A large search was underway for a missing woman on the western edge of Edmonton Friday, days after police charged a man with second-degree murder in her death.
Family and community members were searching in the Enoch Cree Nation area for the body of Billie Johnson. The 30-year-old mother of two was reported missing in December. While her body has not been found, police charged 35-year-old Kenneth Courtorielle earlier this week with second-degree murder.
Two of Johnson’s sisters were part of the search. They say Johnson was beautiful and funny and that her death is being felt by the entire Maskwacis community.
“It’s heartbreaking. We never thought we’d have to go through something like this,” her older sister Arianne Snakeskin said.
“We just want to bring her home and we want to bring awareness to the MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) so that more families don’t have to continue to go through this. It’s hard.”
Younger sister Kiara Omeasoo said this is the third search they’ve conducted in the past two weeks. She said it’s been overwhelming and all they want is to bring Johnson home.
“My sister didn’t deserve that and we miss her every day,” Omeasoo said. “She was well known for her humour and her beauty.”
Verlynn Larocque, Johnson’s cousin, hoped Johnson was out there somewhere, alive. Learning that a murder charge was laid came as a shock.
“It’s been heartbreaking knowing she has been gone this whole time,” Larocque said. “Hearing that and then him being charged, I am honestly still in shock. I can’t believe it. I can’t process this. I honestly love her so much. I made sure I told her that. She was just a very, very fun-loving person.”
Earlier this week, Larocque told Global News that Johnson was a mother to an 11-year-old son and four-year-old daughter.
The father of Johnson’s son was involved in the search Friday. He said it’s important to bring Johnson home for closure for her family, including his son.
“It’s really sad for my son,” Darren Mercredi said. “We’ve had a lot of sleepless nights not knowing where my son’s mom is.
“I pray and hope that this is the day we bring Billie home. For the family, for my son, to bring peace and healing that needs to take place… We need to bring Billie home.”
Johnson was last seen the evening of Dec. 24 in the area of 113 Street and 107 Avenue. She was reported missing four days later. At the time, police said Johnson’s disappearance was out of character and considered suspicious.
The family is critical of the Edmonton Police Service’s response to Johnson’s case, saying police didn’t take action quickly enough when they reported her missing.
“They didn’t take action for about two days,” Omeasoo said. “My mom and my family already knew that she was missing. She didn’t reach out to nobody, she wasn’t active online. We knew right away something was wrong.”
“For the longest time, weeks after weeks they are telling us that they couldn’t release any more information because it was under investigation and then on Tuesday when they gave us all this information about Billie’s disappearance and about Kenney being charged, I asked them, ‘What can you guys do to help my family find my sister now that he is charged? Can you guys bring out helicopters to the search, bring out dogs? They told me that’s too expensive.”
EPS spokesperson Cheryl Voordenhout said the investigation is still active and the homicide section will not consider the file concluded until Johnson’s remains are located.
She said investigators have been in regular contact with Johnson’s next of kin throughout the investigation.
“Her next of kin was kept apprised of the investigation at every step, and any information that could be shared without jeopardizing the investigation was shared,” Voordenhout said Friday.
“Regarding the missing person report, Police Communications Branch has reviewed the initial call, and determined that the call evaluator asked an industry-standard set of questions, which are meant to ensure police get all the information required to begin an investigation.
“Homicide investigations are difficult for everyone involved, and our hearts go out to the family of Billie Johnson as they face this ongoing trauma.”
In early January, police put out a plea for information about a pickup truck and its driver, whom they described as a person of interest in connection with the investigation.
On Wednesday afternoon, the EPS said Courtorielle was arrested in St. Albert a day earlier. Police confirmed the man arrested and charged is the person of interest they were searching for in relation to Johnson’s disappearance.
Earlier this week, Larocque told Global News the accused was her cousin’s boyfriend and that Johnson lived with him in Edmonton.
The Bear Clan Patrol Edmonton Beaver Hills House was part of Friday’s search and said they will be out again this weekend if needed.
“She needs to have dignity and the family needs closure,” Judith Gale with the Bear Clan Patrol said. “It’s a very difficult day.”
Police are also asking rural landowners in the Edmonton area to check their properties and contact police immediately at 780-423-4567 if they notice anything suspicious.
With files from Sarah Komadina, Global News.