A GRISLY homicide case on a tiny British Columbia island may be the key to unlocking a longtime Manitoba missing-persons mystery.
The two separate investigations — one still active, one seemingly ice-cold — collided this week when information from B.C. prompted officers to descend en masse on a Winnipeg rooming house.
Investigators with a joint task force of RCMP and Winnipeg police officers have since discovered "significant" forensic evidence inside the residence at 97 Lorne Ave. in Point Douglas, sources told the Free Press Thursday.
Neighbours reported hearing the sound of a jackhammer inside the home Wednesday. A source has confirmed police are digging into the foundation as part of the ongoing probe. They have also removed several boxes.
Police have released no official details more than 48 hours after they began their top-secret search. But sources said the ongoing probe involves a Winnipeg woman who vanished several years ago and has been on the radar of those involved in the Project Devote task force.
As well, sources confirm a link to a recent homicide investigation in B.C. Police discovered scattered human remains Monday on a remote island near Alert Bay, off the east coast of Vancouver Island. They were confirmed as the remains of Jennifer McPherson, a former Winnipegger, who was reported missing from Hanson Island, B.C., on April 29.
Police have charged McPherson’s husband, Traigo Ehkid Andretti, with second-degree murder. Few details have been released about the killing while the investigation is ongoing.
Sources said Andretti, 37, and McPherson, 41, previously lived at the Lorne Avenue residence in Winnipeg before moving west about five years ago. The search of the rooming house, which has been vacant for at least six months, is directly connected to Andretti’s arrest this week and an ongoing investigation into his past, sources said.
The Free Press has learned Andretti, who may have used aliases in the past, has a form of autism and has previously caused concern among police and justice officials for failing to take prescribed medication. He has a prior criminal history in Manitoba and B.C., including a violent attack against McPherson.
Police in B.C. confirmed this week Andretti and McPherson were living on Hanson Island as caretakers for the past five years of a remote fishing resort called the Pacific Outback Resort.
Court documents obtained Thursday show Andretti was convicted in Winnipeg of three courtorder breaches in 2005. The offences occurred months earlier in the city and drew a fine.
After moving to B.C., he was charged with assaulting McPherson at the fishing resort in 2008 and received nine months’ probation. According to a July 2008 story in the North Island Gazette, lawyers told court he has a form of autism and was off his medication at the time.
"Mr. Andretti and his wife got into a verbal argument and she asked him to leave," Crown attorney John Blackman told court at the time. "He punched her once, nothing more, and she had a bloody nose. Mr. Andretti does have a form of autism and was off his medication. When he does that, it leads to negative behaviour."
The judge ordered Andretti to stay on his medication as a condition of his probation "so he will not be a danger to others and himself." McPherson wrote a letter to the court asking that the charges be dropped, according to the Gazette report.
"I miss my husband dearly," she wrote.
Defence lawyer Paul Grier told court the couple looked forward to resuming their jobs as resort caretakers.
"They want to live together and she has no fear of him," Grier said. "She really wants to be with her husband."
Court records show Andretti was charged with another assault in B.C. in 2010 — it doesn’t say who the alleged victim was — but was found not guilty at trial a year later.
McPherson is survived by two adult daughters.
The RCMP and Winnipeg police teamed up for Project Devote in 2009 and have identified 20 homicides and eight missing-persons cases linked by one factor — the individuals were all at a high risk of becoming victims of violent crime.
Each had substance- or alcohol-abuse issues, was transient, had mental-health issues, worked in the sex trade or hitchhiked.
The slain and missing Manitobans range in age from 15 to 46.
Last year, Winnipeg police charged Shawn Lamb with three homicides involving high-risk young women and are continuing their investigation to see if other cases could be linked to Lamb, a drifter from Ontario with more than 100 prior criminal convictions.
Lamb has told the Free Press and police homicide detectives he has information that could help them solve at least five other cold cases. He remains in custody without bail, awaiting trial.
Sources said Thursday this week’s search on Lorne Avenue is not connected in any way to Lamb’s case.