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After a house party on Bowen Island, a teenage girl disappears. Months later, a missing-persons case becomes a homicide investigation. But without a body, police are unable to lay charges
If you live on Bowen Island, as I do, and your chainsaw isn’t running properly, you’ll probably take it to Lloyd Harding. Almost 70 now, Lloyd has lived here all his life; Harding Road was created back in 1939 and named after his parents.
Bowen had fewer than 200 residents then; today the island’s population is about 4,000. Harding Road is little more than a narrow lane, with homes on four- to five-acre parcels on either side. There’s Carolyn McDonald and Randy Arnott’s home, first place on the right, though you can’t see it from the road. McDonald’s Farm sells turkeys every Thanksgiving; Randy is a volunteer fireman and co-owner of Twin Island Excavating, one of the island’s larger employers. There’s Mike and Clemencia Braraten’s home; she raises goats and turkeys, and farms vegetables, apples, pears, berries, and soya beans.
On Friday, June 19, 2009, there was a party down Harding Road at a home where Lloyd Harding’s grandson was staying. Doug Harding, 22, was looking after the place for his parents that weekend. About 20 young people gathered at the house that evening. One of them was Jodi Henrickson, 17, who had come over from Squamish. Jodi was on Bowen to party with friends, though she’d told her parents she was going camping at Cultus Lake.
Bob and Nancy Henrickson wouldn’t have liked the idea of their daughter going to Bowen; it was the home of her former boyfriend, Gavin Arnott, Randy’s wiry, high-strung, 19-year-old son. The Henricksons didn’t want Jodi to see him again. A couple of months earlier, Gavin had been convicted of assaulting her, given a conditional discharge, placed on probation for 18 months, and ordered to have no contact with her.
When Jodi arrived at the Harding place, the party was already in full swing. Gavin remembered that he was “super drunk.” He’d had about 12 Coronas and a mickey and he threw up all over the deck. Cleaning up the mess, he soaked his pants with the hose. He staggered out to his father’s truck, where he had clean clothes.
He drove back towards the house and his friend Khole Dallas said that the truck almost hit the house. Khole recalled: “We pulled him out of the car and duct-taped him to a pole so he couldn’t drive anymore.”
“Khole thought it was pretty funny,” recalled Gavin. “I was pretty wasted. I also had a fight with Doug after that—he punched me on the jaw. A little later he put me to bed. I think it was probably sometime before midnight.”
There was another party on Bowen that night, at the home of Hope Dallas, Khole’s sister, about eight kilometres away. Most of us who live on the island know the area as Leroyville, a series of similar homes on quarter-acre lots, built by local contractor Rod Leroy. Jodi saw Gavin duct-taped to the pole before she headed off to Hope’s place. Later, she got a ride back to the first party house.
In the early hours of Saturday morning, she went into the bedroom and woke Gavin. They left together, Gavin recalled, catching a ride part way to Snug Cove, then walking in the direction of a rental house that his father was renovating near Leroyville. Todd Braraten saw Jodi and Gavin walking along the road by the elementary school, holding hands. It was 4:30 a.m., just getting light; he remembered looking at the clock in his truck.
Todd had been at the Harding party and had driven a friend home; he was keen to get home and sleep. Gavin asked him if he and Jodi could get a lift to Leroyville. Todd said no; he was too tired and had business in the city later that morning.
Jodi and Gavin walked down towards Snug Cove, then up the aptly named Seven Hills on Miller Road. Close to the turnoff to Millers Landing, a young couple driving to an early ferry noticed Gavin and Jodi by the side of the road. That was at about 6:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 20, 2009. Jodi Henrickson has not been seen since.
It was four days later, on Wednesday, June 24, that Jodi’s parents went to Squamish RCMP to report her missing. She’d been expected home on Tuesday, and had not been in contact with anyone in the family since the evening of June 19. Because she posted regularly on Facebook and kept in touch with her brother, Rob-James, almost daily, this lack of connection was highly unusual.
Bob Henrickson is a longshoreman who works at the port in Squamish; his wife, Nancy, raised their children: 20-year old Rob-James, Jodi, and 14-year-old Dylan. Bob is in his 60s now, Nancy in her mid-50. For the first few weeks of Jodi’s absence they wondered whether she had simply run away.
Rob-James described his sister as “high energy, bubbly.” A female friend on Bowen calls Jodi “very spontaneous. She would sometimes do unexpected things-she could take off with someone she’d just met.”
“I didn’t think it was likely that she’d run away,” Rob-James recalled not long ago, in an office on the UBC campus. He’s in his fourth year of Biochemistry, and hoping to go on to graduate school. “But I was trying to keep an open mind in those first weeks.”
When the police began looking into Jodi’s disappearance, interviewing kids at the party and reconstructing the evening’s events, they identified Gavin Arnott as a person of interest. On Saturday, June 27, a week after she went missing, Gavin spent almost nine hours with RCMP investigators, going over his account of what happened on the night of June 19 and morning of June 20.
He finally called his father Randy to come pick him up at the police station on Bowen. “He was pretty shaken up,” Randy Arnott remembered. “They’d accused him of killing her. He was asked to take a lie detector test, but the lawyer we hired recommended against taking the test, and we relied on his advice.”
A few days later, in an interview with CBC, Randy Arnott said, “It feels that we’re being looked at and accused, and we’ve been held up in our own house, not wanting to go out in public. People are looking at you, that your son’s the bad guy, which I don’t believe he is.”
Bad guy or not, Gavin has a troubled past. In early 2009, after a conflict with his mother (who’d separated from his father a decade earlier), he poured lighter fluid on himself and tried to set himself on fire. This led to a stay in a psychiatric ward.
What of the assault on Jodi that resulted in the restraining order? Gavin said that he called her a pig because she was eating too much of their dinner. “She threw a motorcycle helmet at me. I grabbed her and threw her out of the house, and she went to the police.”
Todd Braraten remembered a camping trip near Pemberton when a group of kids were sitting in a hot tub. Gavin got angry with Jodi and began choking her. He wouldn’t stop; one of their friends had to intervene, getting Gavin in a headlock and literally throwing him out of the tub. Rob-James saw his sister a week later. “She was black and blue down her arms and around her neck, from Gavin choking her.”
After Jodi’s disappearance, Rob-James did not think, initially, that Gavin had harmed her. “I didn’t like it at all when Gavin was dating Jodi,” he recalled. “I told her he was an asshole, but she didn’t listen. He was a chronic liar, a little off, a little crazy. But I also thought, ‘Gavin isn’t a criminal mastermind. He wasn’t organized and smart enough to hide a body, and he wouldn’t have planned to kill her.'”
Gavin told me that he and Jodi argued by the side of the road. What were they arguing about at 6:30 a.m.? “She probably said something,” Gavin said. “It was starting to heat up. She wanted me to go back to Doug’s and get my dad’s truck, so that we could take off and go to Calgary.”
Gavin said he turned his back to her and walked away, over the Legion Hill, not looking back. He said he went to his father’s rental house, where he was supposed to work that morning, taking out insulation. He said he slept at the rental house for about an hour, then hitchhiked back to Doug Harding’s house.
At about 8:30 a.m., Gavin was picked up near the school by a young woman who worked at the Orchard, a treatment facility for people with substance abuse problems. Gavin said he walked from the Orchard to Doug Harding’s, about a kilometre away, and picked up his father’s truck. He said he packed up some empties and cleaned up after the party, but didn’t see anyone. “I was probably there about 30 minutes. Then I drove back to my dad’s house and worked on pulling out insulation.”
A little after 11 a.m., Gavin arrived at the Legion. There was a memorial service for a local Bowen islander who’d died the previous week, after decades of heavy drinking. Todd remembered that Gavin got to the service a little late: “I could hear the truck arrive outside, and he looked pretty messed up.” A friend of Jodi’s from West Vancouver also remembered seeing Gavin at the service. “He was staring at the ground. He had his head in his hands. He looked very messed up.”
After the service Gavin went to the Bowen Island Pub for lunch. “I ordered some potato skins,” he said, “but I couldn’t eat them because my jaw was still sore from Doug hitting me. I went to the pharmacy and got a protein shake.”
Another friend recalled seeing Gavin at the pub in the early afternoon. “He looked fucked up,” she told one of her friends. That night Gavin slept over at Doug Harding’s house, and the next day he returned to his mother’s place in Squamish.
Where’s Jodi Henrickson? Gavin suggested she may have left the island, on the ferry, and could now be living elsewhere. He said, “I had an aunt who disappeared from our family for two years.”
That scenario seems unlikely, however. Her regular close contact with family and friends suggests she would not simply have abandoned them. Could she have been driven onto the ferry, unseen by video cameras, and subsequently been abducted and killed somewhere in the Lower Mainland? Again, highly unlikely. Most homicides take place between people who know each other well. Killings by strangers amount to less than 10 percent of murders. These tend to be during robberies, contract killings, predatory sexual homicides, and killings by the mentally disturbed.
So where is her body? Police conducted their initial search 10 days after her disappearance, an effort that included a helicopter and cadaver dogs. They have since indicated that they believe she never left Bowen Island. She could have been killed and dumped in the water, but unless her body was properly weighted down she would probably have washed ashore or been found floating. A water dump is a possibility, but that would require access to a boat and knowledge of how to ensure that her body would remain submerged.
Dumping her body somewhere on Bowen seems most likely, though more than a year after she went missing it’s anyone’s guess where the remains might be. Police believe the body may have been moved, perhaps multiple times. Randy Arnott said he was told by police that there’s a 95 per cent likelihood his son killed Jodi Henrickson in the early morning hours of June 20. Based on what the police told him, Randy thinks they believe Gavin killed her somewhere in the vicinity of Millers Road, between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., then went to get his father’s truck, and a little after 9 a.m. returned to her body. Gavin put her body in the truck, drove to a remote site on the island, and dumped her. Then he returned for the memorial service at the Legion.
After the police informed him of their suspicions, Randy Arnott said he went to check the condition of his excavators. Gavin knew how to operate them, and could have used one to bury Jodi deep in the ground. Two of the excavators were in residential areas, and it would have been impossible to use them without detection; three others were at Randy’s crushing pit in the Twin Islands’ rock quarry. There was simply no possibility of digging there. But one excavator was up in the woods; Gavin could have used it without being noticed. Randy went up to check, and said he was relieved to see that the machine had not been touched.
Excavation to bury a murdered body is actually rare, Gail Anderson pointed out. She’s a renowned forensic entomologist in Simon Fraser University’s School of Criminology, a colleague of mine, and frequently testifies in homicide cases. Most bodies are buried in shallow graves, she says, or dumped, and in two to three weeks, in this climate, a body that’s dumped will be reduced by animals and insects to a mass of decaying tissue, skin, and bones. A body that’s buried, even in a shallow grave, may remain relatively intact for months, even years. “The smell from a body that’s dumped disappears after about two weeks,” she added, “and bodies that are buried, even in shallow graves, will likely never be detected by scent.”
Killers rarely travel far with dead bodies. Kim Rossmo, a globally recognized profiler and former detective inspector with the Vancouver Police Department, has written that “a body is unlikely to be carried more than 150 feet from a vehicle. An adult body dumped in a remote area will usually be found within 50 feet of a road or trail and a child’s body within 200 feet. A search following the road network will therefore be more effective and efficient than a standard grid search. A murderer carrying a dead victim is subject to time, distance, speed, and effort constraints that can be used to determine potential body dump site locations.”
RCMP Sergeant Pete Cross is the lead investigator in the case. He’s had a lot of experience in homicide, with 11 years in the detail and more than 100 investigations under his belt. Some of his cases are well known—the David Snow murders, the Heather Thomas disappearance, the so-called “crack house of horrors.” A friendly, easygoing fellow in his fifties, Cross speculated that Jodi Henrickson was most likely strangled. “If she’d been shot, we would have found shell casings. If she’d been shot, knifed, beaten, or bludgeoned, we would have found traces of blood. With strangulation, there typically isn’t any evidence left behind.”
Gail Anderson added that if Jodi had been strangled, the only forensic evidence available now might be a break in the hyoid, a small bone in the neck. “There was never any real lack of co-operation from the young people of Bowen,” added Cross, dispelling media reports to that effect. “I don’t think there ever was any conspiracy of silence, though this was reported at one point.
What was surprising was that there wasn’t any ownership of the investigation by the community, at least initially. The community was not up in arms about what happened-maybe because she wasn’t from Bowen, maybe because it was initially classified as a missing persons case.” That began to change, however, after the announcement last March that police were treating the case as a homicide, not merely a disappearance.
For David Jones and other islanders, there was a sense that the community had not reached out to Jodi’s family. David, who works at CBC in Vancouver and has lived on Bowen for six years, tried to organize a community meeting and wanted to bring Jodi’s family to Bowen to show them “we do care about what happened.” He raised money for a gift basket and bouquet for the family, and he helped the RCMP organize a search party.
In July, an exhaustive, shoulder-to-shoulder search was carried out in the area close to where Jodi was last seen. Eight garbage bags of material were collected, though nothing that could be directly linked to the case. Dozens of local volunteers pitched in. Gavin Arnott was not among them.
On Bowen, little seems to have changed since Jodi’s disappearance. Many people don’t lock their doors, and few seem to think the island is a more dangerous place. “What I notice,” said Dale Harding, Lloyd’s wife, “is that when I go for walks now, I’m always looking. Will I find her jacket? Will I see some bones?”
Bob Robinson, a longtime resident of Bowen and a volunteer fireman, is liked and respected, both in the community and at municipal hall. He was involved in hiring Gavin for the public works crew earlier this year. “Gavin’s a smart kid, very mechanical, and not afraid to get his hands dirty. He’s also a hard worker,” Bob said. “I would not have hired him if I thought he’d killed Jodi Henrickson. I told that there were rumours in the municipality that he was responsible for her death, and we agreed that those rumours shouldn’t be the basis for a decision to hire him. He was the best applicant for the job.”
Todd Braraten drives a truck that’s jacked up for off-road use. A polite, straightforward young man, he says that some young people on the island keep their distance from Gavin. Todd, though, remains his friend. “Yeah, if he asks me to go to the bar and have a drink, I’m going to go. Can you imagine what it would feel like if he didn’t do this crime? It would be terrible.” Todd paused, rubbing his neck. “Can you imagine what it would be like for him if he did? It would be even worse.”
Randy Arnott doesn’t believe that his son killed Jodi. “I don’t think he did it, but you also have to be realistic,” he told me. “It’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility—you can never know for sure.” He remembered his son telling him, “If I didn’t do it, Dad, you have nothing to worry about.”
Gavin himself acknowledged that people on Bowen were, at first, very suspicious of him. “But it’s died down.”
“Do you see why people think you’re the person who’s most likely to have killed her?” I asked him.
“Yeah, I get that. I’d feel suspicious of someone in the same circumstances as me.”
Jodi’s parents, devastated by her disappearance, try to cope by keeping busy. If possible they avoid leaving Squamish; they can’t bear to look from the Sea to Sky Highway across Howe Sound towards Bowen Island. Rob-James deals with the media and speaks for the family-his parents are too upset to do so. “They can’t get over it,” he said. “There’s this tiny possibility that Jodi’s still alive somewhere. It’s probably not realistic, but until there’s a body we can never know for sure.”