SUNCHILD FIRST NATION — Karen and Rodger Rinker have been talking for a while, fireplace crackling in the background of their cozy, rustic home, when Rodger leaves the table.
He soon returns, carefully holding two old zip-lock bags.
When I realize what he has, it takes my breath away. It is a heart-rending moment that would test the emotions of even the most hardened observer.
And then we begin to go back almost three decades, to that relentlessly unforgettable instant when Rodger found their two-year-old son Jesse’s boot in the ashes of a forest fire not all that far from where we sit.
The tragedy that the boot represents would not be their last terrible sorrow. Rodger, 69, and Karen, 64, have experienced much sadness, and maybe a miracle or two as well, over the ensuing 27 years.
On May 4, 1987, two-year-old Jesse Rinker inexplicably disappeared outside the family home, which is surrounded by thick bush. Soon the largest missing child ground search in Alberta’s history would begin.
Rodger and Karen, originally came to Sunchild First Nation — about 60 km northwest of Rocky Mountain House — in 1975, to establish a mission.
The Methodist couple came from the United States after they met and married. Rodger grew up in the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky, eventually earning a ministerial degree. Karen earned a teaching and social science degree in Kansas City.
The home and chapel they built on Sunchild lies near Coyote Creek and overlooks a wilderness horizon as far as the eye can see.
Rodger was away in the U.S. Karen was busy at their Coyote Creek Chapel and Christian School, but also keeping an eye on Jesse as he played outside on a swing.
When Karen came to realize that Jesse was more than just outside and couldn’t find him, she called for help.
Rodger returned home as soon as he learned Jesse was missing. It would 13 months before they knew Jesse’s fate.
Just over a year earlier, Karen had delivered a stillborn baby — James. The couple had four children older than Jesse at the time — Seth the oldest, and then Jenny, Joshua and Reuben.
“The whole story is difficult for people to accept and if I hadn’t experienced it, I don’t know what I would think,” said Rodger, a man with soft blue eyes, meticulous in his appearance, and a young voice.
“That whole time, the 13 months (Jesse was missing), my life was out there in the bush just basically crying like a baby. I did not handle it very well … I was trying to move on. I couldn’t do that. When I was praying it was rather a pathetic thing. … The stars were so bright it was like God was right there. But he wasn’t helping us and that’s what made it so hard. It made it worse because he wasn’t bringing Jesse back.”
“There was no support. We had to find our way through this.” So every day he went out into the forest and prayed as he walked.
“When prayer comes from that inner part of the heart, God has to answer. He has to. But it’s very rare for that to happen,” Rodger says, crying.
Then a forest fire came through.
He asked police to tell any loggers who came through to harvest burned out trees that they should be aware that Jesse was still missing.
Shortly after, as Rodger was doing his “prayer walk” about 1.6 km from home, he looked over in an area that had previously been very thick willows, now gone from fire. As he walked, he noticed a moose antler in the ashes. “I thought I would take it home, as decoration. … Then I saw another one that hadn’t burned so I picked it up, and there was a third one. …
“At that point I was standing there staring into the ashes. … It was like God was speaking to my heart. …. Something was going on there. … I reached down and I picked up this — I’ll show you.”
Rodger then opens one of the bags and pulls out a child’s little red boot, charred. With it is a small grey sock. In the other bag is the matching boot, damaged even more by fire.
He gently holds the boot and remembers.
“When I picked this up, this voice in my heart, there was something kind of being said to me to pick it up. … I turn it over and if it’s red — so I turned it over, and it was red. So I knew it was Jesse’s boot because there’s no garbage out there at all. It’s way out.
“The second thing was: Look inside and if there’s a sock — you don’t find a boot with a sock inside of it — and so I reached inside, there was a sock. And that’s when I knew that he had died.”
Police were there within hours and soon found some of Jesse’s remains and clothing.
The search was finally over.
“In order to deal with press conferences there had to be an explanation so the only one they came up with was that this occurred at the very edge of the search limit. The theory is that he would have been in the water so the (search) dog couldn’t find a scent. … After the dog was there, the body would have surfaced (from decomposition) and the animals would have dragged him out,” Rodger said.
The theory continues that when searchers did drag the creek, animals had already pulled Jesse’s body out and away.
“The biggest problem with trying to make sense out of this is how he would have ever gotten there. It could be said that it wasn’t possible,” says Rodger, “because there was muskeg that he would have had to go through. … There really isn’t an explanation. There’s always that void.”
While the Rinkers still have problems with some police tactics and officers involved, the investigation did reach a point where it started all over again with new officers, Rodger said.
The RCMP rented a motel in Rocky Mountain House as a headquarters for several months. “They spent millions of dollars on it. For them to do that, that was an incredible thing.
“They told us it was never closed. They told us that it’s not resolved. We’re not shutting this down. It will never be closed.
“There was always a cloud of knowing that it didn’t make sense to most secular people. … and that was something that we accepted,” he said.
“You just wonder … it could be today you’ll get a phone call or maybe (someone) will … confess something. It’s always there.
“There’s something incomprehensible about it that lives on,” Rodger said.
During the investigation, their oldest child, Seth, 12, was taken away for questioning.
Rodger said they believed that he was going to talk to someone who would help him retrieve any lost memories. They let him go alone. “We were under tremendous pressure to follow whatever they wanted.
“It was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” said Rodger.
“Seth grew up out here in the bush so he was extremely vulnerable, … The police to him was something he never hardly saw. It was a scary thing.”
Rodger said Seth was given a lie detector test and was asked if he killed Jesse.
“He’s 12 years old and his world has just crashed.”
When Seth came home that day, and he saw his son’s face, Rodger said: “I knew that he’d never survive it.”
Seth suffered severe depression over the next five years and one terrible day, when Rodger was upstairs, Seth took a rifle and shot himself. The bullet killed the 17-year-old and flew upward, missing Rodger by just a few feet, “Ripping past my head.”
It was New Year’s, and the tradition on Sunchild is for families to visit, going house to house and sharing food.
Karen was out, heading to neighbours. “I heard the shot. I actually heard the shot.” But she didn’t know what it was about until one of her daughters came to tell her.
Rodger quickly sent his family away and lay on the floor and held Seth’s foot until the police arrived.
“It’s bad enough what’s happened in this world, but what’s his afterlife? You can’t deal with that.”
He regrets sending the rest of his family away. “As I looked I saw his face, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. There was a beauty that was there, that was not an earthly describable beauty in his face. All of these horrible thoughts of tragedy were gone when I saw his face.
“(Seth’s) mind wasn’t functioning. He wasn’t rational.”
Through all of it, “God makes no mistake. I have said that from Day One,” Karen said.
“When things happen to people, if you really believe there’s a God, then you can trust him, that he’s going to bring it out in the end whatever’s supposed to happen. … I do not know why things happen but (God) makes no mistake.
“Families can fall apart through this. People really need to understand this could happen,” she says, sobbing.
“I just want you to tell people it can tear families apart.”
The Rinkers have been married 40 years.
“We have peace in our home but there’s been a lot of pain through this,” said Karen, a tall woman, her hair the colour of her big brown eyes. She covers her face a lot with her hands this day as she listens to her husband.
“Very few families will survive a tragedy of this level,” said Rodger.
“In our case, our children were the casualties.
“They were at an age where this just tore them apart. … They have all found it extremely difficult to deal with.”
After Jesse was lost, the Rinkers had three more children — twins Melany and Melody, and then David.
Karen brings out a chain necklace with a small tag on it. The tag is from Jesse’s pants that a search dog found in the ashes, and it was put on a necklace for Karen to wear because someone thought it would be nice. The tag reads “Happy Kids.”
“I cannot wear that in front on my children,” said Karen.
“Post traumatic stress, used to be called shell shock, it is a devastating thing,” said Rodger. “We’ve had that severely.
“For me, I couldn’t be around a two-year-old.”
Rodger grew up in a home where there was a connection but not hugs and kisses, because in part his own father suffered from “shell shock” from the war. He admits he wasn’t close to his children like Karen because he was busy working.
Six years ago, Rodger was picking up several children for vacation Bible school in a van. He saw two-year-old twins standing at the door of their house crying because their siblings were leaving. He closed the van doors and walked around it, got in and pulled out — and then there was a bump. He had run over something.
It was one of the twins. He pulled the girl out from under the van and held her.
“It was exactly like the last time I held little Jesse. Same size. In her Pamper. Everything was just like my little baby.
“I couldn’t be around a two-year-old, now I’m holding one I had just run over.
“It was so bad that when the medics came, they couldn’t deal with it.
“The tire had run squarely over her head.”
They treated it as a fatality and didn’t call in a helicopter. Doctors told police there was no hope. From Rocky hospital, they did fly her to Edmonton hospital, said Rodger.
The next day the grandmother called him from Edmonton. “We want you to know they just did a CAT scan and there’s nothing wrong with her. She’s OK.”
“When she came home, we wanted to go see her. … We were total strangers. She ran like a deer and jumped, leaped, into my arms.” She was fully recovered two weeks later.
“When she learned to talk she told us she was in heaven at the accident. Whatever she experienced at the scene … is related to why she jumped in my arms the way she did. … whatever was going on it was clearly related to the fact of losing Jesse,” Rodger said.
“I was holding her in my arms when she was a little corpse. Now I’m holding her in my arms as somebody who just won’t let go of me.
“There was some kind of connection there that was incredibly important to her and me as well.
“Her family, they know that there was a miracle involved,” he said.
The Rinkers are first and foremost missionaries.
They have church service on Sundays, as well as women and youth meetings, offer tutoring, and violin, piano and choir classes when the funds are there. They also offer summer vacation Bible school for Sunchild, O’Chiese and Big Horn First Nations.
“The pressure’s there to keep going because what are you going to do? Even if it was an option we wouldn’t be retired at this point,” said Rodger. They’ve left a couple of times over the years because of burnout but always returned.
“It’s our home. We don’t have any other home. We don’t have money in the bank or anything to fall back on. Here we have a place to live. We’re part of the community. We have no plans on going anywhere else. This is where we live,” said Rodger.
“If you’re looking for the community to give you something, then it’s the wrong reason for being here. If you’re here to give the community something, then you enjoy being here,” Karen said.
She wants to show me something before I go — something she says helps her get through. She takes me next door to Coyote Creek Chapel. It is a small two-storey building, and we go up the narrow wooden stairs to a locked door.
Inside, there is a small apartment used by visitors. It has a window that overlooks the back of their place. Karen looks out, points down to an area, asking me if I can see the wooden cross. It’s where their three children are buried.
“I know my children are safe. They’re not here with us but they are safe. And they are being loved. And that’s very important.” Crying again, she says she often goes to the window to overlook the grave area.
Then, with Rodger, we walk in the fresh clean snow and sun to the graves, which are protected in a fenced area. The first grave is Seth’s. The middle one is Jesse’s. The third one is James’s.
The parents clear away the snow over Jesse’s grave to show that on top of it they have placed the moose antlers Rodger found that day just before he found Jesse’s boots.