Loretta Saunders is an Inuit woman and criminology student studying incidents of murdered and missing aboriginal women in Canada so, when her family suddenly and inexplicably lost contact with her on Valentine’s Day, it raised alarm.
Now, almost a week after she was last seen in Halifax, her car has been found by police near Windsor, Ont., in possession of two roommates she shared her apartment with, shifting alarm to outright panic and fear for the life of the 26-year-old Halifax student.
“My family now is at the point where we’re expecting the worst,” said an emotional Edmund Saunders, her brother, in an interview Wednesday night.
“We just want to get her home. We know she’s not OK; she’s not well. She wouldn’t go this long without talking to her Dad. We just want to know where she is and bring her home.”
Ms. Saunders’ sister, Delilah Terriak, meanwhile, has headed a social media campaign to marshal a nationwide search.
“She is a proud Inuk whose thesis topic is on missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada, so she knows better than to just disappear like this,” Ms. Terriak said in a Facebook message.
“My heart is breaking more and more as time passes and my sister is the one who encourages and inspires me to persevere.”
Ms. Saunders, originally from Hopedale, N.L., had taken two roommates into her Halifax high-rise apartment on Cowie Hill Road to help cover her school expenses, said Mr. Saunders. He is not sure if she met the renters on Kijiji, an online advertising site, or was introduced to them by her boyfriend.
“She was having a hard time getting her rent from them. It’s been a while since they paid her,” said Mr. Saunders.
“She went to get her rent Thursday and said if they didn’t have it she’ll tell them they have to leave. When she got there they weren’t home. She phoned them, apparently, and told them they had to leave.”
Video surveillance from the apartment shows her leaving the apartment on Thursday, Feb. 13, alone. It does not appear she was followed, said Mr. Saunders.
The conversation was suspiciously short
The apartment management says the building has a controlled-access lobby and monitored security cameras.
Alarmingly, text messages were sent from Ms. Saunders’ phone later that evening claiming she was locked out of her online banking and could not remember her mother’s maiden name to bypass security, the family said.
The next day, Valentine’s Day, her phone was briefly in contact by text message with her sister, Ms. Terriak, around 1 p.m.
“The conversation was suspiciously short,” Ms. Terriak said.
By Feb. 17, the worried family reported the woman missing to Halifax Regional Police. Officers were soon knocking on doors in the apartment complex asking questions.
Police won’t say what they learned, but investigators contacted the Ontario Province Police in Essex County about the case. It is thought that cellphone signals were traced to the area.
On Tuesday evening, Ms. Saunders’ car was found in Harrow, Ont., south of Windsor, and two people — Ms. Saunders’ two roommates — were arrested on charges of possession of a stolen vehicle.
On Wednesday afternoon, Blake Leggette, 25, and Victoria Hennebay, 28, appeared briefly in a Windsor courtroom. They remain in Windsor jail.
Halifax Constable Pierre Bourdages confirmed the pair know Ms. Saunders, but would not comment on the nature of their relationship. Mr. Leggette and Ms. Hennebay appear to be a couple in Facebook pictures, into heavy metal music, tattoos and body piercings. The two spent time in Alberta, with at least Ms. Hennebay attending Athabasca University. She has gone by different last names and was recently engulfed in an highly personal online feud on a gossip website with people accusing her of an unsavory lifestyle.
Both were already wanted on outstanding warrants. Mr. Leggette has a warrant for failing to appear in court in Calgary and Ms. Hennebay for a threatening incident from January 2011, in Halifax. That incident did not involve Ms. Saunders, police said.
This is completely out of character for her
“Given the circumstances of this, it has been deemed suspicious and turned over to our major crimes investigators. It is still a very active investigation,” said Const. Bourdages.
“It is definitely concerning, especially with the time that has passed since her family last heard from her — usually she is in daily contact with her family. This is completely out of character for her.”
Police hope someone between Halifax and Harrow remembers seeing the car, a blue Toyota Celica with the Newfoundland & Labrador plate HCP 543. It is distinctive because of a rear spoiler and an aftermarket exhaust that makes it loud.
Meanwhile, the search continues for Ms. Saunders, who is about three months pregnant. She had struggled with addiction in the past and was on a Methadone maintenance treatment.
As Ms. Terriak made plans to travel from Victoria to Halifax, she reached out through social media, creating a “Help Bring Loretta Saunders Home” group on Facebook and using the hashtag #FindLoretta on Twitter. She found a place to stay and help to pay for her flight through online interaction.
“Does anyone in Halifax have a printer? I need to make flyers and start handing them out today,” she asked en route to the city.
Ms. Terriak arrived in Halifax by lunchtime: “I’m here in Halifax, we’re going to find my girl,” she said on Facebook.
Posters were also placed around Saint Mary’s University campus where Ms. Saunders is enrolled in sociology and criminology as an undergraduate student, although students are on their reading week break.
“Saint Mary’s University is extremely concerned about the safety and welfare of our student, Loretta Saunders,” said Margaret Murphy, the school’s associate vice-president, external affairs.
“We want Loretta to be safely back with her family, and with us.”
The disappearance is the talk of a worried campus.
Ms. Saunders was preparing a research paper on the high number of aboriginal women who have been murdered or gone missing across Canada as part of her studies.
Darryl Leroux, a professor at SMU, is Ms. Saunders’ thesis supervisor who worked with her for eight months on her project. He last saw her two weeks ago, he said.
“Loretta is a uniquely brilliant student the likes of whom don’t come around often. I had never felt more inspired and proud of a student. We discussed her thesis project, which she had carefully presented in a proposal that was the best written project I had ever read in seven years of university teaching,” he said.
He is anxious for her to return, to read her finished project and again experience her “passion for supporting indigenous youth overcome the many barriers they face,” said Prof. Leroux.
On Valentine’s Day, marches were held in many cities as a public reminder and memorial for the murdered and missing aboriginal women. The Native Women’s Association of Canada has highlighted almost 600 such cases — a disproportionately high toll — and is asking the government to convene a national public inquiry.
Ms. Saunders is described as an Inuk woman, 5-foot-7, 120 pounds, with light-brown straight hair. She was last seen wearing dark-blue jeans, a black Columbia jacket and tan boots.
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