I feel like I'm clinging to a cloud
Johnny Burke, "Misty"
Goderich, Ontario, sits on the shores of Lake Huron in southwestern Ontario. Founded in 1827, the picturesque seat of rural Huron County has grown to a little over 7000 residents. With the pluck typical of small communities, Goderich bills itself "Canada's prettiest town." And truthfully, were I scouting locations for a movie about small-town North America, I would give serious thought to filming there.
On May 31, 1995, Mistie Nicole Murray, age 16, walked out her door and headed for Goderich District Collegiate Institute. She wore red shorts, black boots, and (this point is disputed) her green jacket, which reads "Mistie" on the left sleeve and sports a crest announcing her membership in the Seaforth Girls Trumpet Band. She wore rings on each of her fingers, but no earrings-- despite having seven piercings, five in her right ear and two in her left. Mistie attended her classes that day, and visited the school nurse, for reasons not made public. Around 3:00 pm, she phoned her adoptive mother at work. She could not reach Anne Murray, but failed to leave a message.
She left at the school day's end.
Her final destination remains unknown.
Runaway or Victim?
Many details suggest that Mistie, like most teens reported missing, may have been a runaway. Like many runaways, troubles affected her early life, and troubling changes marked her recent behavior.
Born on October 28, 1978, Mistie had reddish-brown hair and greyish-green eyes. Her birth mother, Darlene Oldfield, led a turbulent life, moving an average of every two months during her years with her daughter. In 1980, she gave the girl up for adoption. Mistie lived in foster homes until, just before her fifth birthday, Steven and Anne Murray adopted her.
Her childhood with the Murrays suggested a stable home environment. Mistie performed well in school, and became a gregarious, outgoing child. At thirteen, however, her grades began to slide and by the time she started secondary school, she was acquiring an uncertain reputation among her peers-- although she remained popular.
With the help and support of the Murrays, she re-established contact with her birth mother, and met with Darlene Oldfield eight months before her disappearance. They planned a trip to visit Halifax that weekend, and they tentatively planned to live together that summer in Toronto. She had even signed one of her schoolbooks, "Mistie Oldfield."
The local police, at least initially, regarded her as a runaway, and assigned one officer to investigate the case.
Yet some details suggest her story may be more complex than that.
Mistie evidently had been quite excited about the upcoming visit with her biological mother. She had already packed her suitcase and had $200.00 spending money on her bedroom dresser. If she intended to run, why would she have left these things behind?
She also had started a sexual relationship with Jeremy Cook, an adult male. He claims he last saw her the day he cashed his welfare cheque and paid his rent. He reported that this occurred on May 30, but bank records indicate that he made these transactions on the day Mistie disappeared. A woman who worked in the shop below Cook's apartment said she saw Mistie there on May 31 or June 1. At least one other person would later corroborate a May 31 sighting at this location. Cook's role in this story remains unknown, but her appearance at his apartment that day begins a trail of reported sightings.
On June 2, 1995, Sarah Crawford, a high school student who knew Mistie, reported that she had spoken to her at the Bargain Shop in Goderich on June 1. She told at least one other student and one teacher before the fact was reported to the police. She confirmed the description of Mistie's clothing from the day before-- including the uncharacteristic absence of earrings--, except she said the girl was wearing jeans. She specifically mentioned the green jacket. Mistie allegedly told Sarah that she had been driving with "friends" in nearby Clinton, Ontario, and that she would "maybe" see Sarah in school on Monday. Another student also saw her in Goderich on June 2, and informed her parents. Police told the Murrays that they were not giving this sighting much credence, and did not mention the other reports.
On June 5, after Mistie was declared a missing person, three schoolmates came forward and said that they had spotted her on the evening of June 2, in Clinton, as they drove to the Clinton Fair. The three students gave consistent accounts to police, mentioning the same location in Clinton, the same approximate time, and the fact of Mistie's green Seaforth Girls Trumpet Band jacket. A fourth student saw her in Clinton that same evening, and even beeped his horn at as he drove past her. Yet another classmate, who had played in the Trumpet Band with Mistie, saw her at the Clinton Fair on June 3 with a group of unfamiliar people. She looked carefully to confirm that it was Mistie, because she knew that the girl was supposed to be in Halifax that weekend.
Two employees of the Clinton Fair recalled seeing a girl matching Mistie's description there on June 3. Others came forward to report that a girl resembling Mistie had been in Clinton on the days in question, but police did almost nothing with this information.
At least one other classmate reported that Mistie had mentioned that she planned to leave home, but his accounts are inconsistent. For example, he has varied the date when she allegedly mentioned this fact by more than a week.
The police did not mention any of these sightings to the Murrays; in fact, they repeatedly told the adoptive parents that no one had reported seeing Mistie.
More than 100 people came forward with reports of Mistie in 1995. In late June, witnesses saw Mistie or someone very like her in London, Ontario, a relatively short distance from Goderich and Clinton. Some of these witnesses put her near the Dundas/Adelaide corner, an area known to draw street children, especially in summer. The police did interview several of the witnesses, but they did not visit the Dundas/Adelaide area, despite a call from London Police confirming reports of a girl much like Mistie living in that area.
These reports, at least, did reach the Murrays, and they searched. The owner of a pool hall recounted a story claiming that, because of the publicity Mistie had received, she had moved out of London with the aid of a pimp. The veracity of this story remains uncertain. However, eleven people have signed affidavits confirming that they saw Mistie-- or a girl resembling her-- in London during the first part of June, 1995. Most place her in the company of older people known to be associated with drugs and prostitution.
Darlene Oldfield, back in Toronto with her common-law husband, received a call from someone who claimed to have spoken with Mistie. Oldfield's investigations brought her in contact with street people who claim to have seen or spoken with Murray shortly after the end of the London sightings. At least one of them knew her as "Jean Marie." This name, part of Mistie's original birth name, had not been released to the public.
Three Toronto detectives also reported on two separate occasions seeing a girl whom they later identified as Mistie (they had not seen her photo at the time of the sightings), begging on the streets of Toronto. They noted that the girl did not seem streetwise.
Once again, the police did not investigate these reports, nor did they inform the Murrays. Instead, they focussed on the theory that Steven Murray had murdered his adopted daughter.
The Case Against Steven Murray
Three months after the disappearance, two local boaters, Michael Ryan and Patricia Cafec, reported that Steven and a teenager, possibly Mistie Murray, had sailed on the Murrays' boat from Goderich's Snug Harbor sometime in May. They thought that this might have occurred on the 31, but they could not be certain. In fact, the day they saw the Murrays there, they recalled, had been an uneventful day. They saw no other pleasure boaters and no commercial craft. In reality, on May 31, 1995, at least three other pleasure boaters had left the harbor around the same time as Murray. Several sailors were working in the harbor. The 600-foot salt ship, the Agawa Canyon, had been loading from early in the morning until 6:21 pm. The location of Ryan's boat meant that, had they been present on the 31, the salt ship would have filled their view of the harbor. Curiously, the police had already discovered this fact and, in September 1995, interviewed some of the Canyon's crew. They did not permit their findings to affect their theory.
Other evidence against Murray might be described as inconclusive. Another boater, for example, saw a craft resembling Murray's on the lake around 9:00 pm.
While the police publically claim that they did not consider Steven Murray a suspect until after they interviewed Ryan and Cafec, their actions suggest otherwise. They failed to follow up on many of the reported sightings. Tellingly, less than a week after the disappearance, investigating Constable Mark Johnson began referring to Mistie as "the victim" in his notes. Finally, police photographed Snug Harbor in connection with the investigation before they heard from Ryan and Cafec.
On September 15, 1995, police arrested and charged Steven Murray with the murder of his adopted daughter.
The Trial of Steven Murray
Murray went to trial in 1997. The Crown claimed the accused had taken Mistie out in his boat on May 31. He killed her, and then dumped the body near the center of the lake, where cold temperatures would keep it from floating to the surface. Doing so, they agreed, would have required that he be on the lake for some time. The police and prosecution's timeline has Murray returning around 9:00 pm. They could not provide a motive for the crime.
Other witnesses support a different version of Steven Murray's actions on the May 31.
He admits he went to Snug Harbor-- alone-- that Thursday, arriving around 7:00 pm and taking a very short ride. A group on another boat, three members of a family who knew Murray, confirm that he returned around 7:20. This gives too little time for his boat to have reached the deeper waters of Lake Huron, where a body would have to be dumped if one wanted to minimize the likelihood that it would be found. At 7:25, two men helped him bring his boat out of the water; the men in question confirmed the account in court. By 8:05, he had brought his boat into a Vehicle Care shop, in the presence of multiple witnesses.
The jury took less than an hour to acquit Steven Murray of all charges.
The trial took its toll, however. ChildFind, an organization which helps locate missing children, had been listed as a possible witness, and the Murrays had been forbidden contact with them. This decision cut the parents, for nearly two years, from the best source of information on their daughter. The Murrays were bankrupt and eventually divorced. Steven left Goderich and took a job as a truck driver.
Police, meanwhile, performed additional sonar sweeps of Lake Huron, even after the trial ended, still convinced Mistie's body would be found. A later audit of the investigation would criticize them for failing to follow leads, and for obsessing over a "weak" theory regarding Steven Murray's guilt.
To the Present
On November 10, 2000, the Murrays held a church service to remember their daughter.
Then, in 2001, reports came of a street person in Vancouver, British Columbia, who strongly resembled Mistie Murray. None of her parents went to Vancouver, but they examined a photograph obtained by police and determined that this was not their daughter.
In 2002, the Murrays launched a suit against the investigating police for malicious prosecution and failure to disclose evidence. It remains before the court.
A reward of up to $25,000.00 has been posted for "information leading to the arrest and conviction of person or persons responsible for her disappearance and/or death." Anyone with information "is asked to contact the Ontario Provincial Police at 1-888-310-1122 or Huron Detachment at (519) 524-8314, your local police service, Crimestoppers or Child Find at 1-800-387-7962" (OPP Site).
We may never know for certain what happened to Mistie Murray. She remains one of Canada's most infamous missing persons cases, and one of Ontario's most frustrating cases of investigative mishandling.
Don Farwell. Missing: Mistie Murray. http://www.mistie.com/
Missing Person: Mistie Murray. Ontario Provincial Police Website. http://www.gov.on.ca/opp/bulletins/english/sc0103.htm
"The Mistie Mystery." The London Free Press July 31, 2004. A1,A13.
Jonathan Sher. "Mistie Murray's parents abandon six-year search." The London Free Press October 20, 2001. http://fyilondon.com/cgi-bin/niveau2.cgi?s=generic2&p=49288.html&a=1
"The End of the Mistie Trail" The London Free Press October 20, 2001. http://fyilondon.com/cgi-bin/niveau2.cgi?s=societe&p=49294.html&a=1
"Special Report: It's Too Late for Mistie." The London Free Press May 5, 2001. http://fyilondon.com/cgi-bin/niveau2.cgi?s=generic2&p=35273.html&a=1
The Town Of Goderich: Canada's Prettiest Town. http://www.town.goderich.on.ca/