The body of two-year-old Hailey Dunbar-Blanchette was found on Tuesday near the Crowsnest Pass town where she was taken and a 22-year-old local man remains in custody, according to RCMP.
The shaken community of Blairmore learned that events had taken a turn for the worse Tuesday evening when an RCMP officer stepped forward during a candlelight vigil and told gathered residents of the small mountain town that the Amber Alert for Hailey had been cancelled and a body had been found.
Standing in a park where the two-year-old once played, members of Hailey's family cried as they were surrounded by people in their community overcome with emotion.
"This is going to devastate our community. This is going to take a long time to heal from this," said a visibly shaken Crowsnest Pass Mayor Blair Painter. "This is heartbreaking, devastating news."
RCMP Superintendent Tony Hamori confirmed the news responsible for the community's grief an hour later at 10 p.m. MT. "It is my very sad duty tonight to inform you that we have found the body of two-year-old Hailey Dunbar-Blanchette in a rural location near Blairmore," he said. "This is a sad day for the citizens of Blairmore and all Canadians who have held this little girl in their thoughts and prayers."
Hailey's body was found during a search based on information received by investigators. Supt. Hamori declined to take questions, saying more information would be released Wednesday morning. He said officers were at the scene where Hailey had been found and were processing evidence.
The girl's death ends a difficult week for the Crowsnest Pass. Since Monday, everyone in Blairmore had been talking about Hailey and wondering what had happened to her. The girl with a wide smile and light-brown bangs falling on her forehead, was taken from her home and disappeared into a speeding white van Monday morning, leaving behind her father's body, a crime scene and a town on edge.
On Tuesday, the RCMP arrested a suspect, a 22-year-old man from the town, in connection with the killing of Terry Blanchette and the abduction of his daughter. The suspect remains in custody.
The Calgary Sun reported, citing unnamed sources, that the man's name is Derek Saretsky and that he was in a relationship with Cheyenne Dunbar, Hailey's mother. The Calgary Herald said several police cruisers were seen parked throughout the day and evening in the alley behind a dry cleaner in Blairmore where Mr. Saretsky worked. The Herald quoted a neighbour saying that Mr. Saretsky had once dated Ms. Dunbar.
The RCMP say, however, no one has yet been charged and therefore they cannot identify a suspect.
For many in this picturesque town, nestled in Alberta's Crowsnest Pass, there was a deep sadness on Tuesday even before Hailey's body was found. In less than a week, there have been two killings.
Locals had said that front doors would be locked and porch lights left on for the second night in a row. Before Hailey's disappearance Monday, many doors had gone unlocked for decades.
"I'm just scared. I've lived here for 20 years and my neighbour is dead. I'm finding myself checking my backyard and locking my door. I've just never heard of something like this here," Donna Dauphinee said.
Her neighbour, Hannah Meketech, 69, was killed in nearby Coleman, Alta., last Wednesday. The RCMP have said that they believe there is no connection between the killings, but many have been shaken by the events.
Jeff Sangwin's girlfriend pushed the couple's freezer in front of their back door – the lock is broken and she was worried for the safety of their one-year-old.
"It's pretty extreme, but it's heart-wrenching to think about what happened," he said.
Throughout the day, RCMP officers with search dogs combed culverts and ditches beside local roads. Along with the arrest on Tuesday, officers found a white van that could match the description of the vehicle used to abduct Hailey. As of Tuesday night, police say they no longer need the public's assistance in locating the vehicle used in the crime.
"There's a discomfort in the community, that's sure," Jessica Sant said.
After the Amber Alert was announced Monday afternoon, news quickly spread. Before Tuesday evening's events, reminders of the Amber Alert flashed on digital billboards across Alberta.
"We have the parallel aspect of the father's homicide, as well. This is the toughest kind of thing for police officers to deal with, when you are dealing with a missing child in circumstances like this," Supt. Hamori said earlier Tuesday.
With a constellation of small towns along the Crowsnest Highway linking Alberta with B.C., this coal-mining area has dealt with tragedy in the past. At one end of the Crowsnest Pass, known locally only as The Pass, is a daily reminder of disaster. In 1903, the side of a mountain fell and buried the town of Frank, killing at least 70. The main highway now cuts through a field of boulders the size of homes, many have remained undisturbed for more than a century.
A short walk from the site of the so-called Frank Slide is the Pure Country Bar and Grill where Mr. Blanchette worked as a chef. The restaurant's owner, Tammy Tracey, said Mr. Blanchette would often bring Hailey in to visit.
When the staff heard on Monday that he had been killed, the owner and her employees closed the restaurant, then sat together and cried.
"We all stayed and had a few drinks," Ms. Tracey said. "There were a lot of tears … he was a good dad."
Court records indicated that Mr. Blanchette had a number of troubles with the law from 2010 to 2012, although he appears to have turned his life around when Hailey was born.
Mr. Blanchette's earliest conviction was for failing to appear in court in Lethbridge in 2010, for which he was fined $300. In February, 2012, he pleaded guilty and was fined $750 for failing to stop his vehicle and evading police. The following month, he stole beef jerky from a Dollarama store and assaulted a man. He pleaded guilty and was fined $500.
Ms. Tracey acknowledged that Mr. Blanchette had some problems when he was younger.
"Nothing serious, just the story of stuff that kids get into. When he had Hailey, he really became a good dad."
With reports from Allan Maki and The Canadian Press