In Memory of
Cst. Sara Beckett
Since Jan. 6, 2006
Phoenix, AZ. USA
Doors of Hope
Community Web Highway of Tears
Community Web Highway of Tears
Highway of Tears
"So much hope, we don’t want to grieve."
The ambiguous loss of missing persons
This story is the first of a three part investigative series.
There is an endless fog that envelops Pink Mountain in northern British Columbia.
At night it blankets the Alaska Highway in a dense pea-soup haze even the sharpest eye can’t see through. You get used to it, say the truckers who ply the highway regardless of the weather. You just learn to navigate without relying entirely on your vision.
The midday sun tries to burn away the fog, but it clings to the mountain tree-tops like a stubborn will-o’-the wisp, waiting for a chance to fall again upon the mountainside.
Life on the mountain is hard. Isolated. It is the domain of long-haul truckers, roughnecks and frackers. Luxuries and entertainments are nowhere to be found. Only the hearty of spirit and the hard of mind can last more than a few months that far from civilization.
It was in this secluded slice of Canadiana that Ashley Simpson, a gregarious 32-year-old from St. Catharines, last found employment, working in the kitchens and co-ordinating reservations at two workers’ lodges along the highway.
It was at the Sasquatch Crossing Lodge and the Buffalo Inn — tiny oases of human activity in a part of the nation nearly devoid of it — when she last seemed happy, working alongside her father, cousin and adopted mountain family.
It was where she also began a tumultuous and sometimes violent relationship with another Pink Mountain denizen.
Weeks after she left the mountain with her boyfriend, Simpson vanished. What exactly happened to her is as clear as the Pink Mountain mists.
“When she went missing it hit us all very hard. We’re like family here,” said Tammy Chrzasz, manager of both lodges.
“She didn’t get along with everyone. Who does? But that doesn’t make it any easier. I have a sister I don’t really get along with, but it would absolutely kill me if anything ever happened to her.
“We all took it hard. We all did a lot of praying.”
Simpson was last seen on April 27, 2016 in Salmon Arm, where she lived in a squalid camper with her boyfriend, Derek Favell.
Salmon Arm is a mountain community far to the south of Sasquatch Crossing Lodge, but is just as remote in its own way. It is not far from Highway 97, a road that intersects the infamous Highway of Tears, the focus of the RCMP’s investigation into murdered and missing aboriginal women.
The couple went on a short road trip to a local waterfall with their friend Michael Sarrizan. Fueled by alcohol, Simpson and Favell fought most of the trip. A petty argument morphed into a physical altercation. Sarrizan says Simpson poured cans of Palm Bay vodka, her drink of choice, over Favell’s head. He retaliated by spitting in her face.
Favell did not respond to interview requests for this story.
In text messages he sent to Simpson’s cousin on April 29, Favell claimed Simpson left their trailer after an hours-long argument. She packed a pink suitcase and headed out onto Yankee Flats Road — the serpentine rural road framed by dense walls of mountain pine and shrub where the couple kept their camper.
“She sent me some nasty texts before 8 (a.m.) then left I guess,” Favell wrote in a text to Bobbie-Lynn McGean, Simpson’s cousin in St. Catharines. “We went to the falls and fought the whole way back so I went and passed out then woke up at … 10 am.”
The RCMP major crimes unit of southeastern British Columbia, which declined to discuss the case, is investigating Simpson’s disappearance. Several searches of the forests in Salmon Arm by police and local search-and-rescue teams found no trace of Simpson.
Members of her family, including her father John Simpson of Niagara-on-the-Lake and McGean, descended upon Salmon Arm in force to conduct their own hunt. They left empty handed.
“When I first went there, I honestly did it to bring Ashley home. That was what I thought I was going to do. I didn’t really realize I was walking into a missing persons incident,” McGean says. “That really hit me later.”
Hope that she would be found fell to fear. Fear fell to panic, which has given way to a grim resignation.
“I would give anything to see her walk through my front door alive and well,” John Simpson says.
“I just want to bring her home. And if that means bringing her home in a box, at least she’d be home. Sometimes I look at the door and just expect her to walk through it like everything is OK, or she’ll call and say she is alright. But she doesn’t.”
The Simpson family is not alone in its unresolved grief. More than 26,000 Canadian adults were classified as missing in 2015, according to data collected by the RCMP National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains. Some 57 per cent of those missing are men.
With nearly 10,000 cases, British Columbia, the focal point of the missing and murdered aboriginal women on and near the Highway of Tears, has the most reported missing persons incidents in Canada.
By comparison Ontario, Canada’s most populous province, has 6,513 missing persons cases listed.
The data does not specify how many cases were resolved in 2015. However, the RCMP estimates 62 per cent of people on the missing persons lists are removed within 24 hours of being reported and 90 per cent are removed within a week.
In 2015, 2,157 people are classified as having “wandered off” — usually the result of mental health issues like dementia. Another 5,657 adults are classified as “runaways,” usually people who left their home of their own accord.
The largest classification of missing people are listed as having disappeared for “unknown” reasons. Police have been unable to ascertain why 15, 294 Canadian adults — 6,603 women and 8,691 men — vanished in 2015.
However, RCMP Cpl. Julie Morel of the national centre for missing persons says the missing persons data isn’t definitive, in part because the national database is relatively new. The unit was formed in 2010 and only began to publish national data on missing persons in 2013.
“It really is the first time that we have a system and the tools in place to have everyone in law enforcement from coast to coast co-ordinate on missing persons,” Morel says.
The information is compiled by an algorithm that searches the Canadian Police Information Centre, better known as CPIC, a national database used by all Canadian police services.
Any time an officer anywhere in Canada enters a missing persons case into CPIC, the algorithm adds the name to the list.
The centre has published missing persons statistics for the past three years, but used a different algorithm for 2015, making comparisons to past years problematic. Morel said the RCMP is also working to refine the algorithm to filter repeat information, because the same case can get entered into CPIC multiple times by multiple officers from several services. The data might may also currently include cases that have been reclassified from missing persons to, for example, a homicide.
For those advocating for the families of missing adults, the fuzzy nature of some of the data is frustrating if understandable.
“We don’t really know, which is part of the problem. We don’t know how many Canadians are actually missing in a given year, because honestly there hasn’t been a lot of study done when it comes to missing adults,” says Lusia Dion, operator of Ontario Missing Adults, an advocacy group for missing persons and their families. “You also have to realize that for every missing person, there is someone who is missing them. Family who want to know what happened to their loved one. Once you factor that in, the numbers, the impact, grows considerably.”
The ripples of Simpson’s life touched many. Her parents, John and Cindy. Her sisters Amanda Langlois, Amy Simpson and Tara Simpson. Cousins. Friends. Co-workers in two provinces. All of them want to know where Simpson is.
“The thing to remember is that everyone matters,” says Rose Simpson, Ashley Simpson’s cousin who writes a monthly blog about her case. “As someone with kids Ashley’s age, and being this close to it, it really hits home. Ashley matters. All these missing women matter.”
For years, Simpson was at her father’s hip as he travelled. He is a cook by trade, usually feeding sailors on lake-going ships or labourers at work camps across the country. So when John Simpson was hired to work as a cook at the Pink Mountain lodge, he brought his daughter with him. Working in the isolated camp nestled on the Alaska Highway between Fort St. John and Fort Nelson might be exactly what his daughter needed, he thought.
Ashley’s free spirit had a dark side. She often drank too much and used drugs, her father says. She lived through several abusive relationships, even getting herself arrested for hitting one boyfriend with a frying pan during a fight. John thought bringing her to northern B.C. would be the clean break she needed. A chance for a fresh start.
Instead, that decision was the first inadvertent domino to fall in a sequence of events that led to Simpson disappearing in a B.C. forest town.
It’s a choice that haunts John Simpson’s sleepless nights.
“I sometimes think it’s my fault,” he says. “Maybe if I had not brought her with me, what happened wouldn’t have happened and my girl would be here.”
The text message was incomprehensible.
It was a simple, single sentence. Ten words. But they made little sense to Bobbie-Lynn McGean.
“Hey bobby has ash got a hold of you yet.”
The April 29, 2016 text came from Derek Favell, the boyfriend of McGean’s cousin Ashley Simpson. The two women grew up together in St. Catharines. They were thick as thieves.
McGean and Simpson were last together three months prior to Favell’s text. They worked together at the isolated workers’ lodges along the Alaska Highway on Pink Mountain, in northern British Columbia.
Simpson was being trained to take on more responsibility at the lodges, but against the advice of her friends and family she decided to quit and drive 16 hours south with Favell to Salmon Arm.
The women stayed in close contact. Simpson was attached to her smartphone. She posted a steady stream of material to Facebook and often talked to McGean through FaceTime.
“When she’d FaceTime, Derek was usually there,” McGean says. “He and I didn’t really talk. It would be polite. You know, it would be ‘Hi Derek. Hi Bobbie-Lynn.’ But often he was there but she wouldn’t put him on the phone at all … I think because she knew we didn’t approve.”
The digital staples of Simpson’s life — the photos, messages, the video chats — came to a sudden halt on April 27. But McGean didn’t know that. Not at first.
She didn’t know the last time she heard from her cousin would be the last time.
Not until Favell’s text two days later.
“What do u mean,” McGean wrote. “Where is she?”
It didn’t make sense. The two were always together.
“What’s up,” she wrote when she got no reply from Favell.
“idk we had a fight on when’s [sic] day and then she f---ed off Thursday morn she won’t answer my texts,” the next message from Favell read. “So I figured you would have talked to her.”
McGean hadn’t heard from Simpson. A stream of panicked messages from Favell followed.
They’d fought over money two days before. Ashley must have left while he was passed out. He didn’t know if she had any money. She had not sent a message since.
“I kinda figured she was just trying to make a point but it’s gone to [sic] far now I’m scared,” he wrote. “I’m sitting here f---ing dyeing [sic] with fright my f---ing kids are worried my whole family is worried.”
Within days, McGean and other members of Simpson’s family were on their way to Salmon Arm to find her.
They never did.
Before she vanished, family and friends in Ontario had pleaded with Simpson to come home. Her mother says she talked about coming home for her sister’s baby shower and staying. But she refused all offers to help her pay for a trip east. She wanted Favell to pay back money she loaned him when they moved from Pink Mountain. Then and only then would she return to Ontario.
“Three days before she went missing, I told her I would buy her a plane ticket but she didn’t like accepting help,” says her mother, Cindy Simpson. “That was money that she was owed, and she said Derek was getting his pogey cheque in a few days, and she should get a ticket then.”
That was typical of Simpson’s stubbornness, her mother says, and it was expressed in every facet of her life.
“She wanted to do things her way, even if it was not the way I wanted them done. She’d always come around, but more than once I had to have a pretty stern talk with her,” says Mel Magaton, owner of the Sasquatch Crossing Lodge and Buffalo Inn on Pink Mountain where Simpson worked.
She inherited her father’s love of the outdoors and his restless nature. An office job was never in the cards for Simpson. She needed grass and soil underfoot, and an open sky above her.
“That’s just who we are,” John Simpson says. “We love being outside, exploring. Seeing what is out there. Seeing the trees and the animals and nature. We’re not city people.”
Family was the counterbalance to Simpson’s wanderlust. No matter how far she travelled, home always drew her back like gravity.
“She could never be gone for very long,” her mother says. “Even while she is away, she stays in touch.”
She was also driven by a desire for a family of her own, something nature would not permit. Simpson had ovarian mesothelioma, says her sister Amanda Langlois, and could not have children as a result. But she was drawn to men who did.
“Kids were her favorite thing. She loved kids and they loved her,” says her sister Amy Simpson.
To entertain children at family events, Simpson dressed up as a clown called “Mrs. Sweets.” She built her own puppet theatre and taught herself to create balloon animals.
“She was really good at it, and she loved doing it,” her father says. “I told her she could make something of that. Make it a business. But she never pursued that.”
Alcohol and drugs were also part of Simpson’s lifestyle, as was a string of dysfunctional, sometimes abusive relationships.
“She thought she could fix these guys somehow,” Cindy Simpson says.
John Simpson wanted a better life for his daughter. That’s why he brought her north to Pink Mountain. Far from her life in Niagara, working alongside her father and cousin McGean, Simpson could reboot her life.
For two of the three years she went north, the plan worked.
There is little to do at the Alaska Highway lodges except work. The nearest city, Fort St. John, is a two-hour drive away if the weather is clear.
“It’s hard work and there isn’t much else to do, but the money is good,” says John Simpson. “Ashley could earn more working at camp in a few months than she would working all year part-time in Niagara.”
Magaton says Simpson’s natural charm made her a hit with customers. She did so well in the kitchen at the Sasquatch Crossing, she wanted to promote her this year.
McGean was assigned to train Simpson to work the front desk of the somewhat more upscale Buffalo Inn, a few kilometres down the highway.
“Things changed when she started seeing Derek,” says McGean.
Favell worked at K&L Oilfield Holdings, directly across the Alaska Highway from the Buffalo Inn. The company provides water for oil drilling sites in the area. Its small wood-cabin style storefront also acts as the local grocer and liquor store.
K&L’s co-owner Lory Ollenberter says Favell was a good employee who worked for her for about four months, but refused to say anything else about him.
Tammy Chrzasz, manager of both the Sasquatch Crossing and Buffalo Inn, says Favell was not a welcome sight at either camp.
“I threw him out a few times because he had too much to drink and was causing problems,” she says.
McGean says Simpson drank more after she started dating Favell. It was not uncommon, she says, for the couple to start fighting while Simpson was working, shouting at each other over customers trying to eat.
“I kicked him out of there a few times too,” McGean says.
In February, just after she was trained to work the Buffalo Inn front desk, Simpson quit to move with Favell to Salmon Arm where he had family, including his children.
“I will admit, at the time I was very annoyed,” says Magaton. “You invest time and energy in someone and then they just decide to leave? My attitude at the time was, ‘OK, fine. Your choice.’
“Looking back at everything that has happened, I still wonder if I had pushed it, if I had really talked to her about how this wasn’t a good move for her, maybe she would have stayed and maybe she wouldn’t be missing.”
Simpson told her father and cousin she and Favell were going to “live off the land” in Salmon Arm and pan for gold. Neither of them could dissuade her from leaving.
“She liked the country and the outdoors, but didn’t really like the job. She would go out with Derek and set his traplines. She learned how to skin (animals),” John Simpson said.
“So I understood the attraction for her of going to Salmon Arm. It had the mountains. She could explore and pan for gold and gems.”
Favell did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.
The couple hauled his white and red Dutchman Classic camper from Pink Mountain to Salmon Arm, parking it on the Yankee Flats Road site owned by Favell’s friend, Brent Cox, who lived there in a ramshackle house with his children.
The property is dotted by used tires, a broken down car, kids’ toys and garbage. The cracked wood of the front door has a hole through it slightly smaller than a peep hole. The camper was propped up on blocks under some pine trees beside the house.
Cox says neither Favell nor Simpson found work in Salmon Arm.
Simpson was great with Favell’s children, Cox says. She built obstacle courses on the front lawn for Favell’s and Cox’s children to play in.
He says the couple argued, “but not any more than any other couple.”
Cox’s neighbours, Jamie and Doug Felhauer, however, say it wasn’t unusual for late night arguments to become heated and loud. One night in particular, a few weeks before Simpson went missing, Favell’s screaming woke them.
“It must have been around one in the morning, and I could hear him yelling at her,” Doug Felhauer says. “I could hear him yelling, ‘You broke my f’n TV! You broke my f’n TV!’”
McGean and other family members say Simpson sent them pictures of bruises on her arms. According to Simpson family members and Favell’s long-time friend Michael Sarrizan, Favell had injuries of his own.
“She told us she had put out cigarettes on his arms,” says Simpson’s father, John. “It was not a healthy relationship.”
By early April 2016, Simpson frequently talked about returning to Ontario, but wouldn’t do so without the money she said Favell owed her.
Sarrizan says one evening he got a phone call from Cox. Favell and Simpson had argued and Simpson left.
“He said she stormed off down Yankee Flats Road and could I go and pick her up,” Sarrizan says.
“I found her walking down the road, drinking a can of Palm Bay (vodka cooler). She said she was going to hitchhike back to Ontario.”
Sarrizan says he convinced Simpson to stay at his home for the night in Salmon Arm, and he brought her back to Yankee Flats Road in the morning.
“I dropped her off and everything was fine with them,” he says.
But he says tensions between Favell and Simpson exploded again on April 27 when the couple went with Sarrizan to Margaret Falls — a hiking trail through a dense forest to a waterfall north of Salmon Arm across Shuswap Lake.
The trip started well enough, Sarrizan says. Cox was gone for the day with his children, so Sarrizan picked the couple up.
When they got to the falls, Simpson and Favell, who had both been drinking and smoking pot according to Sarrizan, began to argue.
On the drive back to Salmon Arm, it intensified. Simpson poured cans of Palm Bay over Favell, who in turn spat in her face.
“At one point I told them if they didn’t knock it off, I was going to pull over and they could get out and walk the rest of the way,” Sarrizan says.
“They are both my friends, but it was out of control and now I had vodka all over my truck seats.”
By the time they reached Yankee Flats Road, the argument had simmered. Sarrizan says Cox wasn’t home, and Simpson invited him to stay for dinner. But the argument flared back up, Having seen enough, Sarrizan says he left.
Two days later, Favell sent a text to McGean, asking if she had heard from Simpson.
“She f---ing left me cause I told her to get the f--k out and now I f---ing hate myself for that,” Favell wrote in a text.
McGean hadn’t heard from Simpson.
No one has.