Diana Saunders has lived with the pain of not knowing the fate of her three sons after their father allegedly abducted them from their Newfoundland home more than two decades ago.
Saunders, who went by Diana O’Brien and her maiden name, Boland, before recently remarrying, last heard from her three boys — Adam, Trevor and Mitchell O’Brien — on Nov. 9, 1996 before getting a terrifying phone call from her ex-husband.
Gary O’Brien told his wife that he was taking the children.
“[He] told me that he was not going to return the children to me and that our family home in Torbay, he had it all rigged to explode if anybody tampered with it,” Saunders told Global News. “I asked to speak to the children and all he told me was ‘later.’ That was the only word he used, ‘later.’”
Upon hearing those words, she said her heart crumbled.
“My whole body went into kind of a shock,” she recalled. As she collapsed to the floor sobbing, her sister, who was present at the time, took over the situation.
“She called the police immediately and I got on the phone and told them what Gary had said,” Saunders said.
On that cold Saturday in November 1996, Gary O’Brien had visitation with the boys. He picked Adam, Trevor and Mitchell — ages 14, 11 and four — up at Saunders’ apartment. He called later that night to tell her the boys weren’t coming home.
When officers arrived at the family home, they discovered two 400-lb. propane tanks ready to explode, according to police reports.
“If anyone even [rang] the doorbell [police] said the house would have exploded and it would have damaged neighbouring homes,” Saunders said.
The kidnapping of the three O’Brien children made national headlines as police hunted for Gary Joseph O’Brien, who would now be 60. He is listed by Interpol as an internationally-sought suspect charged with abduction, setting traps likely to cause bodily harm, breaching undertakings and breaching recognizance.
Roughly one year after the abduction, parts of O’Brien’s 1989 Ford Tempo were found in the ocean near Flatrock, Nfld. No bodies were ever recovered. RCMP and the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary say the case remains open.
Saunders believes the explosives and truck were attempts to mislead investigators.
Following the 1996 abduction, the trail for O’Brien and the three boys began to grow cold as tips and sightings dried up.
Saunders said she shut herself away from the world for five years, refusing to leave her home. Even the sight of a child’s toy could trigger a breakdown.
“You have your highs and your lows, your good days and your bad days,” she said. “Every time there was an occasion, for instance Mother’s Day, I didn’t leave my house. I would literally sit by the phone. And I did that for all occasions, even on their birthdays.”
Over the years Saunders sought professional help and got involved with organizations that focus on missing children cases.
But after 20 years she is still haunted by the question of why her three sons haven’t contacted her.
“There is not one reason that would come to my mind of why they wouldn’t [contact me] other than the obvious and I don’t believe that,” Saunders said, who remains steadfast her children are alive.
Saunders believes O’Brien and the children could be in an area that is “off-the-grid” without access to any kind of technology or that the boys have been “brainwashed” against her.
Last Friday, the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) released age progressed photos of Adam, now 34, Trevor, now 31, and Mitchell, now 25.
The intricate and time consuming process of providing these age progressed photos are based on heredity traits, according to Christi Andrews, a forensic artist at the NCMEC in Alexandria, Virginia.
In the best case scenario, photos of parents at the same age that the missing children are now helps create a more realistic composite, Andrews said.
“Family is the best indicator. The photos are a little bit of science and a lot of art.”
Age progression photos are used in long-term cases where a person has been missing for more than two years and are updated every five years. Each photo takes roughly eight hours of work.
“Everything we do is done in Adobe Photoshop, there is no enhance button,” Andrews said, referencing crime shows like CSI, where a composite photo can appear at the click of button. “It’s a little more tedious than that.”
Saunders loves seeing the photos. For her, they are a bittersweet way of staying connected to her children.
“I love it when they do those age progressions, it’s like watching them grow without them being present,” she said. “I see such a strong family resemblance.”
Saunders said she’s no longer in regular contact with the police, as investigators don’t want to contact her without a credible tip in an effort to shield her from false hope.
The three boys are listed on the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary’s Missing Persons website, and RNC Const. Danny Doiron, a supervisor with the major crime unit, says the O’Brien case is an active and open investigation that has received leads as recently as December 2016.
“We do have tips that are fairly recent that we have an [investigator] assigned to that follows up,” Doiron told Global News. “The possibilities are endless and we can’t say with any degree of certainty where we believe they are.”
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Tips and sightings in the O’Brien case have spanned across Canada even crossed into the United States.
Doiron, himself a father, worked as the missing persons coordinator for the RNC roughly five years ago and felt particularly close to the case.
“Sometimes there are investigations that tear at the heartstrings of your emotions as a parent and not only a police investigator,” he said. “It’s very difficult to deal with this knowing you don’t have the answers.”
Speaking generally, Doiron said there are a number of reasons why an abducted child may not try to contact family. Coercion is a possibility, or they may have been too young to remember the abduction.
“Unless we know the exact whereabouts of these kids, now adults, and their father we are always optimistic,” he said.
Christy Dzikowicz, director of missingkids.ca with the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, has been working with Saunders for a number of years and in 2011 helped launch a national missing children’s service.
“Parents need to be able to live their lives and find happiness in their life without feeling for a second that they have stopped searching,” Dzikowicz said, adding her organization helps link parents with others who have missing children. “Until we have answers for her boys we will continue working.”
The latest numbers from the National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains, an organization with the RCMP, shows there were 45,288 reports of missing children in 2015. However, 58 per cent of those reports are removed within 24 hours and 91 per cent were removed within a week.
But for a parent with a child who is missing, Dzikowicz says the agony of not knowing or having answers is “overwhelming.”
“At the end of the day, until a mom has been told that they are not going to find their boys, or their daughter, there is always hope,” she said. “You don’t close that door… you don’t grieve a child if you don’t [have answers].”
“What is really important for these families is to know that as Canadians, as citizens, is that we remember these boys and keep our eyes and ears open.”
For Saunders, she says she will never rest or find peace until she has an answer.
“I am fighting every day to see my children,” Saunders said. “Unless I have proof that they are no longer on this Earth than I am going to keep at and keep looking for them… don’t ever give up on your kids.”
Anyone with information about Mitchell, Trevor or Adam O’Brien is asked to contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 1-800-843-5678 (1-800-THE-LOST) or the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary at 1-709-729-8000 or the RCMP in Ottawa 1-613-998-6200.
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