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Canada Six months later, ‘challenging’ Tina Fontaine investigation continues

Tina Fontaine's aunt Thelma Favel holds her picture at her home on the Sagkeeng First Nation, Pine Falls Manitoba, August 20, 2014.

Lyle Stafford/The Globe and Mail

Nearly six months after Tina Fontaine's high-profile killing shook Winnipeg and captured the nation's attention, the girl's family is desperate for answers in a case police describe as "challenging" and an "emotional roller coaster."

As the homicide investigation approaches the half-year mark, there have been no publicly announced arrests or charges, and the force is still pursuing fresh leads.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, the Winnipeg Police Service superintendent of investigative operations said officers remain confident they will solve the case, which put the service under a microscope and reignited calls for a federal inquiry into Canada's murdered and missing aboriginal women.

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"It's been very challenging for our members," said Superintendent Danny Smyth. "They're still following up on fresh leads. Certainly, at times it's a bit of a roller coaster – an emotional roller coaster – for our investigators."

He said it would be inappropriate to discuss the specifics of a continuing investigation, but he noted the Fontaine probe remains active. "In the vernacular, it's not a cold case," he said. "Certainly, there's lots of interviews that have been going on."

Since the girl's body was pulled from Winnipeg's Red River on Aug. 17, her loved ones have been struggling immensely, in part because the answers they crave have been elusive: Who killed Tina, why and how?

Tina would have celebrated her Sweet Sixteen on New Year's Day. Instead, the woman who raised her is grieving her death and grappling with suicidal thoughts, and her younger sister is struggling to endure life without her sibling, her best friend.

Thelma Favel, Tina's great aunt who cared for the girl in rural Manitoba, said she speaks regularly with police and victims' services but wants more detailed updates. "I know they're working hard, but I would like them to tell me a little bit, just something," said Ms. Favel, who voluntarily placed Tina in provincial care in July because the teen had started running away and needed professional help. "But they tell me they can't say anything because it's an ongoing investigation."

Ms. Favel also raised Tina's father, Eugene Fontaine, and was heartbroken when the man, who was already dying of cancer, was beaten to death in 2011. It was only recently, when his attackers were sentenced in December, that Ms. Favel found some measure of closure. She said she hopes to take a bit of comfort some day in knowing that whoever killed Tina is also being punished and "not free to do whatever they want."

She said she has been assured that the lead investigator on the case, Sergeant John O'Donovan, is working tirelessly and "just won't give up." Sgt. O'Donovan announced Tina's death in August, his frank comments gleaning headlines across the country. "Society would be horrified if we found a litter of kittens or pups in the river in this condition," he said at the time. "This is a child. Society should be horrified."

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Supt. Smyth said the disproportionate rate of violence against aboriginal females has been on the force's radar for years; native women are roughly four times more likely to be killed or go missing than non-aboriginal females. In 2009, the Winnipeg police and the RCMP created the Manitoba Integrated Task Force for Missing and Murdered Women, which was mandated to review unsolved homicides and missing-person files. The next phase of that initiative came in 2011 with the launch of Project Devote, which is currently reinvestigating 29 cases, Supt. Smyth said.

Ms. Favel said she hopes Tina's case is solved soon, saying she and her family "just want this to be over."

"I don't want to be 10 years down the road waiting to hear what happened to my baby," she said. "It's awful waiting."

Calling the circumstances around Tina's death "tragic," Supt. Smyth said the girl's case has resonated with the community. "She was very young, very vulnerable – a beautiful young woman," he said. "She was in the care of [Manitoba's] Child and Family Services. She wasn't from Winnipeg but found herself living here, and got caught up in that sort of chronic runaway cycle … It was really heart-wrenching."

For Ms. Favel, yet more heart-wrenching news came in September, when it was revealed that two Winnipeg police officers had contact with Tina on Aug. 8, but let her go, despite her being the subject of a missing-person report. That was the last day the teen was seen alive.

Police Chief Devon Clunis said in October an internal review into the two officers' conduct had concluded and that the file would soon be forwarded to the Crown for an opinion on charges. Supt. Smyth told The Globe the two officers remain on administrative leave.

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