ST. ANTHONY, N.L. — Andrew Sexton was drawn to the huge wilderness areas around St. Anthony, like many residents of the town and surrounding communities.
It’s as if the spirit of the adventurous Vikings that set up camp at nearby L’Anse aux Meadows more than 1,000 years ago still lingers over the land.
Just like many young people about his age in the winter of 2006, the 21-year-old Sexton wanted to join in day-long snowmobile excursions to areas that would normally only be accessible by boat or helicopter at other times of the year.
The Northern Peninsula can be an amazing place for the snowmobile enthusiast. It has vast expanses of shoreline trails, mountains and rolling hills, and countless woods roads. Many people use snowmobiles to access the woods for firewood — piles of which are evident along the roadside in many areas.
The terrain is rugged and beautiful, with the ocean’s rush never far in the distance. It can also make for a terrifying place if you are caught in a snowstorm.
In St. Anthony, owning a snowmobile is almost as important as owning a car.
Andrew Sexton loved to snowmobile. And he loved to build things.
With the help of his dad, Eugene Sexton, he completely rebuilt an old snowmobile that he was extremely proud of.
The last time anyone reportedly saw Andrew Sexton, he was on his snowmobile in a snowstorm.
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That was on Sunday, Feb. 26, 2006, when Sexton and two friends had left St. Anthony in the morning for a snowmobile ride to a cabin area in a remote location west of Goose Cove, just outside of St. Anthony.
By mid-day the weather took a turn for the worse and the three were caught in a snowstorm as they were making their way back.
It’s from this point in the story that questions of what exactly happened that day have been raised and remain unanswered to many people’s satisfaction.
Andrew’s mother, Darlene (Dee) Pearce, who now lives in Port aux Basques, said the stories of those who were with Andrew that day never added up.
Pearce said the only time she has ever spoken to either of the two who were with Andrew was the night he was reported missing. The RCMP brought one of them to her house.
“He said, ‘We don’t know why Andrew didn’t come out because he was behind us on Ski-Doo and there was a point where we didn’t see him and we came on anyway,’” she said.
“That was hard for me to wrap my head around, as to why, if you knew it was that stormy, why didn’t you keep looking behind to make sure you were all together? Not to say I wanted you all to get stuck, but you should have made sure you all stayed close together, even if it slowed you down, so you all get back safe and sound.
“The point was they made it home by lunchtime and they didn’t tell anybody that, ‘OK, we are home, but Andrew is not.’ They just went somewhere, to a friend’s house and stayed there the rest of the afternoon and just did not bother to check. If Andrew’s best friend Bill (Hedderson) hadn’t inquired and went looking for him that evening, we probably wouldn’t have known anything until the next day.”
Pearce is a mother who has gone through hell twice over. So did her now ex-husband Eugene Sexton. In December 1997, their son Nathan Sexton — only six years old — was killed when he was hit by a car.
Pearce said having Andrew to still take care of at the time helped pull her through that terrible ordeal.
Andrew’s disappearance a decade later nearly finished her.
“They left in the morning, the weather was good. It was just a light snowfall. He came to me to let me know where they were going and I gave him some money for gas, and I went on to work,” she said.
“The weather had gotten nasty at some point in the afternoon, but I kind of figured they’d be back and were hanging out somewhere in town. As the evening wore on, and it was dark by suppertime, I still didn’t hear anything, but just assumed they were together. It wasn’t until his best friend called me that it kind of set the panic button. Then we started calling around to see if anybody had seen him.”
The Telegram attempted to talk to the two others said to have been with Andrew Sexton that day. One declined an interview, and the other did not respond to a request as of the time of publication of this article. Another man, also thought to have been with the three at some point that day on snowmobile, did not respond.
Sexton’s best friend, William Hedderson, wasn’t on the trip because he didn’t have a snowmobile of his own. He said Sexton and him were “like brothers” and he expected them to get together as soon as Andrew returned from snowmobiling that day.
“When 3:30 p.m and 4 p.m. rolled around it was stormy and I called his house and he wasn’t there,” Hedderson said. “I started calling around to try to find him.”
His concern led to a search being organized.
While the storm impeded the initial search by family and friends that night, an official search got started at daybreak on Monday, Feb. 27 and involved RCMP officers, police dogs, aircraft, members of the Roddickton-based Long Range Search and Rescue team, members of the St. Anthony and Raleigh fire departments, the Canadian Rangers and, at times, more than 100 snowmobilers.
Sexton’s snowmobile was soon found with the keys still in the ignition and half a tank of gas. It was located in heavy, drifting snow near the coastline in an area known locally as Devil’s Cove, eight to 10 kilometres west of Goose Cove.
After searchers cleared the snow away from the machine, the snowmobile easily started and was in good working order.
But there was no sign of Andrew Sexton that day or the following days, despite an extensive search. There has been no sign of him since.
Five days later, the RCMP called off the search. The decision was prompted by a blizzard that had ripped through much of the province, as well as by the fact that all measures to find Sexton had been exhausted, police said. Another official search was organized and conducted in the spring, following a petition by family members, friends and townspeople.
St. Anthony Mayor Ernest Simms said he remembers seeing Andrew that morning. As a teacher, Simms had taught Andrew in elementary school.
“I knew Andrew as a student. He grew up with my children, really, a year or two between him and my son,” he said. “The day he disappeared, I was driving and I stopped for him to pass in front of me on snowmobile. It was starting to snow then at the time.”
St. Anthony resident Carl Rumbolt was one of the people who took part in the search for Andrew. He said there was a lot of snow in the area and it was on higher terrain near cliffs next to the ocean.
“A lot of people responded to the search,” he said. “They had dogs in there that came up with nothing. It’s sad that they didn’t find that young feller. His mom and dad and all of his family and friends still have no closure.”
As the days passed, a number of rumours and speculation circulated that something wasn’t right with the stories of those who accompanied Andrew on the trip that day. People asked that if Andrew’s snowmobile was not broken down, why did he not continue on like the others? If they could see their way out, why couldn’t Andrew?
A common thought is that Andrew became disoriented in the snowstorm, stopped to try to check is location and walked off a cliff into the ocean. Others in town — particularly in light of three other unresolved missing-person cases — suggest something a little more sinister may have been at play.
“I can’t really say if somebody did something. Of course, there is absolutely no evidence of anything, but something had to have happened for him to not come back at the same time they did, whether it was something accidental or not,” Pearce said.
“There had to be an issue unless they got too far ahead of him, or he got lost on a turn, but the information we were given just didn’t seem to add up at the time, and it hasn’t ever added up. It just makes you question everything and everybody. If he could see where he was at, he wasn’t going to leave that skidoo there for no reason. Because it didn’t appear like it was stuck. Maybe he was disoriented because of the weather, but I’d like to think he would have driven as far as he could.”
Pearce said one of things she cannot understand is the discrepancy of where the others said they last saw Andrew and where his snowmobile was actually located. He would have had to backtrack.
“It made me and a lot of other people question things,” Pearce said. “If he was behind them in one particular area, how did he end up way back there where his skidoo was found? It doesn’t make sense.”
Hedderson doesn’t hold back when he speaks about that day.
“I had to get out of St. Anthony or I was going to end up in jail,” Hedderson said by phone from Alberta.
“I still blame them young fellers who went with him. Because I was talking to them after and they said (Andrew) was going to take a different way home. I said, ‘Jesus, it was stormy. You’d think you’d all stay together to make sure you all got home.’
“You go together and you come back together. I will still blame them until the day I die. It’s on them. They should be charged with something, friends or not.”
A number of people The Telegram talked to recently in St. Anthony shared a similar feeling.
“You don’t leave a buddy behind,” one man at the local Tim Hortons said. “They should have been charged, at least with negligence. They came out and never even checked to see if Andrew made it out OK. Who would do that?”
Long after the official searches were over, noted Hedderson, his stepfather and Andrew’s father continued to search for Andrew for months.
“His dad never stopped searching,” Hedderson said.
“I still think somebody done something. I knew Andrew better than anybody. If he had to leave his skidoo somewhere on his own free will he would have pulled the key out of her, and maybe even the spark plug so nobody would steal it. It wasn’t much of a Ski-Doo, but he thought a lot over it. He and his father and his cousin, they pretty much built it from scratch.
“People say where they found his Ski-Doo, it wasn’t that far from the edge of a cliff. Why would he get off the Ski-Doo when he could drive her? He wasn’t that ambitious to walk. What really got me was the key was left in her. That was a no-no for Andrew.
“I don’t believe he walked off the edge of that cliff on his own free will. I will think that until the day I die. It don’t make sense. And it wouldn’t have been because he was disorientated by being drunk or on drugs. He never had the money for that stuff.”
Hedderson noted that Andrew sometimes did experience panic attacks, but he said he didn’t think that would factor into his thinking ability if caught in a snowstorm.
“I don’t know if that played a factor in decisions or what, but when it came down to it, he was pretty smart,” Hedderson said.
Hedderson said he went back to St. Anthony a couple of years ago and found being in the town gave him an uneasy feeling.
“I went to the cemetery where Nathan’s grave is and there’s a plaque for Andrew. It didn’t make sense to me,” Hedderson said. “No body. It’s tough. At least if they found him, they could put closure to it. His mom don’t deserve that at all, to lose her only two boys.”
When Andrew Sexton went missing he had just finished his job at the local Tim Hortons and was enrolled in a carpentry course at the local campus of the College of the North Atlantic.