The map is crudely drawn, its landmarks and arrows scribbled with black pen on white paper. It doesn't look like much, but Saskatchewan police are investigating the possibility that it could lead them to Tamra Keepness – an aboriginal girl whose disappearance has eluded investigators for more than a decade.
The map, purportedly based on information indirectly obtained through someone in an Alberta prison, was posted Sunday to the popular website Reddit by a user identified as MySecretIsOut. The image was uploaded under the ominous headline "Location of Tamra Keepness, check the wells."
It's a bizarre twist in a case that has gripped the community since the five-year-old went missing from her Regina home in July of 2004, prompting the largest search effort in the city's history. But it also highlights the challenges police face in cracking missing-person files in a country has more than 1,180 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls.
In cases like Tamra's, police must wade through hundreds of tips. Not immediately knowing which are credible, resource-strapped forces must do their best to prioritize the leads. They must also decide whether to issue a reward – a tool used by Canadian forces in select cases, with varying results. The Regina Board of Police Commissioners approved a $25,000 reward one week after Tamra disappeared, then renewed it annually until earlier this year, when it was doubled.
The Reddit map – the latest of the more than 1,600 tips investigated so far – appears to point to Muscowpetung reserve, which was the site of police searches years ago. It's under the jurisdiction of the RCMP, so on Monday, Mounties set out with band councillors to try to ascertain the validity of the drawing, which includes three circles described as "old wells."
Tamra's great aunt, Dennette Keepness, said she's glad police are looking into the map but she isn't holding her breath for a break in the case. "It's probably another false hope," she said.
It might be.
But Staff Sergeant Robert Chrismas, a Winnipeg officer who sits on the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police committee on aboriginal policing, said investigators on major cases know to expect lots of tips and to have to sift through them. One way to prioritize the potential leads, he said, is to look at the ones that contain what police call hold-back information – specific details about a case known only to a select few. If a tip contains hold-back information, it's quite possible the tipster is legitimate.
Staff Sgt. Chrismas, who headed the Winnipeg Police Service's missing-persons unit until 2010, called rewards a "necessary evil," saying it's a sad reality that some people come forward only if money is on the table. He also said rewards can potentially create problems, including by spurring individuals to commit crimes so they can then try to claim a reward for providing relevant information.
Whether a reward is offered can shed light on the status of the investigation, said University of Ottawa criminology professor Ron Melchers. Prof. Melchers, who has advised police services, said police offer a financial incentive only if they already have leads, because without any leads it would be tremendously difficult to assess the reliability of incoming information.
He added that the fact that a reward was approved annually in Tamra's case suggests the investigation has remained active. "There's still a reasonable expectation on the part of investigators that there is information out there … and that one day it might come in," he said.
MySecretIsOut said the map was found over the weekend among a deceased family member's belongings. "Several years ago every time something new came out about the case my late grandmother used to say, 'They're searching in the wrong place, they need to check the old wells,'" the Reddit user explained. MySecretIsOut said the family questioned the grandmother but "all she ever said was her sister in Alberta had given her a map that she (the sister) got based on visits to someone in prison out that way."
The Reddit user, who said he or she had nothing to do with the case but has been following it for years, expressed hope that "something good comes out of [the posting] and at the very least gets some more people searching and talking about [Tamra] again."