A Young Woman Was Last Seen by Police, Then Never Again
Thousands of women have been reported missing in British Columbia. Emma Fillipoff’s mysterious disappearance shows why it’s so hard to find someone.
All image sources courtesy of HelpFindEmma.ca | Main image design by Noel Ransome
This article originally appeared on VICE Canada
Almost five years ago, 26-year-old Emma Fillipoff vanished, virtually without a trace, off the streets of downtown Victoria.
Emma, a young, free-spirited woman had travelled to Victoria, British Columbia, like many young people do, to bask in the beauty of the West Coast. But some now suggest Emma may have been running from something in her life, or perhaps, someone. Days before Emma disappeared, those who knew Emma claim she was acting strange—that it looked like she was struggling with some sort of mental health crisis. On the night she went missing, Emma was left standing on the street, alone, barefoot, when she disappeared into the night. Since then, no one has ever publicly heard from Emma, or knows what exactly happened to her.
On the evening of November 28, 2012, a light rain periodically fell on the streets of downtown Victoria. The temperature was mild for late November, hovering around nine degrees Celsius. By 7 PM that evening it was already dark.
Emma was last seen in front of the Fairmont Empress Hotel—located in the heart of downtown Victoria—sometime between 7:30 and 8:30 PM, by two Victoria police officers who were called to check in on her.
Before police arrived, Dennis Quay, an acquaintance of Emma, had noticed her wandering the streets barefoot near the hotel. After walking and chatting with her for a while, Quay became concerned and called the police, citing a distressed woman in front of the hotel.
Sometime around 7 PM, the police arrived to talk to Emma. After more than 40 minutes of talking with her they decided she was not a threat to herself, or anyone else.
In the ensuing minutes, Emma disappeared.
Since then, her mother Shelley Fillipoff has searched endlessly for leads in her daughter’s disappearance.
“I don’t have a good scenario in my head anymore,” Shelley told VICE.
Despite almost five years of searching with very few leads, Shelley hasn’t given up looking for Emma. In fact, she plans to be in Victoria on November 28 for the five-year anniversary of Emma's disappearance to hold a candlelight vigil for her missing daughter, and plans to meet with the police in hopes of getting updates on the case.
Prior to Emma’s disappearance there is an extensive timeline of her whereabouts and activities. Anyone looking for a complete detailed outline of Emma’s activities should visit the Help Find Emma Fillipoff Facebook page and website. Like any mystery, there are a plethora of clues, happenstances, and details one could overlook. But for the sake of brevity, the following are some of the more important of Emma’s activities before she disappeared, starting on Tuesday, November 20, eight days before she’s last seen outside the hotel.
On Tuesday, surveillance footage captured at the YMCA near downtown Victoria shows her entering and exiting the building several times. Some have suggested Emma might be holding a cell phone in the picture, but it also looks like she could be fidgeting with her hands. Regardless, her behaviour appears to indicate she thought she may be being followed.
On Wednesday, November 21, Emma had a tow truck driver pick her up from the Sandy Merriman House, a women’s shelter, where she was staying. She told the driver to take her to Sooke, a community located approximately 40 kilometres west of Victoria, so they can tow her red Mazda MPV van back to Victoria. It’s later discovered that she told the tow-truck driver that she was planning on surprising her family by moving back to Ontario.
On Friday, November 23, Emma called Shelley in tears around midnight saying she wants to come home. Shelley said her daughter didn’t explain what was upsetting her, but urged her mother to book a flight to Victoria. On Saturday, November 24, Emma calls her mother back, telling her not to come out and that she’ll figure things out on her own. However, later that same evening, Emma called Shelley again. Once again, she sounded upset and asked her mother to fly out and help her pack her belongings. Again, the following morning, Emma called her mother back telling her not to come out.
On Tuesday, November 27, Shelley called the number from which Emma phoned the night before. Someone from the Sandy Merriman House picked up, which surprised Shelley, as she didn’t know her daughter was staying at a shelter. Later that night Emma, sounding in distress, called her mother again asking her to come out. Shelley immediately booked a flight to fly out the next day.
The following day Emma called her mother, yet again, asking her not to come out. However, Shelley decided enough was enough, and that she needed to see her daughter.
During the day of the 28th, Emma purchased a $200 prepaid credit card and a prepaid cell phone from a 7-Eleven in downtown Victoria. Shortly after, she got in a cab and asked to be taken to the airport, but when the driver told her how much the fare will cost (around $60) she said that’s too much (which was odd because she was believed to have had about $2,000-3,000 in one of her bank accounts).
Later that day, about 7PM, is when Dennis Quay ran into Emma, who was wandering the streets of downtown Victoria. Concerned for her safety, Quay called the police. The police arrived, talked to Emma, decided she was OK, and ultimately left her there standing in her bare feet.
Sometime thereafter, Emma was gone.
Some hours later, Shelley arrived in Victoria; Emma was declared a missing person. The police searched Emma’s van and found some of her most valuable possessions, including a laptop, journals, a camera, and her passport. The Victoria Police Department (VicPD), using a dive team, searched the waters of the inner harbour. Shelley formed a search party of volunteers to look for Emma; they scattered the streets of Victoria hoping for any signs of Emma. But other than some unconfirmed sightings of her along the harbour, it seems she’s disappeared without a trace.
During the immediate days following Emma’s disappearance, Shelley walked the streets of Victoria, putting up posters and talking to anyone who claimed to have seen her daughter. At one point, she traveled to the Downtown Eastside in Vancouver, talking to the people on the streets there, hoping someone had seen Emma.
Then on the morning of December 5, the $200 prepaid credit card that Emma purchased at the 7-Eleven was “flagged for use” at a gas station near the Juan de Fuca Recreation Centre and Galloping Goose trail, approximately 12 km from downtown Victoria. The man who found the card was questioned by police, but ultimately let go. This same man later contacted Shelley, on multiple occasions, and told her that he’s not sure where he found the card, but the police told him he found the card at the Juan de Fuca Centre. He also told Shelley he’s an alcoholic.
Then Shelley and the Help Find Emma volunteers expanded the search, travelling to parts of Vancouver Island, the mainland, and the Gulf Islands looking for leads. But every tip they got turned up to be a dead end.
A year and a half passed, and then, in May of 2014, a man was captured on surveillance walking into a store in the Gastown neighbourhood of Vancouver with a crumpled-up poster of Emma. He claimed that Emma is his girlfriend and that she wants to be left alone. The man is seen in surveillance footage wearing a green shirt, has multiple tattoos on his arms, and walks with a noticeable limp. The store owners called 911 immediately, but Shelley says the police didn’t show up until the following day to take a report. (VICE contacted the Vancouver Police Department about why they took so long to follow up, they responded by saying any matters to Emma’s case should be directed towards VicPD. VicPD did not respond to a request for a comment on this detail of the case.) To this day, the man has never been publicly identified.
Missing in BC
Emma’s disappearance isn’t an anomaly. Every day, thousands of people vanish around the world. Locally, BC RCMP currently have approximately 57 active missing persons cases on their website.
VICE reached out to the BC RCMP for more information on missing persons in the province, but those emails were not returned. VICE also reached out to the Victoria Police Department for both a comment on Emma’s case, and more information on missing persons statistics in Victoria, but was told nothing more than a press release would be issued at some point in the future regarding Emma’s disappearance.
However, previous data collected by the RCMP in 2015 show that there were 71,000 reports of missing persons in Canada that year alone. British Columbia had, by far, the highest number of missing persons cases out of all the Canadian provinces—nearly 10,000 compared to Ontario’s 6,500—although the RCMP are unsure, statistically, why that is.
The database, or The National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains, was formed into a public site: http://www.canadasmissing.ca. Part of the reason for the creation of the initiative was the RCMP's probe into missing and murdered Indigenous women along Highway 16, or the Highway of Tears. In northern BC, police hoped the public initiative would help solve some of the cases.
However, what has made Emma’s case somewhat different is the amount of media attention it's received. Emma’s case has been covered extensively in newspaper articles, podcasts, and CBC’s Fifth Estate did an episode on the case. Part of the reason for this is how open Shelley is about talking about her daughter’s disappearance. However, not all of the press attention Shelley has received has been positive.
In 2016 Shelley and her son Matt were arrested on charges related to drugs and weapons offences. Although the charges were eventually withdrawn against Shelley (Shelley says she was unaware her son was using her house to store cocaine and weapons), the incident left a row of spiteful comments on the Help Find Emma Facebook Page, comments that Shelley says detracted from the search for Emma.
Emma Fillipoff spent most of her childhood and teens living with her family in the small town of Perth, Ontario, located just outside of Ottawa. Friends, family, and those who knew Emma say she embodied a “free-spirited” aura. Emma was known for her long walks, her interest in nature, her skills as a photographer, and her artistic expression. Those close to Emma also describe her as intensely loyal, independent, sensitive, and having a good sense of humour. She also kept a plethora of journals, some of which her mother still has. Her mother was a teacher, and her father James an artist. Emma has two brothers—one older, Matthew, one younger, Alexander—and an older sister, Erica.
Shelley told VICE that Emma was closer with her family, especially her younger brother Alexander. One of the reasons Shelley has such a hard time believing Emma is living a self-induced transient lifestyle is how close she is with her younger brother.
“She [Emma] would never do this to Alexander,” said Shelley, adding that if Emma was going to contact anyone, it would be her younger brother.
When asked about her own relationship with her daughter, Shelley said that she was the disciplinary figure in the family, something Emma didn’t always appreciate. Shelley described her relationship with Emma as “guarded, but loving.” Emma was known to be fiercely independent and protective of her thoughts and feelings.
“Never would Emma say she was in trouble or having a problem,” Shelley told VICE.
Emma moved to Victoria in the winter of 2011—prior to that she had lived in Campbell River where she took a cooking program at North Island College on Vancouver Island. She moved back to Perth for a brief while before she decided to move back to the West Coast. When she left Perth with plans to get work when she got to Victoria, and she told those around her that she was “drawn” to Victoria, although didn’t specifically say for what purpose.
While in Victoria Emma bounced around, sometimes staying with friends in their apartments, on boats, and on one occasion she even slept in a tree. She also worked various jobs, including a short stint at a coffee shop where was eventually let go from. Just before her disappearance Emma was working at Red Fish Blue Fish, a popular seasonal eatery located in the inner harbour of downtown Victoria.
Living a somewhat transient lifestyle, Emma seemed to attract a wide array of people. She seemed to enjoy hanging around the Inner Harbour and a popular area filled with colourful houseboats known as Fisherman’s Wharf.
A friend of Emma’s, who asked to remain anonymous citing safety concerns, said Emma stayed on their boat a few times, just weeks before her disappearance. This individual said that at the time they knew Emma to be “very happy,” but looking back they also said Emma seemed to give off the vibe she was running from something.
One of the popular theories, or contributing factors to Emma’s disappearance, is the possible (and likely) deterioration of her mental state prior to her disappearance.
Talking to friends and family it quickly becomes apparent that not only was Emma artistic, but she was poetic—even cryptic—in the way she both spoke and wrote. One of her friends, Mika, who lived with Emma for a bit in 2012, told VICE that emails she received from Emma were fantastical, almost childlike, in their description. And being that Emma was so private, she never really revealed what was going on in her life, often using generalities to describe how she was doing.
Jordan Bonaparte, the host and creator of The Night Time Podcast and Emma Fillipoff is Missing podcast, interviewed two people who Emma stayed with prior to her disappearance where they describe Emma as behaving oddly or displaying signs of mental unrest.
“There was some darkness to her life,” Mika told VICE. “She was mentally stable, and she didn’t want to get help with it…” Mika added she seemed to think that Emma thought she “had it under control.”
“She was in a place where she was trying to heal something in herself,” Mika concluded.
Mika also told VICE that Emma was known to binge drink from time-to-time, and that her diet was especially odd. At times she favoured only popcorn and olives, and at another point she ate primarily fish. Mika even said that Emma at one point joked about self-diagnosing herself as having scurvy.
Prior to moving out west, Emma's parents got divorced, an experience that many of Emma's friends speculate had an impact on her. However, true to Emma's private nature, she never really talked about it with anyone. Shelley also told VICE that several frontline workers from the Sandy Merriman House, where Emma was staying right before her disappearance, told her that in the days leading up to her disappearing she was acting strange, and one staff member even told Shelley she had become afraid of Emma. (Shelley eventually received an email from the Victoria Cool Aid Society asking her to stop visiting and contacting Sandy Merriman House. VICE reached out to the Victoria Cool Aid Society for a response, but did not receive a reply before deadline.)
Also, on the day of Emma’s disappearance she appeared to be acting paranoid, as indicated in both the YMCA and 7-Eleven surveillance footage. In both instances, it appears as though Emma is afraid, or anxious, of someone (real or perceived).
Another potential cause of Emma’s disappearance was that she was the victim of foul play. Publically, no one has ever been charged with a crime in relation to Emma’s disappearance, but during the immediate aftermath there was one potential person of interest who was questioned and polygraphed by VicPD and the RCMP: Julien Huard.
Julien and Emma met in Perth, prior to Emma moving to Victoria. They formed a friendship, and Julien developed a crush on Emma. Julien claimed on The Night Time Podcast that his relationship with Emma became somewhat romantic while in Perth, although even by his own account, she didn’t have much time for him once they were both in Victoria.
“I don't quite know what definition most people give to a crush but let's say that it happened in an instant, I just knew I had to get to know her, I don't get that feeling often. My feelings for her never changed but I was hoping I could get over that so we could be friends,” Julien told VICE in a Facebook message.
Sometime after Emma moved to Victoria, Julien also decided to move to Victoria. He outlined, quite extensively, his reasoning for the move in Bonaparte’s podcast, and it appears to be one giant coincidence, although some people remained suspicious of Julien’s actions, given the timing of his move, and his feelings for Emma.
“My two years in Victoria went by in a blur,” Julien told VICE. “First two months were great, everything was new, I was taking kayak courses, meeting new friends, I saw Emma, which… was the best 10 [minutes]. Then November came and everything including the weather turned upside down. I saw more of the island during [December] looking for her than during the next three years.”
Julien also claims he briefly saw Emma the day she disappeared. Julien was riding the bus when he spotted Emma on Pandora Street, near Alix Goolden Hall. He got off the bus and approached Emma asking if she needed help. According to the Help Find Emma site, Emma didn’t really respond to Julien (she shook her head in response to Julien’s questions), so Julien, frustrated, decided he was done interacting with Emma.
Julien was cleared by both the RCMP and VicPD, and, publicly, there appears to be no current suspects in Emma’s disappearance.
Another potential theory is that Emma vanished on purpose to live a transient lifestyle. Emma was known to move around and seemed to enjoy staying in different places. She also had no problem meeting people and making friends; however, given various account that paint a dire mental state of Emma on the day of her disappearance it’s hard to imagine this scenario.
Recently, Garry Gray, a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Victoria, and his colleague Brigitte Benning have written a paper (which is still under review and has not been published yet) called “Crowdsourcing Criminology: Social Media and Citizen Policing in Missing Persons Cases.” The paper explores crowdsourcing criminology with its relationship to news making criminology, using Emma’s case as a case study.
As part of the paper, Gray and a team of his students explored three different geographical possibilities of how Emma could have travelled from the Empress Hotel to the Juan de Fuca Recreation Centre (where the pre-paid credit card was allegedly found). They split up into three groups: one took a car from the area, another group took the bus, and the third walked. The groups concluded that the possibilities of where Emma went, or was taken, “was very broad.” Given the amount of roads, bus routes, and walking trails, there seemed to be an inordinate amount of directions of where Emma could have headed.
The paper also notes that while re-tracing the potential steps of Emma, members of the groups noticed “in certain areas along the way there was poor lighting and many of the outdoor spaces were far from the public eye. These physical elements, such as lighting and visibility in public spaces, speak to the possible absence of capable guardians in Emma’s situation if she walked a similar path.” In essence, Emma could have been a potential preferred target given the geographical and situational circumstances.
Jasper Smith, a private investigator who worked on Emma’s case, and owner of Due Diligence Canada, told VICE, “It’s a very difficult case…45-minutes after the police have spoken to her, she’s disappeared into thin air.” Smith added, “There are so many possibilities to this… it’s impossible to rule them all out.”
Smith added that there are a plethora of theories on what happened to Emma: she could have been abducted; she could have run away; she could have committed suicide; she could have gotten on a boat and sailed to the US; and she could be the victim of foul play.
“Without any evidence of wrongdoing you can suspect a number of people, but that’s useless if she went on her volition and intentionally disappeared,” Smith added.
For Shelley, Mika, and everyone else close to Emma, not knowing what happened is the most distressing feeling.
“There’s no frustration comparable…It happens, and it’s not like a death where you get over it, it’s always there…” Mika told VICE.
The disappearance of her daughter has left Shelley with post-traumatic stress and unable to work. She spends almost all of her time looking for Emma.
These days it’s hard for Shelley to think about a positive outcome when it comes to Emma.
“I am not buying a happy ending at all...unfortunately what’s sticking in my mind is that someone has her,” Shelley told VICE. She added that thoughts of sex work, Emma having a psychotic break, being involved in drugs, and even human trafficking are all potential scenarios.
But despite these negative thoughts and feelings, Shelley continues to search for Emma in hopes of any new leads, clues, or an indication that she’s OK.
“We are sick with worry and we just need to know that you’re OK. If you don’t want to come home, it’s fine, we just need to know you’re OK.”