What should you do when a loved one is missing?

Click to play video: 'What should you do when a loved one is missing in Edmonton?'
What should you do when a loved one is missing in Edmonton?
Maggie Oerlemans hasn't been seen since 2022 and she's one of the 6.500 people reported missing to the Edmonton Police Service each year. Sarah Ryan has more on how the EPS missing persons unit works and what you should do if a loved one vanishes. – May 28, 2024

This is Part 2 of a series. Click here to read Part 1

Last year, 6,500 people were reported missing to Edmonton police. That breaks down to nearly 18 every day.

If your loved one ever goes missing, would you know what to do?

Police say step one is to do your due diligence: reach out to local hospitals, your loved one’s school or employer, call other friends and family, and check areas the person regularly visits.

If those searches aren’t yielding any results, get the police involved.

“We do want people to make that report as soon as possible. As soon as there’s something out of character, you are concerned or have that gut feeling, don’t hesitate, call us,” said Const. Matthew Broadfoot of the Edmonton Police Service’s three-member missing persons unit.

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“There’s so much perishable evidence at the onset … that can be as simple as witnesses.

“After a couple weeks, someone isn’t going to remember much, especially in regards to a stranger.”

But Broadfoot said it’s not just memories that fade over time, there’s also other physical evidence that disappears, like video surveillance and electronic or phone records.

Click to play video: 'Edmonton police identify human remains as Indigenous women missing 50 years'
Edmonton police identify human remains as Indigenous women missing 50 years

The number of missing people in Edmonton is growing, but usually the files have a positive outcome.

Broadfoot said in “98 to 99 per cent of the 6,500 cases, we find them alive, well.”

“We find people in as little as an hour. Often times, I would say that we clear many cases within two to three days.”

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Some people are more likely to be reported missing than others.

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Folks who are transient, are of no fixed address or are potentially suffering from drug addictions or mental health issues, Broadfoot explained, have a hard time staying in contact with their loved ones, who are regularly concerned for them.

But in those rare cases where someone has vanished and can’t be found quickly, the missing persons unit does a deep dive into their routine, trying to see if anything changed and when.

“They have those regular purchases they make, regular places they visit, people they contact, things they go do,” Broadfoot said.

“When you notice, even after a couple hours, that they’re not doing these things, it’s extremely concerning for us.”

Investigators will run a series of different checks, trying to determine a person’s movements and last known location.

“Interviewing everyone who’s had contact with this person is obviously a really important step,” Broadfoot said. “Sometimes they might not be in contact with one person, but they’re in contact with another.”

Click to play video: 'Free Bird Project provides support for families searching for missing loved ones'
Free Bird Project provides support for families searching for missing loved ones

In certain cases, Edmonton police will also issue a news release. It’s a tool they only use when absolutely necessary. They say they don’t want Edmontonians to be overwhelmed or become numb to the information.

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“We want the public to be engaged when we put that out because we want their help,” he said.

While the investigators are working the case, they encourage friends and family to raise awareness about their missing loved one.

“I definitely recommend families going out there and trying to get media involved and the community involved,” Broadfoot said.

But that doesn’t come naturally to everyone — many families have no idea where to start. That’s where the Free Bird Project comes in.

The non-profit was born out of tragedy. Their loved one’s plane disappeared while flying over the Rocky Mountains in 2017.

“It’s this loving support we like to give families. We have compassion. We’ve been there,” said co-founder Kate Sinclair.

But in between, not knowing what happened spurred the family of Dominic Neron to seek answers on their own — getting word out on social media and capturing the generosity of volunteers to continue the hunt for the missing plane.

Click to play video: 'Months after B.C. plane crash, family of Alberta couple isn’t giving up hope'
Months after B.C. plane crash, family of Alberta couple isn’t giving up hope

After navigating much of that on their own, they decided to share what they learned with other families in distress for free.

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“We can go to social media, start a Facebook group. We can start sharing missing posters. If there’s not one, we can create one,” co-founder Tammy Neron said.

They also amassed an impressive group of Good Samaritans willing to help.

“We have drone contacts, we have search dogs, there’s lots of volunteers in the community,” Sinclair said.

They also have connections to counsellors who specialize in ambiguous loss and the trauma people go through with so many unanswered questions.

Free Bird also provides perhaps the most important thing: hope.

Almost a year after failing to make it to its intended destination, remains of 28-year-old Dominic Neron, from Parkland County, and his 31-year-old girlfriend Ashley Bourgeault were recovered in September 2018 after the wreckage was spotted by a B.C. Ambulance Service helicopter crew near Revelstoke, B.C.

That discovery provided the closure their loved ones needed.

“We hear stories all the time about missing loved ones who are found decades later, so you cannot give up hope,” Sinclair said.

Tammy Neron also has advice on whom to avoid. Both police and the Free Bird Project have seen unscrupulous people trying to take advantage of people’s grief, offering information or services to help find a missing person in exchange for something else.

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“It’s very common that people will try to contact them and try to scam them in various ways,” Broadfoot said.

“Anybody that wants to help, will always help out of the goodness of their heart. They’ll never ask for money,” Neron said.

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