Feature

Little Girl Lost

Twelve years ago, Tamra Keepness disappeared from her Regina home. What happened that night?

Few children in Canada just vanish. Fewer still stay gone for longer than a couple of days. Some are found alive, others are hurt or killed, but rarely does a child simply disappear. The RCMP’s National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains database lists 147 missing children, in a country of more than 35 million people. Of the sixty children under the age of twelve, a quarter are thought to have been abducted by their parents. A large portion of the others were lost to apparent accidents or misadventure, falling through ice or swept away in the pull of wild rivers, their bodies never recovered. The database shows twenty-four children in the past sixty years who have inexplicably disappeared. Because there are so few, we know them. In Edmonton, there is Tania Murrell, six when she vanished while walking home from school for lunch in January 1983. In Toronto, Nicole Morin, eight when she disappeared from a condominium building in July 1985. Michael Dunahee was four years old when he went missing from a playground in Victoria in 1991. In Regina, there is only Tamra Keepness.

The last time anyone saw Tamra, she was five years old, with bobbed black hair and soft, round cheeks. In one picture, she wears a T-shirt dotted with flowers, standing against the colourful collage of a classroom wall. Her smile is broad and open, her eyes lively. She was so smart that her mother called her “my little Einstein,” so feisty that when a little boy pushed her once, Tamra shoved him right back, and harder. She liked playing Mario Kart on Nintendo and climbing her favourite tree, down the block from her house.

July 6, 2004, was the first time Sergeant Ron Weir would hear Tamra’s name. He was getting ready to leave on vacation that day when he got an urgent call back to the police station. Weir was a veteran cop with the Regina Police Service and head of emergency services, which included search and rescue. In a meeting, officers from the major crimes unit laid out what they knew: sometime between the night of Monday, July 5, and the morning of Tuesday, July 6, a five-year-old girl had gone missing from her home in central Regina.

Weir had been a police officer for twenty years. He knew that kids often went missing and turned up safe a short time later. Sixty-five percent of missing children and teens are located within the first day, and almost 90 percent within the first week. But Weir also knew that Tamra was too young to get far as a runaway. Patrol officers had already checked the neighbourhood to make sure Tamra hadn’t wandered away or ended up at the house of a playmate or relative, as was often the case with missing children. They’d found nothing. Even in the early hours of the investigation, Weir suspected this case would be different.

Tamra lived with her mother, stepfather, and five siblings at 1834 Ottawa Street, a shabby brown-and-white two-storey with a windowed porch at the front. The house stood between 11th and 12th avenues, just east of downtown Regina. The neighbourhood was a mix of long-time elderly residents, young families drawn by low prices for heritage houses, and ramshackle homes where residents struggled with poverty and addiction. The area was sometimes known as the “low stroll,” a place where women and girls sold their bodies for drugs or booze and men drove around looking to buy them, circling the neighbourhood in trucks and station wagons. Many of the women and girls who lived or worked in the area were First Nations, like Tamra. Long before calls for a federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women would dominate the political conversation, women were going missing from those streets. It was from that same area that nineteen-year-old Annette Kelly Peigan disappeared in 1983, followed by eighteen-year-old Patsy Favel in 1984 and Joyce Tillotson in 1993. Two years later, two young white men picked up a woman named Pamela George, sexually assaulted her, and beat her to death.

Tamra’s house was less than a block from the Oskana Centre, a halfway house for federal parolees, and not far from the Salvation Army’s Waterston House, a residence and shelter inhabited by former inmates and men struggling with drugs, alcohol, and psychiatric issues. Residents of both facilities had been responsible for serious attacks in the past. Just four months earlier, convicted violent sex offender Randy Burgmann had lured a woman into his room at Waterston House with alcohol, before violently sexually assaulting her and leaving her beside a dumpster to die. The Oskana Centre had previously been home to both serial rapist Larry Deckert and Billy John Francis Whitedeer, who began committing violent sexual offences on children when he was ten years old. A few blocks farther was the Ehrle Hotel, one of the worst bars in town, from which patrons spilled soggy and staggering onto the sidewalk, and which appeared regularly in police reports and court testimony.

Police also had serious questions about what was happening at 1834 Ottawa Street. There was a broken window and blood spatter in the porch. Social Services had been involved with the family since not long after the oldest child was born in 1993, and there had been more than fifty reports made to crisis workers, most often about Tamra’s mother’s use of alcohol and drugs, and neglect of the children. Her mother’s boyfriend had a history of violence and domestic assault. In most cases, investigators knew, children are hurt by people closest to them.

Police started with a thorough search of the area immediately around the home, then cast their efforts outward in an expanding grid. As the sun rose on the morning of July 7, 2004, the search effort intensified. First, there were ten officers, then twenty, then more. Some officers accompanied trained volunteer search teams; others questioned family members and potential witnesses, going door-to-door gathering leads or chasing down tips. The RCMP training academy provided cadets, and members of the public soon began arriving on their own to help.

Police set up a command-centre bus in the parking lot of a nearby church, from which Weir co-ordinated the search. Though it was an urban environment, the terrain posed serious challenges. The area was filled with overgrown yards, empty houses, piles of garbage. Tamra weighed forty pounds, and stood three foot five. There were so many places a child could hide or get trapped or be held, where a child’s body could be concealed or dumped. Searchers in orange vests worked in grids, knocking on doors, inspecting junked cars and crumbling garages, peering under discarded mattresses and piles of wood, looking down manholes. Police stopped garbage pickups, checking all the bins in the neighbourhood, the trash putrid and reeking in the summer heat. Some bins had already been emptied, so plans were made to search the dump as well.

And what if she had been taken farther? Not far away were industrial areas, large abandoned lots and buildings, Wascana Creek, and beyond that, the vast Prairie. With a thirteen-hour head start, someone in a vehicle could have had Tamra in Vancouver before she was reported missing.

When they were not speaking to police, members of Tamra’s family waited anxiously on the fringes, watching the searchers, eyeing the growing assembly of reporters and news crews holding out microphones and pointing camera lenses. “It’s not like her to go off by herself,” said Tamra’s father, Troy Keepness, sitting on the front steps of his ex-wife’s house, his voice tight with worry. “We’re trying to do our best to get her back.”

Weir worked in the command-centre bus, surrounded by maps and whiteboards. A scribe logged every aspect of the search in real time, recording ideas and progress. No one wanted to break, not for food or rest. Everyone knew the situation grew more serious with every passing hour. As the heat of the day gave way to evening, Weir stood outside and looked up. A strong wind had come in, and storm clouds were spreading, darkening the Prairie sky.

The next day, police strung crime-scene tape around Tamra’s house and the one next door, drawing it through the back alley and across six garages, long slashes of yellow dividing the street. Officers guarded the perimeter while forensic investigators went in and out of the house in boots and masks. “While we don’t have any direct evidence that Tamra has come to any harm, we also don’t know where she is,” police spokeswoman Elizabeth Popowich told reporters. “And if, in fact, this comes to a point where we determine that she’s come to some harm and it’s because of a criminal act, this location could potentially be the scene of some evidence.”

Illustration by Ben Clarkson

There were three adults in the house that evening: the children’s mother, Lorena Keepness; her boyfriend, Dean McArthur; and a family friend named Russell Sheepskin, who had been staying with the family. All three had come and gone during the night, and investigators were starting to question their movements. There were no signs of forced entry to the house, and there were gaps, inconsistencies in their timelines that didn’t make sense to investigators.

The story the three told publicly, compiled from various interviews, was that Lorena and McArthur got into an argument while watching a movie on Monday evening, and McArthur and Sheepskin left the house around 8:30 p.m. to go drinking. The men returned briefly to drop off a bottle of formula for the baby, then left again. Lorena went out around 11 p.m, kissing Tamra goodbye before she went. The oldest child in the house was ten-year-old Summer, the youngest was Lorena and McArthur’s nine-month-old baby. Lorena returned briefly to check on the children and then left again around midnight. At about 3 a.m., Sheepskin returned home drunk and saw Tamra sleeping on the couch. Not long after, McArthur got back to the house and assaulted Sheepskin on the porch, punching him through a window and then stomping on his head. (Both men later said the fight had nothing to do with Tamra.) Sheepskin walked alone to the hospital to get stitches, and McArthur went to stay at his aunt’s house a few blocks away. Though it should have been a short walk, he said he got lost and kept passing out as he walked there. He didn’t arrive for at least two hours, until 5 or 5:30 a.m.

Meanwhile, Lorena got home around 3:15 or 3:30 a.m., climbed in through a window, and passed out on the couch. She said that she got up to undo the latch on the door for her mother around 8 or 9 a.m. and that the two eldest children, Summer and Rayne, left on their own in the morning to attend a summer day-camp. Lorena didn’t realize Tamra wasn’t there until about three hours later, when the five-year-old didn’t come downstairs. At 12:16 p.m., a family member called the police and told them Tamra was missing.

Rayne, who was eight, said he had gone to bed squeezed into the space between the wall and mattresses piled on the floor in an upstairs bedroom. He told his mother he felt Tamra get up at some point, the slight movement of a child’s weight. All he could remember was that it was light outside.

Friday was hot again and wet from the previous night’s rain. An odour of decay hung in the air around Ottawa Street. Tamra had been gone three full days and become national news. Her picture seemed to be everywhere, hanging on street poles and store windows. In news stories, she became “missing five-year-old Tamra Keepness,” but more often she was just Tamra, as if we knew her. The front page of the Regina Leader-Post spoke directly to her, asking, “Tamra, Where Did You Go?”

Tips flooded in to police. On the street, there were rumours that Tamra had been seen at a dollar store with an older woman. Business owners in the neighbourhood said detectives had been looking for a middle-aged white man named Roch or Rocky, but police wouldn’t confirm whether that was related to the search. Lorena and McArthur said they gave police the names of five people they thought could be suspects, including a man who had befriended Tamra and later been discovered to be a pedophile. For a while, there was even a theory that Tamra had never existed at all, that she had been a scam to get extra money from Social Services. (Hospital records proved that was not the case.)

Searchers were coming from around the province to volunteer, streaming into the city from towns and First Nations communities, motivated by the faces of their own children or grandchildren to help in whatever way they could. “I’ve got a boy, and he’s twenty-one,” said Jerry Scott, one of the volunteers who joined the search. “And if he left, I’d go nuts, too.” Around the city, people organized vigils and barbecues, brought water and snacks for the searchers, wrapped ribbons around trees to show their support. Some left teddy bears and angels on the steps of Tamra’s house.

Days of intensive searches had turned up lots of items that seemed as though they could be connected—clothing, a child’s shoe—but none of it belonged to Tamra. “I’m starting to go on different conclusions, like maybe someone took her, I don’t know,” Troy Keepness said. “I just hope nobody would hurt my daughter.”

When Tamra had been gone a week, police announced they were suspending the ground searches. At a press conference, Regina police chief Cal Johnston announced a $25,000 reward for information and vowed, “We will find Tamra.” Police questioned sex offenders living in the area and obtained surveillance tapes from convenience stores, bars, gas stations, and the Greyhound bus depot nearby. Johnston confirmed that “criminal interference with Tamra is a distinct possibility” and drew attention back to Tamra’s house and family. “There were comings and goings from the house that night that remain not fully explained to our satisfaction, and we continue to ask those questions,” he told reporters. He would not elaborate.

Tamra’s family was growing increasingly angry at the police, and the strain of the situation was starting to show. Lorena told reporters she’d signed consent forms for police to search her house and had given her DNA, but still she felt as if they were focusing too much on her family and not enough on trying to find Tamra. She was angry that police hadn’t closed the highways out of the city and that there was no Amber Alert because police said it didn’t meet the criteria. “I’m fed up,” she told reporters. “They are wasting time. This is my little girl we’re talking about.”

The family was growing frustrated with the media, too. Lorena’s mother yelled obscenities at reporters one day, and on another, members of the family nearly came to blows with a TV reporter doing a live update from the front lawn. They had been watching the news inside the house when they heard the reporter imply what many in the city were already wondering: If not someone in that house, then who?

On July 19, two weeks after Tamra had been reported missing, police charged McArthur with assaulting Sheepskin the night Tamra disappeared. McArthur told reporters he had been interrogated for twenty hours, not about the assault, but about Tamra and about what had gone on inside the house that night. “It was always the same questions, and they were assuming that I knew the answers to those questions, but I didn’t know the answers, and I still don’t know the answers,” he said. “I would never hurt a hair on that little girl’s head.”

Two days later, Tamra’s brothers and sisters were removed from the home by child-protection officers. Tamra’s twin sister wore messy pigtails and clutched a colouring book and a yellow blanket as two women led the children away down the front steps of the house. Neither government officials nor police would say whether the children’s seizure was related to Tamra’s disappearance. When the children were gone, police searched the house again.

One night late that summer, Tamra’s father, Troy, showed up at the house with a baseball bat and confronted her stepfather, McArthur. Troy was charged with assault, though McArthur later said police “got things misunderstood.” “Everybody’s looking for answers,” he said. “We more or less talked.”

Lorena Keepness was fourteen years old when she ran away from her home on the White Bear First Nation, 200 kilometres southeast of Regina. She had been in residential school for about three months, but that wasn’t what did it. For her, it was the same ugly stuff at home. She found her way to Regina. When her mom tried to take her home, Lorena wouldn’t go. She lived on the streets instead.

She had her daughter Summer Wind when she was twenty, her son Rayne Dance not long after. It was after the ultrasound for her third baby that she walked home in a daze and told her husband, Troy, “We’re having twins.” She kept repeating it until it sunk in, and then they just stood together in the kitchen and laughed. Her mother said “Way to go!” but Lorena told her, “They came from God. Not like I planted those in me.”

The babies were born on September 1, 1998. Fraternal twin girls, each weighing more than six pounds, carried almost right to term and curved around one another like pieces of a puzzle. Lorena and Troy split up when the twins were little, and after that, the girls stayed sometimes with their mother, sometimes with their father or with other relatives. Lorena and Troy each struggled with substance abuse, and their lives were sometimes too troubled and unstable to have the children with them. At five, Tamra was bold and courageous, and protective of her twin sister. Once, Lorena heard a soft knock in the middle of the night and opened the door to find the twins standing there. The children had left their father’s house and walked four blocks back to Lorena’s in the middle of the night, Tamra leading her sister by the hand as they found their way through the dark.

Regina police received more than a thousand tips in the first six weeks after Tamra’s disappearance. At one point, a Volkswagen van that had been stolen the night Tamra disappeared was found burned outside the city. A jail guard told police she and a former inmate had stolen it, picked up Tamra, and then dumped the child’s body in a ravine on the Muscowpetung First Nation. Ron Weir led a week-long search on Muscowpetung, draining multiple beaver dams with compressor pumps, while searchers slogged through water up to their hips. The jail guard later confessed she had made up the story. She was charged with mischief and wrote a letter apologizing to the police. In court, her lawyer said she had been trying to get her abusive boyfriend locked up again.

Returning from medical leave to the police department in the fall of 2004, superintendent Troy Hagen could feel how Tamra’s disappearance was weighing on his colleagues. Hagen noticed it in everyone he spoke to, from the police chief down, whether they were involved with the case or not. Sergeant Rod Buckingham, one of the lead investigators, was among those who felt the growing frustration. “It’s a mystery,” he would say. “And I don’t like mysteries.”

Officers had spoken with more than 6,000 people by then, but there had been no arrests, and leads were drying up. Shortly after, a special task force was struck to re-examine the case, to see whether anything had been missed. The name of the project was iskwesis ayishowak e mamayahi, a Cree term meaning “little girl bring people together.”

Twelve years later, Lorena Keepness spends her days doing odd jobs and picking bottles, trading them in at the depot for cash. She is forty-three and lives with her eldest son in a rundown shack of a house on Victoria Avenue, a fifteen-minute walk from Ottawa Street. Lorena’s children were never permanently returned to her custody after the disappearance, and the three babies she had after that were all taken by Social Services, too. Tamra’s twin sister is seventeen now. Lorena says she is an athlete, smart and beautiful. Lorena lost her family pictures when someone threw all her stuff in the garbage a few years ago. The only photos she has of Tamra now are the ones on missing-child posters.

Tamra’s twin and her older sister, Summer, don’t want to be interviewed. Neither does Tamra’s father, Troy. McArthur couldn’t be reached. Lorena needs a six-pack of Black Ice beer to talk. She doesn’t really want to be interviewed either. She has never liked reporters or their questions, and it hurts to talk about that time. “But part of me wants to,” she says, as her face crumples. “Part of me needs to share what the fuck happened. Someone stole my child.”

Lorena has heard many theories about what happened to her daughter. Some believe Tamra wandered away and was abducted by a driver cruising the area or that she got lost, then crawled in somewhere so small she has never been found. Other theories focus on the adults in the house that night. Some officers will say off-the-record that they think Tamra is in the dump but that they just couldn’t find her in the mountains of debris. Many in the city believe that Lorena and McArthur sold or traded Tamra to pay off a cocaine debt. Lorena has heard that one the most. One night, she was at a bar and heard some women talking, loud enough so she could hear. “Yeah, she sold her kid for dope. She has a whole bunch of babies. She has kids just to sell them for drugs.” Her friend told her not to listen, but Lorena couldn’t ignore it. She swore at the women, promised she would get them for even thinking she could do that to her child. They met at the same bar again the next day, and that time they fought, a tangle of hair and fists. One of them had a knife and slashed her twice on the back of her arm. More scars to wear for life. It wasn’t the only time. One night, she was attacked in Moose Jaw. Not long ago, a woman shouted “Baby killer!” at her across the street.

Lorena and Dean McArthur are still together, on and off—“more on than off,” she says. Police tried hard to turn them against each other, but she always believed him in the end. He may be all kinds of things, she says, but he’s not a baby killer. “If I thought he did something to my daughter, I would have killed him myself,” she says. “I think the police were just so sure. They figured, ‘These guys are a bunch of nobodies. She did her own child.’ They already had their conclusions drawn before they even tried to look for anything.”

The suggestion she could have had something to do with her daughter’s disappearance still pushes Lorena to the point of violence. You can see her eyes flash, her muscles tighten at the question. But she holds back— it’s not worth going to jail. She’s had enough of the police, has grown used to the accusations. In the past twelve years, she’s repeated her story publicly many times, and it has never really changed.

Regina police have never released full details about the investigation into Tamra’s disappearance, on the grounds that it remains an open case that they still hope to solve. In an interview, Troy Hagen, now Regina’s police chief, would not speak about any working theories or confirm any specifics of the investigation, including whether one of the people questioned about Tamra’s disappearance had failed a polygraph test. Instead, Hagen echoed what police have said since the beginning: That there remain important unanswered questions about the comings and goings from the house on Ottawa Street that night. That they will continue to investigate every tip. That they won’t stop looking for Tamra until they find her. He pointed to cases in the United States where children have been gone for years, sometimes decades, and then been found alive. In Canada, twelve-year-old Abby Drover was held in an underground bunker in Port Moody, British Columbia, for six months after being abducted by her neighbour in 1976. There was an intensive search of her community—including by her abductor—but she had been only feet away from her house the entire time. She was found alive. It seems impossible, but it happens. “I refuse to lose hope,” Hagen says.

The years since Tamra’s disappearance have exposed the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. Suspected serial killers are facing charges in the Prairies, but there has been no public indication that Tamra’s disappearance may be connected to any of those cases. Hagen said police have also explored a possible connection with thirteen-year-old Courtney Struble, who disappeared from Estevan, a city 200 kilometres from Regina, four days after Tamra was last seen. Investigators initially believed that Struble was a runaway, and she had been gone for seven years before RCMP announced that her case had become a homicide investigation. No one has ever been charged, and her remains have never been located. Hagen says it’s strange to have two unsolved missing-children cases linked so closely in time and geographic proximity. He says the possibility of a connection was “very much” explored by police, but there doesn’t appear to be a correlation.

The police investigation into Tamra’s disappearance is one of the largest and costliest in Regina’s history, but Hagen says it has never been about the money. If there were more leads or work for investigators, the police chief says he would reconvene the task force “in a heartbeat.” But the flood of tips has slowed. The reward for information that leads to finding her, now $50,000, sits unclaimed. The last public development came in November 2014, when a Reddit user with the name MySecretIsOut posted a scrawled map with the words: “Location of Tamra Keepness, check the wells.” The person later wrote that the map belonged to their grandmother and had come from a great-aunt who had visited an inmate in Alberta. “We, like many others, haven’t forgotten about you, Tamra, and continue to search and hope you are found,” the person posted. Police searched twenty-one wells around Muscowpetung but found nothing.

Sheepskin died on January 1, 2009, “with his family by his side,” according to his obituary. Many of the police officers who worked on Tamra’s case have retired or moved from the department to other jobs. Hagen says he thinks of Tamra whenever he is walking through the forest, not looking for her but always half expecting to see her there. Sometimes he looks at people he passes on the street, examining their faces and imagining what Tamra might look like now.

Through the years, Lorena has developed her own theories about what happened to her daughter. These days, she mainly wonders about a drifter who used to stay with them, a woman Lorena knew from when she was a girl. A woman who sometimes told people she was pregnant even though she wasn’t, who Lorena knew by one name but whose medical documents said something else. The woman was around so much that Lorena’s children called her Big Auntie. Big Auntie had been staying at the house before Tamra disappeared, but left after she and Lorena had a falling out. Lorena says it took a long time to realize Big Auntie wasn’t coming around any more. When she did, she put word out on the streets, but no one there had seen her either. Big Auntie didn’t even show up for her own sister’s funeral in Regina a few years back. Lorena says she told the police about Big Auntie many times, but doesn’t know whether they ever found her, or whether they even looked. “She’s just gone now,” Lorena says. “Same time as my child.” Maybe it’s something. Or maybe Big Auntie is missing, too.

When I ask Lorena whether she thinks Tamra will ever be found, she struggles for an answer. “I don’t know,” she says. “But can I tell you about a dream I had?” There are two, both so vivid it’s as if they were real. In one, Tamra is inside a big house in a city Lorena has never seen. There are silk clothes draped around, and broad windows, and Tamra is upstairs, sitting on the edge of a bathtub putting on stockings. She is grown, with dark, shiny hair like her mother’s but cut straight all around. In the other dream, Tamra is still a little girl, running into her mother’s arms. “There you are!” Lorena says. “There you are!” She picks up her child and holds her, until Tamra wriggles free and is lost again.

This appeared in the June 2016 issue.

Jana G. Pruden (@jana_pruden ) was the Edmonton Journal 's crime ­bureau chief; she now reports for the Globe and Mail .

Ben Clarkson has drawn for such magazines as Explore and This .