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A Town on Edge: St. Anthony's Mildred Dawe-Sexton, 47, missing since April 16, 2002

Mildred Sexton.
Mildred Sexton.

There’s only one road leading out of St. Anthony to the rest of the province.

Harbour View Apartments on the east side of St. Anthony. Mildred Sexton had lived in this building when she was reported missing in April 2002.

If you stay on West Street that passes through the core of the town, it runs into North Street that inclines and winds its way through a number of out-lying businesses.

North Street flows seamlessly into The Viking Trail that skirts the picturesque west coast of the Northern Peninsula all the way to hook up with the Trans-Canada Highway at Deer Lake. If you are lucky you see amazing wildlife such as white caribou and black bears before hitting a string of quaint little fishing towns.

If Mildred Sexton was intending to leave town on foot that Tuesday, April 16, 2002 — when she was reportedly last seen — it was a daunting distance the 47-year-old was facing.

And there are people who say they saw Mildred Sexton walking on North Street that morning heading out of town.

There are others who believe she may have fallen through the harbour ice — either accidentally or intentionally.

And there are rumours she may have been coaxed — or forced against her will — onto a foreign fishing boat that was in the harbour at the time.

For her family and friends, and for the town in general, there have always been more questions than answers.

No sign of her has been uncovered in 15 years.

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RCMP news releases from the time make note of two places she was reportedly last seen. A news release issued April 20, 2002, stated the last known sighting was on the parking lot of the Harbour View Apartments building where she lived. A later news release stated that, while she was reported missing on April 16, she was last seen April 17 between 1:30 p.m. and 2:15 p.m. on North Street in St. Anthony, heading towards the Trans-Canada Highway. The RCMP also pointed out there was some concern she may have wondered onto the harbour ice.

Family members of Mildred Sexton have found it an agonizing and difficult time.

Sandra Dawe, who is married to Mildred’s brother Deon Dawe, spoke to The Telegram on behalf the other family members who still find the topic hard to talk about.

Dawe described her sister-in-law as an unassuming woman who lived alone in an apartment on the east side of town after her two children had grown up and moved away.

She lived a relatively quiet life, Dawe noted, never going much further than the homes of her family members, the post office or the store for food and cigarettes.

That’s why it’s such a mystery as to what happened to her.

“Mildred was pretty quiet. She used to visit family and friends but she didn’t do a whole lot,” Dawe said. “On occasion she would go to dart night, sit there and watch. She was not one to be out partying or anything.”

In a small town like St. Anthony, people know a lot about their fellow residents — often more than most would like.

Mildred was known to suffer from a mental health condition.

The RCMP news releases described Mildred with brown, collar-length hair and green eyes, about five feet, nine-inches tall and weighing about 150 pounds with a medium build.

“She has a groomed appearance and fair complexion. She was last seen wearing a dark green nylon winter coat, blue jeans and laced brown shoes,” an RCMP release stated.

“Sexton is currently being treated with medication for schizophrenia. Her direction of travel is unknown.”

Mildred Sexton was reportedly last seen walking along this stretch of road heading out of St. Anthony. Her family has long struggled since with the disappearance as there is no firm indication of what happened to her.

Dawe said Mildred had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and that many people thought at the time she may have committed suicide. But, she said, Mildred was doing well with the disease.

“Like anybody she had her relapses, but for the most part she was doing well,” Dawe said. “There was no indication that she was having any problems at that time.”

Dawe said it was Mildred’s father who first raised the alarm about Mildred being missing. He had bought some salmon at the store and had gone to Mildred’s apartment to drop some off to her. There was no answer when he knocked on the door.

“He kept going back and still there was nobody there, and eventually he got someone to let him in — either the apartment manager or the RCMP, I’m not sure — and he got in and checked the apartment,” Dawe said. “Everything was there belonging to her. There were leftovers from her last meal. There was no indication that she wasn’t coming back. Nothing out of the ordinary in the apartment.”

In the days that followed, after word got out that Mildred was missing, rumours and suspicions surfaced. In addition to possible suicide, other opinions were that she had hitch-hiked out of town, had fallen through the harbour ice or left with the crew of a foreign fishing vessel that had been in the harbour.

The RCMP spread the word of her disappearance requesting any information from the public, and investigated all leads and organized extensive ground and harbour searches.

No trace of her was found.

Mildred all of a sudden deciding to leave town was not an option to which family members put much weight.

What stood out most for family members and friends, Dawe said, were the personal items that were left in the apartment, things like her cigarettes that she never went through the door without.

“She was a smoker,” Dawe said. “One thing the family noticed was that her cigarettes were still on the counter. Everywhere she went she took her cigarettes. If she was going somewhere, we would have expected the cigarettes to be gone.”

The winter ice in St. Anthony harbour hardens strong enough to support snowmobiles and walkers. A number of people cross the harbour ice as a short cut from the east side of the harbour to the town’s west side where a majority of the businesses and services are located. One of the more popular scenarios was that Mildred went through the harbour ice.

That is something Dawe, and Mildred’s family, find hard to believe.

“I myself know, and most of the family knows, she wouldn’t walk on the harbour ice,” Dawe said. “I used to tell her that when she goes to check her mail she could walk across the harbour, that you don’t have to all the way around to the other side. She would say, ‘No way, I’m not going out on that harbour.’ She had a fear of the harbour ice.”

In fact, walking long distances was something Mildred wasn’t known for, either. That’s why the North Street-heading-out-of-town scenario doesn’t sit well with the family.

“Sometimes she would walk to her brother’s house, or up this way, or to check the mail, but she didn’t like walking long distances,” Dawe said. “If she could get someone to give her a ride to where she was going, because the post office was a nice ways away, she would do that because it was around the harbour from where she lived.”

And if it was Mildred people saw on North Street heading out of town, no one in the family knows where she was going or why, Dawe said.

It all gets tossed into a mix of other rumours about Mildred, everything from getting on that foreign vessel, to getting into a strange vehicle on the parking lot of her apartment building.

“Some people say they saw her walking up the road. Some people said they saw her walking out of town. Somebody else said they saw her getting into a car in the parking lot of the building,” Dawe said. “A lot of different stories, some of them were a few days later when people came forward.

“There was a fishing boat in at that time. There were different people here. And some family and people said maybe she went with one of the fishermen, but that’s speculation. There’s nothing to even indicate she did that. I don’t think she would go on a foreign boat, but she was a very trusting person.”

It is not known if there was ever a specific person or persons of interest in the Mildred Sexton case.

When the harbour ice is strong enough during the winter in St. Anthony, people often walk across it as a short cut to the other side of town.

In talking to people around St. Anthony, however, some people referred to rumours that one man — who is known in the town to have a history of mental illness — had been questioned by the RCMP as he was allegedly seen at the apartment building and talking to Mildred Sexton around the time of her disappearance.

The man — whose criminal record includes an uttering threats charge and two charges of assault, a charge of mischief related to damage to property, and breaches of court orders in 2003, plus theft charges in 2005 and 2016 — is also mentioned by some in relation to the latest missing person case in St. Anthony, that of Jennifer Hillier-Penney who was last seen Nov. 30, 2016.

Over the years, the man reportedly uttered statements as to where Mildred’s body was. Relatives of the man, however, dismiss any involvement of him in any missing persons case. They say those rumours are unfounded and that the man is known, at times, to make unusual statements and has spent time in hospital for treatment.

The Telegram asked the RCMP if the man was questioned but did not receive an answer up to this story going to publication.

Dawe said she heard those rumours, too, but has no reason to believe there is any connection there. The family has never asked the RCMP as to whether the man had been questioned, or suspected in any way.

In June 2005, three years after Mildred Sexton went missing and eight months before St. Anthony would suffer its second missing person-without-a-trace case, a rumour rapidly spread around town that Sexton’s body had been found over the weekend of June 11 and 12 and that two people had been arrested.

The RCMP issued a news release on Tuesday, June 14, 2005 denying that claim and quelling the rumour.

The RCMP and ground search and rescue teams from Port Saunders and Roddickton had conducted a training mission near St. Anthony, but the exercise was also used to continue the search for Sexton. Police said the search was a planned event and not as the result of any further information on Sexton's disappearance.

As the years continue to go by, there still has been no sign of Sexton.

Dawe said each time another missing persons case has come to light in the town — three more since Mildred went missing: Andrew Sexton, Cleon Smith and Jennifer Hillier-Penney — the feelings that were present when Mildred went missing bubbled to the surface again.

“Nobody knows what happened to her and they are always wondering,” Dawe said. “It don’t be talked about all the time but when someone else goes missing, it all comes back. It is a difficult time.

“People wonder if we are missing something here. Maybe not enough being done in the searches and followup. Initially people are out looking but as time goes on, it kind of goes away. Then years go by and you kind of wonder if more could have been done earlier, or continued on.

“Whenever we spoke to the RCMP, the file is still open, but visibly that’s not there. The family has always got their eyes open. People are still looking around. In fact, someone once came and said they saw a person who looked like Mildred and was going to speak to her, but then realized it wasn’t her.”

While few in the family believe Mildred is still alive somewhere, Dawe said there’s one family member who will never believe she is dead.

Mildred’s mother, Melina Dawe, 79, still holds out hope that Mildred will walk through the door one day.

And Melina will continue to hold out that hope, Sandra Dawe says, until someone proves her wrong.

Tomorrow: Left behind in a snowstorm: the case of Andrew Sexton.

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