Two Red Deer women are among the 3,000 cases in an Alberta student’s database for missing or murdered Aboriginal women.
Rhonda Runningbird was 25 when she disappeared near Swan Lake, southwest of Rocky Mountain House, in March of 1995. And no trace was yet been found of Wilhelmina Wanner, 52, who went missing from her Red Deer-area acreage in January 1989.
Annita Lucchesi, a PhD student at Lethbridge University, has been recording these and other cases of vanished Indigenous women — going back to 1900. With a personal history of domestic violence, Lucchesi, who’s of Cheyenne ancestry from Montana, said “I came close to almost being one of the women on the list.”
The more Lucchesi read about the thousands of missing or murdered women across North America, the more she felt the need to give their stories meaning. “I wanted to remember and honour these women… and make sure something like this doesn’t happen to other native girls.”
Her database, which she makes available upon request, lists the cases of the two disappeared Red Deer women.
Runningbird went missing while on a hunting trip to Swan Lake with her 14-month-old son, her common-law partner Fred Lagrelle, and his sister.
According to the report Lagrelle later provided to Rocky RCMP, his truck got stuck in the mud and Runningbird set out to look for help, leaving her baby with Lagrelle and his sister.
Runningbird’s mother always disputed Lagrelle’s story. She said her daughter had a history of being abused by Lagrelle and was recovering from injuries inflicted by him. She was using a colostomy bag. Why would she have set out into the forest alone, instead of waiting by the road for help? her mother questioned.
But Lagrelle, who died in 2016, never changed his story. And police never found enough evidence to lay charges.
Despite many searches organized by RCMP and Runningbird’s family, her remains have never been found.
An arrest was made after Wanner’s disappearance six years earlier. The diminutive woman was last seen alive in January of 1989. Later, blood and hair were found in her bathroom, along with a kitchen knife.
Red Deer RCMP searched the region for her remains, even tearing apart the Red Deer landfill. They searched flare pits, oil dump sites, parks and isolated roads near Wanner’s acreage, about eight km west of Red Deer. With no body, police turned to psychics, which was used by RCMP as a last resort.
Police charged her estranged husband, Jacob Wanner, with murder and the case went to trial in 1991. It was only the third time in Alberta’s history that a murder case was argued without a body being found.
But the defence lawyer argued in court that Jacob Wanner’s estranged wife had left the region. And the Crown couldn’t make a good enough case that she didn’t — so the jury acquitted the accused. Jacob Wanner later died at age 78 in 2010.
Although the main suspects in both cases are no longer alive, the RCMP never closes the file on cold cases.
Corp. Ron Bumbry, spokesperson for RCMP K-Division in Edmonton, said it’s important for the families of missing persons to know that these historic cases remain open and are periodically reviewed by investigators. In some cases, people who know something come forward years later, or evidence is found.
“We remain diligent and continue to investigate each case in the hope that something will eventually turn up.”