In the final moments before her death, Mariam Makhniashvili stood alone on the shoulder of a Toronto expressway, half a world removed from the life she had known for more than 17 years in the mountainous west Asian country of Georgia.
Then, she went over the concrete barrier and plunged five storeys into a wooded ravine below.
The slender teen with chestnut hair left behind no hint as to her fate, baffling investigators and prompting them to reach out in all directions – interviewing thousands of people, combing garbage dumps and scouring Toronto parks by helicopter – to no avail. She had been in Canada just three months when, after walking to school with her brother Giorgi on Sept. 14, 2009, she vanished.
She did leave behind a troubled family: a father, Vakhtang, who had reportedly been acquitted of public indecency and would later go on to stab three people; a brother, Giorgi, who would briefly disappear himself, before returning unharmed within 24 hours.
For 2½ years, the mystery captivated the city, a fascination deepened by Ms. Makhniashvili’s equally inscrutable personality. An introvert, she had few close friends, spending her time studying physics.
In the absence of concrete evidence, journalists and the public floated wild theories: Some speculated she had been kidnapped in broad daylight; others that she had joined a religious cult; some thought they spotted her among a group of travelling hippies in Alberta.
None of it was true.
Last week, two men found her skeleton in the ravine off the Don Valley Golf Course, underneath a Highway 401 off-ramp that leads to Yonge Street, some seven kilometres from her school. Using DNA, police positively identified her Thursday night. Searchers had not previously checked the spot where her remains were discovered. Her body could easily have lain there undetected since the day she vanished.
Investigators said she was alone when she died and that there was no sign of foul play. She left behind no note and there was nothing to say exactly what had brought her to the precipice.
“In retrospect, you could see that, as an introvert, as a bookworm who kept to herself. One could assume it was a result of isolation and depression,” said Detective Sergeant Dan Nealon, who led the probe into her disappearance. “But at this point, it’s speculative.”
At Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, where Ms. Makhniashvili was a student for four days, flags flew at half-mast. Peruvian immigrant Paloma Samaniego, a Grade 12 student, befriended Giorgi in ESL and science classes. She remembered the isolation of being a teenager in a new place with a language barrier, and the case touched a nerve with her. Things were definitely amiss with her friend, she said.
“I know … how a person acts when you have problems at home and the actions that George had were like a person who really had problems,” the 18-year-old said.
Ms. Makhniashvili was born on Oct. 27, 1991, to philosophy lecturer Vakhtang and journalist Lela Tabidze. Her early years were spent during the civil war that ravaged post-independence Georgia.
Frequent electrical blackouts led the family to spend a lot of time attending violin recitals in Tbilisi’s opera house – which had a generator – and the building became a fixture in Ms. Makhniashvili’s life. When she grew older, she had a season pass to see musical events, which she attended with her two close friends, Dea and Gvantsa. The trio bonded over a shared love of math and science. Instead of having slumber parties and gossiping, they studied together.
In late 2003, Mr. Makhniashvili moved to Los Angeles to pursue an academic job; his wife followed shortly after. For the next five years, the family lived apart, linked by long phone conversations on weekends. The father would send philosophy books to his children and they would read together, with Mariam translating English-language texts into Georgian. She had a particular interest in the philosophy of ethics and discipline.
According to a Toronto Sun report, Mr. Makhniashvili also had a brush with the law in California, when he was accused of touching himself outside a daycare centre. He was acquitted.
In 2009, Canada accepted the family’s request to immigrate. In June of that year, they were reunited in Toronto. Her parents presented her with a hardcover journal. She said she was saving it for when she had something special to write in it; she never did.
That summer, the family became reacquainted over picnics in Earl Bales Park, just north of the spot where Ms. Makhniashvili would ultimately be found dead.
She started school in September, but left little impression in her brief time there. Then, she was gone.
Weeks later, police found her backpack a few blocks east, but otherwise, not a single clue came to light. Even searches of computers at a local library she had frequented turned up nothing that would point to her fate. Media, meanwhile, were fascinated by the case and Ms. Makhniashvili’s parents became television fixtures, making repeated pleas for their daughter to return. The strain was evident.
“That’s why we keep kind of far from discussing anything because sometimes you think and your brain hurts and you sometimes go insane,” Ms. Tabidze once told The Globe and Mail.
In May, 2010, Mr. Makhniashvili burst in on neighbour Sean Ure, accused him of being involved in Mariam’s disappearance, and stabbed him in the abdomen. Private investigators David and Delores Langer posted bail for Vakhtang Makhniashvili after he was arrested following a dispute with a neighbour. He moved in with the couple at that time. They later revoked their surety because he was not abiding by “the discipline of the household.”
In November, 2010, Giorgi went missing under circumstances eerily similar to those of his sister’s disappearance, vanishing after heading to school one day. By his father’s account, he had run away because the elder Mr. Makhniashvili disapproved of his son’s desire to become a musician. The boy walked all the way to Vaughan, his guitar on his back, before returning.
Days later, Mr. Makhniashvili stabbed the Langers at their home, falsely accusing them of being responsible for a newspaper article that made disparaging suggestions about him.
He was notified by corrections staff Friday that his daughter’s remains had been identified. Ms. Tabidze got the news from two police officers who visited her midtown apartment building. Throughout the day, she remained inside and did not emerge to speak with reporters gathered at her door.
In all the case’s twists and turns of the last 30 months – and the manifold scenarios proffered – virtually no one suggested the simple one outlined Friday: that, possibly the very day she vanished, Ms. Makhniashvili died. Her father was one of the few who seemed to confront that chance, in an interview a year after his daughter went missing.
“This is the hard thing that we always have in our imagination,” he said. “There are ranges of scenarios and one of them, the worst thing, is that her body is somewhere.”
With reports from Carys Mills, Timothy Appleby and Tu Thanh Ha
Editor's note: Private investigators David and Delores Langer posted bail for Vakhtang Makhniashvili after he was arrested following a dispute with a neighbour. He moved in with the couple at that time. They later revoked their surety because he was not abiding by “the discipline of the household.” Incorrect information appeared on March 10. This online version has been corrected.