In an unprecedented move, the Ontario Provincial Police will send 7,500 people text messages on Thursday asking them for information about an unsolved 2015 homicide.
The message will be sent to people who were in a west Ottawa neighbourhood between 12:30 and 3:30 p.m. on Dec. 16, 2015 – the time and location 65-year-old Frederick John Hatch is thought to have gone missing before being found dead 450 kilometres away near Erin, Ont. The phone numbers were obtained from cellphone companies through a court order.
Thursday marks the first time the OPP will use this technique to identify potential witnesses for an ongoing homicide investigation. The police force is calling it an evolution of the traditional door-to-door neighbourhood canvass.
"We are asking any member of the public who receives our text message tomorrow to please take the time, only a few minutes, to respond and answer some simple questions," OPP Detective Superintendent Dave Truax said.
"[It's] a necessary next investigative step to identify the victim's mode of travel or interactions with other persons, to where he was murdered, which we hope will solve a mystery."
Police want the public to know that the text message is not a hoax or spam. Recipients will receive a text message from the OPP asking them to open a link leading them to a website with photos of Mr. Hatch and details about the case. Recipients will be asked to confirm the phone number they were contacted on, if they were the holder of the phone on Dec. 16, 2015, and if they saw Mr. Hatch on that date. If a recipient indicates seeing Mr. Hatch, an investigator will follow up immediately.
"We recognize that Mr. Hatch's killer or killers could be among the recipients of our text messages. We could in fact be texting the killer," Det. Supt. Truax said.
The OPP said it does not have any of the personal information associated with the phone numbers. Det. Supt. Truax said that if investigators call a number provided to collect more information, they have no idea who is on the other end. He said personal information has to be voluntarily provided by the recipient.
Det. Supt. Truax said the OPP will keep the numbers on file until the investigation is closed – a move that has privacy experts concerned.
"We all hope that the investigation is resolved quickly, but it could definitely become a cold case and were that to be the case, then we don't know how long they'll hold on to the data. Perhaps indefinitely," said Christopher Parsons, a researcher at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab.
Speaking to reporters on Parliament Hill on Wednesday, Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale urged the OPP to ensure that it follows the law in its use of the phone numbers.
"They will need to be sure that they are explicitly following the law and the Charter [of Rights and Freedoms] and all of the provisions about court supervision that apply in order to make sure that they are pursuing this matter appropriately and with all the proper safeguards in place," Mr. Goodale said.
Kurt Eby, a spokesman for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, said the OPP's use of text messaging to track down Mr. Hatch demonstrates how technology can be used to reach a specific group of people. He said there is a need for wider use of this technology across Canada.
Unlike in the United States, there is no countrywide cellphone alert system in Canada to tell citizens about nearby suspected terrorists, severe weather or missing children. According to Mr. Eby, the federal government and telecommunications companies are currently considering what kind of system to use. He estimates that Canada is still about two years out from adopting its own system.
"I can think everyone can see that we've got [television] broadcast alerts, but obviously cellphones are more personal, they're on you all the time, so it's going to be more effective," Mr. Eby said.
Mr. Hatch's case has left police scratching their heads for the past 10 months. He was last seen alive on Dec. 16, 2015, inside a Dollar Tree discount store near West Hunt Club Road and Merivale Road in Ottawa. A day later, his body was discovered near Erin. The OPP said Mr. Hatch had no fixed address and was known to hitchhike.
The OPP have used a number of traditional investigative techniques in its attempt to find Mr. Hatch's killer. In the summer, it dispatched a van as a billboard advertising a $50,000 reward for information about his death; the van drove along the route that police believe Mr. Hatch took to Erin, but failed to bring in any tips.
The OPP are not giving up. "Our members are committed to finding Mr. Hatch's killer," Det. Supt. Truax said.
Anyone with information about Mr. Hatch's killing is asked to call the OPP at 1-888-310-1122, their nearest police authority or anonymously via Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).