It was a simple photograph of a slight woman with light brown hair tied in a bun, reading a book in a coffee shop, that set off a flurry of interest in the Emma Fillipoff missing person case.
The picture was taken March 24 by a photographer snapping slice-of-life shots around downtown Vancouver, but it was brought to the attention of Emma’s mother, Shelley Fillipoff, this past week because of the striking resemblance to her daughter, who was last seen in Victoria on Nov. 28, 2012.
On the Help Find Emma Fillipoff Facebook page, a woman posted photos showing Emma in a similar profile to compare the features.
Fillipoff felt a flicker of hope that her daughter might be alive in Vancouver.
“When I saw the photo, I thought, ‘Oh my God, that could be Emma,’ ” Fillipoff said from Ottawa.
However, that hope was dashed with a phone call from someone saying the woman in the photo is her friend, not Emma.
The incident is just one example of the ups and downs in the search for Emma, which her mother has made her full-time job.
But after months of endless dead-end tips, Shelley Fillipoff said, “there’s no ups.”
“My life revolves around finding Emma,” Fillipoff said. “That’s my life. I think that’s what any mom would do.”
Victoria police Sgt. Jamie McRae said investigators have followed more than 300 investigative avenues since Emma disappeared. The file has been reviewed by homicide investigators with the Vancouver Island Integrated Major Crime Unit and the RCMP’s Centre for Missing Persons to give it a set of fresh eyes.
“We’ve never ruled out anything in the way of suicide or foul play,” McRae said, adding the possibilities include that Emma was murdered, committed suicide, is being held against her will or is living somewhere under an assumed identity and doesn’t want to be found.
Victoria has an average of 488 missing persons cases per year and the vast majority are solved within a day. It has been 20 months since Emma was last seen.
On the morning of Nov. 28, 2012, Fillipoff talked to Emma on the phone and her gut instinct told her something was wrong. She lied and promised her daughter she wouldn’t come to Victoria, then bought a plane ticket. Fillipoff arrived at Sandy Merriman House, the women’s shelter where Emma was staying, about 11 p.m., but staff said her daughter had left five hours earlier.
Emma left all of her possessions, including her laptop, her passport and library books, inside her 20-year-old Mazda.
Earlier that evening, Victoria police officers had spent about 45 minutes talking to Emma in front of the Empress Hotel after someone called and reported that she appeared to be in distress. The officers released her because they decided she wasn’t a threat to herself or others. Emma hasn’t been seen since.
There’s evidence Emma’s mental health was deteriorating and police fear she might have suffered a psychological breakdown.
McRae said investigators have read through Emma’s journal to try to determine where she might have gone or whether she was contemplating suicide. Divers have searched the waters near the Inner Harbour and Ogden Point.
About a week after her disappearance, a pre-paid credit card she had purchased was used at a store in Colwood. Police obtained the surveillance video and interviewed the man who said he found the credit card on the road near the Juan de Fuca Rec Centre.
“That’s just one example of how we thought, ‘This is going to lead us somewhere,’ and then, bang, dead end,” McRae said.
Emma’s bank account hasn’t been touched and she hasn’t made contact with any of her three siblings.
The CBC’s Fifth Estate is planning an hour-long documentary, called Finding Emma, set to air Oct. 24. Fillipoff hopes the publicity generates tips around her daughter’s disappearance.
Fillipoff said thousands of missing persons posters and flyers have been handed out and some of her posts on the Facebook group, including the announcement about the $25,000 reward, have been seen by hundreds of thousands of people.
Fillipoff said she’s ready for any possibility, but she won’t rest until Emma is found.
“Could she be dead? Yes, she could. Could she be kidnapped and being held? Yes. Because I don’t know that she’s alive, I don’t know that she’s dead. I’m ready … I’m ready for that knock at the door.”