Canada

Without a trace: More than a decade after Justin Rutter's disappearance, we still don't know what happened to the Ottawa teen

Without a trace: More than a decade after Justin Rutter's disappearance, we still don't know what happened to the Ottawa teen

Ottawa met Justin Rutter through a police description of the last time he was seen.

On Oct. 10, 2009, a Saturday story in the Ottawa Citizen told readers that the 14-year-old had never before stayed away from home overnight. They were asked to keep an eye out for the slim, caucasian teenager with light brown hair and brown eyes, last seen by a friend Thursday night before they parted ways on Côté Street near St. Laurent Boulevard.

Justin told the friend around 10 p.m. that he planned to stay out late, or perhaps all night. He did not say why,” the report reads. It was the first unanswered question in a case that would generate countless others.

Though it began with an all-too-familiar story – a young person is reported missing, police ask the public for leads, loved ones pray they’re located safely – the mystery of Justin’s disappearance has deepened and darkened with the passage of time.

Police say they’ve received dozens and dozens of tips, and have spoken with hundreds of people. An unprecedented cash reward was offered for information. For a time, every youth arrested in Ottawa was asked if they knew where Justin was.

The cold case is now more than a decade old, and the narrative surrounding his disappearance has shifted. Every possible theory about what happened to the 14-year-old has disturbing implications. His family has been devastated, and his mother left to question her son’s fate, and how his case was handled.

Perhaps, as police theorized for so long, Justin really did run away. It’s a possibility that offers hope, however slim, that he could be alive somewhere. But if he is, what’s keeping him from coming home?

Or, maybe there’s nothing to be hopeful about. And that grim conclusion opens the door to countless other questions. Did he take his own life? Did someone take his? Was there some kind of accident?

All horrible and heartbreaking and possible, in the absence of a body that could answer, once and for all: What’s become of Justin Rutter?

***

OTTAWA, ON: OCTOBER 14, 2009 - Prayer service for Justin Rutter, a 14-year-old Ottawa boy who's been missing since last Thursday, at 7th Day Advent church in Ottawa, October 14, 2009.(Photo by Jean Levac / Ottawa Citizen) (For OTTAWA CITIZEN story by Zev Singer, CITY) Assignment number 97063
A 2009 prayer service for Justin Rutter. The 14-year-old Ottawa boy vanished just more than 11 years ago. Photo by Jean Levac /Postmedia.

Public interest in Justin’s case grew in the days that followed his disappearance. If you kept up with Ottawa news, you got to know him and his family – posters papered the city, Facebook was ablaze with information, and hundreds helped search for the friendly kid known to frequent some of Ottawa’s roughest neighbourhoods.

But for a few moments, when the case began, it was a private matter between a mother and her son.

On Oct. 9, 2009, Jaye Rutter woke up before the rest of her family. She looked in on her children. Justin wasn’t in his bed.

“Immediately I knew that there was something wrong,” said Jaye, who recalls picking up the phone and calling police.

“The second thing I did is I called my mother and I apologized. I never knew what that felt like.”

Like her youngest son, Jaye didn’t have a picture-perfect childhood. Her dad left and her mom, a single parent, worked a lot, prompting a teenaged Jaye to up and leave home without explanation on more than one occasion. Her mother used to go downtown with pictures of Jaye, searching for her daughter. Now a mother herself, Jaye experienced firsthand the feelings that set in when one’s child is suddenly, unexplainably, absent.

For Justin, this wasn’t a pattern. But it wasn’t entirely out of character, either.

Affectionately, Jaye describes Justin as “a pain in the butt.”

“If he could do something to frighten me or get a rise out of me, he did it.

“He was a very active child, he was not a gamer, he was definitely a nature kid: outdoors, climbing, getting into mischief with his siblings or friends, probably doing something he wasn’t supposed to.”

And trouble wasn’t hard to find in the Rutters’ Lowertown neighbourhood. They lived on Murray Street, “in the projects,” as Jaye called it. “We saw a lot of broken people. But even those broken people knew my son and thought he was an amazing kid.”

Justin was a bit of a paradox: Streetwise but soft-hearted, mischievous but also empathetic, and devoted to his family. Still boyish-looking, yet capable of putting on the swagger that seems to belong uniquely to teenagers. At age 14, he was still figuring out who he was.

“That night, I was driving around looking for him,” Jaye remembers. “I was so consumed with this overwhelming feeling that I would never, ever see him again.

“I don’t know … what that meant. But that’s how I felt.”

OTTAWA, ONT.: OCTOBER 17, 2009 -- Jaye Rutter (L) (Justin's mother) with Preston McLaren (R) (Justin's father) hold a poster of their missing son, at a gathering to organize a search for 14-year -old Justin Rutter (not shown), in Ottawa, ON, on October 17, 2009. (Jana Chytilova / Ottawa Citizen ) (For CITY Section) ASSIGNMENT NUMBER 97105
Jaye Rutter (L) with Preston McLaren (R) (Justin’s father) hold a poster of their missing son at a 2009 gathering to organize a search for Justin. Photo by Jana Chytilova /The Ottawa Citizen

This October marked 11 years since Justin disappeared. Ottawa has moved on, and it’s once again a mystery that few outside the family give any thought to. But for his loved ones, there’s been no closure.

Jaye hasn’t decided what fate she believes befell her son. “Probably not as bad as I imagine. I have nightmares every night, I don’t sleep. I haven’t slept in 10 years, like really slept.”

But there’s one thing she never really believed — that Justin ran away.

Early on, this seemed to be the working police theory. The officers assigned to his case were from the force’s youth intervention and diversion section, an OPS branch that investigated juvenile missing persons reports at that time.

“Those investigators from the youth section – they’re used to dealing with troubled kids and runaway teens and that kind of thing. When they see an investigation, they tend to think a certain way, they’re used to dealing with it that way,” said Jean-Luc Bonin, a patrol sergeant with the Ottawa police.

Previously, Bonin spent about two years as a detective in the missing persons unit, beginning in 2014. He dove into Justin’s case around the five-year anniversary of his disappearance, and brought himself up to speed on the work that had been done before him.

“From the flavour of the reports that I read about it, it seemed like the focus was to find a runaway.”

Objectively, it’s the most common explanation for the disappearance of a young person, said David Finkelhor, a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire, and the director of the school’s Crimes Against Children Research Centre.

“The big challenge with teenagers, of course, is that being missing in a voluntary way – what gets sometimes called runaway kids – or as a result of family conflict is statistically the most common reason for kids being missing, and so much more common than foul play that it does tend to be the hypothesis of choice among law enforcement and other people trying to solve it,” he said.

“It sounds like there was even a fair amount of evidence that this was, at least initially, a voluntary absence.”

Indeed, Justin had some street smarts, living where he did. He’d started high school and according to his mom, was having a hard time with it. He wasn’t going to class, and she suspects now he was smoking pot. Jaye was trying to get him back on track, but there’s only so much control a parent can exert over their teenager.

“I never tried to be on a line where there was no give with any of my kids. I tried to always have some flexibility with choices that they made, even bad ones. Because you never want your kids to think that they’ve gone so far that there’s no coming back. There’s always a door here.”

Then, there’s the friend’s account of Justin’s parting words the day he disappeared. His plan to stay out late, maybe all night, suggested the beginning of a break from his household.

In the days that followed, the runaway theory only got stronger. Police and the media discussed reported Justin sightings: in Vanier, Lowertown, the ByWard Market.

In one instance, then-confirmed by police and reported in this newspaper, he was seen “in good health” and told a friend he didn’t want to come home. It was enough to convince family, at the time, despite their instincts that the runaway explanation just didn’t fit with the Justin they knew.

“Obviously, there’s a reason he doesn’t want to go home,” his grandmother Diane Veilleux told the Citizen. “The important thing is that the police find him and that he gets the help he needs.”

With such compelling evidence to suggest Justin had fled home and was somewhere on the streets of Ottawa, it was baffling that police and family weren’t able to pin the 14-year-old down.

It wasn’t until much later that the picture changed. Those sightings shared with the public were never confirmed by police, or were determined to be false.

Even the last time Justin was “seen” – his conversation with the friend in which he said he might stay out all night – was later revealed to have never been verified. In 2014, the Ottawa Police Service said Justin was last seen by his family that day: Thursday, Oct. 8, 2009.

Justin had asked her to go to the park, Jaye remembers, saying he wouldn’t be back late.

“If he was going to run away, why would he ask me?” she questions.” I never said, ‘I love you mom, I’ll see you later,’ when I was running away from home. I went out my window, (my mom) didn’t even know I was gone.”

It’s one item on the list of arguments against the runaway theory. There’s also the fact that Justin didn’t have a habit of doing so, was close with all of his family members, and had the option of staying elsewhere if he needed a break from home.

“Children that run away from home … It’s a drip at first, and then it becomes a trickle, and then a stream (and) just – gone. It’s something that happens with time,” said Jaye. “You don’t for the first time in your life take a stab at running away from home and disappear off the face of the earth.”

Looking back, she resents the police decision to speak openly about her son being a runaway without knowing for sure what was going on, feeling that it diminished the public’s interest in the case.

“‘He ran away … he doesn’t want to be at home,’ and then people speculate. That, I don’t really care about. But they just don’t care as much, they’re not interested anymore, because he’s put this on himself.”

“Even if it is a runaway, it’s still a f—–g serious thing, he’s 14. But it still takes away from the fact that this child is missing.”

More than a decade after his disappearance, Bonin confirmed that he doesn’t believe the runaway label describes Justin’s fate.

“I think in my experience, anyhow, any runaway would have come back, one way or another, or we would have had another police contact. We would have had something leading down a different path.”

He also acknowledged that you shouldn’t be so focused on one investigative theory that you discount other possibilities along the way. And hypothetically, had he been on the case at the time, Bonin said he would have approached it thinking “dirtier” in his detective work, a mindset that can help ensure all bases are covered in case the worst-case scenario becomes the leading theory.

But at the same time, Bonin recognized that he has the benefit of hindsight, and was reluctant to critique the work of his predecessors, whom, he believes, were really looking for what they thought was a runaway, and were hoping to find him alive and well.

“It’s not easy for the officers there, I know they worked really hard, they had long hours, and they did the very best that they could to the best of their ability,” said Bonin.

He also doesn’t think resources were lacking, and pointed out that hundreds of people have been spoken to over the course of the investigation.

“It’s not a lack of effort … it’s not a lack of resources, the resources were there. Is it possible that a different investigator would have had a different outcome? Who knows, I don’t think so.”

By the five-year anniversary of Justin’s last day at home, Ottawa police had received almost 50 tips relating to Justin’s whereabouts, but hadn’t been able to confirm a single one. It was then that they released an artist’s sketch of what Justin might look like at age 19, and offered $5,000 for information that could pin down his current location or lead to the prosecution of anyone responsible for his disappearance. It was the first time a reward was put on the table for a missing persons case in the history of the police service.

Ottawa Police Service Supt. Don Sweet of the Criminal Investigations hosted a media briefing Oct 8, about the ongoing investigation into missing person Justin Rutter who was last seen 5 years ago in Ottawa on October 8th, 2009 by his family. He was 14 years old at the time of his disappearance. (Pat McGrath / Ottawa Citizen)
Then Ottawa Police Service Supt. Don Sweet hosting a media briefing about the ongoing investigation into Justin Rutter’s case. Photo by Pat McGrath /Ottawa Citizen

“After five years, it’s very concerning to us that we have not located him,” Supt. Don Sweet said at the time.

“If he was alive and well right now, I think somebody would be giving us that.”

That suggestion gives rise to its own set of questions. If Justin died, where, how and why did it happen?

One disturbing hypothesis is that someone took his life. On this possibility, Jaye provided a startling detail: the day Justin disappeared, he’s believed to have been involved in a physical altercation with another teenager.

As Jaye tells it, the youth came up to her son while he was sitting at a table in Lowertown’s Jules Morin Park. He was much larger than Justin, and “beat him up.”

She knows this because someone captured the incident on a phone camera, and police obtained the footage. Jaye couldn’t bring herself to watch it, but Justin’s father did.

Reporting from the time corroborates Jaye’s account: “Justin went missing sometime after 8 p.m. after getting into a fight with another boy at a Lowertown park,” reads one Citizen story. “He left the park alone and was heading west toward the ByWard Market.”

Then, in the days after Justin’s disappearance, Jaye said she was given second-hand information that the boy who beat up Justin was bragging with his friends “that they had stabbed Justin a bunch of times and thrown him off a bridge.”

Immediately, Jaye remembers calling police from a parking lot and relaying everything she had just heard. Within an hour, she said, the lead detective told her it was just a rumour.

All these years later, the same boy, now an adult, was recently charged for alleged involvement in an unrelated violent crime.

“It’s a big loose end for us,” said Jaye.

Finkelhor, the expert on crimes against children, noted that homicides by young teens are “very rare,” and when they do occur, typically involve firearmsWhile he thinks it’s likely that Justin died, the cause is a more difficult question to answer.

“I’d guess, given the relative probabilities, that suicide or accidental death is more likely than criminal homicide – but it could be criminal homicide, too.”

According to Statistics Canada, the former was the most common cause of death in 2018 among Canadian youth aged 10 to 14. Forty-four young people in that age group took their own lives, while 40 died in accidents and only six were killed in homicides.

Jaye doesn’t think that Justin would have harmed himself – “he was such a live-er of life” – but at the same time, she can’t know for sure.

The weeks leading up to Justin’s disappearance were difficult ones. He had ADHD, and unlike elementary school, where he was surrounded by supportive people, the high school he started at “was not a good fit,” Jaye remembers. He wasn’t showing up, and she registered him in a new school not long before his disappearance.

Though she doesn’t remember hearing about any bullying, Jaye knew her son was struggling. They discussed it in one of their last conversations.

I said, ‘I know you’re having a hard time, but we’ll go together to school and we’ll figure it out’,” Jaye recalled. “‘We’ll start fresh on Monday’.”

Whether by suicide, foul play or accident, there’s an obvious missing piece in the theory that Justin is no longer alive. Namely, it’s been more than a decade and nobody has located his body.

A man walkws through the Byward Market area of Ottawa past a sign looking for information on missing 14 year old teen Justin Rutter.
A poster seeking information on Justin Rutter. Photo by ERROL MCGIHON/SUNMEDIA /Errol McGihon, Ottawa Sun

During his time with the missing persons unit, Bonin worked actively with a number of other organizations including the coroner’s office and his federal and provincial counterparts to try to match up unidentified remains found in the Ottawa region with unsolved cases. Several were ultimately identified, but not Justin’s. That said, there are hundreds of remains across the country, Bonin noted, and ongoing efforts to match bodies with names.

One such initiative is the National Missing Persons DNA Program, launched in 2018, that allows for the collection and comparison in a national databank of DNA profiles from unidentified remains, missing persons, and family members who volunteer to submit their own biological samples. As of June 2020, the program had helped identify remains in six investigations, according to the RCMP.

Of course, a positive ID first requires finding a body to identify. And while it’s certainly still possible in Justin’s case after all these years, Bonin acknowledged that it isn’t a guaranteed outcome.

“In a forensic mindset, you’ll never find a scientist that will say, ‘Yes, we will always find all the bodies’.”

As is practice with missing people, Bonin said the potential for a physical search was an ongoing consideration in his time on Justin’s case. Ultimately, he said there were no leads or evidence uncovered that could justify the deployment of a search team.

Asked about a water search (Lowertown is bordered by the Ottawa and Rideau Rivers), Bonin said that, hypothetically, there would have to be evidence saying this is what happened to Justin, and where. Plus, there are the complications posed by the speed of waterways’ currents, and the decomposition that bodies undergo in water.

“If there was credible information that Justin was likely to be found anywhere, I don’t think there would have been anything that would have stopped a search,” said Bonin. “It’s what we do, it’s how you find missing people.”

Ottawa police requests for searches, whether for a piece of evidence or a missing person, go through a command structure that considers the circumstances, potential costs and probabilities of success, Bonin explained. And when it comes to police investigations in general, he said they can’t work a case by its what-ifs.

“We are 100-per-cent evidence-led, so if the evidence is pointing us in a certain direction we will follow that. But that being said, especially in missing persons, there’s really an absence of evidence that we have to work with.”

This reality offers little solace to a family that’s gone 11 years without an answer, even the most horrifying one. After more than a decade, Justin’s unexplained absence has already caused irreparable damage.

Her son was like the glue that brought loved ones together, said Jaye; a magnet between members of the family who otherwise struggled to get along. Everyone felt like they had a special relationship with Justin, and after he was gone, the family “just imploded.”

For his mother, the loss has been profound. In the early days, Jaye turned to painkillers and isolation. Any photos of Justin had to be put away. She broke off ties, and barely talked to her own family for years.

Her faith has helped some, but happiness has been hard to come by. Jaye believes more support needs to be made available to families like her own, who’ve had a child disappear.

“That, I think, would have made a big difference, in helping us handle feelings. Instead, you’re kind of just stuck in arrested development. You just kind of don’t change from that. You’re still there.”

She’s not in contact with the police anymore. The last few times she tried to get in touch, Jaye said no one called her back. And her sense is that Justin’s case wasn’t really investigated.

“I don’t know if they did their job … I just feel like they didn’t. And I feel like my child wasn’t important,” she said. “Their job is to serve and protect us, and they did not serve us and they did not protect us. They did not protect my child.”

There’s a fundamental imbalance at the heart of the relationship between the families of long-term missing children and the police responsible for their cases. While police have to divide attention between all the files on their caseload, families are understandably focused on finding their missing loved one.

It’s often a very frustrating process if police can’t produce answers, said Lindsay Lobb, policing relations liaison with the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, a national charity. And while families may feel police have failed them, “I think the difficulty with that, is that unless your child is located, you’re never going to feel like it’s good enough,” said Lobb.

There are also legitimate reasons why police can’t or won’t give families all of the information they might want about open missing cases and the efforts being taken to try to solve them, according to Bonin.

OTTAWA, ONT.: OCTOBER 17, 2009 -- Jaye Rutter (R) (Justin's mother) is comforted by Preston McLaren (L) (Justin's father), at a gathering to organize a search for 14-year -old Justin Rutter (not shown), in Ottawa, ON, on October 17, 2009. (Jana Chytilova / Ottawa Citizen ) (For CITY Section) ASSIGNMENT NUMBER 97105
Jaye Rutter is comforted by Preston McLaren (Justin’s father), at a 2009 gathering to organize a search for Justin. Photo by Jana Chytilova /The Ottawa Citizen

While working on Justin’s case, he never spoke to the family – he didn’t want to provide the false impression that he could devote all of his time to it, nor reopen old wounds when nothing had changed.

There’s also the idea of “holdback evidence.” If someone was killed or abducted, for example, information that only the police and perpetrator know is incredibly important.

Frustrating as it might be, Bonin said the reality is that until he’s found, Justin’s family won’t have access to the case file.

And so they’re left to live with unanswered questions, largely in the dark about the facts of the investigation into Justin’s disappearance. Jaye has her doubts about whether it was handled properly – and history provides some justification for her concerns.

In 2017, for instance, the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team found that Calgary officers made a series of mistakes as they investigated the disappearance of Colton Crowshoe, a young Indigenous man who was later found dead.

“Several of the missing person policy protocols were not followed,” ASIRT executive director Susan Hughson said at the time. “As a result, there was minimal investigation of the missing person report, no follow-up or file continuity, no accountability or file ownership, a failure to document relevant new information, and most importantly, no police-initiated communication with the family.”

In Justin’s case, were there missteps? Should police have done something more, or differently?

It’s difficult to say, especially given the knowledge gap that exists when it comes to police work and missing people.

“In the research literature, missing persons and best practices for police responses to missing persons is very understudied and it’s underfunded,” said Lorna Ferguson, a policing researcher and doctorate student at Western University, who has consulted for police agencies across the county.

In policing, there isn’t one standardized approach when it comes to addressing these cases, she explained, and although individual agencies have their own internal best practices, these are constantly evolving as police learn from experience, collaborate with other agencies, and partner with researchers.

“With cold cases in general … a lot of officers have identified that the reviewing of the documents, and the communication with the family, and exhausting all of the leads is something that could have been worked on in the past, or could have been more standardized in the past to make it a better-quality investigation,” said Ferguson. “But at that time, you have to remember the knowledge that we have now, and the technological advances that we have now weren’t present.”

In the vast majority of cases involving missing youth, resolution is quick to arrive. According to the National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains, an RCMP body, 63 per cent of reports of missing children or youth in 2019 were removed within 24 hours, while 93 per cent were taken down within a week.

On the NCMPUR website, you can browse a collection of unsolved cases of missing children. Justin’s is one of more than 180, published at the request of the primary investigator on each case. Many date back decades. The circumstances range:

“Taken from Canada by their father.”

“Lived in a youth centre and did not want to spend the holidays there.”

“Last seen playing near a beach.”

“Got onto the bus and did not report to school.”

What they have in common is that today, authorities cannot say with certainty where these children ended up. But even after years, as in Justin’s case, history has shown that there’s still a chance this answer could one day materialize.

Lobb, of the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, brought up the case of Jermaine Mann. Allegedly abducted by his father in 1987 when he was a baby in Toronto, Mann was located by authorities in the United States, where he was raised with a different name and the belief his mother was dead, 31 years later.

There’s also Felicia Floriani, a Hamilton teenager whose body was discovered by a farmer working in his field in April 2012, nearly a decade after she was last seen. The cause of her death was not released, but according to reporting at the time, police believed she was murdered.

“There are these cases where either somebody knows something, and there’s that one little piece of information that police need to help locate somebody, or by chance we’re able to locate remains because a new building’s being developed, or a farmer’s out in their field – there’s always the possibility,” said Lobb.

Ottawa Police Service hosted a media briefing Oct 8, about the ongoing investigation into missing person Justin Rutter who was last seen 5 years ago in Ottawa on October 8th, 2009 by his family. He was 14 years old at the time of his disappearance. (Pat McGrath / Ottawa Citizen)
A sketch of what Justin might have looked like in 2014. Photo by Pat McGrath /Ottawa Citizen

While Jaye said she wants to see her son’s case reopened, Bonin explained that like all cold cases, it was never closed and won’t be, “until we find a body or we find Justin.”

As for a major resurgence of effort into the investigation, that would also have to be evidence-led, said Bonin. The Ottawa Police Service handles approximately 2,300 missing persons investigations annually.

“There are a lot of families that are looking for a lot of answers,” he noted.

“But trust me when I tell you that we do care about cold cases. I took it under my wing quite a bit, because I really wanted to find out what happened to him.”

Until that clarity arrives, if it ever does, Jaye is left to try to make some version of peace with Justin’s unexplained absence from her life. He would be 25 years old by now, but lives in her memory as a deeply kind 14-year-old boy who loved old horror movies, skateboarding and Ziggy Stardust-era Bowie.

“If he’s not with us, he’s with God. That’s comforting. What I don’t like is that he’s not been buried properly. That bothers me a lot. Is he just sitting somewhere out there?

“I don’t have a place to say, ‘I’m going to go see Justin today…’ I don’t know if I would do that. But if I wanted to, I can’t.”

A $5,000 reward remains available for information confirming Justin’s current whereabouts, or leading to the arrest and prosecution of the person(s) responsible for his disappearance.

Anyone with information about him is asked to contact the OPS Missing Persons Unit at (613) 236-1222 ext. 2355 during business hours, or at (613) 236-1222 ext. 7300 for 24-hour assistance. Anonymous tips can go through Crime Stoppers, at 1-800-222-8477.

-With files from Postmedia and The Canadian Press

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