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Searching to end the heartbreak

Young woman's parents spend almost every night scouring city streets in desperate bid to find her

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><P>George and Melinda Wood stand on Ellice Avenue with a poster about their missing daughter, Christine Wood.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

George and Melinda Wood stand on Ellice Avenue with a poster about their missing daughter, Christine Wood.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/10/2016 (236 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The Cree language rustles like rushes in water. In contrast to English, which is word-rich but rigid, Cree bends and flows. Cree words start from a seed, and through the speaker they grow, sprouting up and then unfurling with meaning.

There isn’t a single, compact word that means "search" in Cree, because every search has a story: who is searching and how and for what. Even then, the language’s territory stretches from Labrador to British Columbia, and different dialects tell it differently.

In George Wood’s way of knowing his language, the Bunibonibee Cree Nation way, his story is ninatonuwaw. "We are searching for someone." Or maybe, keeyapich nunatonuwanan. "We will keep searching for something."

Six weeks is a long time to search for something. If you’re trying to find your child, it is both too long and not long enough. It will never be enough until you find her. So even now, six weeks after 21-year-old Christine Wood vanished into the city, her parents are searching.

SUPPLIED</p><p>Winnipeg police have asked multiple times for the public’s help in finding Christine Wood.</p></p>

SUPPLIED

Winnipeg police have asked multiple times for the public’s help in finding Christine Wood.

It is Wednesday, at about 8:30 p.m. In an Osborne Village parking lot, George and Melinda Wood climb into their Ford F-150, ready to hit the streets. They’ve done this almost every night since Aug. 19, when Christine went missing.

Their driver tonight, as he has been since their search began, is Robert Sneep. He is a tradesman originally from the Netherlands and is married to George’s niece. He drives so Christine’s parents can look; his jokes keep their spirits up, too.

They need that spot of brightness tonight. Every day is difficult, but Wednesday was especially hard. That morning, Winnipeg police held a news conference to update the case; there wasn’t much new to say.

That’s been the story of Christine’s disappearance since the beginning. This year alone, police have received more than 6,500 reports of people gone missing. In most of those cases, Sgt. Shaunna Neufeld says, the pieces come together quickly.

With Christine, the pieces are tiny and never quite fit. "It’s been hard in the sense that some cases, right from the get-go, we have a lot more to work with," Neufeld says. "In this case, tracking down some witnesses has been challenging."

To fill that gap, Melinda issues another plea for information. She’s not used to looking into a jostling mass of TV cameras and pouring out her heart. But if that’s what it takes to keep Christine’s face in the news, then she’ll do that, too.

Police point out Christine has a chipped tooth, on her upper left lateral incisor. She broke it in the summer, Melinda says, by biting popcorn or something. Christine’s friends say it’s really noticeable when you see her. Something to remember.

She smiles a lot, too, so it’ll show. Everyone who knows Christine mentions that smile, so easy and wide. There is also her hair, which she dyes vivid red. In some photos, it looks bright; recently, friends say, it was more like the colour of red wine.

For those looking, there are other ways to identify Christine. She walks briskly, as if she’s on a mission; everyone in George’s family walks like that, the parents add with a laugh. She can be shy but also puts a little bounce in her step, a playful sass.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>George Wood and Melinda Wood look out the windows of a truck driving on Salter Street while searching for their daughter, Christine Wood. The 21-year-old went missing Aug. 19 while visiting Winnipeg.</p></p>

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

George Wood and Melinda Wood look out the windows of a truck driving on Salter Street while searching for their daughter, Christine Wood. The 21-year-old went missing Aug. 19 while visiting Winnipeg.

Over the last six weeks, many people think they’ve seen Christine. None of the sightings came from people who knew her before she went missing; just from folks who saw her photos and are trying to help. Still, the rush of tips feeds hope.

In these stories about possible Christines, her hair colour changes. A man swears he saw her in a lane near Qu’Appelle Avenue not long ago. He said they locked eyes for a second. But that woman had light brown tresses, so it’s hard to know.

In the first few weeks of the search, a witness came forward to say she’d once seen a woman in a Furby Street apartment. A man ordered her to go back to the bedroom. The woman looked sad, the witness said, and she looked a lot like Christine.

She also had black hair, though the witness saw flashes of red underneath. As if dye hadn’t fully covered it up.

Within minutes of hearing that tip, George and Melinda raced to meet police at the building. They did not find Christine. "We really went there thinking, ‘OK, we got her, it’s over,’" Sneep says. "Then it doesn’t happen. It just punches the wind out of your lungs."

The sightings keep piling up. Possible Christines have been seen all over the city. In South Osborne, in St. James, in the West End. There is a house on Powers Street where Christine might have been held in a basement, someone said. Police went there with a search team but did not find her.

As of Friday, police haven’t been able to confirm any of the reports.

"We have had a lot of sightings and haven’t been able to substantiate those," Neufeld says. "It’s not to say they’ve been false... but a lot of that effort we’ve made hasn’t been able to prove one way or another if it’s an accurate sighting or not."

By hair alone, not all of these leads can be Christine. It is possible none of them is Christine, which is also a story; if there is a woman held in a basement and she is not Christine, she is somebody. The Wood family’s best-case scenario is the city’s ongoing tragedy.

Yet when these sightings made the news, the narrative began to shift, almost perceptibly. Well then, some people said, Christine was probably just out partying.

For George and Melinda, it’s frustrating. They know something is wrong.

WPS HANDOUT</p><p>Christine Wood</p>

WPS HANDOUT

Christine Wood

So let’s focus on the facts, the few things the couple from Oxford House First Nation do know. Since the night Christine left the airport-area hotel they were all staying at while accompanying a family member to a medical appointment, she has not used her bank card. She has not posted to Facebook and messages one of her friends has sent her since Aug. 20 have gone unread.

Above all else, she has not contacted her parents, which is what scares them the most. Christine lived in the city for most of the last year, studying business administration at the University of Winnipeg. She always stayed in touch with her mom.

"It’s hard to say how much each day," Melinda says; it was just daily back-and-forth texting. Friends noticed this too, right up through the week she disappeared: Christine would be watching a movie and tapping out messages to Melinda.

This six-week silence is not like her at all. That is why they are looking for her on Winnipeg’s streets almost every night.

On Wednesday, the search is fuelled by caffeine: a coffee with one cream and two sugars for Melinda, an orange pekoe tea for George. On the way to the drive-thru, they point out where Child Find put Christine’s photo on a digital billboard.

There’s no formal search map. The trio just drives around, turning up and down streets in areas where she might have been seen. Christine always preferred taking back lanes and side streets to main drags, so her parents look there, too.

It is just the three of them in the truck, but they are not alone. A patchwork of people have united around George and Melinda through these long weeks: the Bear Clan Patrol, Thelma Krull’s search team and folks from Oxford House are all out looking.

One of the searchers, Audrey North, is the one who learned Christine might have been in that apartment on Furby. North was Christine’s second-grade teacher, and on Thursday night she was out again looking. She has faith the search will be successful.

"If I was in this situation, I’d want people to come look for me," North says. "That’s why I’m trying to help. I know my mom and dad wouldn’t give up on me, and I think Christine knows that. I’m sure she knows somebody is watching over her."

When it comes to Melinda and George and their search, North speaks with reverence. They are "very strong" people, she says, a sentiment Neufeld echoes. No parent can prepare for what they are living, and no parent expects it.

"I hate that they’re going through this," Neufeld says. "I know it’s taxing for them and emotional for them.... We want it resolved, we want those answers for this family. We want to know what’s happened, and to know she’s OK."

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>George Wood (left) and Melinda Wood (centre), parents of Christine Wood made a tearful plea Tuesday for information about their missing 21-year-old daughter. They were supported at the news conference by Shelia North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc. (second from left), Tommy Weenusk, Christine's uncle (second from right) and Christy Dzikowicz, director of missing children services at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.</p>

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

George Wood (left) and Melinda Wood (centre), parents of Christine Wood made a tearful plea Tuesday for information about their missing 21-year-old daughter. They were supported at the news conference by Shelia North Wilson, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Inc. (second from left), Tommy Weenusk, Christine's uncle (second from right) and Christy Dzikowicz, director of missing children services at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection.

Until now, George and Melinda had a quieter life. They’ve been married 32 years and live near the shore of one of the lakes that embrace Oxford House. At night, they can look out their window and see aurora borealis gleaming over the water.

Melinda works at the community’s high school as a custodian. George teaches Cree at the elementary school, grades 4 to 6. Almost all of the adults on the First Nation speak Cree, George says, though many of the kids don’t speak it as well.

Christine, the youngest of their four children and only daughter, knows how. They always spoke Cree when their kids were growing up. Christine was a quick learner, especially with words: by Grade 2, she could read like a fifth-grader.

She always had dreams. For a time when in her early teens, she wanted to be a forensic investigator. Then she realized real-life forensics isn’t quite as exciting as it looks like on shows such as CSI, and her interests turned elsewhere.

Last year, she decided to pursue them. She enrolled at the U of W, curious to see where business administration might lead her. As recently as early August, she told friends she planned to continue her studies this year.

What happened? Why isn’t she there? When she left her parents’ hotel room on Aug. 19, where did she go? And why, for the first time in her life, has she stopped texting or calling home?

After six weeks with no solid leads, the potential scenarios have narrowed. There are possibilities nobody who loves Christine can bear to say out loud. For now, George and Melinda firmly believe she will be found.

At the news conference Wednesday, Insp. Kelly Dennison said investigators believe Christine is facing "personal challenges." At this stage of the search, and with so few pieces to put together, that’s a kind of optimism.

"Obviously, the more time that goes by, the more concerning it gets to all of us," Neufeld says. "All we can do is follow the evidence and see where it takes us. In this case, we still have a lot of questions. Until those are answered, we simply don’t know. It’s possible she’s OK, and that’s always our ultimate hope. Until evidence leads us to believe otherwise, we continue to be hopeful."

There’s another reason to be hopeful, and it has to do with who Christine is. She could be sweet and shy. But she has another side, one friend says: tougher, more street-savvy. That friend can’t imagine her getting in over her head.

"I don’t think that she would have because of how confident she could get," says the friend, who has been out searching on a bike many nights.

"She could hold her own, and she really seemed to know the right people to call if she needed it."

Still, the friend agrees, it seems as if two of those people would be her parents. That takes us back to the search.

Christine Wood</p></p>

Christine Wood

By midnight, there are shadows on streets where street lights and headlights can’t reach. On the front steps of a North End house, two women stand talking. Melinda presses her nose to her truck’s rear passenger window to get a better look.

Then she turns away, and returns her gaze to the sidewalks ahead. It wasn’t Christine.

This scene repeats, time and time again. Female figures of about Christine’s height, 5-6, cross the street or walk out of apartments; then they turn and their faces are all wrong. Their cheeks are too wide to be Christine or their jawline too long.

In all of this searching, has Melinda ever thought she saw Christine, even just for a moment? She shakes her head. "No," she says, quietly. Christine is her daughter. She’d know her in pitch darkness, if only by the way she walked.

All this looking is exhausting and, in a way, the potential sightings can be, too.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><P>George and Melinda Wood take a break from searching Thursday on  Ellice Avenue.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

George and Melinda Wood take a break from searching Thursday on Ellice Avenue.

In the early hours of the morning, George and Melinda go back to the same St. James hotel room and sit awake, wondering.

They miss their community. They miss their home on the shore. They miss their four grandchildren, who light up their eyes.

But they’ve pledged to stay in Winnipeg until they find Christine and have chased down every unconfirmed lead. Those sightings bring hope; still, it hurts to hang your heart on what someone else thinks they saw but you never can see yourself.

Yet searching is better than waiting, and it isn’t as sombre as it sounds. The trio has had a few misadventures along the way, breaking the monotony: like that time they passed a pile of flaming junked mattresses and Sneep had to call 911.

Once, a police car followed their vehicle along Dufferin Avenue, suspicious they were johns looking for sex. George fumbled in the truck to find his stack of Christine’s missing posters, ready to produce them if an explanation was needed. They laugh about that now.

Through six weeks, they’ve got to know some of the people who inhabit the streets. There is one woman who works off a North End corner and dances all by herself while she waits for a customer. They worry about her now when she’s not around.

The dancing woman was there Wednesday night. Sneep nods but doesn’t pull over; they’ve already asked her about Christine. So far, none of the women who work the street have seen her, something George and Melinda decide is a good sign.

Sometimes, the city swallows up young women and pulls them somewhere dark and deep. George and Melinda never wanted to know this much about the layers of Winnipeg’s streets. But they’ll learn anything if it helps lead them to Christine.

There is a chance, of course, these drives will be for nothing. Think about the likelihood of finding one person in the whole city, or the chance of two paths intersecting in that exact place, at that exact time. Realistically, it’s not very high.

When asked about this, Sneep agrees, but he doesn’t plan on bowing out. He’ll stop when they find Christine or her parents decide they’ve had enough. But they’ve said they’ll keep going. "I’ve got so much time invested in this now," he says.

There is one thing, though. As the clock ticks towards 2 a.m., Sneep starts to wonder. "What do we do, when we see her?" he asks. "Do we all jump out of the truck? Do we call the cops first? Have detectives told you anything about that?"

Melinda thinks about this, then she laughs, softly. "I never asked them," she says. "I should ask."

That’s the thing about searches. They all have their story: who is searching, and for what, and how. There will be a whole different story to be told when missing becomes found. But they’ll start writing that one when it happens.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</P><P>

George and Melinda Wood have been searching Winnipeg since August, hoping for a sighting of their daughter.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

George and Melinda Wood have been searching Winnipeg since August, hoping for a sighting of their daughter.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Melissa Martin.

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Updated on Saturday, October 1, 2016 at 9:36 AM CDT: Photos added.

9:40 AM: Reordered photos

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