Friday, September 19, 2008
ARTICLE #44) Searching for the Missing Jessie Foster
Thursday, February 1, 2007
Searching for the Missing Jessie Foster
Las Vegas CityLife by Matt O`Brien
As the plane took off and banked to the south, the United States spread out before Glendene Grant. The Rocky Mountains of Montana. The Snake River and Yellowstone National Park in Idaho and Wyoming. The Great Salt Lake, the Wasatch Range and Bryce Canyon in Utah.”
From her window seat, Grant looked down on it all -- a sheet of darkness -- and thought one thing: Where's Jessie?
Everyone and everything on the flight reminded her of Jessie. The man sitting next to her, whom she handed a card with Jessie's photo on it. The TV screen in the seat back, which aired footage of the recovery of two kidnapped boys in Kirkwood, Mo. Her carry-on bag, which contained a laptop, newspaper clippings and missing-person posters.
The plane began its descent into Las Vegas -- the bed of lights, the Monopoly houses, the neon river of the Strip.
Is Jessie beneath those lights, Grant wondered? Is she somewhere in the city? Is she alive? Is she dead?
As the plane taxied to the gate, a flight attendant announced a birthday and the passengers sang "Happy Birthday." Grant cringed. Jessie was missing on her own birthday. And on Mother's Day. And on Christmas.
So many days in a year. So many reminders.
"They come to Las Vegas to drink and gamble and have fun, and it kind of bothered me that they just assumed everybody else on the plane was there to have fun," said Grant. "I felt like standing up and saying, 'Excuse me, but I'm not really here to have fun.' I felt like saying, 'After singing 'Happy Birthday,' let's say a prayer for my daughter.'"
Added Jessie's father, Dwight Foster, who flew into Las Vegas a few days after Grant: "I saw how spread out the city was and how bright it was and the glitz and the glamour. Of course, the passengers flying in are very excited. Everyone on the plane was going there to have fun and make lots of money. I'm sitting there and all I'm feeling is apprehension and dread and hopelessness. Las Vegas just represents a totally different head space for me."
Grant didn't stand up and say anything to the passengers. She doesn't want to be too cynical, she said. She's just sad. Really sad.
She picked up her bag, shuffled off the plane and made her way through McCarran International Airport.
"I wish I thought that I was coming here to find Jessie," she said, her voice breaking. "But I know I'm not going to go home with her. I know that. Basically, I'm just here to remind people that she's missing and to let more people know she's missing. I just want to bring her picture to light. I just want to try to get some media attention and let the police know we're not giving up. We're not going to quit phoning them. We're not going to quit e-mailing them. We want some answers."
Jessica Edith Louise Foster was born on May 27, 1984, in Calgary, Alberta. She grew up in Kamloops, British Columbia, a city of about 90,000 people.
When she was 16 years old, Jessie moved to Calgary to live with her father -- who'd separated from her mother when Jessie was 1 1/2. She graduated from John G. Diefenbaker High School in 2002.
"I missed most of her formative years," said Foster, an occupational health and safety officer with the government of Alberta. "I missed her elementary school years. I missed her junior high school years. So when she moved to Calgary and I was able to sit down with her and help her with her homework that really helped us bond. We were very close."
In February 2005, Jessie moved back to Kamloops. A few months later, she traveled the United States -- Miami, New York City and Atlantic City -- with a friend. She ended up in Las Vegas in May of that year and decided to stay.
"I didn't like that she moved here," said Grant. "I even said to her, 'You're not moving to Las Vegas without me having the contact information for somebody else living there.' I literally said to her, 'What if something happens to you? What if you go missing and I don't know who to call?'"
Added Foster, "It was doomed from the beginning. First of all, she was an illegal alien. She was just visiting the United States. Then, shortly after moving here, she met this guy. She was talking about a long-term relationship with him, but she wasn't an American citizen. She wasn't going to be able to live down here with him.
"She didn't think any of this through. How was she expecting this to succeed?"
The "guy" was North Las Vegas resident Peter Todd. Jessie moved in with Todd shortly after she arrived in Las Vegas, said her mother and father.
In November 2005, Jessie flew home to Kamloops to visit. She also visited Calgary. On Christmas Day, the family drove her to the airport, where she caught the 3 p.m. flight back to Las Vegas.
"If I'd felt I had the right to," said Grant, "I would've stopped her from leaving. But she was 21 years old, so I couldn't tell her: 'You have to stay home. You can't go back there.' She was an adult and had been for three years."
It was the last time the family has seen Jessie.
On March 28, her older sister Crystal talked to her on the phone. No one in the family has talked to her since. Her cell phone hasn't been used. Her credit cards haven't been used. She hasn't made any transactions at the bank.
"I knew right away that something was wrong," said Foster. "There was no doubt in my mind. This was not something Jessie had ever done before. She always kept in touch with her family. I broke down, because I knew this was serious."
Finally, on April 9, Grant got in touch with Peter Todd. He told her Jessie had left him in early April and he hadn't seen or heard from her since. Grant called the North Las Vegas Police Department and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and reported Jessie missing.
According to a North Las Vegas Police Department report, an officer went to Todd's house that day and asked him about Jessie. Todd told the officer Jessie had moved out on April 2. He also allowed the officer to look around the home.
About a week later, Todd and his ex-wife were questioned at the police department.
"When you're a detective and you interview people, you oftentimes might have a suspicion about this or that," said Tim Bedwell, a public information officer with the North Las Vegas Police Department. "The problem is, the law doesn't allow you to use mere suspicion to arrest people, to get a search warrant and things like that. I'm certainly not prepared to sit here and say there aren't things about this case that are suspicious, but we have to be cautious about what we say. The truth is we don't know what happened to Jessie. We can't even develop any sort of estimation."
CityLife was unable to reach Todd for comment. In police reports and newspaper stories, he has said he had nothing to do with Jessie's disappearance.
In mid-April, Grant and Foster hired private investigator Mike Kirkman. Kirkman found out Jessie had been arrested multiple times for prostitution, under the name Jessie Taylor. He also said Todd's ex-wife had been arrested for prostitution.
"It shocked me," said Grant. "But then I got over the shock and realized it doesn't really matter what Jessie was doing down here. She was missing and we needed to find her. I don't give a crap what anyone does for a living. They're still human. And I especially wasn't going to judge one of my kids."
Added Foster, "It sounds to me like there's irrefutable evidence that my daughter sold her body for money. I don't care what you call it. I hate the word 'prostitute.' I hate the word 'hooker.' Those things disgust me when I think of them, because that's what my daughter was. That, in itself, is so devastating."
Kirkman also told Grant and Foster he thought their daughter was dead.
Despite shocking revelations and theories, there was little physical evidence in Jessie's disappearance. The North Las Vegas Police Department closed the case pending further information. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the Kamloops Police Department and the Canadian consulate never got involved, said Grant and Foster.
"And that's where the case has been ever since," said Grant. "The only people who have done any further investigation are Mike Kirkman and the family. It's very frustrating."
Said Foster, "The North Las Vegas Police Department doesn't even exist in my mind. They've done absolutely nothing. They've done nothing but open a case file. They've disillusioned us and given us great concern about whether any investigation is going to be initiated. They told us right away that they don't have the resources for this kind of case and Metro usually handles these cases and, well, Jessie lived in North Las Vegas. Sorry, but we have to take the case and we're just not set up for this kind of thing.
"Basically they said, 'It's our responsibility, but we can't do anything about it.'"
Jessie's disappearance has affected her family profoundly. Grant said she is a different person now. She doesn't even recognize herself. She was always the loudest, most boisterous person in the room. The one who had everyone laughing. Very outgoing. Now she doesn't even like to leave the house. She's withdrawn. Nothing is fun anymore, she said, now that Jessie's not around.
At one point, Grant was neglecting her three other children. Then Crystal told her not to forget about them. We need you, too, she said. And you need us.
"It wasn't a matter of not considering them or forgetting about them," said Grant, an Internet technician. "It's just that they were there. They were in front of me. They were in my house. They were all taken care of and I knew where they were, so all of my energy was focused on Jessie."
It's tough for Foster to describe what a father feels when his daughter disappears without a trace. He can only say he hasn't worked in 10 months. He doesn't do the things he used to like to do. When he tries to do them, he just goes through the motions. There's no passion. There's no energy. He's numb.
"You go through a period of deep, profound despair," said Foster, "and you live with a lump in your throat and you feel like your chest is going to explode and you feel like you're losing grasp of reality. It affected me in ways I never thought possible."
Time passes unnoticed, he said. The months of April, May and June felt like a week. They vanished, along with the good memories, which were replaced by total darkness. Without the e-mails he sent during those months, he wouldn't even have proof he was alive.
Then time slowed down, said Foster. To normal. Then to a crawl. The months of August, September and October felt like an eternity.
Jessie's disappearance gutted him, said Foster. It ripped him open. He bled.
And he will continue to bleed until she's found.
"All along, I hoped the system would work for us," said Foster. "I had faith that once people realized this is serious, this isn't some runaway taking off for a couple weeks, they would do something about it. But they haven't. I was filled with a sense of desperation. I realized that it was coming up on a year since my daughter had disappeared, and regardless of all the attempts I'd made to get my consulate and the local authorities to do something, they weren't taking us seriously. It wasn't changing anything. I felt like I had to be a physical presence down here for something to happen.
"Maybe I'm wrong, but I had to take a shot at it."
January 17. 1:45 p.m. Grant and Foster sat in a sterile conference room, their reflections showing on the tabletop. Grant's left arm was wedged between the table and her chin. Foster's arms were folded. Mike Hope, director of Crime Stoppers of Nevada, looked at them blankly.
The small talk had ended. The details of Jessie's disappearance had been reviewed and analyzed. (Grant and Foster added that they thought the "friend" Jessie traveled to the United States with was actually a pimp.) The role of Crime Stoppers -- to generate tips and try to publicize them -- had been defined. The conversation turned to the reward, set at $5,000, and the possibility of the family increasing it.
"At what stage does a reward start to make a difference?" Foster asked Hope.
"It just depends," said Hope methodically. "We had a homicide a year ago where $100,000 brought in a lot of tips. Other times, you get tips for much less than that. There's no magic number. It's just whatever will make someone say, 'That's worth it to me to come forward.' What that number is, I really don't now."
"What do you see as our next move," continued Foster, "besides upping the reward?"
"That's about all you can do, as far as Crime Stoppers is concerned. You want to keep the media interested in the story and see if you can entice someone to come forward. There are a couple of advertising things I'm going to look into. I can't promise you anything, but I'll talk to some people about billboards and that kind of thing." Hope, who has two daughters, said he understood how they felt.
Foster leaned forward, placed his elbows on the table and locked his fingers.
"If we up the reward to $10,000, what will Crime Stoppers do?" he asked. "Another press release? TV? Newspapers?"
"What I do is type up the press release," said Hope, who has worked for Metro (with which Crime Stoppers is affiliated) for 27 years. "It goes through our public information office. They send it to the newspapers and television stations, but it's up to them whether they broadcast it or not. We don't have any control over that. They may pick it up, they may not. Hopefully it's a slow news day. If there's something big going on, it may get pushed to the bottom of the pile."
After meeting with Grant and Foster, Hope said that all Crime Stoppers -- which received more than 1,000 phone calls in December -- could do was try to spread the word that Jessie's still missing.
"I had back surgery a few years ago," said Hope. "I wanted the doctor to tell me everything's going to be all right, but he wouldn't. All he would say was, 'I'll do the best I can.' It's kind of the same thing here. You don't want to tell people everything's going to be all right, in case it isn't."
The following afternoon, Grant and Foster went to the North Las Vegas Police Department. They met with Detective Dave Molnar, who was assigned Jessie's case. Molnar, said Grant and Foster, shared some new information with them -- but said there were no solid leads. He also told them the police department has to wait seven years to consider turning a missing-person case into a murder case.
"Seven years was a bit of a shock to me," said Foster. "That was a real kick in the nuts."
While Grant and Foster met with Molnar, Bedwell took questions from CityLife and Canadian TV newscast Global National.
Is there more the department could do in this case?
"We can't follow leads that aren't there," said Bedwell. "We believe we've talked to everyone we know of that has any information, and there's no way for us to develop new leads unless somebody comes forward. There's really nowhere else to follow up."
Grant and Foster said they've given North Las Vegas police leads the department hasn't followed up on.
"Our investigation is about Jessie's disappearance. It's not about what made her decide to come to Las Vegas, although there may be some information in there that's helpful," Bedwell said. "The reality is this is not an investigation of why Jessie became a prostitute. I know her mother would like to have that question answered; we're never going to be able to answer it for her. The investigation we're conducting is about what happened to Jessie -- and we will follow every lead that has a possibility of helping us determine that."
Are there difficulties with the case because she worked as a prostitute?
"You can't look up the references at her last job interview," Bedwell said. "You can't talk to the people she worked with, because they aren't going to come forward. People who would've come into contact with her regularly -- taxi drivers, male contacts, girlfriends -- probably worked in the same trade and are not going to come forward. There are a number of barriers to finding people who had contact with Jessie.
"I've worked at three different police departments. I've worked with a number of federal agencies. I have 32 years of public service and I can tell you this department is pursuing this case as far as it possibly can. It's not my goal to convince anyone in the family of that, because they're not going to be satisfied until we bring them their daughter."
Grant and Foster entered the room. Grant's eyes were sunken and glazed over. Foster was flushed. There was silence.
Then Foster said there are suspects in this case and the police need to go after them.
"Whether you think there's enough evidence to indict someone, under U.S. law there's not," said Bedwell. "We need more."
"Then go get more!" said Foster.
"We have enough resources to investigate cases where we know a crime occurred -- and that's about it. There are a lot of cases out there where we think crimes occurred. But if we commit our resources to those cases, we've got to pull people off cases where we know crimes were committed. While that's never going to sit well with you, it's a fact."
"I'm not asking you to arrest anyone," Foster said. "Start with a block and then put another block on top of it and another and another. It seems to me you have too many rules to operate under and the criminals have all the rights. Goddammit! Where's the case being built? Where's the net being set? How many other girls are going to disappear? How many have disappeared already?"
After the meeting, Grant and Foster drove to Todd's house -- where Jessie last lived. A lockbox hung from the doorknob. The windows were dark. The blinds down.
Foster started up the walkway, looking down at the concrete.
"I just watched my daughter walk into the house," he said in amazement. "I could see her. I could see her walking up to the doors. I could see her pulling out her key and walking in and thinking, I'm home. She felt all this was worth what she did for a living. It makes me wonder: Did I instill some sort of value in her that made her think this is what you live for, do whatever it takes to have a nice home? It makes me wonder if I instilled the right values in her. Could I have done something to prevent this?"
Another smut publication? Another club promo? Another huckster trying to sell show tickets?
That's what tourists approaching Grant and Foster, who were handing out missing-person posters in front of the Tropicana hotel-casino, seemed to be thinking. Their heads dropped. They veered out of the way. They waved them off.
"Sometimes they don't really notice me until I'm right there," said Grant, holding a stack of posters. "Sometimes they just have to hear what I'm saying before they'll stop."
Added Foster, wearing a fleece jacket: "You get everything from absolute ice-cold rudeness to genuine concern. You see the whole range. But this morning, for the first time, I actually had somebody take my arm and physically move me out of the way. He knew what we were doing, too, that we weren't selling anything or trying to give him political dogma. It was about the coldest thing I could imagine a human doing."
During their stay, Grant and Foster gave out about 300 posters and 150 cards. They hoped to draw people to the websites -- http://www.jessiefoster.ca and http://www.FindJessieFoster.com -- and get them to contribute to their fund. They also, said Grant, just wanted to keep Jessie's face out there.
"Our foster child is a runaway and is missing, too," said Roberta Haight, who lives in the Minneapolis area. "My first reaction to the poster was: Oh my God, there are so many kids in the world who are missing and what are we doing to find them? The police don't do anything about these runaways. That's the sad thing. They just say, 'Well, if they show up, they show up.'"
The engines roared. The plane jerked down the runway. The nose tilted in the air and the wheels left the ground.
Looking out the window, at the kaleidoscope of the Strip, Grant felt hollow. She and Foster had accomplished a lot in Las Vegas -- met with Mike Hope of Crime Stoppers, with Dave Molnar and Tim Bedwell of the North Las Vegas Police Department, with private investigator Mike Kirkman -- but she felt she was leaving Jessie behind.
"It's a really big gap not having her," said Grant. "The huge hole it leaves is amazing, that one little girl can leave such a big gap in so many people's lives."
At the same time, Grant was glad she was going home. She needed to see her husband, children and friends. She needed to see familiar faces. She needed to see familiar places. She needed something sure.
Grant put her head back and thought about what else she could do for Jessie: a fundraiser at a neighborhood pub, update the websites, media interviews. Next thing she knew, the plane was beginning its descent into Calgary.
Sitting next to Grant, Foster was numb. He kept thinking about the meeting with the North Las Vegas Police Department. Bedwell didn't understand what we wanted, he thought. He thought we wanted a dragnet. He thought we wanted an arrest. All we want, thought Foster, is a calculated approach. One piece of the puzzle. Then another.
"Glendene and I barely said a word to each other the whole trip back," said Foster. "We looked like two people who had gone through a battle and were sitting back reflecting on it. It's the feeling you get when you've done the best you can and you still don't come away with a win."
But the trip wasn't a total loss, Foster conceded. He got a glimpse into the life of his daughter -- maybe into the final months of her life. He walked in her footsteps. He saw where she lived. He learned more about what she did for a living. It was not how we raised her, he thought. It was not how we lived. Who is Jessie Taylor?
"But most of my thoughts were about the wolves that exist in society," said Foster. "Who don't like the light. Who don't like the attention. And how freely they roam. These days, people look to the skies for terrorists. They think evil is going to drop from the heavens."
But evil walks among us, thought Foster. It's down there beneath all those lights.
If you have any information about the disappearance of Jessie Foster, please call Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477 or the North Las Vegas Police Department at 702-633-1773.