A father desperate to find his missing daughter raised enough money to buy drones and has sent them to a First Nation group coordinating searches and candlelight vigils near where the RCMP are investigating.
John Simpson has shipped two of four drones to Salmon Arm, B.C., where police have recently found human remains on a rural property.
“The more awareness I can bring to the situation at hand the better it’s going to be,” said Simpson, whose daughter Ashley disappeared from the area in April 2016.
“This waiting around. It’s really painstaking. I feel bad for the other four families that are involved. It’s horrendous.”
Ashley Simpson is one of five women to vanish from the area in the past 19 months.
Her father has twice visited the community to look for her. And that’s when he says he thought of the drones.
“It’s wet, it’s rocky. One woman fell and hurt herself. It’s tough terrain and there’s been flooding. I thought, ‘How else can we do this and keep people safe?’” he said from his home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
RCMP have told some of the five missing women’s families their week-long search of the farm is not linked to the disappearances.
“We can appreciate the families that are affected by ongoing missing persons investigations and are aware of them being impacted by what’s going on here,” said RCMP spokesman Cpl. Dan Moskaluk.
But Simpson said it’s pretty tough to ask loved ones to give up hope.
“We are sitting on pins and needles here,” he said.
John said Ashley was 31 when she disappeared after an argument with her boyfriend. He said her family has held two birthday barbecues for her and raised money that he used to buy four drones.
She is one of four daughters.
“She would be 33 this November. We will have a party for her, with all her friends and stuff,” he said.
Ashley’s neighbour, Deanna Wertz, also vanished from the same area three months later.
The 47-year-old woman had gone out for a walk in the rural area, 92 kilometres from Kelowna.
“Her home was very close to the search site,” said her sister, Dawn, in an email to APTN. “And no she was never ever in the sex industry. She was a beautiful strong and active woman, with a family that loves and misses her.
“A family that hasn’t gone a day in over a year that has imagined multiple horrible scenarios for what could (have) happened to her. When she disappeared it was like a UFO plucked her up. Gone without her basic belongings.”
The sex industry has come up because one of the victims allegedly worked as an escort in the area.
And a man who lived at the property under investigation, police said, was charged with allegedly threatening a woman with a gun he met on a website for escorts.
He remained in custody Thursday.
The missing women of the north Okanagan-Shuswap are Simpson; Wertz; Caitlin Potts, 27, who was last seen February 2016, Traci Genereaux, 18, who disappeared from Vernon in May, and Nicole Bell, 31, of Malakwa.
Potts and Wertz have been identified as Indigenous.
The RCMP said Wednesday they would be at the 24-acre property for a while, where witnesses said they could see heavy digging equipment at work.
John Simpson said police told him to go home the last time he was there.
“Police accused us of interfering in the investigation. Telling me to go home, saying I’m stepping on toes.”
The Catcheway family of Manitoba understands that frustration. They have been searching for 18-year-old Jennifer Catcheway in a large rural area west of Winnipeg for nine years.
“It is definitely long, hard, lonely work,” said Willie Starr, Jennifer’s older brother. “I worry about my parents when they’re out searching: walking through swamps, walking alongside water snakes.”
Starr loves the idea of a drone and its camera flying over fields, lakes and bush.
He said he considered getting one a while ago and kind of forgot about it.
“You can cover more ground with those,” he said.
Drones with infra-red cameras to detect objects that give off heat are being used in some search and rescue situations, said Trevor Lyons, owner of Blue Crow Aerials in Winnipeg. But he said drones have their challenges too.
“You can do a couple of acres, then have to change batteries – even more often when gets cold,” he said. “It would be challenging and frustrating for someone especially if under duress and don’t know all the rules, especially in northern communities. They all have an airport and you can’t operate a drone within nine kilometres without permission from Nav Canada.”
There are also rules around insurance and privacy.
Still, Simpson says he kept two drones in Ontario to help with potential searches there. He also wants to help arrange groups of volunteer drone operators to call in when needed.
“I plan to stick with this issue and raise awareness in Canada about missing women,” he said.