When Lori McFarland sits down with her family to celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, there is one person she knows won’t be there. But the family will make sure there is a special place at the table for Amber.
"It’s a way for us to acknowledge her and let her know we are thinking about her — not only her absence but also her presence," said McFarland, 58.
Sunday marks the ninth Mother’s Day the Portage la Prairie resident will spend without her daughter Amber McFarland, who went missing in 2008. As they always do on important dates and holidays, her family will set a place for her.
"Mother’s Day can be bittersweet," she said. "While I am happy to spend the day with my two daughters and am proud of the women they have become, I remain deeply saddened by the loss of Amber, as would any mother who has lost a child.
"To mothers, they are our children at any age. The sadness is an underlying current in any happy occasion."
Amber McFarland’s family — including her father, Scott, her identical twin sister, Ashley, her younger sister, Lisa, and her nephew, Christian — have not seen or heard from her since October 2008. She was 24 when she went missing.
Her mother was told in a phone call on the morning of Saturday, Oct. 18, 2008 that she had not shown up for her morning shift at Mark’s Work Wearhouse in Portage la Prairie.
One day after that phone call, Lori McFarland received a second call saying her daughter had not showed up for work for a second straight day.
"The second call we received the following morning, when they said that Amber again did not show up to open the store, was a turning point," she said. "This is the moment that I knew something was terribly wrong.
"Our lives have never been the same after receiving that phone call."
Amber McFarland was last seen by friends at the Cat & Fiddle Nite Club in the Midtown Motor Inn at 177 Saskatchewan Ave. W. in Portage la Prairie at around 1 a.m. on Oct. 18.
Her friends have said she was seen at the nightclub with her ex-boyfriend, Kelly Garrioch. Security footage shows her with Garrioch and another man, later identified as Graham Saxon, in the Midtown’s beer vendor.
Garrioch, who was 38 at the time, later admitted he was with his ex-girlfriend early that morning despite a court order prohibiting him from being around her, stemming from an alleged assault in May 2008.
'The sadness is an underlying current in any happy occasion' — Lori McFarland on her missing daughter, Amber
Garrioch has always said he had nothing to do with Amber McFarland’s disappearance and doesn’t know what ultimately happened to her that morning.
A Winnipeg Free Press article from June 2009 states when a friend and relative of Amber McFarland’s called Garrioch after she went missing, he told them she had come to his Portage la Prairie home on Yellowquill Trail on the morning of Oct. 18, 2008.
He told them she later called an unknown person and left his home, the friend said.
Garrioch said he has not seen or heard from Amber since.
Saxon, the other man in the footage from the beer vendor, told the Free Press in 2009 that after the group left the hotel, he dropped McFarland off with Garrioch at Garrioch’s home.
Her vehicle was found the morning she went missing at the Canad Inns Destination Centre at 2401 Saskatchewan Ave. W., where she had left it the previous day before going out for the evening.
Garrioch did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Years after her disappearance, which RCMP confirmed was being investigated as a homicide in 2009, Lori McFarland and her family still search for answers about what really happened to her daughter that October morning.
"We will always seek the truth," Lori said. "We believe there are people that know details that could help us find justice for Amber. We implore those people to please come forward with information.
"We want the investigation to continue. We want justice for Amber."
On Wednesday, Manitoba RCMP announced its historical case unit had arrested a woman in connection with the 2007 killing of another Portage la Prairie woman, 46-year-old grandmother Charlene Ward. The night before she was found slain, Ward had been at the Cat & Fiddle. On Thursday, RCMP said the 30-year-old woman arrested had been released without being charged.
Sgt. Dan Barnabe of the historical case unit said the investigation into Amber’s disappearance is an "open and active investigation."
"Obviously, the evidence pointed us in that direction, and that’s why we came out and said it was a homicide despite the fact the remains have never been recovered," Barnabe said.
Barnabe confirmed two searches took place at Garrioch’s former home in Portage la Prairie, the first happening in the fall of 2008.
Barnabe said the investigation led them back to the house for a second search in June 2009 after new owners had moved in.
"It’s just the way the investigation progressed," he said. "Something piqued the interest of investigators at the time and required them to go back and do a second search."
In the 2009 search, officers from the forensics identification and major crimes units reportedly dug up parts of the property.
"I’ve done nothing," Garrioch told the Free Press at the time of the second search, adding his life had been "horrid" since his ex-girlfriend’s disappearance.
Barnabe confirmed Garrioch and Saxon were arrested in 2009 and brought in for questioning. Both were released without being charged. Saxon told the Free Press that fall he later passed a lie-detector test at RCMP’s Manitoba headquarters in Winnipeg.
Barnabe said RCMP want anyone with information on the case to come forward.
"This is still an active investigation, and we are making a plea for any information to be brought to us," Barnabe said.
"Sometimes people know something but just think the cops must know about that, but (they) should never take for granted that just because they know something... that we know it.
"We will take any and all information that anyone has."
A tip line has been set up for the case, and anyone with information about Amber McFarland’s disappearance is asked to call 204-984-6447 or Manitoba Crime Stoppers anonymously at 1-800-222-8477 (TIPS).
Lori McFarland said unanswered questions and a need for answers often consume her thoughts.
"Any alone time or quiet time, my mind drifts toward all the questions and scenarios and suspects," she said.
She said she has always believed she knows who is responsible for her daughter’s disappearance.
"I do believe that the truth will come out someday. I just hope it is not after we are all passed on," she said.
"We will not be satisfied until the person responsible for the murder of our daughter is securely behind bars."
A $20,000 reward is being offered to anyone who comes forward with information that leads to the discovery of Amber McFarland’s remains or a prosecution and sentencing in the case.
Despite the pain, Lori McFarland said her family has tried to live as normal a life as possible, although doing so is not easy.
"We all try to go about our work and aspects of daily living like everyone else, but we do have an underlying current of sadness," Lori said.
"There are good days and bad days, but generally we put on our game face and head out for the day.
"This is our normal family life now, going along in life masking the sadness and the anger at the injustice each and every day."
Lori McFarland said she has always tried to stay strong for her two daughters and said the loss has always been particularly hard on Amber’s identical twin sister, Ashley.
"In the early days, Ashley would become extremely upset if someone offered their condolences or sympathy for her loss of her sister because she could not resign herself to the fact that this was really final," she said.
"Twins have a special bond, and Ashley has lost not only her sister, but also her best friend."
This Mother’s Day, Lori McFarland will remember the woman Amber was and imagine the kind of woman she would have been today.
"She loved fashion and style, and her dream job was to be an interior decorator, and she would have been awesome," Lori said. "I wish she had the chance to go to school to follow her dream.
"She has a huge family that loved her. She deserves to be laid to rest surrounded by the family that loved her.
"Amber was beautiful inside and out. Amber was loving, and she was loved."
Dave Baxter is a freelance reporter, photographer and editor who writes about Manitoba crimes for the Sunday Special.