Remember Violet Heathen

From left to right: Violet's son Darren Heathen, her sister Ruby Whitstone, Violet's youngest son Levi Heathen, and her oldest surviving son, Jeff Heathen.  Photo by James Wood/Meridian Booster/Postmedia Network

From left to right: Violet's son Darren Heathen, her sister Ruby Whitstone, Violet's youngest son Levi Heathen, and her oldest surviving son, Jeff Heathen.  Photo by James Wood/Meridian Booster/Postmedia Network

The family of Violet Marie Heathen feels the loss of their sister, mother, daughter and friend every single day.

Heathen was a member of Onion Lake Cree Nation (OLCN), a community north of the Border City, which numbers nearly 5000 people. Her immediate family still live on the reserve, with a scattering of family, friends and relatives around Alberta and Saskatchewan.

To this day, none of them know who was involved in the disappearance of Heathen.

Heathen herself has been mentioned in the archives of the Meridian Booster as missing, with articles from 2009 and 2011 mentioning the ongoing police investigation into her disappearance. However, those same archives contain a reference to a skull found near Kitscoty in 2009 by a hunter. According to members of her family, the skull found was that of Heathen.

Police would not say whether there is an official suspect in her case, which is now being handled by Historical Homicide out of the RCMP K Division in Edmonton, Alta.

“She was a big part of the family,” said Ruby Whitstone, Heathen’s sister.

“Her missing is a disaster to us, not knowing what happened to her.”

The Meridian Booster recently reached out to Heathen’s family, to get an update on their thoughts and feelings about the case. While there was grief expressed in the interview held with the family, there were happier memories mentioned as well.

“She was pretty good to everybody in our family, she cared for every one of us, her children, our mum, my nephews, and nieces were a big part of her life, same with her brothers and sisters,” said Whitstone.  

“She loved to play bingo. I managed the bingo here (in OLCN) at one time, and she would almost come every night. She really enjoyed that. There was a different side to her life, but she shouldn’t be put aside just because of the life style that she had.”

According to Whitstone, Violet’s disappearance was reported back in the summer of 2009, after she wasn’t seen for more than a week.

A police release from June 3, 2009, stated she had been reported missing and had not been seen or heard from since the evening of May 15, 2009, when she had been drinking at the Alberta Hotel bar, now known as the EconoLodge, and was seen leaving the area in an older style black or dark coloured extended cab GMC truck with Saskatchewan plates.

“She did like to hang out with friends, and sometimes she would stay in town for four or five days and just hang out,” said Whitstone.

“She always had to phone someone back home to see if they would go pick her up, but she didn’t.”

Whitstone said the police did not get back to her family after the initial report, so they started a search on their own, calling in skilled trackers from La Ronge, Sask, to help. Posters went up in Red Deer, Alta, and Edmonton, and ground was scoured around Lloydminster and OLCN, but nothing came up. Once winter came, the searches had to end.

Whitstone then received a phone call from investigators in November 2009, indicating a skull had been found. Police then showed up at her home, three days from Christmas, to inform her that the skull had been identified as Heathen’s.

“I thought he was just coming over to wish me a Merry Christmas, and then it clicked in my mind that he was here to tell me something else,” said Whitstone.

“You don’t expect that to happen to you. I guess it can happen to anybody, but I didn’t want to believe it.”

At the time, Whitstone asked investigators why her sister’s story wasn’t being discussed in the media, and said she was told the police did not want the information to be widely known so the investigation would not be compromised. Disagreeing with this opinion, Whitstone later phoned a radio station in La Ronge, Sask and told them about the discovery.

“This is about my sister,” said Whitstone.

“Why try and hide it, when everyone should know? There is someone out there that knows. There is someone out there that is responsible, and that’s what I was trying to get at.”

According to Whitstone, investigators from K Division in Edmonton have been in contact with the family, with the most recent communication occurring in December 2015. However, she said there has not been any new information from police told to the family about the case.

The Meridian Booster reached out to the RCMP to discuss the case, and while police did not confirm whether or not Heathen’s remains had been found in Kitscoty in 2009, they did not dispute the word of Whitstone.

“No case is ever cold, some are just more difficult to investigate than others,” said Cpl. Hal Turnbull, an officer with RCMP Strategic Communications.

Turnbull said the case was now in the hands of Historical Homicide, and described the reasons behind why cases are sent to the unit in certain circumstances.

“It operates on the evidence that we gather immediately, when the investigation commences, whatever that evidence may be,” said Turnbull,

“Is there a scene? Is there a weapon? Are there remains? Are there witnesses? So on and so forth. Once all of that is exhausted, that could takes months, if not years to work through. Once that evidence has all been combed through, and all the leads generated have been exhausted, at that point, it would be then turned over to the historical homicide unit if a suspect has not been identified.”

Turnbull said the unit could help in investigating certain cases, as they would have a fresh set of eyes on the matter, as opposed to the “front-line” investigators, who would have previously had the file.

“Chances are, if its’s in the historical homicide unit, it’s there because there are not any identifiable suspects or persons of interest,” said Turnbull.

“They would then re-examine the file, take a new look at it. Fresh eyes always provide a wealth of information, and they would be working the file from that perspective, because they do have the personnel to work on these older files, and the more difficult ones, as opposed to the initial group.”

Turnbull also said he had spoken to the officer in charge of the unit handling Historical Homicide, and was informed officers are instructed to reach out to the families of those files under investigation at least once a year.

Details about the ongoing investigation into the Heathen homicide were not able to be disclosed.

 “Anything to do with the actual nuts and bolts of the case, and how it’s progressing, what information we have, all of that we can’t comment on,” said Turnbull.

“It’s not only to preserve the integrity of the investigation, it’s also to improve the integrity of the court case when it finally goes to trial.”

Turnbull also said investigators may choose to keep information from the family for the sake of the file. However, he expressed faith in the investigation process, and wanted to make it known that the file was still being looked into.

“These investigations do get attention,” said Turnbull.

“These investigations are followed up, and these investigations are ongoing.”

As for Whitstone, she said she has shared her story publically in Saskatoon, Sask once at a conference concerning missing and murdered women, and a second time at a meeting held this year by the federal government on the topic. The family has also held memorial walks from Lloydminster to OLCN, full of Heathen’s favourite things.

Whitstone hopes the mystery of her sister’s murder will be solved soon.

“Living with the not knowing for this long is pretty painful, on all of us. Our mum is getting old. Her sons are growing up.”

If anyone has any information they think would be of interest to the authorities in this case, they are urged to call Crimestoppers at 1-800-222-8477, the Lloydminster RCMP at 780-808-8300, or the Kitscoty RCMP at 780-846-2870.