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Be patient with police on N.L. missing persons cases, woman says

Garry McGrath, originally from Conche on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, went missing without a trace in Alberta in 2004. About 20 months later, his body was found and a friend was charged with his murder. McGrath’s sister encourages families in other missing-person cases to maintain their trust in police.
Garry McGrath, originally from Conche on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, went missing without a trace in Alberta in 2004. About 20 months later, his body was found and a friend was charged with his murder. McGrath’s sister encourages families in other missing-person cases to maintain their trust in police.

The passage of time is like an ever increasing, heart-rending weight on the shoulders of anyone who is searching for a missing family member or friend.

And it’s particularly difficult when there’s suspected foul play involved.

This is evident in recent cases such as that of Jennifer Hillier Penney in St. Anthony — missing since Nov. 30, 2016, and that of Cortney Lake — missing since June 7 from Mount Pearl.

Family members, friends and community members continue to organize searches on their own after the official police searches have slowed or ended.

And in many cases, when it seems the police are no longer coming around or are providing little information, frustration and despair creep in, and police are often criticized for not doing enough.

Peggy McGrath once felt like that.

Her brother, Garry McGrath, went missing without a trace on Feb. 7, 2004 in Tangle Wood Estates in Alberta. It would take 20 long and painstakingly difficult months before the case was solved. Garry McGrath’s body was eventually found and his friend was charged and convicted of first-degree murder.

Peggy McGrath admits to losing faith in the RCMP, but, in the end, when the details of the case were laid out in court she realized the police had been active all along.

“For us, Garry was missing for 20 months, so we were as frustrated as what we know (the family and friends of Hillier Penney and Lake) are going through right now,” McGrath said in a telephone interview from Alberta.

“It’s hard to get up every day and continue on with your life when you have no answers and, in the meantime, it is a criminal investigation. Ours was criminal right from the beginning.

“You just have to have patience with police because they are not going to tell you anything. They don’t tell you anything whether you are family, non-family, husband or wife because they don’t want to jeopardize the case. It is their investigation.”

The McGrath family had moved to Alberta in the 1970s after deciding to leave their small fishing community of Conche on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula to seek better employment opportunities.

At the time he went missing, Garry was 44 years old and was married with four children. For many years he’d come back to Newfoundland in the summer to fish, but when the fishery took a downturn, he stopped returning.

Peggy McGrath has been following the case of Jennifer Hillier Penney since she went missing. She feels a connection to the case because not only is St. Anthony close to her hometown of Conche, but she also knows people in St. Anthony affected by the case.

It has also brought back many feelings of what her family went through more than a decade ago.

Earlier this summer, after reading about how discouraged people were in the St. Anthony area and that some were questioning the RCMP and whether they were doing enough to find Jennifer Hillier Penney, McGrath decided to write a post on a Newfoundland Facebook page devoted to sharing information on missing-person cases.

She hoped it would somehow restore hope in finding Jennifer Hillier Penney and help to restore people’s confidence in the RCMP.

“I guess, the reason I did it is because when you haven’t experienced it and gone through it, you do look for answers and you do panic because everybody wants answers, right?” she said.

“My heart goes out to the family down there and I totally understand their frustration and wanting answers, but in addition to doing your own searches you’ve got to believe the police are doing their best to investigate. My intention was to say I understand their feeling of frustration and time is going by, but I believe that, in the RCMP’s eyes, it is not a long time. I know we want answers and we want them fast, but I wanted to say, hopefully, if the person is alive they can be found and that would be great, but if it’s gone another way then it’s patience that is needed and sooner or later something will come up. (The police) are doing their job.”

McGrath said she felt people viewing the Facebook page needed to hear from someone who went through it. She said pointing fingers too fast may not be the best thing to do. She said the police are trained in their field and are working on the case.

“There’s lots that went on behind the scene in Garry’s case,” she said. “We didn’t even think they were doing anything. But when they took us into the police station there was a room there with all of the stuff from the investigation.”

On the day Garry McGrath went missing, he had plans to meet with friend George William Allen, a 53-year-old businessman. The two had been friends for about 10 years, but were having a dispute over firewood Garry McGrath had stored on Allen’s property near Antler Lake.

Later on Feb. 7, 2004, Garry McGrath had spoken with family members by phone to let them know he was on his way home. He never got there.

The following days were filled with frantic searches, calls to people Garry McGrath knew and talking to the media.

“We did whatever it took to get the story out there that he was missing,” she said. “We were frustrated that he vanished without a trace, nothing.”

About 10 days later, his abandoned Dodge pickup was located in the parking lot of the West Edmonton Mall.

Though the family had its suspicions on who was responsible for Garry going missing and related those to the RCMP, the investigators said nothing.

“The way it was for us, the RCMP didn’t say anything. I can say to them, ‘I think this person did this,’ and you know what they are going to say, nothing. We can speculate and sit back. The RCMP we dealt with would sit there and listen to you, but they won’t tell you anything.

“After that came 20 months of not knowing. The police were telling us things like we will have a better chance of finding him in the spring when the snow goes, when people are camping and hiking, and farmers are in the field. When fall came, nobody found him, so we said, ‘What’s next?’ We asked them if it was a cold case, and they said it is never a cold case.”

In the meantime, the family attempted to try other things, including offering a reward for information, looking into hiring a private investigator and talking to a psychic. McGrath said the RCMP weren’t happy with some of those actions.

“As a family, we came up with every idea. We wanted to help to find him, but at the end of the day we had to trust the RCMP,” she said.

Finally, the RCMP arrested Allen and he was charged with first-degree murder. Police found Garry McGrath’s body in a deep hole on Allen’s 92-acre property.

On Dec. 22, 2006 Allen was convicted of first-degree murder by a jury in an Edmonton courtroom.

“To sit in the court for six weeks, I saw all that the RCMP did in Garry’s case,” McGrath said. “Sometimes they leave a suspect alone for awhile to let them think life goes on, that they are not being watched. There was an undercover operation and so much more.

“One of the RCMP officers apologized to us for not being able to tell us more during the investigation.”

McGrath is aware that not all missing-person cases are resolved. She feels for families going through the ordeal.

“We were more than lucky because it’s so relieving when you find the person. When we found our brother there was closure even though it doesn’t take away the pain of losing him,” McGrath said.

“So I hope they find Jennifer and get the answers they need. The only advice I can offer other than to keep looking is to keep it in the papers, talk about it in the community, keep it alive to let people know she is not forgotten and that she is still missing and family will always keep it alive.”

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