistler last month, she was initially furious at the searchers’ failure. Then, among the immense redwoods, she understood the monstrosity of their task searching a 65square-mile mountainside. She brought home an old wine bottle she found in the woods and a rotting wooden sign that reads Singing Pass, which she plans to hang in her room. “Now, I totally understand it’s going to take a long time to find her,” she says. “But it’s such a beautiful place, it’s a comfort to know she’s there.”

Maureen Potton still cannot bring herself to the same conclusion. She refuses to speak of her daughter in the past tense. But, as she and her husband struggle to turn their tragedy into a self-help manual to assist others, she has found comfort in that challenge. One recent night when she could not sleep, she tiptoed down to the livingroom and put on the recording Ann Marie’s choir had made in 1985 with British composer Sir David Willcocks, singing the 23rd Psalm. As the LP turned on their ancient record player, her daughter’s sure 14-year-old soprano rose through the night in an opening solo : “The Lord is my shepherd,” she sang, “Therefore can I lack nothing.” □