The search for a missing aboriginal woman has led Nova Scotia police thousands of kilometres south of the border, to Tennessee, where Chrisma Denny was last seen at a women's shelter in September.
In what is believed to be a first for the state's Knox County, four Canadian officers – two each from the Cape Breton Regional Police Service and the RCMP – spent the week working with local detectives to try to find the 23-year-old Mi'kmaq woman.
"It was important to get down there and be on the ground," said Cape Breton police spokeswoman Desiree Vassallo.
Ms. Denny, described by her family as tough and transient, was last seen in the Eskasoni First Nation area in August. She is believed to have crossed the border later that month through Houlton, Maine, and has since been spotted in Alabama and later in Tennessee.
It was not unusual for Ms. Denny's loved ones to lose track of her for periods of time – the young woman is known to travel by hitchhiking and is believed to frequent truck stops and rest areas, police say. But after Ms. Denny failed to pick up five bi-weekly welfare cheques from the band office, her family became concerned and reported her missing on Nov. 4.
"It's beyond words, the worry," said her father, Keith Denny. "We're in crisis now. It's tough."
When Ms. Denny's absence was flagged to police, she became yet another missing aboriginal woman in a country wrestling with how to address the disproportionate victimization of her demographic. Some 1,181 aboriginal women were killed or went missing between 1980 and 2012, according to a recent RCMP report.
The Denny case has galvanized the Eskasoni community, which has held vigils and distributed missing-person posters across the continent. It has also sparked renewed calls for a national inquiry into Canada's murdered and missing aboriginal women. "You have to ask, 'Why is this going on? Why?' " said Elaine Denny, an aunt.
By her family's account, Ms. Denny's life has so far been marked by trauma and challenge. She spent time in the child-welfare system. Her mother killed herself. She struggles with mental-health issues and abuses drugs, her father said. She did not graduate from high school. She has a son who is in provincial care, her father said. She has no fixed address, sometimes living with friends in Sydney, N.S., but also travelling outside the Cape Breton area for periods of time.
Investigators were able to trace Ms. Denny's journey to the southern United States thanks, it appears, to the West Virginia-based National Crime Information Centre, a computerized index of criminal justice information. A Knox County patrol officer came into contact with Ms. Denny on Sept. 17 and took her to a local women's shelter, where she is believed to have spent two days. When the officer encountered Ms. Denny, he would have run her name through the U.S. index to see if she was listed as missing.
At the time, she was not. But the simple act of typing a name into the system leaves a cyber-trail that can prove helpful to investigators. Major Mike MacLean, who is in charge of major crimes at the Knox County Sheriff's Office, said his understanding is that a Canadian agency requested what is called an "offline search" of the index.
The search, he explained, would have revealed that a Knox County patrol officer queried Ms. Denny's name on Sept. 17, in turn prompting Canadian authorities to reach out to the sheriff's office for more information. Maj. MacLean said his understanding is that the patrol officer did not get the impression Ms. Denny was in distress but needed a place to stay.
"Our assumption is she was travelling the truck route, predominantly the interstate highways," he said. "Unfortunately, these cases aren't that uncommon. It's uncommon that it's an aboriginal woman from Canada, but unfortunately it's risky to be hitchhiking and doing whatever it is they're doing at truck stops."
The RCMP declined comment, referring all questions to the Cape Breton police service, which is leading the joint investigation.
The Canadian officers were still in Tennessee as of Thursday, though Maj. MacLean said they were slated to depart Friday.