This story is part of an ongoing Globe and Mail investigation into the hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada.
When Jennifer McPherson went missing in British Columbia, the RCMP released a bulletin seeking the public's help in finding the 41-year-old, who had been living on remote Hanson Island. It said she lost contact with her family on April 29, 2013, and had not been seen or heard from since. It also said she was Caucasian.
Only part of that was true.
In fact, Ms. McPherson was indigenous, her roots tracing back to Manitoba's Peguis First Nation. Her loved ones found themselves confronted with an emotional conundrum at an agonizing time: Should they correct the record?
"Honest to God, we were afraid to change it," the woman's sister, Kim McPherson, recently told The Globe and Mail. "We thought she'd end up being another person never found. We were really terrified. It goes back to the question about why [killers] pick [indigenous women]. It's because there's a lack of interest. There's less response."
After some deliberation, the family made the painful decision to hide Ms. McPherson's identity and let law enforcement and the public believe she was Caucasian. Kim McPherson said there was a strong police and community response, including among locals who took their own boats out on the water to search for clues.
It was a matter of days before the McPhersons would learn it was too late – the mother of two was already dead.
On the evening of May 6, her husband, Traigo Andretti, met with a detective and confessed to a pair of gruesome crimes. In police transcripts obtained by The Globe, he described the murders of both Ms. McPherson and Winnipeg's Myrna Letandre, a 37-year-old from Pinaymootang First Nation. Ms. Letandre disappeared in 2006, weeks after Mr. Andretti came into her life in an unusual way – one that speaks to the lengths to which serial predators will go to track down vulnerable people, said the prosecutor on the Manitoba case, which culminated in a guilty plea in August.
Mr. Andretti is Canada's latest known serial killer, his case underscoring The Globe's recent finding that indigenous women are roughly seven times more likely to be slain by serial killers than non-indigenous women. The investigation also found that at least 18 aboriginal women died at the hands of convicted serial killers since 1980. Eight men, most of them non-indigenous, were responsible for those deaths. In the cases of Mr. Andretti, Winnipeg's Shawn Lamb and Saskatoon's John Crawford, every one of their known victims – a total of eight – was indigenous.
Through their loss, the McPherson and Letandre families are connected. Both believe that Ms. McPherson's death could have been prevented. Both credit the B.C. RCMP with bringing Mr. Andretti to justice – not Manitoba's Project Devote, a joint RCMP and Winnipeg Police Service task force that was struck in 2012 and is investigating more than two dozen homicide and long-term missing-person cases, many of which involve indigenous women. Ms. Letandre's missing-person file had been one of them. Both families also believe that Ms. McPherson's death marked her final act of kindness, in that it brought some measure of closure to Ms. Letandre's loved ones after seven years of worrying and wondering.
Mr. Andretti, who was born Dylan Harold Grubb in Ontario in 1975, found Ms. Letandre in August of 2006 through her sister, Lorna Sinclair. Like hundreds of others in Winnipeg, Ms. Sinclair had signed up for a free voicemail service that allows people who do not have a phone, and are seeking work, to receive messages from prospective employers. Mr. Andretti exploited the service by dialling random extensions and, if a woman "sounded cute," he would leave a message, he told police. Ms. Sinclair introduced him to Ms. Letandre, who had leg braces and screws in her spine after a 1990 suicide attempt triggered by her jarring transition from Pinaymootang to the capital.
In explaining his use of the voicemail system to police, Mr. Andretti mentioned "Mama Wichita," a possible reference to Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata, an indigenous organization where people can sign up for the voicemail program. "He knew what he was doing by calling this specific line," executive director Diane Redsky said in a recent interview. "He knows the line is used by women in poverty.… Clearly, they're vulnerable people." Shocked at the revelation, she said she would direct staff at Ma Mawi locations to warn women that the system may be used for nefarious, and possibly criminal, purposes.
Based on publicly available information, Mr. Andretti does not appear to have ever explained to authorities why he murdered Ms. Letandre, with whom he told police he spent a "really special" few weeks. After strangling Ms. Letandre, he decapitated her and lit some of her remains on fire in a dumpster behind his home. He buried her head in his basement crawlspace.
Months later, in May of 2007, he married Ms. McPherson in that same home. He met her through a dating website using his birth name, Kim McPherson said. She said the relationship moved fast and that her sister, who had been working at a local indigenous organization, started isolating herself from her family. By 2008, the couple moved to B.C., where Jennifer McPherson, who had taken a computer application program after high school, found a job as a caretaker at a fishing lodge on Hanson Island.
It was there, around April 29, 2013, that Mr. Andretti killed his wife and then placed some of her body parts in lobster traps. When Ms. McPherson's two adult daughters arrived in the area on May 1, 2013, for a planned visit with their mother, they did not buy Mr. Andretti's explanation that she had gone to Las Vegas. They refused to travel to the island with him and, in fact, one of the daughters said plainly to him, "You killed my mother, didn't you?" Kim McPherson recounted.
She expressed frustration that the Winnipeg police do not appear to have paid a visit to Mr. Andretti after Ms. Sinclair flagged the man for questioning in her sister's disappearance. (Mr. Andretti told the court that police phoned him.) She is also frustrated that it seems the fire department did not search the dumpster after putting out the fire on Sept. 12, 2006. Neither the Winnipeg police nor the city's Fire Paramedic Service responded to requests for comment made more than a week ago.
Kim McPherson said she was horrified to learn that Mr. Andretti had taken the life of another woman prior to killing her sister. She believes serial killers like Mr. Andretti prey on indigenous women because they have confidence they will get away with it. "The thought is," she said, "that nobody is going to miss them."
Do you have information that could assist in our investigation into serial killing as it relates to the broader issue of Canada's missing and murdered women? If so, please e-mail The Globe's MMIW team at MMIW@globeandmail.com.