The Murder of Amber Tuccaro

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EARLY LIFE:

Amber Alyssa Tuccaro was born on January 3, 1990 in northern Alberta, Canada. Adopted by parents Andrew and Vivian “Tootsie” Tuccaro when she was a baby, she was welcomed into a family that already included four loving older brothers. The family, who are members of the Mikisew Cree First Nation, made a life for themselves in Fort Chipewyan before later relocating to Fort McMurray.

Growing up, Amber was described as the apple of her mother’s eye and was known for being a bright light in her family. Her brother, Paul Tuccaro, remembers being fiercely protective of his adoptive sister. She was a vibrant young woman with big dreams, and she never failed to make those around her laugh. She had a love for singing and dancing, and while her mother says she wasn’t particularly good at either, the pair would laugh when Amber told her she’d one day be a big star.

In 2010, 20-year-old Amber was the mother a son named Jacob. The 14-month-old was adored by his young mother, who took the responsibility of caring for him very seriously. She shared with him her love of music and dance, often singing Johnny Cash’s “You Are My Sunshine” to him.

Amber had a dream of finding her own place and giving Jacob a good life. However, finding a home in Fort McMurray proved to be difficult. As such, she stayed three times at Unity House, an organization that offers people resources, so they can find places to live. The transition proved difficult for Amber, who each time asked her mother to pick her up and take her back to the family home.

While at Unity House, Amber would meet the woman who would become one of the last people to see her alive.

DISAPPEARANCE:

On August 17, 2010, the woman Amber met at Unity House came by the Tuccaro residence and invited the young mother to fly with her from Fort McMurray to Edmonton. While the woman booked the plane tickets, Vivian shared with Amber the reservations she had regarding the spontaneous trip. Amber downplayed her mother’s worries, saying she would only be gone two days, and the two women, along with Jacob, made the trip south.

In order to save money, the pair chose to book a motel room in nearby Nisku, Alberta, which was known for its cheaper hotel rates, compared to the province’s capital city. They checked into the Nisku Place Motel, located near the Edmonton international Airport, with plans to travel to Edmonton later on.

Between 7:30pm and 8:30pm on August 18, Amber left the motel, leaving Jacob in the care of her travel companion. Sources differ as to the reason why. Some state she went out to buy food and others say she was too excited to visit Edmonton and decided to head there early. What is confirmed is she had been hitchhiking before entering the vehicle of an unknown male. Hitchhiking was something Vivan had always spoken to her daughter about, telling her on numerous occasions to pretend to be on the phone with someone, even if no one was on the other line, as a means of precaution and safety.

When Amber didn’t return to the motel room on August 19, the woman she had travelled with contacted Vivian. As it was out-of-character for her daughter to not be in contact, she was immediately alarmed and contacted the RCMP. The response she received was unsettling, as the officer told her that Amber was probably out partying and would get in touch soon and only after 24 hours could a missing persons report be filed. Vivian disagreed with this, as she knew her daughter would have never left Jacob behind, especially with someone she barely knew.

INVESTIGATION & DISCOVERY:

The woman Amber was with cannot be publicly named due to the ongoing nature of the investigation.

On August 28, 2010, a RCMP constable recommended the case be closed and Amber removed from the national missing persons database after reports came in of potential sightings and social media activity. It’s said the officer took no steps to verify the accuracy of these reports. This was followed a few days later by a media relations officer with Leduc RCMP telling a local newspaper there was no reason to believe Amber was in danger. He too claimed the missing woman was in Edmonton. The accuracy of the claim was reviewed by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP.

Early into the investigation, the RCMP made the decision to remove Amber from the missing persons database, a decision her family feels compromised the investigation. It took Vivian a month to get her daughter re-added to the list, but it proved to be the first of many issues the family would face. Later, the family learnt the property Amber had left in the motel room had been left unprocessed for months before being destroyed without their knowledge. Along with wondering if any of Amber’s possessions could have been saved as potential evidence, Vivian wishes they’d been returned to her due to their sentimental value.

Vivian wasn’t interviewed by the RCMP until four months after Amber went missing.

In October 2010, Amber was one of the women honoured during the Edmonton Sisters In Spirit-Stolen Sisters Awareness march, a non-political grassroots event meant to protest the violence Indigenous women face.

The description of the vehicle Amber was seen getting into on the night she went missing has not been released.

In 2011, the Tuccaro family and the Stolen Sister’s Awareness Organization hosted the Amber Alyssa Tuccaro Awareness Walk at Sacred Heart of the First Peoples Church. The walk, which worked to raise awareness about missing Indigenous women, was followed by a vigil, and many of its participants had travelled from northern Alberta.

In August 2012, the RCMP released a one-minute portion of a 17-minute phone call Amber had had with her brother on the night she disappeared. The recorded outgoing call had been made while he was being held at the Edmonton Remand Centre. The clip, which Paul Tuccaro says was in the hands of investigators for about a year prior to its release, was shared in the hopes of generating new leads, and it remains the only time in Canadian history that the RCMP has publicly released an audio recording during a homicide investigation. In the recording, Amber is heard speaking to a man whose identity has not been released and may still be unknown. The transcript of the pair’s conversation is as follows:

Amber Tuccaro: Where are we by?

Unidentified Male: We’re just heading south of Beaumont. Er- north of Beaumont.

Amber Tuccaro: We’re heading north of Beaumont. Yo, where are we going?

Unidentified Male: Just…

Amber Tuccaro: No, this is a…

Unidentified Male: The back road.

Amber Tuccaro: Are you fucking kidding me?

Unidentified Male: No, I’m not kidding you.

Amber Tuccaro: You better not take… You better not be taking me anywhere I don’t want to go. I want to go into the city, okay?

Unidentified Male: The one end of the street.

Amber Tuccaro: Yo, we’re not going into the city, are we?

Unidentified Male: We are. We’re going…

Amber Tuccaro: No, we’re not.

Unidentified Male: Yes…

Amber Tuccaro: Then where the fuck are these going to?

Unidentified Male: To 50th Street.

Amber Tuccaro: 50th Street. Are you sure?

Unidentified Male: Absolutely.

Amber Tuccaro: Yo, where are we going?

Unidentified Male: 50th Street.

Amber Tuccaro: 50th Street.

Unidentified Male: 50th Street.

Amber Tuccaro: East, right?

Unidentified Male: East.

Amber Tuccaro: [unintelligible] Over [unintelligible] Now.

Unidentified Male: Gravel.

Amber Tuccaro: [unintelligible]

[Calls ends abruptly]

Investigators believe the unidentified man was driving Amber southeast along the rural roads of Leduc County, instead of toward Edmonton. Upon its release, three women came forward, claiming to recognize the voice on the recording. They each identified the same man, but after being investigated by the RCMP, he was cleared of having any involvement in the case and was deemed to not be the man whose voice is featured on the recording.

Vivian shared the recording on social media every day, urging people to come forward. Paul has shared his confusion as to why no one has come forward with the unknown man’s identity.

On September 1, 2012, a group of recreational horseback riders located a human skull on a rural property in Leduc County and immediately contacted the authorities. The area is south of the motel Amber had been staying at and is only 35km away from Edmonton. The discovery prompted a two-day ground search of the area, and while it came mere days after the release of the audio recording, the RCMP say the two aren’t connected. The remains were identified by the Edmonton Medical Examiner’s Office and the RCMP Forensic Identification Services via dental records as belonging to Amber Tuccaro. Her cause of death was not released.

After Amber’s remains were found, her case was taken over by the RCMP’s KARE unit, which is a subunit of the organization’s K Division Missing Persons Unit that focuses on homicides and disappearances of the vulnerable. Her death was deemed as suspicious.

The partial remains of four other women have been found within a few kilometres of where Amber’s were located. This has led some to believe Amber’s murder and those of the four women is the work of a serial killer, a possibility the RCMP isn’t ruling out. The four women are Edna Bernard, who went missing on September 22, 2002; Katie Sylvia Ballantyne, who went missing on April 28, 2003; Delores Brower, who went missing on May 15, 2004; and Corrie Ottenbreit, who went missing on May 9, 2004. All were Indigenous and all had been hitchhiking at the time of their disappearances.

In 2013, the RCMP placed two billboards near where the remains were found, as part of a poster campaign they were conducting at the time. One was set up at the intersection of Highway 814 and Airport Road near Nisku, and both were moved to different locations every few weeks to ensure as many people as possible saw them.

On March 20, 2014, Vivian filed an official complaint with the chair of the Commission for Public Complaints about the Leduc RCMP. The complaint cited numerous issues with the investigation, including the downplaying of Amber’s disappearance and the destruction of possible evidence. Vivian felt she had the right to know certain things regarding the investigation, as she had more questions than answers.

The family has said on numerous occasions that the RCMP has mishandled the case. They’ve been passed from officer to officer throughout the duration of the investigation, and very little contact has been made with them.

In January 2015, the second annual Amber Alyssa Tuccaro Memorial Round Dance was held in Fort Chipewyan in order to raise awareness about the young woman’s murder. It was a healing ceremony for those in attendance, serving as a reminder that Amber was loved and that her death has affected many in the small northern community. A table was set up with pamphlets outlining tips women should take into account in order to stay safe. After Vivian moved back to the area, she decided to organize the annual event to make up for the limited resources she had when it came to travelling back and forth to Edmonton.

In February 2015, Vivian travelled to Ottawa for the first ever roundtable into Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, where she and dozens of families from across Canada met with premiers, representatives from six Indigenous organizations and two federal cabinet ministers. While there, she expressed her support for the national inquiry into Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women, believing it could highlight existing gaps in the system, especially when it comes to reporting people as missing.

This was followed over two years later by Paul’s participation in the national inquiry, along with wife Judy Cardinal. The pair decided to take part in order to keep Ambers story alive, this despite initially being told her case may not be included. For two hours, he testified about the lackadaisical nature of the investigation into Amber’s death and shared his belief that things may have turned out differently if the case had been handled properly. He explained that various branches of different police detachments had been in control of the case throughout the course of the investigation, with no one regularly updating the family on its progress. He also shared recommendations he hoped would make a difference in solving cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women, saying police should be banned from stereotyping victims and those who do should be disciplined. He also suggested that families be allowed copies of any paperwork filed with the authorities and that the RCMP’s policy about waiting 24 hours before filing a missing persons report be abandoned.

Paul shared his frustration over how disorganized the inquiry was. He has also noted how poor aftercare was for those who chose to speak at the numerous hearings held across the country. While he was offered on-site support and given information on how to apply for counselling once home, he says he was unprepared to determine his own aftercare needs. While he uses prayer to get by, he shares that he would have liked to have had a debriefing meeting with the inquiry upon its completion.

On Mother’s Day 2015, Stolen Sisters celebrated Amber. Along with the family, they put up posters around Leduc County, replayed the audio recording and laid flowers near the site where her remains had been found.

In November 2016, the Justice Rally for Stolen Sisters was held at Corinthian Park, in honour of the missing women who had been found deceased in Leduc County since 2002. The aim was to raise awareness about the cases and put pressure on the RCMP to solve them. The rally’s organizer, April Eve Wiberg, shared her belief that Amber’s case may never be solved, while Chief Steve Courtoreille urged Leduc RCMP to renew their efforts into solving the homicide.

In 2017, the family announced they would be increasing the existing $5,000 reward for information leading to a resolution in the case. The funds came from their own pockets and community donations. They also kicked off the Justice for Amber social media campaign. They created the Justice for AMBER Tuccaro Facebook page and urged users on the site to change their profile pictures to an image of Amber.

In 2018, an independent federal review, based on the complaint Vivian had filed in 2014, found that the Leduc RCMP investigation into Amber’s disappearance and murder was deficient, confirming the family’s beliefs. The 120-page report said the officers involved were not properly trained or chose to not follow their training, and that many didn’t adhere to RCMP policies, procedures and guidelines. This was in regards to actions taken toward the beginning of the investigation, including the removal of Amber’s name from the missing persons database and the destruction of potential evidence, the latter of which did not follow proper protocol. The review also found that the RCMP’s handling of witness statements was improper. It found the amount of time taken to interview Vivian was “unreasonable and unexplained”, and that numerous officers failed to get in contact with the woman Amber had been travelling with at the time of her disappearance. As well, it was found that relevant contact information for potential witnesses was not always recorded.

It was also found that inaccurate information about the case had been released to the media.

The review did dispute the family’s claims that the issues in the investigation were the result of racial bias, saying no evidence could be uncovered to support such a bias being present, either consciously or subconsciously.

In total, 24 findings and 17 recommendations were made. One of the main recommendations was that officers receive “operational guidance”, and the RCMP was charged with reporting back to the commission after one year with the implementation status of the recommendations. The RCMP commissioner vowed to implement the recommendations, and he thanked the family for speaking out about what they had experienced throughout the course of the investigation.

Amber’s family says the review took four years to complete, instead of the under two years they were initially told. They share that its release has given them a sense of vindication, but that there will be no closure until the person who killed Amber has been found. They have not publicly released the full report, wishing to only release a few details in an effort of help families of missing and murdered Indigenous women. This means the Complaints Commission itself is unable to comment on the review.

In 2019, a formal apology was issued to the family on behalf of the RCMP. Deputy Commissioner Curtis Zablocki shared that the sense of urgency need for the investigation had not present and that the case was not the organization’s best work. He explained that policies and procedures had been changed as a result of the investigation, including the development of a risk management system to ensure case don’t fall by the wayside, and that officers within the RCMP had felt the consequences of their actions, including some no longer being with the organization.

The Tuccaro family refused to accept the apology, saying it felt forced. They were made further upset by the Deputy Commissioner’s abrupt departure from the press conference, with him citing a previously-scheduled meeting. According to the family’s lawyer, the Tuccaros are seeking compensation.

After the apology, the family revealed a new poster to supporters and again urged those with information to come forward and contact police.

In September 2019, the family filed paperwork to exhume Amber’s remains for DNA testing, as they are unsure if the skull found is actually hers. This comes from their distrust in the RCMP. Paul explains he has his doubts, given how fast the identification occurred. He also notes discrepancies between Amber’s dental records and dental fillings present in the skull. They hope to compare Jacob’s DNA to that of the skull’s, to either confirm or deny it belongs to Amber.

In January 2020, the RCMP announced that a male, who had contacted the Banff detachment in December 2019 about a missing persons case in the area, had made numerous Facebook posts alleging his father was responsible for Amber’s murder, as well as others in Alberta. The man, who lives in Utah, claimed his family had identified the male voice in the recording as belonging to his father, who had been living on and off at a rural ranch in the greater Edmonton area since 2009. According to the RCMP, many of the cases mentioned by the man have already been solved, but they are currently investigating if the information is relevant to Amber’s case. They have noted the man has made false allegations against his father in the past.

The Facebook posts have since been removed. Neither the man nor his father has ben identified, as his father has not been named a suspect or person of interest in the cited cases.

Amber’s family has refused to comment on the man’s allegations.

According to the RCMP, Amber’s case remains open. While no arrests have been made, the unidentified man whose voice is heard in the released audio recording is considered a person of interest. They say tips continue to be called in.

THEORIES:

1) The only theory in the case is that Amber’s death is the result of a homicide, most likely at the hands of the man who picked her up on the night she disappeared. This is due to the remote area in which the remains were found and the phone call she had with her brother. Currently, the primary question held by many who have come upon the case is whether or not Amber’s murder was at the hands of a potential serial killer. Given the bodies of four other Indigenous women were located near where Amber’s remains were found, many feel it’s likely a serial killer is at work in the area, targeting vulnerable women. It’s a theory the RCMP aren’t ruling out, but they have not said if there’s evidence tying the five cases together.

AFTERMATH:

Amber’s father passed away in 2014.

Vivian has since taken up raising Jacob. She shares that his energy helps to keep her grounded and that he shares many of Amber’s traits, including the way she spoke and her witty attitude. She says he misses his mother and frequently asks about what happened to her.

Vivian makes it a point to ensure Amber’s story is kept alive. Solving the case has become her second-greatest wish, with the first being that Amber still be alive.

CASE CONTACT INFORMATION:

The Leduc detachment of the RCMP is currently asking those with information regarding Amber’s murder to contact them. They have shared her description in the hopes it’ll jog someone’s memory. At the time of her disappearance, she stood at 5’6″ and weighed approximately 144 pounds. She had black hair with blonde streaks and her eyes were brown. She is believed to have been wearing a purple Bench hoodie.

Those with information regarding the case can contact Alberta RCMP at 780-412-5261 or Leduc RCMP at 780-980-7267. Tips can also be called into Project KARE at 1-877-412-5273 or 780-509-3356, or submitted anonymously via Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.

Image Credit: RCMP

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