The party was all set for Jennifer Catcheway's 18th birthday. Guests were invited, there was food for the barbecue. All that remained was for the guest of honour to arrive.
But Ms. Catcheway never arrived at her mother's home in Portage La Prairie, Man., that night, and for more than two weeks her family has tried desperately to find her, struggling at first to get police and the news media to take seriously their concerns about a missing aboriginal teenager.
The search gathered steam Saturday as an RCMP team, with the help of a helicopter, combed a section of woods near Gypsumville, Man., 270 kilometres north of Portage La Prairie in the rural Interlake region. The search came to a halt late Saturday evening having turned up nothing, the RCMP said.
On Friday the RCMP arrested two men in connection with the case and brought them in for questioning. They were released without charge, and have not been identified by police.
Ms. Catcheway's sister, Mary Starr, said the two men who were questioned are related to the Catcheways by marriage. They are the last known people to have seen Ms. Catcheway, although she doesn't know where or why they were together. "We've known them for many years, that's probably why my sister felt safe being there with them," Ms. Starr said.
Ms. Catcheway last spoke to her mother on the morning of Thursday, June 19, the teen's 18th birthday. She called to confirm that she would be on time for the party that night. It is unclear where she was when she made that phone call.
Her sister said it's rumoured that Ms. Catcheway was in Grand Rapids, as at least one witness has told the family, but her sister says Ms. Catcheway had no reason to be in Grand Rapids, more than five hours north of Portage La Prairie.
Ms. Catcheway's family, meanwhile, has continues to lead their own search on the Dakota Tipi First Nation, just outside Portage La Prairie, where Ms. Catcheway was also allegedly spotted by witnesses at a house party. They have searched the area for several days and have turned up nothing, her sister said Sunday.
"We're not going to stop until we locate my sister," Ms. Starr said. "My mother has no peace about it, neither do our siblings. This is the most horrific thing that could have happened to my family, not knowing what happened to her."
Ms. Starr said the family knew immediately something was wrong because it's not like her sister not to phone to explain her absence. Hope is beginning to fade that they will find Ms. Catcheway alive.
"The most important thing right now is to find her and bring her home and bring closure to my family. If she was alive, she would've called home. If she was okay, she would be here, and she's not so. … The reality is, with her being gone so long …" Ms. Starr sobbed, not completing the thought.
Ms. Catcheway lived with her boyfriend in Portage La Prairie and worked at the local A&W restaurant. The boyfriend has helped with the search, and Ms. Starr said he is devastated by her disappearance.
Ms. Starr said she last saw her sister three days before she disappeared. She was happy, excitedly looking forward to her birthday party, her sister said.
The days since that party have been filled with fear and frustration for the family.
Ms. Starr and her mother tried unsuccessfully to have the RCMP list Ms. Catcheway as a missing person three days after she disappeared, but were met with indifference, she said.
"They acted like it's her 18th birthday, so she's out drinking somewhere. They didn't help us right away, only once she had been missing for a week and a half," she said. "If she was a white girl, they would be on this."
RCMP spokeswoman Sergeant Line Karpish said the police are investigating all leads.
"Right now, she's a missing person and we are looking for her. But the time span that has gone on and the fact there's been no contact with the family or her friends is a definite area of concern from our end."