It happened in minutes. Three-year-old Jeffrey Dupres was playing outside his family’s new home in the small town of Slave Lake when he vanished.
The toddler had asked his mom if he could go play with a neighbour and she agreed. She went inside the house to change the laundry from the washing machine to the dryer, then heard a knock at the door.
It was Jeffrey’s friend, the one he said he was going to be playing with. Denise McKee was confused — weren’t the boys together?
That confusion quickly turned into panic, as she went around asking neighbours if they’d seen Jeffrey. With no sightings, McKee contacted the RCMP.
“They said we can’t come because we’re busy. So talk to your neighbours,” McKee recalled.
That day, a wildfire was encroaching on the town of 5,000 and McKee knew it was a serious situation.
She rounded up neighbours and reached out to a group called the Slave Lake Disaster Committee. They rallied around her and her husband, organizing a search.
“They held arm in arm and walked through the town make sure that they didn’t miss anything. They knew Jeffrey wasn’t there. They had searched the creek,” she said.
“They said, ‘We know he’s not in town.'”
Then, McKee said the search committee recommended looking in the bush that surrounded the town — the Dupres’ new home was on the edge of town, too.
They thought the military might be able to assist and the RCMP could coordinate.
So McKee said she went back to the RCMP again, asking for help finding her little boy.
Again, she said she was denied, and that an officer laughed at her for suggesting the military get involved.
That upset the 26-year-old woman, and she decided to take matters into her own hands.
She recalled putting together a news conference, telling local media the RCMP weren’t helping look for Jeffrey. Being politically engaged, she also enlisted the help of politicians from all corners of the political landscape.
That, she says, earned her the ire of the local RCMP, who she says started accusing her of killing her own son.
“And they clung to me as a suspect to excuse the fact that they literally did not look for Jeffrey for a full year,” she said.
As the years passed with no sign of Jeffrey, McKee and her husband went on to have two more sons.
Both grew up knowing about Jeffrey’s disappearance. One even has a tattoo on his chest marking the loss of his older brother, McKee said.
She said her son’s disappearance shook the community of Slave Lake for years, yet McKee said the RCMP largely kept her in the dark about what they were doing to find the little boy.
Now nearing 70-years-old and battling multiple sclerosis, McKee is trying once again to raise awareness about Jeffrey’s disappearance.
“I can die knowing that I did something. I tried.”
A reporter, Anna J. James, who once covered Jeffrey’s case in the media and has since become a private investigator offered to take on the file.
“I just made a promise to Denise to leave no stone unturned,” James said.
Over the decades, organizations had a few age-progression images done up in hopes of finding Jeffrey. James just had a new one done, trying to imagine what Jeffrey would look like today, at the age of 45.
READ MORE: Slave Lake RCMP release age-progression photos of boy who went missing in 1980, ask for public’s help
It was recently sent to local media by the Slave Lake RCMP.
The RCMP declined an interview, but in their press release said Jeffrey may be going by a different name, and may walk with a limp.
McKee said when he was a child he had inserts in his shoes for a problem with his hip and leg.
James is hopeful the new image will help jog memories.
“I truly believe somebody somewhere knows something. We always say that. And and I think it’s only a matter of time that someone comes forward.”
The private investigator also set up a tip line, which goes directly to her because she said some people don’t want to talk to law enforcement.
There’s also a $5,000 reward being offered for information that leads to Jeffrey’s whereabouts.
A GoFundMe has been started to help pay for things like posters and billboard ads, and James is hopeful volunteers with different skillsets will step forward to lend their time and expertise to the case.
She said she’s spoken to retired RCMP investigators who believe Jeffrey’s case can be solved.
James believes he’s still alive — in part based on a tip that RCMP have shared over the years involving a sighting of a woman, luring Jeffrey into a blue Chevrolet truck with a man inside it.
“They could be a family who had lost a child and it was a crime of opportunity,” James surmised.
The P.I. is trying new avenues of investigation, too, including advances in genealogy tracing.
“We uploaded Denise’s DNA into 23 and Me and Ancestry.com and several other databases and there were no hits. There were no hits for Jeffrey. Nothing close enough to be like a son or even a grandchild. Having said that, there is still hope,” James said.
“There’s over 2 million profiles uploaded daily, so things can change.”
Over the years, about half a dozen men have come forward to McKee saying they think they might be Jeffrey — but so far, none have panned out.
“If someone believes that they are Jeffrey, contact us through Recover Agency or on our Facebook page and we’ll actually send you out a DNA test. If you are not Jeffrey, then we’ll actually work with you to find your family.”
James is now combing through old Facebook tips that came in over the last decade, and plans to interview some of the original witnesses and residents living near Jeffrey when he went missing.
As for McKee, she believes Jeffrey will look similar to her two living sons – because as children the three looked similar.
While she can’t say for sure whether Jeffrey is alive, she’s still holding out hope.
“At this point, I just want to know what happened. I want to know why it happened,” she said.
“Better late than never. And we have all the ducks in a row right now. So if anybody has the silliest idea, it’s not silly. Please send it to Anna.”