The Death of Nicole Daniels

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EARLY LIFE:

Nicole Daniels was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba. A miracle of sorts for her Sagkeeng First Nation family, she was conceived despite her family believing her mother would never become pregnant. As such, she became a shining light to her loved ones, and her immediate family would eventually grow to include two sisters and two brothers.

Growing up, Nicole was described as being a happy child. She was known for having a good sense of humour and was always joking around and laughing. She was also said to be a loving person, with a nurturing nature to her. She was incredibly protective of her siblings, especially her sisters, and seemed to them a guardian figure.

Nicole is said to have inherited her mother’s artistic talent, something she would later pass down to her brother, whom she taught to draw.

In her early teens, she went through what her family calls a rebellious phase. She was trying to find herself and wanted to experience the larger world outside of her immediate community. During this time, she began to experiment with drinking and dropped out of school. This phase only lasted about a year or so, after which she returned to school and began taking art classes.

Despite what she was going through during her teens, Nicole remained a homebody. She was a generally quiet girl who didn’t go out much, preferring to spend most of her time at home with her family. As such, she wasn’t yet employed.

DISAPPEARANCE & DISCOVERY:

At around 10:00pm on March 31, 2009, Nicole left home and got into the truck of a middle-aged man her family believes she met through a telephone chat-line. She didn’t return home that night. This, along with the fact she was meeting with someone her family didn’t know, was out-of-character for the 16-year-old, as she always informed them of who she was with and where she was going.

The next day, Frances noticed Nicole still wasn’t home. Worried, she began searching. She also called the police and gave officers a description of what she had been wearing at the time she’d left the house.

At around 9:00am that morning, employees at the Enterprise car rental agency on 1392A Regent Avenue West in Winnipeg discovered a young girl lying face down in a snowbank, in the alley behind the business. Her jacket had been removed and her blouse had been undone. Concerned, they placed a call to 911. As she was unresponsive, she was rushed to the local hospital, where she was later pronounced deceased.

Later that day, Frances was contacted by the police and asked to come identify the body of her daughter.

INVESTIGATION:

Nicole’s death was initially deemed suspicious in nature by the responding authorities.

An autopsy was performed upon Nicole being pronounced deceased. According to the coroner’s report, she had died as a result of hypothermia, a finding further corroborated by the fact her clothes had been undone. Such an act signals what’s known as “paradoxical undressing”, wherein someone suffering from the advanced stages of hypothermia feels a sudden surge of warmth and removes layers of clothing in order to cool themselves down. The report also noted she had signs of acute alcohol intoxication, which was said to have been a significant attributing factor in her death, and prescription tranquillizers in her system.

According to Nicole’s family, the coroner’s report paints an inaccurate picture of who she actually was, as she wasn’t someone who was known to frequently party. They worry the notes regarding the alcohol and drugs in her system might lead some to believe she was involved with the wrong crowd, which they say is untrue, given her nature as a homebody.

Upon the Daniels family preparing her body for burial, it was noted that she had approximately eleven cuts and bruises on her body that hadn’t been present before she disappeared. According the family, the injuries, which were on her face, arms, legs, wrists and inner thighs, ranged in colour from purple to red, and yellow to brown. While investigators feel these aren’t significant to the investigation, as their sporadic locations don’t indicate anything criminal, her families feel they indicate she was physically, and possibly sexually, assaulted on the night she died.

According to the Winnipeg Police Service, the following events transpired on the night of March 31, 2009: Nicole agreed to have the unidentified man pick her up from her family’s home. Upon entering the vehicle, the pair drove off, before parking to talk. At some point, Nicole was dropped off near the casino on Regent Avenue, not far from where her body would later be discovered. According to a security guard who was working at the casino that night, a young woman matching Nicole’s description was observed walked in the area around that time and did not appear to be dressed for the night’s cold weather.

These findings, according to investigators, were the result of a thorough investigation, but they have noted they are open to any new information which may become available. They say they investigated and interviewed the man Nicole had been with that night, as well as any other people she may have met through the telephone chat-line, but feel the pair’s meeting isn’t relevant to her death, something her family disagrees with. They are unsure as to why Nicole agreed to meet with him, and they have many questions. They wonder why he hadn’t dropped her off back at home, given he’d picked her up there earlier in the night, and they question if he could have acted differently, knowing she was intoxicated.

In regards to the unidentified man, Nicole’s aunt, Joan Winning, wants to know why no charges were laid in relation to him having supplied alcohol to a minor, as Nicole had only been 16 years old at the time of her death. They feel the events of the night transpired differently to that presented by investigators, as they believe the man got Nicole drunk, sexually assaulted her and tossed her out of his truck unconscious. According to police, no charges were laid because there was no evidence of an offence having occurred.

Since investigators believe Nicole’s death was not suspicious in nature, the case was officially closed, something her family continues to fight against. Her sister, Stephanie Daniels, feels it was closed quickly because her death occurred in a suburban neighbourhood, while her cousin, Isabel Daniels, claims it didn’t get the attention it deserved because Nicole was a young Indigenous woman.

Despite the case being closed, Frances fought for her daughter’s death to be added to a special joint task force between the RCMP and the Winnipeg Police Service that looked into the deaths and disappearances of the area’s Indigenous women. Unfortunately, given the autopsy findings, the case was never included, despite the family voicing their disagreements with the investigation’s conclusions.

As a result of Nicole’s death, her aunt and cousin became involved with Canada’s national inquiry into the county’s missing and murdered Indigenous women. During the week-long Winnipeg stop in October 2017, they were one of the 75 people set to speak, and Nicole’s cousin, Robert Daniels, kicked things off with a musical performance. After handing out red dress pins made by Nicole’s sisters, the pair spoke about her death and their belief that the police hadn’t conducted a thorough enough investigation. The reason for this, according to Isabel, was that investigators saw her cousin as just her skin colour and not the 16-year-old girl she was.

After the inquiry was complete, the pair shared their hopes that it would result in awareness and changes to how Indigenous people across Canada are treated by both law enforcement agencies and society as a whole. Isabel feels their concerns were heard, and while the inquiry doesn’t have the ability to reopen closed cases, the family feels it will allow them access to resources that will help them to reopen Nicole’s case.

The national inquiry was fraught with issues, including that of payment of promised aftercare money. There was a delay in speakers receiving the funds, which organizers claim was the result of a delay by the Privy Council Office. It was something that personally affected Joan, who wanted to give the money to an elder in her community.

In June 2019, Joan and Isabel gathered in Thompson, Manitoba with other families to react to the inquiry’s final report.

October 2018 saw Isabel and others march from the Oodena Circle at The Form to the legislative building in Winnipeg. The march was to raise awareness of the need for an around-the-clock refuge centre for sexually-exploited women that would offer addictions services and counselling, training in life and living skills, and resources for obtaining transitional housing. They wanted to push the government for support, but knowing the challenges ahead also looked into other avenues, such as collaborating with existing agencies. This is an issue that is close to Isabel’s heart, as she works for Winnipeg’s Sage House, which offers similar resources, but only through a daytime program.

The Winnipeg Police Service recently met with the family to discuss the details pertaining to the night Nicole went missing. Not much has been shared regarding this meeting.

THEORIES:

1) The official findings by the Winnipeg Police Service is that Nicole’s death is the result of hypothermia, with acute alcohol intoxication being a significant contributing factor. Given she was found not far from where she was reportedly dropped off, investigators feel it plausible that she walked to where she was found and collapsed due to the cold. As well, they feel the state of her clothing further indicates death by hypothermia and not a sexual assault like her family claims.

2) Nicole’s family believes her death was the result of foul play, most likely at the hands of the man she was with on the night of March 31, 2009. They feel the alcohol and drugs in her system may have increased her vulnerability that night, and they believe the unidentified man supplied the alcohol to her.

As aforementioned, investigators disagree with this theory, due to the autopsy findings and their interviews with the man, who they feel did not play a role in Nicole’s death.

AFTERMATH:

Frances passed away in 2015. According to her family, she never recovered from Nicole’s death. Joan is currently raising her children.

Isabel shares that she’ll never forget about her cousin. Due to her day-to-day work with vulnerable women, she is constantly on her mind. She often finds herself wondering what Nicole would be like if she were still here and she feels her aunt might still be alive if that were the case.

CASE CONTACT INFORMATION:

Those with information regarding the case are asked to contact Winnipeg RCMP at 204-983-5420.

Image Credit: CBC

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