Far from home
Her smile lit up the night.
I was on assignment, in April, 2011, working on a story about a controversial homeless shelter run by First United, a church in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
The place was overcrowded and at times chaotic. As I sat in the lobby talking to a shelter client, someone threw up nearby. A man wandered in with a bloody gash on his head. I stepped outside for some fresh air.
That’s when I met Angeline.
She had come to see a cousin, Cindy Nelson, who was staying at the shelter at the time. The two were close, like sisters. They had grown up together on their home reserve on Vancouver Island and stuck together in the city. I wrote down their names and ages in my notebook, and the time. It was 10:30 p.m.
I didn’t tape our conversation or take many notes; she didn’t have the firsthand perspective of the shelter I was looking for. But she drew me in. She was friendly, unlike many there, who understandably balked at speaking to a reporter or having their picture taken. She wore a baseball cap studded with rhinestones and she was funny, teasing me about my name – Windy? Your name is Windy? – and asked me as many questions as I asked her.
She talked about her son – he was smart and good looking, “just like me,” she said – and how she missed him. When I asked why she wasn’t with him, she waved away the question. I didn’t press.
She told me her father had been stabbed to death just down the street, a detail I used in my story. The only quote I have in my notebook from our conversation is one from Ms. Nelson, a scribbled line that reads, “Since I been here, I done nothing but wrong.” I can’t remember what we were talking about at that moment.
But I remember the two women laughing, standing arm in arm, as they spoke. Even so, I didn’t quite make the connection a few months later while covering a press conference where Angeline’s mother, Molly Dixon, said her daughter had disappeared. The penny dropped in the summer of 2012, when I got off a bus and recognized her face on a missing poster. Her reserve, Quatsino First Nation near the northern tip of Vancouver Island, was offering $5,000 for information about her whereabouts.
That reward remains unclaimed.
Among the Missing
Angeline Eileen Pete was 28 when she was reported missing in August, 2011. Her case is now part of a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. A 2014 RCMP report put the number of those who went missing or were murdered between 1980 and 2012 at nearly 1,200; advocacy groups say the toll could be higher.
Over the past two years, The Globe and Mail has investigated issues related to missing and murdered indigenous women: human trafficking, a national DNA bank, child welfare policies.
This story is about one missing woman. It is also about many. In trying to learn as much as I could about Angeline, I learned of a woman whose life was shaped by factors known to contribute to disproportionate rates of violence against indigenous women in Canada: poverty, the legacy of residential schools, substance and sexual abuse.
I also learned about a woman who could gut a fish in record time and who boasted about being able to survive in the bush as long as she had a knife. I learned she was a bridesmaid at an aunt’s wedding, radiant in a red dress against the bright green grass. I learned she played with her mother’s makeup when she was a little girl. I learned she loved to play floor hockey and was an inveterate texter.
When people go missing, their jobs, friends, habits and histories are the clues they leave behind. Sometimes those clues form a straight line. Angeline left a maze or patchwork quilt: friends, doting relatives, a reputation for being unpredictable and sometimes violent, a son she loved.
Reaching out to Gram
There’s a ragged line across the wall of Eileen Nelson’s living room; a new colour runs up, gets close to the ceiling, and then ends, as if whoever was doing the job went to get more paint or fetch a ladder. Angeline started the job, promising her grandmother she’d be done before she knew it.
The wall hasn’t been touched since April, 2011, when Angeline came home to Quatsino First Nation to celebrate the seventh birthday of her son, who lives with his father in nearby Alert Bay. Since then, Ms. Nelson, 71, hasn’t had the heart to do anything about that wall.
To paint it would remove another trace of Angeline – another smooth surface with no sign of what was there before.
The last time Ms. Nelson spoke to her granddaughter was that spring, after Angeline returned to Vancouver.
“She phoned me one day; I felt totally helpless,” Ms. Nelson recalls. “She called me one day and said, ‘Gram, I just want to come home.’ And I said, ‘You can come home any time you want.’ But she had a court order stating she wasn’t allowed on this reserve.”
That restriction was among more than a dozen conditions imposed on Angeline after she was convicted, in December, 2010, on three counts of assault. According to court records, the charges related to an incident that occurred June 16, 2009, on the Quatsino reserve, near Port Hardy.
The incident began with taunts. It escalated into an alcohol-fuelled brawl during which Angeline punched a woman in the head. The resulting charges were the most serious in a string of offences that, according to court records, began with a theft charge in 2002, when she was 20, and included multiple charges for breaches of probation.
On that spring day in 2011, Angeline and her grandmother talked some more. Angeline said she was out of money. “I told my granddaughter, ‘You can come home, but I have no money to send you,’” Ms. Nelson says. “I didn’t have any at the time. I didn’t want to ask my children. And that was the last I heard from her.”
A difficult childhood
Angeline was born at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver on Dec. 5, 1982. She weighed six pounds and six ounces, had thick black hair and chubby cheeks. Her mother was 16.
Now 50, Ms. Dixon has spent most of her life not on the reserve, but in and around Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. After Angeline went missing, she put up dozens of posters in the neighbourhood where, five years later, she lives in an apartment filled with photographs and mementos of her daughter: “I sometimes think I will see her when I turn a corner.”
Ms. Dixon grew up in social housing. Her father, once a logger and a fisherman, had come to Vancouver from B.C.’s north coast as a young man. Ms. Nelson joined him when she was old enough to leave Quatsino. Both had attended residential schools. Both became alcoholics.
For their daughter Molly, life at home was tough. An older sister stepped in to help raise Molly and other siblings. Ms. Dixon started hanging out with a rough crowd, gravitating toward booze and pot, and sometimes harder drugs.
After Angeline was born, Ms. Dixon took her to the reserve to be with Ms. Nelson, who had moved home. But Molly and the baby didn’t stay for long. Once back in Vancouver, she continued to struggle with alcohol, so the authorities intervened, placing Angeline in foster care when she was a toddler.
Over the next few years, Ms. Dixon tried to get her back. But there were problems with courts and social workers and questions about whether she was complying with conditions she was supposed to meet to regain custody. Eventually, Ms. Nelson got involved, going through what she describes as a gruelling process before gaining the right to care for Angeline.
The stint in foster care ended when Angeline was about 3. She came home changed, her grandmother says – less affectionate and more withdrawn. Eventually, she told Ms. Nelson what she could remember, such as the time her foster parents forced her to eat her own vomit after she threw up during a meal.
One summer, Ms. Nelson and her second husband – she remarried after her first husband died – took Angeline to Hope Island, a reserve off the northern end of Vancouver Island. They spent hours on the water, watching for eagles and whales. “She loved to be out in the bush,” Ms. Nelson says. “She’d say, ‘Hey Grandma, why don’t you give me a potato and some matches and drop me off at Hope Island – I’ll survive.’”
Living with her grandparents and surrounded by extended family, Angeline attended school and thrived in sports, such as floor hockey.
She did not thrive in the classroom. An aunt, Tamara Dixon, says she remembers teachers complaining that Angeline was disruptive. She didn’t graduate.
Another aunt, Cary-Lee Calder, suspects Angeline may have been sexually abused as a young woman, based on things Angeline said but would never discuss in detail.
Abuse – real and threatened – has shadowed generations of women in her family. Angeline’s grandmother remembers being catcalled and almost dragged into a van when she was a girl in Vancouver, a frightening incident that ended only when a friend walking nearby shouted at the man, who then drove away. Molly Dixon told me Angeline’s father was violent toward her in the short time they were together.
Ms. Calder experienced uncomfortable stares and touches. “As a young aboriginal woman, you felt like a magnet,” she says. “People could feel it and scout us out.”
Angeline started drinking heavily when she was a teenager. She was in and out of relationships, including one with Darryl Stauffer.
A soft-spoken man with an easy smile, Mr. Stauffer now works with B.C. Ferries on the run between Alert Bay and the mainland. He acknowledges that his relationship with Angeline was rocky. They both drank too much, and that fuelled conflict between them.
“I probably got 40 black eyes over those years … once she had five or six drinks, she had no control,” he says.
Angeline got pregnant. She was overjoyed, but the couple continued to fight.
One of those conflicts resulted in a 2004 assault charge that put Angeline in a correctional facility. She was released before Darryl Jr. was born, in April that year. Mr. Stauffer says he cut the umbilical cord, kissed mother and child, and raced back to Port Hardy, where a job awaited aboard a commercial fishing boat; the captain had agreed to wait until the baby was delivered.
When Angeline was released from custody, she went back to Quatsino. The band’s housing program found her a place to live with her son, close to her grandmother and other relatives.
But when Darryl Jr. was about 3, he went to live with his father in Alert Bay. Angeline never challenged the arrangement, perhaps because she feared her criminal record – especially after the 2010 assault convictions – would work against her.
“She gave up,” says Ms. Calder. “She gave up her house and gave away all her stuff and walked away … she just felt overwhelmed. There was nowhere to turn and nobody to help her. She said there was no use having a home, if [she didn’t] have a son.”
She began spending more time in Vancouver, and she started dating a man named Robert Calden. Family members say she met him online and lived with him in his North Vancouver apartment.
Into thin air
Shortly before Angeline went missing, she fought with Mr. Calden, who by then was her fiancé. The dispute occurred on May 20, 2011, near the North Vancouver terminal for the SeaBus passenger ferry from downtown.
The dispute was physical enough to draw officers’ attention. Police questioned the couple. Mr. Calden was charged, but Angeline declined to provide a statement, and the charge was eventually stayed.
That evening, Angeline had been texting with Calvin Scow, a friend from Port Hardy also living in the Lower Mainland at the time.
In a message sent at 7:44 p.m., she said: “nice my man just hit me lol he got taken away with the cops.”
Mr. Scow’s reply: “Really!!! What a piece of shit!!!”
Angeline replied that she was going to change, put on some makeup and head back to downtown Vancouver. Her phone was running out of minutes. She texted Mr. Scow again, saying: “gee my lip hurts,” and using a sad-face emoji. “I hate him so much that I love him.”
In the profanity-laced shorthand they often used, Mr. Scow texted back: “Hahahaha … ur fucked … lol”
He has not heard from her since.
Angeline posted a photo of herself with a split lip on Facebook.
At the time of the fight, Angeline was under two conditional sentence orders: one related to her Quatsino assault convictions and the other related to having assaulted Mr. Calden. The conditions placed on her included a curfew and a ban on drinking alcohol.
After the police spotted the couple brawling, they tried to ensure that she was complying with her conditions, including the curfew, which was 9 p.m.
According to court records, at 10:37 p.m. on May 20 – just hours after the altercation – an RCMP constable went to the apartment where the couple was living, and “performed five sets of loud door knocks” to get her attention if she were inside, “sleeping or otherwise.”
She didn’t reply.
On May 25, police issued a warrant for her arrest for breaching the conditions of her sentence. North Vancouver RCMP say an officer went to the couple’s apartment that day to execute the warrant and found Mr. Calden on the phone with Angeline. The officer spoke to her, and she said she would call him back. She did, telling him she was no longer in the area; he encouraged her to turn herself in.
Since then, nobody, as far as police and her family know, has heard from her.
Her grandmother, Eileen, and her aunts missed her regular phone calls and noticed that she had stopped texting and posting messages or photos on Facebook. But she was known to leave town abruptly, and family members hoped she might be on the road, perhaps working with a carnival as she had done before.
Her mother was living in Prince Rupert at the time, 760 kilometres northwest of Vancouver as the crow flies, but left messages for Angeline at the First United Church shelter and at the Carnegie Centre, a Downtown Eastside community hub. She heard nothing back. Her grandmother, worried at not having heard from Angeline, urged Ms. Dixon to call police.
She made a report, and North Vancouver RCMP opened a file on Aug. 8, 2011.
In response to inquiries from The Globe and Mail, the RCMP has outlined steps it took to try to find Angeline between the dispute with Mr. Calden in late May and August, when she was reported missing.
On June 20, a note was added to her file suggesting she might be in Alberta. Detachments in North Vancouver and Port Hardy were in touch – and both aware that a warrant had been issued for breach of probation. On July 1 and again on July 25, North Vancouver RCMP asked its counterparts in Alberta to check their databases for any sign of Angeline.
None of those inquiries yielded any information.
In the days after Angeline was reported missing, North Vancouver RCMP officers interviewed friends, relatives and a former employer. They checked with banks and government agencies to determine if she’d used a bank machine, filled a prescription or cashed a cheque.
Police issued the first public missing-persons alert for Angeline Pete on Aug. 16, 2011. It described her as Aboriginal, 28 years old, with long dark hair and a tattoo of a butterfly on her chest.
The RCMP in North Vancouver typically handles about 400 missing-person files a year, the majority of which are cleared in less than 24 hours.
Angeline Pete’s file is one of 50, the oldest from 1964, that are currently under investigation.
In October, 2011, her case was passed to the detachment’s serious crime unit, landing there after general duty officers had run down the straightforward leads – hospitals, banks, friends and family, social media – and found nothing. The file went to Corporal Gord Reid, who this year joined the detachment’s professional-standards unit.
Cpl. Reid has talked to dozens of people about Angeline, including her former fiancé, Robert Calden, and her former boyfriend, Darryl Stauffer.
He and other officers have followed up on well over 100 tips, including what turned out to be a bogus claim by someone in jail that he had spoken to Angeline after she disappeared. “I would say I have invested more hours on this than any other file I have worked on in four years,” he says.
RCMP say Mr. Calden was questioned, submitted to a polygraph test and has co-operated with the investigation.
Cpl. Reid has Angeline’s dental records. More than once, he has taken images to the scene when alerted to the discovery of an unidentified body. He always wonders if it’s her.
Police have been stung by the suggestion that they did not take the case seriously.
On Dec. 5, 2011, an article in The Province newspaper quoted Ms. Dixon as saying she didn’t think investigators were “trying hard enough.” The next day, the RCMP put out a statement outlining the steps it had taken and emphasizing the force was “actively working” to locate Angeline and ensure her safety.
Police have looked into rumours that she may have been in trouble for stealing drugs or money. They found the people involved and ruled them out as having anything to do with her disappearance.
Also, several locations have been searched, although Cpl. Reid will not say where they are, and Angeline is the subject of a Crime Stoppers video. At one time, when the spot ran on television over the weekend, Cpl. Reid would get a half-dozen calls. When it last ran, in March, he got none.
Cpl. Reid has considered the worst. “There is a possibility that she has come to harm. Had an accident. We have no crime scene. No body,” he says.
Police also have no resoundingly obvious locations in which to look. Angeline travelled. She occasionally hitchhiked. As a teenager, she sometimes caught rides with friends or relatives who were working with a travelling carnival that came through Port Hardy and went with them to the next stop on Vancouver Island. But Cpl. Reid says RCMP inquiries suggest Angeline did not travel with the carnival the year she went missing.
When I contacted West Coast Amusements, the family company that dominates the carnival circuit in Western Canada and returns each year to towns like Port Hardy, it said there is no record of an employee named Angeline Pete. But “carnies” can also work for subcontractors who run games or food concessions for the show. Steve Holt, a longtime concessions manager with West Coast who also runs his own booths as an independent contractor, checked his records and found that he had hired Angeline – but back in 2008, and only for a couple of weeks.
A carnie who knew Angeline told me she had been close to a woman known as “Thumper.” Through Facebook, I connected with Rachealle Smith, whose nickname is “Thumper Thrasher” and who has worked the carnival circuit in Western Canada for 25 years.
Ms. Smith said she and Angeline worked together for at least two seasons, including the year she disappeared. They got along and would run kids’ midway games as a team as well as set up and tear the games down together, doing so quickly to give them more free time on “jump days” (when the show moves to the next site).
On several occasions, Robert Calden showed up and appeared to harass Angeline, says Ms. Smith, who says she last saw her at a campsite near Courtenay, on Vancouver Island. The two women talked about going to North Vancouver to collect Angeline’s belongings. She says Angeline was scared. That was out of character for a woman known never to back down from a scrap. “She was not scared of anything – no fear,” Ms. Smith said. “So, for her not to want to go home – that’s why I said, ‘Wait for us, we’ll go home with you’ – and then she took off.
“I miss her. I just want her to come back.”
Mr. Calden would not be interviewed for this story. The Globe and Mail attempted to reach him through social media, friends and relatives. But since Angeline’s disappearance, he has moved out of the apartment in North Vancouver.
At one time a youth worker with the Squamish First Nation in the Lower Mainland, he grew up in Selkirk, Man., after being adopted by a white couple who had three other children. One of them says Mr. Calden was born at Sagkeeng First Nation on Lake Winnipeg, adopted as a toddler and given the new family’s surname. A Robert James Calden is listed on the list of voters for Sagkeeng First Nation. In keeping with privacy regulations, the band says it can provide no further information.
One of Mr. Calden’s adoptive siblings is Hildegard Vickers, now a Lutheran Church deacon in Erickson, Man. In a telephone interview, she said that she is in occasional communication with Mr. Calden, that he is aware of The Globe’s investigation and doesn’t want to speak about Angeline.
She said she could not discuss Mr. Calden’s background or current whereabouts – but had one thing she could say: Mr. Calden wanted to thank The Globe for telling Angeline’s story.
‘Each of us has a piece missing’
Cary-Lee Calder’s living room in Campbell River, 175 kilometres southeast of Port Hardy, is filled with family photographs, including her 2007 wedding picture with a dozen bridesmaids – one of them a beaming Angeline, her niece.
She is missed. Ms. Calder’s daughter, Rivers, was especially close to Angeline, who would braid the girl’s hair, paint her nails and share secrets.
“Each of us has a piece missing. My daughter’s heart is broken,” Ms. Calder says.
The family holds onto hope. They think of Angeline’s strength and of her temper.
Cindy Nelson remembers once being shoved by a man in front of a Vancouver hotel – her cousin swept in like a hurricane, whacking him and yelling as he skulked away.
She just taught me to not put up with bullshit,” Ms. Nelson says. “She was just that type of person.”
Ms. Calder says she never thought Angeline would be hurt, because she was so strong: “I was convinced, if something happened to her, it had to be more than one guy.”
Ms. Calder works with the First Nations Health Authority, which delivers health-care services to First Nations communities in B.C. In social-media postings, she is upbeat and funny, chronicling her experiences as a parent, working woman and runner.
In January, she came to Vancouver to meet Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and other officials, advocates and family members to talk about the national inquiry. After it was launched two weeks ago, she posted on Facebook, “Praying for answers about our beloved Angeline Pete.”
She hopes someone, somewhere, knows something that will answer the question: Where is Angeline? She wants people to care. “I want people to know she was worthy, that she mattered,” Ms. Calder says. “That she still matters.”
For their loved ones, the missing are never really gone. In May, I got a text from Darryl Stauffer, asking about the progress of this story. Darryl Jr., he wrote, “brought up his mom with tears in his eyes on Mother’s Day.” The boy turned 12 in April. He has a sheaf of photographs of his mother, and when he smiles, he looks much like her.
The last time Angeline visited her son, in April, 2011, she brought him a Detroit Red Wings jersey. They were his favourite team.
Mr. Stauffer says young Darryl is doing well in school and loves to play hockey, a sport his father says saved his own life as a teenager, by connecting him to friends who had something positive going on in their lives.
He wants the same for his son. So he does all he can to get Darryl Jr. to practices and tournaments. His aunties and his grandmother cheer him on.
“That’s why he wants to play hockey – so if he gets famous, his mom will find him.”
Wendy Stueck is a Globe and Mail reporter based in Vancouver.