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A Town On Edge: St. Anthony's Cleon Smith, 30, missing since April 2, 2011

Cleon Smith was a star hockey player from St. Anthony. He went missing without a trace on April 2, 2011 during a snowstorm after venturing out for a walk in a coastal area just outside the Northern Peninsula town.
Cleon Smith was a star hockey player from St. Anthony. He went missing without a trace on April 2, 2011 during a snowstorm after venturing out for a walk in a coastal area just outside the Northern Peninsula town.

ST. ANTHONY, N.L. — There’s an eight-kilometre stretch of road that runs through the wooded, hilly countryside between St. Anthony and the small community of Goose Cove. It’s an area favoured by snowmobilers in the winter and hikers in the summer.

There’s a couple of businesses along the road and an old Canadian Coast Guard building the local fire department uses to set fires in to douse as part of its regular training for its crew members.

It’s a relatively quiet area away from the town, one where in the spring of the year a polar bear could shuffle across the barrens after swimming ashore from Arctic pack ice pushing into Cremalliere harbour.

Cleon Smith liked to walk along Goose Cove Road and take a path through the woods and along the rugged dirt road that leads to the former American military base. At the old base site, there is a magnificent view of Cremalliere harbour and the North Atlantic beyond.

That’s where the 30-year-old reportedly went for a walk on Saturday, April 2, 2011.

He wore his black winter parka, black snow pants and a black hat, along with beige gloves and sneakers. A heavy snowstorm later moved into the area, before Cleon had made his way back home.

It was the last day he was ever seen by anyone.

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Ground searches were immediately organized, but were hampered by the weather conditions. Some searchers would later report seeing footprints they believed to be Cleon’s leading from shore and onto the ice, which has led to the most common theory over the years that Cleon ended up in the water.

St. Anthony resident Carl Rumbolt, who has lived in the town for about 16 years and is a close friend of Cleon’s parents, said he was devastated when he heard the news about 11 p.m. that Saturday after arriving home from work.

Carl Rumbolt splits wood outside his shed at his St. Anthony home. Rumbolt is a friend of missing person Cleon Smith’s family and took part in the search for him in April 2011.

“I heard that (Cleon) was missing and a crowd had gone up — along with the RCMP and the fire department — on Goose Cove Road and up towards the American base site,” Rumbolt said.

“I got on my snowmobile and went on up through the area, and it was as dirty as I don’t know what. You couldn’t hardly see anything. I picked my way up through and went towards the old American base and didn’t see anybody around. When I got back to the main road I saw a vehicle and this was Cleon’s dad and Cleon’s uncle, and they were there with the lights on just hoping he would walk out.

“I heard there were footprints going down over the hill and onto the slob — at that time the bay was all full of slob — a heavy drift of slob and the next morning it was all gone. I can’t say for sure that he went out there or not, but we are still hoping and praying every day that somebody is going give us some answers.”

Cleon was well known in the St. Anthony area as a star hockey player. He had played for the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and the University of P.E.I. He later played for the Corner Brook Royals and was well known throughout Newfoundland senior hockey circles.

The news that he was missing spread quickly throughout the province and beyond.

A number of people reported seeing Cleon walking that day — the latest time was about 12:30 p.m. on Goose Cove Road.

By 4 p.m., blustery winds descended on the area, with up to 15 cm of snow.

Cleon’s parents, Harrison and Betty Smith, called the RCMP when Cleon failed to return home at the expected time.

Soon after, the RCMP, the Canadian Rangers and the local volunteer fire department started a search near the old American base. Footprints were discovered at the highest part of the roadway near the base before weather conditions deteriorated further and the searchers had to retreat.

Early the next morning, while weather conditions were still unfavourable, a large number of volunteers joined the search teams. As conditions improved, more than 100 volunteers on snowmobiles joined in, with even more volunteers on snowshoes. A helicopter and the RCMP dog teams also took part, in addition to Roddickton’s search and rescue team.

It was sometime that day that footprints were reportedly found leading toward the coastline.

A number of small boats and a long-liner equipped with an underwater camera searched the harbour. The RCMP’s under-water recovery team also arrived on the scene.

No sign of Cleon was ever found.

St. Anthony Mayor Ernest Simms, who taught Smith in elementary school, recalls the widespread effort by residents in the search.

“We searched as a town,” he said. “Almost everyone participated and tried to find him.”

Rumbolt said the area of the search contained rough terrain that could be dangerous in places — with 20-, 30- and 40-foot cliffs — especially for people not familiar with the area. He said when it’s snowing and the wind picks up in that area, it only takes “a snap of the finger” for it to become a complete whiteout.

This is believed to be the start of the trail off Goose Cove Road that Cleon Smith took on April 2, 2011 when he went for a walk. Smith was never seen again after a vicious snowstorm hit the area. No trace of him has ever been found despite a massive search effort.

“Myself personally, I try to stay away from the Goose Cove area,” he said. “It’s very hard to spot the (dangerous areas) at the best of times. Even on a calm day, you’d have to struggle to get out of it. On a sunny day everything could look pretty level to you, and suddenly you’re on a cliff.”

Weeks after the original searches ended, the Stephan Hopkins Memorial Foundation was called in by the family and townspeople. The Deer Lake-based volunteer foundation is committed to helping families recover the body of a loved one thought to have drowned. The group used side-scan sonar at Cremailliere harbour, but was unsuccessful in locating any sign of Cleon.

Cleon Smith was the third person of four to go missing without a trace in St. Anthony over a period of 15 years. The combination of all the cases — one about every four or five years — has put many residents of the community on edge.

Residents have changed the way they go about their daily lives, everything from locking their doors at night — something rarely done in years past — to no longer walking the streets after dark.

While it is a stretch to say any of the missing-person cases are connected, there are people in and from the town who feel some of the cases are suspicious. The last case, that of Jennifer Hillier Penney, is the only one officially deemed suspicious by the RCMP.

Talk of a possible serial killer in the area, or that the cases are connected, is one of the reasons Cleon’s parents and other family members were hesitant to speak to The Telegram for this series.

Betty Smith said she tries not to pay attention to the talk about the cases being connected, or the notion that a serial killer lurks in the area. She said such comments only bring back hurtful memories of the time Cleon went missing.

“There are people who are trying to make it like they are all connected, but they are all totally different,” she said. “It keeps dredging it all up. Not that it’s very far from my mind any day, don’t get me wrong. It’s never far from your mind. You lose a child and you live with it every day.”

Betty Smith said she feels the police and searchers did all they could to find Cleon, given the conditions they were dealing with at the time.

“It was just terrible weather and they did what they could,” she said. “I don’t think there was anything else that could be done at the time. It was a vicious storm, a complete whiteout.”

Cleon Smith no doubt touched the lives of many people in St. Anthony, from the young aspiring hockey players who looked up to him to the seasoned hockey fans who followed his hockey career.

On April 26, 2016, a ceremony was held at the town’s new Polar Centre hockey rink to retire Cleon’s number. His jersey — with Number 26 — has been framed and hangs on the wall in the centre along with a plaque. While Cleon never had the chance to play at the Polar Centre, his jersey now has a permanent presence there for all future St. Anthony hockey players to admire.

Scott Coish, parks and recreation director for St. Anthony, took part in the ceremony. He also notes he was one of the last people to see Cleon alive.

“As I was driving towards the new arena (that day), I saw him walking out of the old (hockey arena),” Coish said.

Angus Head coached Cleon during his time with the Western Kings hockey team in Corner Brook. Cleon returned years later and skated with the Corner Brook Royals senior team, and Head was that team’s bench boss.

“He stood out as one of the premier players on the team,” Head said. “Certainly could tell he had a future if he wanted to pursue it, which he did.”

In his second season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, in 1999-2000, Cleon recorded a solid 41 points with the Ontario Hockey League squad.

“He had great vision,” Head said. “He was able to forecast what was going to happen next as opposed to waiting for it to happen, which makes for a great hockey player.”

Head has visited St. Anthony several times since Cleon’s disappearance and has talked with former players who knew him.

“It’s certainly a great loss and an unsolved mystery as to what happened to him,” he said.

Rumbolt said Cleon’s father still goes up the same trail looking for any sign of his son.

“If it was a son of mine, I’d be doing the same,” he said. “I’d be always looking and praying that he’d show up.

“I knew Cleon, and my son used to hang around with him sometimes. I’m still good friends with his dad. His dad takes me out in his boat fishing and that. The year Cleon went missing, me and his dad were out in boat up in that area looking on the bottom and stuff like that.”

Following Cleon’s disappearance, his sister, Trish Smith, set up a charitable organization in her brother’s name called Team Cle (Cle was Cleon’s nickname). Money collected by Team Cle is donated to Kids Sports NL, which helps children from low-income families play organized sports.

Trish Smith told The Telegram in a 2012 story that her brother was an inspiration for a lot of young athletes in St. Anthony. She described her brother as a modest person who would not know what to do about all the fuss surrounding him. She said helping underprivileged children play sports in her brother’s name is something that helps with the grieving process.

“It’s nice to let people know that he’s still thought about and he can still have a positive influence,” she said. “I think he’d be really humbled by it.”

Thursday: The case of Jennifer Hillier Penney

Cleon Smith

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