During what is arguably one of the worst periods of their lives, Arianne Snakeskin and Kiara Omeasoo say they are extremely lucky.
“Our prayers have been answered,” Omeasoo said to a group of reporters in Wetaskiwin, Alta., on Friday — two days after the body of her sister Billie Wynell Johnson was found north of Edmonton.
“There’s so many families out there, Indigenous families, who will never, ever get that closure — never find their loved ones,” Snakeskin said.
“So we were extremely lucky.”
Johnson, 30, was last seen near 113 Street and 107 Avenue on Dec. 24, 2020, and reported missing four days later. At the time, police said Johnson’s disappearance was out of character and considered suspicious.
Johnson was outspoken, free-spirited and always on the move — but was also glued to her social media and normally messaged family back right away. When her social media accounts fell silent over Christmas, her family members became concerned.
Omeasoo said the family jumped into action, pushing police to take the disappearance seriously.
After what it called an “extensive investigation,” based on forensics, witness interviews and information about Johnson herself, in February, Edmonton police said investigators came to the conclusion she was dead.
The search for a missing woman turned into a recovery mission — one her sisters threw themselves into.
“I told the Edmonton police that the whole world is going to know about my sister’s disappearance and how it was handled,” Omeasoo said.
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.
“I really put these searches together and pushed this whole thing into the light because I didn’t want it to be left in the dark or another cold case.”
When speaking about her interactions with police, Omeasoo chose her words carefully, expressing both disappointment for what she saw as a lack of urgency on their part, but also gratitude for the efforts that were undertaken to find her sister.
“When I was able to do these searches and spread awareness and let everyone know what was going on, the Edmonton police really got their things together and helped my family. They took their time.
“I strongly believe they could have found her back in December, early January — but I am super thankful that they found her four months later.”
Friends, family and community members searched for Johnson’s remains almost every weekend in February, March and April.
The initial search was focused on the outskirts of the city and on the Enoch Cree First Nation, which directly borders the western edge of Edmonton.
Edmonton police and search and rescue volunteers also participated in some of the searches, and rural landowners in the Edmonton area were asked to check their properties for anything suspicious.
“Every weekend, every day I had off from work, I would drive around Edmonton,” Omeasoo said. “A lot of physical ground-searching, a lot of work, a lot of tears and a lot of gathering donations and volunteers and making things happen.
“I’ve been right from the southwest to the northeast, searching for my sister’s remains in the past four months.”
Johnson lived in Edmonton as an adult, but was from the Samson Cree First Nation — one of four reserves that make up the Maskwacis community in central Alberta, about an hour south of Edmonton.
Johnson’s sisters said the family is closely connected to their Indigenous culture, explaining her spirit could not be at rest until her body was found.
“Now we’re able to bring her home and have ceremonies and feasts for her, then we feel like she’ll be able to move on,” Snakeskin said.
Omeasoo said she was persistent with investigators, asking if there were any new tips on the case and offering information in return: “At one point, it seemed like I was annoying them.”
On Thursday, she made that call again, as she had done so many times before. This time, things were different.
“I called them to ask them a few questions and they couldn’t answer my questions,” Omeasoo explained. “So I began to ask them, ‘Is there any update on my sister? Have you found my sister?’
“And he says, ‘Oh, we found her.’ I was in shock. I was like, ‘What?’ And he said, ‘We found her.'”
Edmonton police said homicide investigators discovered human remains on Wednesday. With the assistance of forensic experts, investigators confirmed Johnson’s identity.
Omeasoo said another family member was informed — but her father and sisters were not.
“They didn’t even give me a phone call. I reached out to them,” she said.
The family’s search was slowly expanding north of Edmonton, but Omeasoo said they had not yet reached the area where Johnson was found.
A large search and rescue operation led by the Edmonton Police Service took place near Legal in Sturgeon County this past weekend. However, police would not confirm it was linked to the Johnson investigation. A news release issued Thursday night said at this time, police are not releasing where they found Johnson’s body.
The family is relieved, if also heartbroken.
“It was a very emotional four months and to get that closure and that peace we’ve all been searching for and needing … to finally have it is a huge relief and for all the help and everything that we we experienced is just amazing,” Omeasoo said.
“The pain that my family endured and went through was very hard. I don’t wish anyone to go through this. And I hope the Edmonton police help more families that are going through this tragic situation that we’ve gone through.
“It was a long, hard, stressful, sad four months — a lot of sleepless nights.”
The sisters stressed they could not have made it through this difficult time without the help of others — some friends, other family members and also the help of complete strangers.
“We’ve had lots of volunteers coming to help — a lot,” said Snakeskin, who is from the Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan.
“We’re super grateful for everybody, including the Bear Clan, some Enoch band members, the Samson, Ermineskin and Thunderchild First Nations were a big help to us.”
The Bear Clan Patrol Edmonton Beaver Hills House is the local chapter of a nationwide volunteer initiative that aims to provide basic needs to people on the street and help fellow Indigenous people in times of need.
Melany Beatty began volunteering with Bear Clan last fall and became involved with the search for Johnson early on.
“I just really feel like as people on planet Earth, and specifically in Canada, we need to do everything that we can to put an end to missing and murdered Indigenous people,” Beatty said.
She urged people of all backgrounds to step up and volunteer their time and money to help find more missing women.
“Lots of families don’t get this closure. They don’t get the opportunity to bring their family members home.”
Kenneth Courtorielle, 35, is charged with second-degree murder. After the discovery of Johnson’s body, police said an additional charge of indignity to a body is pending against him.
Courtorielle and Johnson were known to each other, according to police, and family said they they were a couple that lived together in Edmonton. Courtorielle’s next court appearance is on April 30.
“I hope that our family receives justice,” Snakeskin said.
Johnson vanished on Christmas Eve, and Omeasoo said her final conversation with her sister was about coming home for Christmas dinner.
“So for her feast that we’re going to have for her after the funeral, I’m cooking her a turkey dinner — so we can all eat together one last time.”
Johnson was a mother to an 11-year-old boy and four-year-old girl, her family said. A GoFundMe has been launched to cover some funeral costs and provide for the children moving forward.
— With files from Sarah Komadina, Global News