Pained by questions that may never be answered, family and friends will gather to remember a Red Deer woman who vanished without a trace 20 years ago.
The last time anyone reported seeing Rhonda Runningbird, 25, alive was on March 26, 1995.
Next week will mark the 20th anniversary of her mysterious disappearance in the Swan Lake recreational area.
A memorial and supper for the young mother will be held at the Tsuu T’ina Nation on March 28.
Barb Wiebe, who has acted as the family’s spokesperson over the years, said Runningbird has never been far from anyone’s thoughts, especially at this time of year.
“It’s been very hard on (her mother) Mavis,” said Wiebe. “She always talks about it. We always talk about ‘did we do this or did we do that? Should we have done this or should we have done that?’ ”
Runningbird, a mother of three, was on a hunting trip with Fred Lagrelle, her common-law husband, their 18-month-old son and his aunt.
Lagrelle, who reported his wife missing, told police that Runningbird left to find help for the family after their truck got stuck in the muskeg.
The puzzling case grabbed headlines, especially after the Siksika Nation administration called on then-Premier Ralph Klein to take action.
Runningbird was living in Red Deer and taking classes at the Red Deer Native Friendship. She was born and raised on the Siksika Nation an hour east of Calgary.
At the time, Klein said that police were doing everything they could, including ground and air searches, to locate the missing mother of three.
For several years, friends and family organized their own searches and appealed to the public for clues that would one day explain what happened to Runningbird.
Hopes were pinned to a website dedicated to the search.
Memorial services were also held marking the anniversary of her disappearance.
Some family members believed foul play was involved and haven’t changed their minds since 1995.
Wiebe said the family does not believe the police did as much as they could in the early days of her disappearance.
“At the beginning, they were looking for a person who was missing in the bush,” said Wiebe. “When they first searched, they didn’t search for anything that could have been a grave site. That was our feeling.”
Runningbird was in poor health when she vanished and had been a frequent guest at local women’s shelters. She was wearing a kidney colostomy bag and was scheduled for an operation. Wiebe said that’s the reason no one believed that she had walked anywhere.
But no one was ever charged and Runningbird is still considered a missing person.
“There is nothing to say the stories that were presented at that time were not believable,” said Rocky Mountain House RCMP Cpl. Bob Schultz. “It didn’t result in any kind of discovery. Everybody can continue to point fingers. There were two people with her. … Their stories are similar but nothing glaring that comes out of that. To the general public, yeah, that story doesn’t make any sense, but sometimes it does.”
Schultz said they said they went hunting on a whim and sometimes people in this area do that.
The decades-old case recently came up for review and landed on Schultz’s desk.
Schultz, who has been stationed in Rocky for close to six years, said police exhausted all avenues they could at the time.
Extensive ground and air searches were conducted throughout the area. Witnesses were interviewed and polygraph tests were done.
“There has been heavy review,” said Schultz. “Everything that I am reading so far … everything has been done. I know it’s hard to accept. Everything that we could have done was done. Unfortunately, it hasn’t yielded any results by way of finding her.”
The Swan Lake region, 40 km southwest of Rocky, is a huge recreational area that is flooded with hundreds of people year after year.
“It is a wide open wooded area,” said Schultz. “It’s a ravine. There’s lots of wildlife out there. The possibilities are endless at what could have happened to her. Not to mention if she had any medical conditions that could have caused her to … I don’t know.”
Schultz said the tips were countless over the years but there has not been any new leads in his six years in Rocky.
“The problem is this was in the stage when we did everything by hand,” said Schultz. “Even reading the file is difficult. Every interview they could have done has been done. All searches they could have done has been done. There wasn’t a whole lot that could be done more on it. … Until there is clarity on it, it’s hard for anyone to accept what has happened.”
A recent RCMP report revealed that 1,181 aboriginal women vanished or were murdered between 1980 and 2012 in Canada.
Wiebe hopes that the memorial will keep Runningbird’s name out there and may trigger someone’s memory about that day.
The memorial at the at the Chiila Elementary School on the Tsuu T’ina Nation on the southwest edge of Calgary is open to the public and begins at 11 a.m. on March 28. If you have any information on this case, call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.