The body of Deanna Desjarlais was to be transported Wednesday from British Columbia to Saskatchewan, where family members plan to have her buried near the Kawacatoose First Nation reserve, about 100 kilometres north of Regina.
Her family is still piecing together information, but it appears Ms. Desjarlais, 27, died before she was reported missing this past spring. Her body was found May 17, but she remained an unnamed “Jane Doe” until this month.
That gap, along with the fact that police did not issue a public alert about her disappearance, has resulted in questions from family members and advocates about how police handled her case. Some have suggested that Ms. Desjarlais was not considered a priority because she was indigenous. And her death touches on issues, including police response to missing-person reports, that are expected to be front and centre during a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women.
Surrey RCMP announced Tuesday that its Serious Crime Unit was leading an investigation into the circumstances of Ms. Desjarlais’s death. Her remains, found in Surrey’s Hawthorne Park, are being examined by the B.C. Coroners Service, which reported that nothing suspicious had yet been found.
“The Surrey RCMP is asking anyone who may have seen Ms. Desjarlais in the weeks leading up to May 17 to call us,” said Corporal Scotty Schumann. “If we can determine her movements during this time, it may assist us in determining what ultimately led to her unfortunate death.”
The Vancouver Police Department, meanwhile, insists race did not play a role in how it investigated the case, and that a public alert is not appropriate for every case.
“Our investigation in this missing-person case for Ms. Desjarlais was complete, it was not handled any differently than any other missing-persons investigation,” VPD spokesman Sergeant Brian Montague said on Tuesday.
The VPD gets between 4,000 and 5,000 missing-person reports each year, and the public would tune out if police issued an alert for each one, Sgt. Montague added.
Ms. Desjarlais’s older sister, Felicity Desjarlais, disagreed, saying police should have issued a bulletin. “I’m really angry – I think more could have been done, and it wasn’t,” she said Tuesday in a telephone interview from her home in Alberta.
Originally from Saskatchewan, Ms. Desjarlais is believed to have travelled to B.C. some time in late 2015 or early this year and spent time in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Friends say she worked in the sex trade and struggled with alcohol and drugs.
Asked why the VPD did not issue a public alert about Ms. Desjarlais, even after friends launched a Facebook page this summer to highlight her disappearance, Sgt. Montague said such an alert was not deemed necessary in Ms. Desjarlais’s case – in part because initial police inquiries indicated she was safe and in the Lower Mainland.
“We figured out she was in the Vancouver area, that she was likely in Surrey, and we were narrowing things down,” Sgt. Montague said.
“Had we plastered a picture of her everywhere – if she is someone who doesn’t want to be found, that may force her out of the Lower Mainland, it may force her out of the province, it may actually make our investigation more difficult,” he added.
The VPD opened a missing-person file for her on May 9, closed it a few days later after a police report indicated she was safe in the Lower Mainland, and then reopened a file June 30 following another report filed by a different person, Sgt. Montague said.
In response to concerns that the file could have fallen through jurisdictional cracks between the VPD and the RCMP, Sgt. Montague said police agencies routinely share missing-person information.
That VPD file remained open until this month, when the Jane Doe in Surrey was identified. Felicity Desjarlais says an RCMP officer told her the body was decomposed, may have been at that location for up to a month and was identified through a thumbprint.
Surrey RCMP has not yet issued a public statement about the case. Felicity Desjarlais said on Tuesday that an RCMP officer told her needles were found at the scene and that her sister may have died of an overdose.
“I would like to know how she died,” she said, adding that RCMP told her her sister’s body was found in a wooded area away from the road and that she questions how and why her sister would have been in that spot.
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