This article first appeared in the Ottawa Magazine Winter 2013 issue. On October 12, 2016, police identified remains found in the Manotick area to be those of Shafiq Visram.
On a hopeful day, Vaheeda Visram convinces herself that her brother has joined a cult, that he is under the influence of someone. Shafiq was always a gentle soul, trusting and naive, and while it would be harsh to say he was a boy who seemed at times lost — well, it would not be wholly inaccurate either.
Lost. A strange word to describe a person, although Vaheeda thinks the word fits her brother. It is not so much that Shafiq has vanished, not that he has disappeared or gone missing. It is more as though he has been misplaced.
He was lost on the afternoon of May 30, 1994. On that day, Shafiq returned home from classes at South Carleton High School, spent some time inside the family home in Manotick, then left with a backpack, heading toward some nearby fields. He was seen by a neighbour. That was the last confirmed sighting of Vaheeda’s brother.
Everything after that is a maybe. Someone might have seen her brother by Mud Creek that afternoon. Someone might have seen him walking down a concession road that night, confused and dazed-looking.
What is certain, though, beyond question, is that Shafiq never returned home that afternoon and has not been seen since.
He was 19 when he went missing and the Ontario Provincial Police launched a massive manhunt in search of the teenager. They used helicopters and tracking dogs, sent a company of police officers to comb the woods around Manotick; they were out there for days, but they never found any real clues to what had happened.
Someone found his empty backpack beside Mud Creek, but there was no trail after that. No clues to follow. He left his wallet and all his identification at home; his bank accounts have never been used; his name has never popped up on any government database.
“It was poof, and my brother was gone,” remembers Vaheeda. “How does a thing like that happen? Poof and you’re gone?”
The Ottawa Police Service missing persons department is located on Greenbank Road. It is a large room with portioned-off space for two constables and a sergeant. There is a window with a view of traffic snaking its way down Greenbank and a whiteboard not far from the window listing names of the people reported missing in Ottawa that day.
“I’ve never seen that board empty,” says Constable Mitch Houle, staring at the names on the whiteboard — in effect, his workload for the day. “There are always names up there.”
Houle and Const. Jack Woods are the two main investigators in the missing persons department. Ottawa police get approximately 2,500 missing person calls a year. Of those, about a thousand never get investigated. The errant spouse calls home before an investigation starts, or the teenager returns home sheepishly from the party.
The 1,500 that remain get a case file number and end up on this whiteboard. There are actually two whiteboards: one for everyone under 18, another for everyone over. There is coding, as well, that lets you know at a glance what sort of case is being investigated. Res stands for residence. GH stands for group home. There are separate columns for gender and age and one for the missing person’s name.
I look at the youth whiteboard and see that everyone who has been reported missing is from a group home. On the other board, there is one adult missing from a hospital. Two residences have reported missing a male in his early 20s.
“I’m guessing you can glance at that board and have a pretty good idea what cases are going to be solved quickly,” I say.
“You can,” agrees Houle.
I stare at one entry. A 40-year-old woman reported missing from a home in Barrhaven.
“The tricky ones jump right out at you too,” he adds.
The truly tricky ones are the cold cases. These are the fallen-off-the-edge-of-the-planet cases — the Shafiq Visrams.
There are 22 of those in Ottawa, and any cop who has worked missing persons in Ottawa knows those cases almost by rote. Some of them are the enduring mysteries of the police force. Shafiq Visram is getting to be like that, and when I contact the staff sergeant in charge of missing persons, even though she has never worked the case, she knows it immediately.
“There hasn’t been anything new on that case in a long time,” says Dana Reynolds. “There were some initial sightings, for what those are worth, but nothing concrete. That one really is a mystery.”
Reynolds has been with the Ottawa police for 20 years. If you were casting the female lead in a new television cop show, you might end up with someone like her — statuesque, no-nonsense. A cop who says most missing persons cases are routine, solved within days, if not hours. Anything that stays on the board more than a week is an anomaly, a case that gets your attention.
Houle tells me he once hunted a man for several months, finally tracking him down in Montreal, only to find the man was living as a woman and hoping to have a sex-change operation. He had already started the hormone treatments.
“He was quite aware of what he was doing and quite comfortable with his decision,” he remembers. “I would have to say that case had a happy ending, which is rare for a long-term case.”
A missing person case just might be the pinnacle of sleuthing for a cop. Unsolved murders can have myriad solutions, it’s true, but certain things are fixed. The victim is dead. Someone, or perhaps more than one person, made that happen. An unsolved missing person case does not even have this flimsy strand of certainty — rather, it is a world of infinite possibilities.
The oldest cold case in Ottawa is the case of Conner Sheehan, missing since December 1973. The photo of Sheehan is something to behold: a pipe, a cardigan, and hair so slicked back that you can almost smell the Brylcreem. It was probably an old photo even when he went missing, but it was the best someone had when he was reported missing in 1996. That’s right — 1996. Sheehan might be the most extreme case of delayed reporting in the annals of Ottawa policing.
“Delayed reporting is not that uncommon,” says Reynolds when I ask about the 23-year time lag. “There can be a rift in the family. People aren’t talking to each other. People move around. Then one day someone realizes no one has spoken to cousin Bill in a few years. It happens.”
There are two other cold cases from the ’70s. Winfried Thomas went missing in 1975 — no photo available. Frederick Seymour went missing in Marlborough, Ontario, in 1976 — again, no photo available. (Seymour is the only missing person with the distinction of being “presumed deceased” by Ottawa police. If he were alive today, he would be 103.)
The oldest cases, and maybe this makes sense, are like heat mirages. Indeterminate. I continue to scan the list, looking for other patterns.
There are 13 men and nine women. There is only one child — Lonnie Boudreau, 10 years old when he went missing from his Vanier home on February 5, 1981. He was having a fight with his parents that day. Didn’t want to return home for supper. There were a few sightings over the years, but whether some strange Dickensian fate awaited Boudreau, or something worse, no one knows.
There do not appear to be any missing-from-an-institution cases on the list. No elderly dementia patient who was never found, no group-home kid who never popped up. Those are the cases that make the whiteboard list day after day, always to be solved and cleared.
What sticks with me are the cases that never went away — the men and women, from seemingly every walk of life, who disappeared as thoroughly as mist rising from a lake.
Const. Tracey McRae has been in missing persons for six months, sent there to have a second look at the cold cases. She is both forthcoming and guarded about the job, a contradiction that she makes work by way of a ready laugh and a shrug of the shoulders. She is bringing new technology to some of the old cases, looking for DNA evidence that might have been overlooked, searching databases, online chat rooms, and social networking sites for people’s names, for patterns and reoccurrences.
“We found a man recently who had been missing for 10 years,” she says. “He really wasn’t that hard to find. He wasn’t using an alias. He was living quietly. Hadn’t gone to the end of the country or anything.”
Houle worked that case and says it was one of the tough ones, where the family didn’t want to know from him [clarify: isn’t it the man who didn’t want to talk to family?] by the time it was finished. The missing man had started a new life. He didn’t want anything to do with his old life. There were no criminal warrants or court documents to serve on him, so he was entitled to his privacy.
“No one wants to hear the guy you’ve spent 10 years looking for doesn’t want to see you,” says Houle when explaining how the man’s family and friends took the news. “It’s sad and frustrating. I’d feel the same way.”
Also in the cold cases is Justin Rutter, who went missing in 2009, 14 at the time. Like Shafiq Visram, there were some unconfirmed sightings for a while, then nothing.
There are Maisy Odjick and Shannon Alexander, 17-year-old girls who went missing in 2008 from the Kitigan Zibi First Nation Reserve — not technically an Ottawa police case, but sightings of the girls in Ottawa were made almost immediately, so the police have been helping the Sûreté du Quebec.
Three other women went missing in Ottawa in the winter of 1988 — Janette Brunet, Lisa Somerton, and Josee Boutin — not all at once, but within a month of each other, and the grouping is close enough to seem peculiar. I ask McRae about it, and she says she has noticed the pattern as well.
“There is no connection that I have found,” she says. “These cases are all mysteries. You can notice patterns, you can have hunches, but until the case is cleared, it’s all a guess.”
A deductive guess. What is likely to have happened? Where does one conclusion, leading inevitably to another conclusion, actually take you? This deductive exercise is even formalized, to a degree, in discussions that occur between investigators in the missing persons department and those in the Ottawa police major crimes section. Is it possible the disappearance is a homicide? Should major crime detectives help work the case? It is like an existential court, where a person’s fate is debated and determined in his absence.
The debate is as much about allocating police resources as anything else. A case stays with the missing persons department until it is cleared or it becomes a homicide.
Even the Ardeth Wood case, the disappearance of an attractive university student that immediately seemed suspicious, stayed a missing person case until her body was found in a wooded ravine five days after she was reported missing.
“I worked the Ardeth Wood case, and you can have all the suspicions in the world, you can be about as positive about a thing as you can be, but it doesn’t matter,” says Houle. “Until you 100 percent know, then you do not 100 percent know.”
If a person goes missing long enough, it can become an enduring myth. Sir John Franklin is a missing person case. Etienne Brûlé, the first European to explore the interior of Canada, has been missing since 1611. Jimmy Hoffa is missing.
Three young women from Cleveland were once missing until they turned up chained and held captive in the basement of a portly school bus driver 10 years after they had been reported missing. Olivia Newton John’s boyfriend, Patrick McDermott, was missing for four years, presumed drowned, until he popped up alive and well and living on a beach in Mexico.
Anything is possible, which is both the hope and the despair of a missing person case. For the families of the missing, there is always hope because there is never a resolution. It is a strange, tilted world where what torments you is also what gives you that one sliver of comfort: The missing can be found.
“A family can have hope as long as a case stays open,” says Reynolds. “Sometimes I wonder if that’s a good thing. With a long-term missing person case, you don’t get many happy endings.”
Vaheeda Visram says her father died still wondering what happened to his youngest son. He died unhappy and empty, as though a part of him were missing along with Shafiq. It was the sort of death Vaheeda had never considered — the slow negation of a man’s life, its purpose and utility being crushed as thoroughly as though he were a cardboard cup being slowly stepped upon.
Her mother, Razia, is still asking the questions she began asking in the early-evening hours of May 30, 1994. Where is my son? Why has he not returned to me?
Like every other long-term missing persons case, there is no shortage of theories on what might have happened to her brother. No distant shore where speculation and deduction might not take her. Could Shafiq have committed suicide? Yes, she has considered the possibility. How could she not? She is not a dreamy-eyed Pollyanna. She is a bank manager. She works with actuary charts, for heaven’s sake. But there are problems with this answer: her brother left no note; he disappeared, if you go by where his backpack was found, near a farmer’s field that is tilled and travelled regularly, by the shores of a creek that runs dry every August. How could his body have gone unnoticed for 19 years?
Foul play? There are no gang affiliations. Shafiq never touched drugs. He was shy, and the thought of someone deliberately targeting her brother seems absurd. Just as absurd is the idea of some unknown predator appearing on the shores of Mud Creek that afternoon, materializing just long enough to snatch her brother.
So where does that leave her? She has gone through the possibilities that remain, and some days she wonders if her brother might have joined a cult.
“Maybe someone has control of him, like brainwashing,” she says.
Yes, it’s painfully thin, but that’s what is left for people like Vaheeda Visram — a thin narrative line that tries to solve mysteries with no turn-to-the-back-page solution. Even as she speaks, her voice cracks. Perhaps it is a matter of resolve, I find myself thinking: resolve the unresolvable; resolve to carry on. I promise to contact her next spring, for the 20th anniversary. It seems a strange thing to promise, but she thanks me.