ST. ANTHONY, N.L. — There’s an uneasy feeling in St. Anthony, one that hovers over the Northern Peninsula town like a dense, empty fog that drifts across the strait.
The crisp, fresh air of spring still draws many folks outside for their daily walks, but most now prefer to stroll in daylight hours only.
Workers at the local hospital, at restaurants and coffee shops who work the night shift, often forego rear doors and leave through main, well-lit exits after their shift. For most, taking quick glances over the shoulder on a parking lot or a hiking trail has become routine.
It’s an unsettling and nagging insecurity that has gradually built in the town of just over 2,200 people over the past 15 years — a period when four of the town’s residents have gone missing without a trace, leaving a swirling storm of rumours, suspicions and unanswered questions.
Mildred Sexton, 47, missing since April 16, 2002. Andrew Sexton, 21, missing since Feb. 26, 2006. Cleon Smith, 30, missing since April 2, 2011.
Jennifer Hillier-Penney, missing since Nov. 30, 2016. (Jennifer Hillier-Penney Part 2) (No indication of serial killer: expert) (RCMP resume searches for Jennifer Hillier-Penney) (St. Anthony residents step up again)
A new case just about every four to five years.
No trace of the missing, no answers, no peace of mind — ironic given the town is named after the patron saint of missing things.
People who go to their cabins, on woods roads and trails, or who fish along the rugged shoreline, always have a lookout for some clue, some piece of evidence that could change the tide of the one or more of the cases.
Then there are those who live in the town with some level of suspicion hanging over their heads — invisible fingers pointed their way as they go about their daily lives. Rumours and allegations bandied about on social media.
As time passes after each case — after the RCMP major crime investigators leave town and the official searches have ground to a halt — initial shock and fear fades, and people gradually return to their daily routines. But the missing are never far from anyone’s mind.
Mayor Ernest Simms has lived in town throughout all of the missing person cases. As a former teacher and member of town council, he knew them all and their families. He taught Andrew Sexton and Cleon Smith in elementary school.
In an area struggling economically with the ups and downs of the fishery and trying to hang on to a way of life on the tip of a long peninsula, the unsolved missing person cases have cast a troubling shadow.
The town doesn’t want to be known for what it is becoming known for.
Simms says when he attends meetings outside the town, whether in Gander or St. John’s, he’s asked about the missing people.
“People always ask, ‘Is there anything new?’” he said. “It’s something we are becoming known for, unfortunately.
“People here generally, over the past number of years, have been concerned, but really not to the point they’ve been worried … not until this latest case (of Jennifer Hillier-Penney),” Simms said, sitting in his mayor’s chair in the town council chamber for an interview.
“And this latest case has made people very worried. I don’t know if I suspect anyone and that, but I do things now I wouldn’t do before, and a lot of people in town are doing the same. My wife does a lot of walking and we make sure she goes before and gets back before dark. I know ladies who would walk in the morning before daylight and they don’t do that anymore.
“People are sensing there is something about this case that is just not right. It’s not just somebody who walked away, there is something involved. And to have it deemed suspicious by the RCMP causes more people to believe that. Everyone is just watching out more for their own safety, trying to protect everybody else around them, but they don’t know from what. And not knowing that presents you with a feeling of dread, really. And some people are very upset by it.”
The RCMP says files on all the four missing person cases are still open. In fact, another ground search is being planned in the Jennifer Hillier-Penney case in the coming weeks, after the snow has finally melted from the trails.
On Dec. 7, 2016 — a week after Hillier-Penney was last seen — the RCMP issued a news release stating they consider her disappearance suspicious.
While it’s the only one of the cases officially deemed suspicious, many in the town have ideas about the other cases, as well.
One young woman at a local restaurant said she believes there is a serial killer in the area — a comment you hear at times from other people from the town and surrounding area.
But it’s difficult to draw a connection between all four cases, though there are some similarities.
Two — the cases of Andrew Sexton and Cleon Smith — occurred on snow stormy days in wilderness areas. Mildred Sexton and Jennifer Hillier-Penney were last seen in town — in both cases personal effects they would likely never leave behind were found. The other similarities are that they are all from St. Anthony and that their disappearances are four to five years apart.
Each of these cases will be explored in upcoming installments in this series.
Visiting places in St. Anthony where people gather, it’s not hard to strike up a conversation about the missing people. At the local Tim Hortons, where four men met recently for a lunch-hour coffee before returning to work, it’s not hard to hear a measure of concern in their words.
Like the mayor, they knew most of the missing people or know their families, and express the same concerns. They say they remind their family members to be wary of who is around and to always think of safety.
They talk over details and different theories of each case — each took part in one or more of the searches — and shake their heads at the thought that none of the missing people have been found. They fiddle with their coffee cups, gesture with their hands and point to directions where the missing people were last seen, and they pick up on one another’s words, adding in details. It is obvious it’s not their first conversation about the cases.
At local churches after each missing person was reported, prayers were offered for the safe return of the missing, and for comfort for the families and friends.
Rev. Katie Ann Flynn of the Anglican parish of St. Anthony said you could see concern among people in the congregation for the families of the missing — which for many are their lifelong friends and neighbours.
Pastor Jeff Bessey of the Pentecostal Church noted that just as all town residents try to return to their normal lives as weeks and months pass after each case, so does his congregation.
“Prayers are offered when people have gone missing and during the searches for the safe return of the missing,” Bessey said. “As time goes on there’s not much talk about it.”
Carl Rumbolt lives on a road that leads to a hill on the east side of the town. He took part in previous searches for a couple of the missing people and he’d go again in a heartbeat if there was another search called, even though he had a bad experience a few years ago that would deter many people from searching for what likely would be a body.
He said he was the first one to come upon a terrible motor vehicle accident on the Trans-Canada Highway that still haunts him.
But the missing person cases are different, he said.
He added that many people in the town feel more could be done in all the cases.
Rumbolt, who works for the province’s Department of Transportation and Works, with the highways section, cuts his own wood to heat his home and spends a lot of time in the woods snowmobiling, and at his cabin.
He also takes part in the recreational cod fishery each year with his friend, the father of missing Cleon Smith.
“To me, I think, there is not enough time involved in those searches. I know a lot of people around here have put their heart and soul into searching, but I think there should be more machinery brought in, more dogs, and whatever else can help should be brought in,” Rumbolt said while taking a break from splitting wood outside his shed.
“It nags at you a lot. It’s heartbreaking to everyone.
“The higher terrain here is very rough, like up around Goose Cove area, up around White Hills. You could be going along and all of a sudden you are on top of a big cliff, or the snow could give way. If you don’t know the area, it’s best to stay out of it.
“There are a lot of young people on snowmobiles up around the woods here. You don’t know from one day to the next what you are going to hear.”
Rumbolt said wherever he goes, he always on the lookout for any sign of the missing.
“Every day it’s in our minds. For instance, I was driving back and forth to Cook’s Harbour a couple weeks there. Me and a buddy of mine were in the pickup and looked out in the salt water and the crows were all there. And we said, ‘don’t suppose Jennifer was there?’ And we got out and went and kicked away the kelp, but it was only old dead fish and whatever.
“Little things like that, it’s always in your mind. The eye is always peeled. You don’t know what you are going to come across. A little clue could help.”