Why didn't the public know Krystle Knott was missing and would it have helped save her?
It's called "milk carton 2.0" because the faces of missing kids used to go on the side of milk cartons: boost your calcium and hopefully help return a child safe and sound. Now a person can donate their Facebook or their Twitter to the Missing Children Society of Canada and, when a child goes missing, their photo, their height and build, the colour of their clothes and other relevant details are broadcast automatically via your social media accounts.
"Regardless of the circumstances," says Amanda Pick, CEO of MCSC, "police need to be able to get that information into people's hands."
But 16-year-old Krystle Knott was missing for three years before the RCMP first broadcast her disappearance. Three years before the first release was sent out, before the first headline was written, before her image—dark hair pulled back, lined eyes, slight smile, labret piercing—appeared on TV screens, in newsprint, on websites.
"Three years after a young mother from Fort St. John, B.C. and a teenager from Dawson Creek disappeared, Project Kare announced Sunday police are looking for the pair," reads the opening line in the Edmonton Journal on Feb. 18, 2008, three years to the day Krystle was last seen with 19-year-old Rene Gunning at the West Edmonton Mall.
There was a deluge of stories about the pair that day and in the days that followed. It was not the first time the media had heard about Rene, although archives reveal it was the first time her disappearance made major news. A series of press releases went out from the RCMP in 2005 after she was reported missing. But curiously, there were no press releases about Krystle. None, until the official announcement that prompted that first story in 2008—even though the RCMP confirmed she was reported missing to them in 2005.
So why didn't they tell anyone? Why didn't the public know Krystle was missing too? Would it—could it—have helped her and Rene?
Campers found their remains on May 21, 2011 off Forest Trunk Road, a highway running just south of Grande Prairie, Alberta.
People are always telling Doris Goulet she has to forgive and make peace in order to heal. "No," she says, seated at her kitchen table in High Prairie, Alberta, roughly a two-hour drive from where Krystle's remains were found.
She brushes away furious tears.
"You have to forgive everybody for what happened before you're going to heal? Well, I'll never heal then because I'll never forgive."
Doris is Krystle's aunt, raising her niece until Krystle was 14. It was Doris who visited the site where the skulls were found, in order to release Krystle's spirit. It was Doris who waited anxiously during the week between when police identified the first skull as Rene's and when they finally identified the second as Krystal's." All through that week, Doris waited and she hoped, but all the while she knew.
It's been a decade since Krystle disappeared; this year, she would have turned 26.
In a corner of Doris' living room is a rocking chair memorial to a life cut short. It's draped with a red blanket gifted by Sisters in Spirit, a non-profit led by families of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls. Nestled atop the blanket is a cropped photo of Krystle's smiling face glued to a piece of sturdy red paper. Above the photo is a caption: Krystle Ann Julia Knott. Born Feb. 14, 1989, missing Feb. 18, 2005.
At the forefront of the memorial is a tiny pair of beaded moccasins, rewinding to the spring of 1989, when baby Krystle was placed carefully in Doris' arms. At the time, Doris and her husband Dave were living in Dawson Creek, BC, as were Doris' brother and Krystle's mother. The new parents had brought five-week-old Krystle to Doris and Dave because they weren't ready or able to parent themselves.
Doris and Dave raised Krystle from a crawling tot to a smiley, determined, inquisitive teenager. At no time did they have official custody. They raised her because they loved her.
It was during her times with Dave's family that Krystle immersed herself in Métis culture. Krystle herself is Cree from Duncan's First Nation. She learned to make bannock, to dry meat, and to weave moccasins like the beaded ones she'd worn as a baby. She loved to learn; she picked up new skills fast; she had few inhibitions.
Krystle wanted to be a veterinarian, but she could have just as easily been a mechanic.
"Give her anything," Doris says, "and she'd do it."
When Krystle was 14, Doris and Dave moved with her to their current home in High Prairie. But shortly thereafter, Krystle went back to live with her mother.
The last time Doris saw Krystle was in January 2005. Doris and Dave had made the three-hour drive west for a weekend visit. Now the weekend was over and Doris was dropping off Krystle, just a month shy of 16, at a friend's apartment in Dawson Creek. Doris remembers her girl singing the words to Shania Twain's "Up" almost relentlessly that weekend: Up, up, up / Can only go up from here / Up, up, up / There's no way but up from here...
"You gonna be okay here?" Doris asked.
"Yeah, I'll be fine," Krystle said.
"Okay," Doris said, "I'll see you next time we come."
"Okay," Krystle said, "love you."
"Love you too," Doris said.
Krystle disappeared into the apartment.
Doris drove off.
Sometime between saying, "love you" and vanishing forever, Krystle travelled to Edmonton, six hours away. Exactly when, how, and why is unclear. What is clear is that she was last seen at the West Edmonton Mall on February 18.
On February 17, Naomi Ratcliffe hitchhiked from Grande Prairie down to Edmonton with Rene. On the 18, Naomi and Rene rented a storage locker at the mall. After dumping their belongings, they began to wander around.
It was a coincidence, Naomi says, that they ran into Krystle, who was with a mutual friend, Sara. Naomi, Krystle, and Sara had all gone to middle school together in Dawson Creek.
The four strolled together for a while.
As Naomi remembers it, they attempted to buy some pot but were fleeced by the kids on the other side of the deal. Then Rene went to the liquor store and bought a 26er of vodka to mix with Sprite. Pissed at Rene for spending her money, Naomi walked off with Sara, while Krystle and Rene hung out. Later, a friend picked up Sara and Naomi to go to a party. Naomi recalls that Krystle and Rene wanted to hang back—something about a cute boy—and that they'd meet up at the party later.
The rest of the night is "a little fuzzy," Naomi says. At some point, Krystle and Rene called to say they were hitchhiking back home. It was the last time anyone would hear from them.
Naomi has been gripped by the need to understand everything that happened the night of February 18, 2005. Even now, a decade later, she is "obsessed" with what happened to Krystle and Rene, with warning others off hitchhiking, and with advising them how to travel if they must travel at night: find single-occupant cars; sit in the front seat—the rear doors have childproof locks—and never, ever, fall asleep.
She thinks Krystle and Rene may have fallen asleep.
The first RCMP press release went out from Fort St. John ten days after Naomi last saw them, on February 28. It was a request for public help in locating Rene. On March 1, another press release went out. This one asked for help in locating both Rene and Naomi; at that point, police believed the pair to be together. But by mid-March, Naomi had been located by police and had returned to Fort St. John.
Within a few days of her return, she recalls, the RCMP asked to interview her. They wanted to know when she'd last spoken to Rene and Krystle. What were they wearing? Where did they plan to go?
She was interviewed a few times, she says, and the questions got more and more specific. At one point they even took a DNA sample, she says.
Later that month, Krystle was officially reported missing to the RCMP. Yet the next press release on the case, dated May 22, named only Rene. A later release on June 10 describes someone who is presumably Krystle, but does not name her: "[Rene] is believed to have left back to the Fort St. John area in the company of another female from Dawson Creek. The pair were thought to be hitchhiking for transportation."
At the time, it didn't occur to Naomi to wonder why the girls' faces weren't on the news; why Krystle's disappearance wasn't even announced in the police releases.
"I was honestly too caught up in my own world," she says.
When Doris returned to visit Krystle in late March 2005, she realized the teen had vanished. She reported Krystle's disappearance to the RCMP. Its around this time that Naomi recalls being interviewed by the RCMP in Fort St. John.
Mary Schlosser, a spokeswoman with the RCMP's Alberta division, says the RCMP has been investigating Krystle's disappearance since it was first reported. The investigation began in BC, the home province of both Krystle and Rene, but was eventually taken over by Project Kare, a division of the Alberta RCMP that investigates the deaths and disappearances of vulnerable persons.
"The file was afforded appropriate consideration given the information available to police at the time," Schlosser says. But she won't explain why Rene's disappearance was the subject of media releases, while Krystle's was not. "The decision whether or not to issue a media release when a youth—or anyone—is reported missing is based on an assessment of the information gathered by police during their initial investigation."
But, as Naomi notes, she answered police questions about both Rene and Krystle within a month of their disappearance. And given that the RCMP's own press release seemed to indicate that Rene and Krystle were together—Rene was thought to be "in the company of another female from Dawson Creek"—and the fact that Krystle had been reported missing, why then did Rene's case warrant public awareness, but not Krystle's?
The RCMP won't say, and an attempt to get answers through the Access to Information Act has been unsuccessful: the information is protected because it pertains to an ongoing investigation. But Doris wonders: is the investigation ongoing, or is it merely unsolved?
In determining whether to issue a release, Schlosser says, "In the vast majority of cases, speaking with the child's legal guardians would be an investigator's first step."
Here, Doris and Dave believe their on-and-off guardianship of Krystle factored into the silence after her disappearance. Schlosser says she can't say specifically why Krystle's disappearance was not publicized, but she does acknowledge general issues pertaining to investigations into youths who go missing repeatedly. For example, she says, officers who get a call from a group home will respond, assess whether the disappearance fits a person's regular behaviour, and then "that would help them assess, prioritize the missing person and what steps should be taken."
"Say, oh, this kid goes missing all the time so maybe we'll leave it for 48 hours," Schlosser says.
In the last year or so, she says, there's been a "heightened awareness" around the need not to wait, even if the person has a habit of disappearing, and especially if it's a case "involving vulnerable people."
The last two years have seen heightened awareness around the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, with a huge increase in media articles addressing the issue. The increase coincides with demands for a national inquiry into the epidemic, which reached deafening proportions after a series of horrific, high-profile murders and attempted murders in 2014.
By the RCMP's account, more than 1,200 Indigenous women have gone missing or been murdered since 1980. Many say that number is far too low, the methods used to track them far too flawed.
The cropped photo of a smiling Krystle that sits on the rocking-chair memorial was taken at a family wedding the summer before she disappeared. The wedding was the last time Wendy Goulet saw her young cousin. Krystle was 15 and hurtling around outside. The two caught up for maybe a moment, a simple what's up between cousins.
"You don't realize at the time that this might be the last time you see one of your family members," Wendy says.
Wendy is, among other things, the chair of the Peace River Sisters in Spirit Committee. When she is about in her community, she carries posters of missing indigenous women, pausing as she goes about her daily life to tack them to community boards in the hopes of stirring someone's recognition.
She recently spent a month trying to gather information about the many indigenous women and girls who've gone missing or been murdered in Alberta.
"It was hard," she says.
Sometimes a simple internet search would yield nothing, so she'd experiment by adding different search terms to see what turned up. Some of the sites she stumbled on would freak her out: anonymous blogs purporting to know intimate details about what happened to this woman, that girl, and so on. On the internet, women she felt certain were mothers or grandmothers were reduced to nothing more than a name, a city, and a date of death or disappearance—if that.
"Wendy, never go missing," she recalls a chief of one northern Alberta nation telling her.
"What?" She remembers asking, confused.
"Never go missing," she says he told her. "No one's going to look for you."
Today, a decade after Krystle vanished, four years after her remains were found, and her case remaining unsolved, Wendy is certain the chief's words are true.
"I don't think anyone will look for me," she says, "I don't think anyone would take it seriously, just [me] being an Aboriginal. I say it jokingly, but I don't think people would."
She imagines going missing in Edmonton. She imagines officials or investigators somehow insinuating she had been living a high-risk lifestyle. She imagines going missing in a casino and then: "Oh, they'll make up a story."
Wendy thinks about her cousin and she wonders: if Krystle hadn't been an Indigenous woman, would the justice system have moved just a little bit faster? Would the RCMP have stepped in sooner? Done more due diligence? Solved the case?
The answer to these questions, based on numerous reports and commissions and inquiries and terrifying, heartbreaking anecdotal stories, is probably—sadly—yes.
In February 2013, Human Rights Watch released an extensive report investigating policing abuses and failures in the protection of indigenous women and girls in northern British Columbia, where Krystle was born and raised.
Human Rights Watch documented numerous RCMP violations in northern towns: young girls Tasered and pepper-sprayed, one girl attacked by a police dog, another punched repeatedly by the very officer summoned to help her.
"The most apparent thing to me is the lack of safety women feel. A lot of women, especially First Nations women we see, never feel safe approaching the RCMP because of the injustices they've experienced," one service provider told Human Rights Watch. "The system is really failing women."
For Doris, the bottom line is that more effort needs to be put into solving Indigenous cases. At the very least, she says, the stories and pictures of these women and girls need to be put into the public sphere again and again.
"They put [Krystle and Rene] on the backburner because they found them?" She says. "You still have to find the people that did this, you know. So if you keep their pictures out there, both of them, maybe somebody's going to have a guilty conscience and come forward, say something. Wouldn't you think?"
Right now, she says, it simply doesn't seem like anyone cares.
"It's like: they're found, they're buried, so it's done."
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