Ashley Simpson: The Girl with the Pink Suitcase
Something hasn't been sitting well with me in recent days. I've been kept awake thinking about my cousin Ashley Simpson who disappeared without a trace at the end of April from her home in Silver Creek, near Salmon Arm, British Columbia.
Those of you who come to this space know that I have written every month about Ashley. Mostly, I write about the anguish felt by her parents, siblings and friends who have been torn apart since her disappearance. People have a tendency to move on, but for the people who love Ashley, time stands still.
The officers of the RCMP have told the family that they believe Ashley met with foul play. Back in the spring, they launched a major crimes investigation and have since scoured every inch of her community in hopes of finding some trace of Ashley.
They launched a massive ground and air search of the property where she was living with her boyfriend, Derek Favell.
Despite the efforts of law enforcement and search and rescue, she has not been found. In a heartbreaking note to her mother in October, RCMP reported that they still have no clues in the case.
But here's what's eating at my craw.
People don't just vanish. They eventually turn up one way or another. They surface, as bones in a field, or with incredible luck, with a phone call to loved ones saying "my bad".
And the cops, they really are good at their jobs. An RCMP report that tracked female homicides between 1980 and 2012, revealed that they solve nine out of 10 of those cases.
Part of the reason is that victims most often meet with misfortune at the hands of people they know. Except in extraordinary circumstances, it turns out, stranger danger is not really a thing. It's as rare as the mountain air of British Columbia.
In Ashley's case, the RCMP started with people she knew and focused on Ashley's boyfriend and her landlord Brent Cox. They also DNA-swabbed Ashley's family and her close friends.
They tore apart the trailer where Ashley and Derek lived, as well as Brent's place. They took away the phones from Brent and his kids, and didn't give them back for months. They sent in a forensic investigator to pour over the Internet records at Brent's house because Ashley had used the WiFi nearly everyday talking to her mum, her dad, and her friends on Facebook.
Faced with horrendous accusations, Brent even took a lie detector test that cleared him. Derek has yet to do so but no charges have been laid against him and so far there is no evidence that he committed any violent act against Ashley.
In spite of an extensive ground search, there was still no body. Not in the woods, not in the creek, not in an old truck that Ashley and Derek stashed up the mountain.
People who know Ashley are reeling because there is so little information to go on. Only one person saw her leave, after a fight with Derek. They told police at a road block that they had seen Ashley walking away from her property with a little hard pink suitcase trailing behind her.
Something else was happening in the little burg where Ashley and Derek set up house. Since Ashley's disappearance, four women have gone missing -- four -- including a lady who lived across the street. This in a community of less than 16,000 people.
Now that's something to chew on.
I've always been interested in missing person's cases -- especially murder investigations -- have been ever since the Steven Trustcott case captured my imagination in my youth. One thing I noticed: there is usually a lot of media surrounding the cases, especially when they involve women and children.
I come from St. Catharines, as did Ashley. It is the place made infamous by Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka, a place where monsters disguised as yuppies killed school girls, a place where there was a pattern of young girls going missing. The media was all over it.
St. Catharines is near Ancaster, where Tim Bosma went missing after taking some killers out to test drive his truck. The Bosma case ended tragically with his body discovered in his burned out truck a long way from Ancaster, after a massive manhunt. The killers were found quickly because people in the media and law enforcement were engaged.
Tim was a young father, a pillar of the community. His name was in the news every single day until he was found. The school girl killings in St. Catharines, and near parts, were also the only thing the media and the people of St. Catharines could talk about for weeks, years even.
That is not the case with my cousin Ashley. There have been a smattering of stories about her disappearance in the local media, as well as some in a couple of mainstream outlets such as Global, B.C. There have also been a few stories in the Ontario media fueled mainly by the family who are determined not to give up. And of course, I write about her every month, on the anniversary of her disappearance in hopes of keeping her story alive.
It's hard trying to keep Ashley's story in the forefront particularly because the people who love and care about her live in Ontario. We can't go visit Salmon Arm, can't talk to the locals at Timmy's, can't engage the RCMP.
I wish I could drop everything and go out there. But I can't. I'm not a person of means. And neither are her folks who are fighting hard to keep heart and soul together.
She's just another missing woman, like those four others.
Like I said, it's kept me up at night.
How can a girl just vanish, and nobody care?
How can four women from the same community go missing without a trace?
I contacted the local newspaper, the Salmon Arm Observer. The nice editor told me that the only information the paper got about Ashley was from her mom and dad back here in Ontario. From the RCMP, radio silence.
So I decided to use my creaky old reporter skills to track down one of the last people to see Ashley, her former landlord Brent Cox. I found him on Facebook.
I told Brent I would totally understand if he didn't want to talk to me. I knew that he had been vilified by some friends and relatives who laid the blame for Ashley's disappearance at his feet, and the feet of his long time friend Derek Favell.
To my surprise, Brent answered me, and was happy to take a call.
Brent had taken a lie detector test, and passed with flying colors. But the investigation has taken a toll on him.
Brent is a nice guy, a hockey dad, whose only crime was to help out Derek and Ashley after they landed on the Yankee Flats in Silver Creek a couple of months before Ashley disappeared. Brent has been down on his luck in recent times, having hurt himself during his stint as a work a day construction guy. He is now taking retraining in hopes of building a better life for himself and his three kids. Brent is a devoted dad, a loving single parent, who remembers Ashley as being "smart, and a great help" around his property and with his kids.
Things were not good between Ashley and Derek. They fought a lot, he said,, mostly about money. They had been having financial problems after the pair quit their jobs in Northern B.C. and moved to Silver Creek to be close to Derek's ex and their kids. Meantime, Ashley agonized over whether to stay and plant a garden, or return home and take a summer job up in the Muskokas.
The day Ashley disappeared, Brent said, the couple and a friend had gone to Silver Creek. They had a set-to. Derek went to bed. Ashley left on foot with her pink suit case and her cell phone. The cell phone didn't work for calling because she didn't have money for minutes, but she was able to use it to text her mom. She used that phone to text Derek that she was leaving, going home.
It was because of those texts, Brent says, that they didn't worry so much about Ashley. She'd left before and somebody eventually went to pick her up. But a few days passed, and Derek contacted her cousin in Port Alberto to ask if Ashley was there. She, in turn, contacted the family in Ontario and Ashley's mother contacted the police. The family also put a notice up on Facebook.
And that's where this story ends and the mystery begins.
Ashley is not the only victim in this story.
There are a lot of victims, and a lot of finger-pointing.
It's what people do when they are desperate for answers.
As for me, I'm still not sleeping. Ashley haunts me still.
Something tells me the answer might lie with the hard little pink suitcase.