The Disappearance of Cortney Lake

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EARLY LIFE:

Cortney Lake grew up with her parents and brother in the small town of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, located on the Burin Peninsula. Known as a free spirit, she spent a lot of her time surrounded by her loving family, which also consisted of her two aunts, Glenda and Donna. While her parents eventually separated, and her mother moved over 300km to Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, she remained close to both.

Whilst in her late teens, Cortney met a man named Jason Pike at an event in St. Lawrence. Not long after, the pair started a relationship, which lasted four years and resulted in the birth of their son, Oliver. While they had grown apart, by 2017 they were successfully co-parenting their son, with Oliver living with Jason and Cortney FaceTiming him on a daily basis.

In 2013, Cortney made history as the first single mother to enter the Miss Newfoundland and Labrador Pageant.

Cortney would eventually enter into a toxic relationship with an army reservist named Philip Smith. On April 15, 2017, Smith assaulted Cortney near his home at 22 Alice Drive, not far from the Marine Institute on Ridge Road in St. John’s, Newfoundland. On April 17, Cortney’s mother, Lisa, called the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary to report the assault. When an officer arrived at the Lake residence, Cortney explained that an altercation had occurred upon her trying to get out of Smith’s pickup truck. He had tried to stop her by punching her twice – once in the stomach and once in the arm. She then complained of a bump on her left eyebrow, a sore arm and a cut on the inside of her lower lip.

In May 2017, Smith sent Cortney’s new boyfriend intimate images of her without her permission, something the young mother reported to the authorities.

LEAD UP TO DISAPPEARANCE:

On May 5, 2017, Smith’s sister called the RNC, concerned about his wellbeing. She informed the officer that she believed her brother was in his pickup truck near RCAF Road, close to the St. John’s airport. Using GPS to track Smith’s cellphone, the officer arrived in the area and approached the truck, in which he saw a white male with short blond hair and sunglasses. Smith drove away and was later found near a pond off Peacekeeper’s Way in Conception Bay South, where he later tried to harm himself. The officer placed him in handcuffs and he was held in a healthcare facility for a total of four days.

During this time, Cortney obtained a peace bond that prevented Smith from having any contact with her, this confirmed by friends who were aware of their relationship. When Smith appeared in front of a judge in order to change this restriction on May 8, 2017, he was denied. He was, however, granted permission to drive to work, a privilege that had been revoked prior to this court date.

Despite the peace bond, Smith attempted to contact Cortney 33 times on June 5, 2017. He also drove to the family home in Mount Pearl. Cortney contacted the authorities about this, but Smith drove away before they could arrive. However, he was later stopped near the home and arrested.

On June 7, 2017, Smith appeared in court on a number of offences, to which he primarily plead guilty. He admitted to the assault on Cortney, for which he received a suspended sentence, and to knowingly publishing, distributing, transmitting, selling or making available an intimate image, knowing that the person depicted did not give their consent, which resulted in another suspended sentence. As well as pleading guilty to a number of driving-related offences, he was also convicted of breaching a recognizance that prohibited him from having contact with either Cortney or her mother, in relation to the events of two days prior, and was sentenced to two days time served. A number of charges were also withdrawn, with both the Crown and the defence agreeing he was currently in the middle of a crisis.

Upon leaving the courthouse, Smith was given a probation order to stay away from Cortney and her mother.

That same day, Cortney and Jason took Oliver to his weekly swimming lesson at the Mews Community Centre in St. John’s, after which Jason dropped Cortney off at her mother’s house. After spending the afternoon with her family, she was later dropped off at her residence on Wellington Crescent, located in Mount Pearl.

DISAPPEARANCE:

Cortney was last seen on June 7, 2017 in Mount Pearl, Newfoundland, four hours after Philip Smith left the courthouse.

INVESTIGATION:

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary headed up the investigation upon being notified of Cortney’s disappearance. To kick off their search, they interviewed the missing woman’s friends and family, including Jason, who allowed forensic investigators to search his vehicle. After being cleared as a suspect, he made a public plea for anyone with information to come forward.

From the other interviews with those closest to Cortney, investigators were able to confirm her whereabouts on June 7 up until she was dropped off at her residence.

To help spread the word about Cortney’s disappearance, her friends and family ran a social media campaign, using the hashtag #HelpFindCortney.

Police reviewed Cortney’s social media, but it did not reveal anything that could lead to her being found.

Not long after she disappeared, investigators canvassed Alice Drive, the street Smith lived on. They asked anyone if they had seen Cortney since her disappearance, but no one had seen her in three weeks, despite having seen her numerous times in the months prior. Properties in the area were also searched, but nothing of value was found.

To help generate leads, video stills obtained from security footage at the Esso gas station on Elizabeth Avenue in St. John’s were released, showing Cortney purchasing items a few hours before her disappearance.

In June 2017, three vigils were held in order to keep the case in the public eye. Each one was held where members of Cortney’s family resided. One occurred in Mount Pearl, where Lisa resides; one happened in St. Lawrence, where her father and brother still live; and the third was in Marystown, where several of her relatives are located.

On June 27, 2017, a woman walking along a trail in Mount Pearl, some 600 metres from Cortney’s residence, came across jewelry and a pair of broken glasses. She contacted police, but the items were later confirmed to not belong to the missing woman.

That same day, police observed Smith drinking at the Jack Astor’s on Harbour Drive in St. John’s, and he was later seen purchasing beet at Antle’s Irving on Torbay Road. As he wasn’t allowed to enter a place that served alcohol at the time, he was arrested and placed under police custody.

On June 28, 2017, investigators, armed with a search warrant, converged on the two-unit property Smith and his father owned. While they wouldn’t confirm at the time if the search was connected to Cortney’s disappearance, they did maintain a watch on the house by setting up a tent in the backyard. They ended up removing a number of items from the property, including Smith’s truck, which was later returned to him.

To help raise awareness about the case, digital billboards around St. John’s featured Cortney’s photo and prompted passersby to call the police with any information. Her family also created posters with the same information.

On June 30, 2017, the RNC announced they had classified Cortney’s disappearance as a homicide and, as a result, were concerned for her safety and had referred the case to the Major Crimes Unit. They also shared that they’d identified more than one person of interest. During this press conference, they released residential security footage, which showed Cortney leaving her home on Wellington Crescent at 7:52pm on June 7 and walking toward the area of Lindbergh Crescent and Ruth Avenue. At 7:54pm, the footage showed her walking down the street when a black GMC Sierra pickup truck with a Browning camouflage deer head decal on the passenger side back window pulled up beside her. After she entered the passenger side, the truck swung back around and drove in the opposite direction.

Police shared that they believe Cortney was taken to a secluded, wooded or less-travelled area a short drive from where she was picked up. As such, they conducted searches in the Galway development, in the wooded areas off Outer Ring Road, the Sea Cove area of Conception Bay South, and Power’s Pond. They also asked those in the same areas, as well as residents living around Lindbergh Crescent, Ruth Avenue, Old Placentia Road, the Trans-Canada Highway and Michener Avenue, to review dash cam and home security footage.

During this time, numerous volunteer searches occurred, headed by Cortney’s family. Dubbed “Cortney’s Search Angels”, they looked throughout the Avalon Peninsula, as well as Bay Bulls and Seal Cove, on foot and via ATV. To help raise money for the search efforts, as well as fund a reward, the family set up a GoFundMe page.

During a search of Paddy’s Pond on July 2, 2017, volunteer searchers came across an item that was later confirmed to belong to Cortney. It was discovered near Torbaymans Pond by the Irving station, west of St. John’s. This prompted police to conduct a ground and water search of the area later in the day and into July 3. Consisting of the RNC and the Rovers Ground Search and Rescue, it saw the shoreline scoured and the bottom of the Torbaymans dragged.

After Cortney’s disappearance, Philip Smith continued to get into trouble with the law. He was later accused of committing more crimes on the day Cortney was last seen, including driving while disqualified and breaching a peace order in relation to Lisa Lake. On August 9, 2017, he plead guilty to breaching the condition meant to keep him away from Cortney, admitting he’d picked her up from Michener Avenue on the night she went missing. However, he didn’t reveal where they went or where he last saw her. He also plead guilty to the drinking while prohibited charge relating back to his June 27, 2017 arrest.

In relation to the charges, Smith was sentenced to 90 days in custody. With time served, he was only due to serve 24 days. While the 90 day sentence was agreed upon by both the Crown and the defence, Smith was told by the presiding judge that he would have received a longer sentence if not for the previously agreed upon terms. He was released on August 24, 2017, after 16 days, on good behaviour and was given a one-year driving prohibition.

In the fall of 2017, Smith was relieved of his military duties due to his criminal convictions, this eight years after he enrolled in the Army Primary Reserves. While he hadn’t served on any overseas missions, at the time he was relieved he was a corporal and primary reservist with the 37 Combat Engineer Regiment in St. John’s. During this time, an administrative review took place to determine what the next course of action would be and whether he should officially be discharged from the military.

In October 2017, Cortney was one of the 117 women remembered during the In Her Name vigil, organized by the St. John’s Status of Women Council and the St. John’s Native Friendship Council. Lisa was present to read her daughter’s name, but became overcome with emotion and was unable to do so.

On October 31, 2017, Smith called his family, saying he was going to kill himself. Concerned, they contacted the authorities, who put searchers on standby an hour away at Bellevue Beach, where the Smith family had a cabin. At 3:00am on November 1, a sniffer dog located Smith’s body, although police wouldn’t initially confirm or deny the suicide, only saying they were investigating a sudden death in the Bellevue Beach area and there was no risk to the public.

Smith’s death prompted investigators to conduct a thorough search of Bellevue Beach. Joined by the Rovers, the Avalon North Wolverines, and Central Avalon search and rescue teams, they searched for evidence connected to Cortney’s disappearance, but came up empty.

In the weeks leading up to his death, the RNC had a difficult time keeping tabs on Smith. When questioned, a friend said he’d seen the deceased in St. John’s hours before his death. While noting there was nothing different about his behaviour at this time, he did share that Smith had been feeling troubled all year and cited his May 2017 suicide attempt.

Upon learning of Smith’s death, the Lake family offered their condolences to the Smith family. Before his death, Lisa shared that he had been served documents to appear in court on November 7, 2017 in relation to a peace bond against him, as the previous one had expired.

Shortly after his death, the RNC’s Major Crimes Unit released new images of Smith and his truck, dated June 8, 2017, which showed him at a local Ultramar gas station. They did this in the hopes anyone would remember seeing him or have any relevant dash cam footage.

In November 2017, a woman’s body was found along a wooded trail cut into the side of Mount Scio, a few hundred metres from the O’Brien Farm heritage property, located within St. John’s. While the death was deemed suspicious, it was determined the body did not belong to Cortney.

During this month, the Grace Sparkles House, a shelter for women on the Burin Peninsula, announced a new bursary to support the families of missing or murdered women of intimate partner violence. Conversations in relation to this had begun with the idea of holding a community gathering in honour of Cortney, later spurred on by the murder of another woman named Ryanna Grywacheski. On December 4, 2017, a fundraising dinner and vigil occurred, honouring Cortney, with the money raised meant to help families with search efforts, setting up a trust fund for children, helping with funeral costs and the building of monuments and markers.

In December 2017, police received new information about Cortney, which prompted them to conduct a two-day search of the abandoned 100 acre Smallwood Farm near Bellevue Beach, just off the Route 201 exit from the Trans-Canada Highway. Five search and rescue teams consisting of 122 people moved shoulder-to-shoulder across the farm’s fields, forests and buildings. The search lasted five days, but nothing was uncovered.

Police have stated that Cortney’s cellphone hasn’t been used since her disappearance and her bank account has been left untouched. As well, she has not been active on social media.

During the Victoria Day long weekend in May 2018, the Lake family asked campers to keep an eye out for any of Cortney’s personal belongings.

On the first anniversary of her disappearance, Cortney’s loved ones held a morning mass in her memory, something they would again do in June 2019 on the second anniversary.

As of 2019, the search efforts for Cortney have gone cold. Despite both official searches and over 100 conducted by volunteers, nothing of value has been found and no arrests have been made. Police continue to conduct interviews and gather new information in relation to the case and say they’ve received thousands of tips from the public. They’ve also shared that they’ve reviewed hours of security and dash cam footage.

Cortney’s family feels someone in the community has information about the case. They keep in constant contact with the RNC.

THEORIES:

1) The only theory in the case is that Cortney was murdered by her boyfriend, Philip Smith. This is held by both the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and the Lake family. While he was never publicly named as a person of interest in the early days of the investigation, after his death the authorities shared he had been their only suspect.

Those involved in the investigation believe Cortney to be deceased.

AFTERMATH:

In order to keep Cortney’s case in the public eye, her family set up the Help Us Find Cortney! Facebook group.

On July 3, 2017, Cortney’s cousin, Andrew Warren, competed in the Targa Newfoundland Bambina road competition. He did this in her honour, placing decals of her image on the car. He ended up winning the competition, and said he knew she was watching him compete.

Lisa has shared that she’ll never fully get over her daughter’s death. While she does have her good days, she says she still has bad ones.

Each year, the family holds a Christmas tree lighting ceremony in Cortney’s honour, as the season was her favourite time of year. Taking place at St. David’s Park in Mount Pearl, the annual event is also used to shed light on issues surrounding violence against women. Hot chocolate is served and carols are sung as the tree is lit with purple lights, the missing woman’s favourite colour.

Currently, Jason has custody of his and Cortney’s son, Oliver. He says Oliver knows his mother is missing and misses her dearly.

Cortney, along with other missing women from Newfoundland, continue to be annually honoured by the In Her Name vigil.

In July 2019, Cortney’s father placed a tombstone in St. Lawrence Cemetery, which features the poem A Face In The Clouds engraved on the back. As her body has yet to be found, there are no remains buried beneath it.

CASE CONTACT INFORMATION:

Cortney Lake went missing from Mount Pearl, Newfoundland on June 7, 2017. She was 24 years old and was last seen wearing a grey and white Helly Hansen jacket with pink trim; black yoga pants; glasses; a multi-coloured plaid shirt; and dark grey and white Nike sneakers with bright pink laces. She was also carrying a Guess purse and matching wallet. At the time of her disappearance, she was 5’8″ and weighed approximately 110 to 120 pounds. She has light brown hair. While she lived in Mount Pearl, her family has connections throughout the Burin Peninsula.

Currently, the RNC have classified her case as a homicide.

If you have any information regarding the case, you can contact the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary at 709-729-8000. Tips can also be submitted anonymously via Crime Stoppers by calling 1-800-222-8477.

Image Credit: CBC News

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