The Disappearance of Tamra Keepness

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EARLY LIFE:

Tamra Keepness and her twin sister, Tannis, were born on September 1, 1998 to parents Lorena and Troy Keepness. The family were from White Bear First Nation, located in the southeastern portion of Saskatchewan, and resided in Regina.

Shortly after the twins were born, Lorena and Troy separated, resulting in the two girls splitting their time between their parents. The majority of the time, they lived with Lorena, her live-in partner, Dean McArthur, and their three siblings near downtown Regina, at 1843 Ottawa Street. The neighbourhood was known to have issues, particularly regarding poverty and other social problems.

It was no secret that the adults in Tamra’s life struggled with alcohol and substance abuse issues. Dean, specifically, had served two months of a three-month sentence for assaulting Lorena while in a drunken rage. Due to these issues, as well as reports of child neglect, Social Services were often involved with the family, with a total of 50 reports made to crisis workers.

Despite what some might call an unsteady home life, Tamra was a smart and caring girl. She fiercely loved her siblings, especially Tannis, and she frequently had a huge smile on her face. She was also known for being feisty and a bit mischievous, and she was always on the lookout for adventure. When not playing Mario Kart on Nintendo, she could be found climbing her favourite pine tree at the end of the block.

LEAD UP TO DISAPPEARANCE:

On the evening of July 5, 2004, Lorena, Dean and all five children were in the living room watching television. At some point, Lorena and Dean got into an argument, which they claim was about nothing serious. At around 8:30pm, Dean decided to leave the house to cool down. While out, he ran into Russell Sheepskin, a man who sometimes resided in the family’s basement, and the pair decided to grab a few drinks together. Before heading to the St. Regis Hotel, Dean made a stop at a nearby 7-11 to buy some milk for his and Lorena’s newborn baby, which he later dropped off at the house.

Lorena spent the majority of the evening with her children. Between 10:30pm and 11:00pm, she sent them to bed and decided to head to a friend’s townhouse located a block over, leaving her eldest, 11-year-old Summer, in charge. After a while, she and her friend went out to purchase more alcohol and Lorena stopped by the house to check on things. When she returned to her friend’s residence, she called Summer and told her to ring if she needed anything.

At 12:00am on July 6, Russell returned to the house, incredibly drunk. He made himself some food and checked on the children. He recalls seeing some of them, including Tamra, sleeping in the living room, meaning they must have come downstairs after Lorena put them to bed. A couple of hours later, Russell was smoking a cigarette on the front porch when he encountered Dean. The pair got into a physical altercation, resulting in Dean punching Russell and stomping on his head. Injured, Russell went to the hospital to get stitches. He claims he didn’t lock the front door before leaving.

According to Dean, after the fight he decided to walk to his aunt’s house, where he planned to spend the night. However, he ended up getting lost, so he didn’t end up arriving until two hours later, sometime between 5:00am and 5:30am. Police reports claim no one saw him during this time.

At around 3:00am, Lorena returned to the house to find all the doors locked. As such, she entered the home through a window. She was drunk at the time and doesn’t quite remember if she saw her children asleep in the living room. However, she has stated that she recalls seeing Tannis and Summer before she herself fell asleep on the couch.

DISAPPERANCE:

At some point on the morning on July 6, Tamra’s older brother, Raine, felt her leave the bed they shared. While he doesn’t remember the exact time, he does recall it was starting to get light out.

At 9:00am, Tamra’s grandmother came by for a visit and saw Lorena nursing a hangover. This is around the time Lorena herself awoke, as she had to open the door for her mother. Shortly after this, Summer and Raine left the house to attend a day camp at a nearby community centre.

Tamra was first discovered missing when she didn’t come down for breakfast. Lorena had told one of the children to go wake her up, as they were going out for a walk, but she wasn’t in her bed. After checking nearby playgrounds and contacting friends and relatives, Lorena reported her daughter missing at around 12:15pm that afternoon.

INVESTIGATION:

The search for Tamra grabbed the attention of the entire city and would become the largest and most expensive in Regina’s history. At first, patrol officers checked the neighbourhood to make sure she hadn’t simply wandered away or gone to another house, but after they could find no trace of her, the search intensified. The Regina Police Service set up a command post in the parking lot of a church in the 1900 block of Ottawa Street, and hundreds of volunteers, police and RCMP cadets began the search on foot, horseback and in the air. They scoured streets, yards, neighbourhoods, alleys, manholes and trash cans looking for her and even took the search to a local landfill and to areas outside the city. While clothing and a child’s shoe were discovered, they didn’t belong to Tamra, and overall little trace of the missing girl was uncovered.

Since the initial search, there have been others throughout downtown Regina and around the family home. Lorena signed consent forms allowing investigators to search the house. She also provided them with her DNA. Besides seeing a window that had been broken during the fight between Russell and Dean, they found no signs of forced entry or a struggle.

Police questioned sex offenders in the area. They also obtained surveillance footage from area bars, gas stations, convenience stores and a nearby Greyhound depot.

To help develop a timeline for the night before, investigators brought in the family, including Tamra’s siblings, for questioning. In particular, Dean, Russell and Lorena were under intense scrutiny. At the time, investigators felt they weren’t being completely forthcoming with information and were overall not happy with the gaps and inconsistencies in the version of events they were told. The three denied the allegations and expressed that investigators were focusing too much attention on them and not enough on finding Tamra. To help move the investigation along, they named five people they believed could be suspects, including a pedophile who had befriended Tamra some time before.

A few days after Tamra disappeared, an Amber Alert was issued. There are different reports as to why it took so long for one to happen. Some sources say the Amber Alert system hadn’t yet been implemented in Saskatchewan at the time, while a spokesperson for the Regina Police Service said the circumstances of the disappearance hadn’t met the criteria for an alert.

The disappearance soon made national headlines. While appreciative of all the coverage the case was getting, the family soon grew frustrated with both the media and police due to the way they were being treated. Rumours soon began to spread about what happened to the missing girl. One person said she had been seen at a dollar store with an older woman, while another, which has since been disproved with hospital records, claimed Tamra never existed and had been made up in order to scam money from Social Services. A third rumour, which was spread by business owners in the neighbourhood, claimed detectives were looking for a middle-aged white man named “Rocky” or “Roch”. However, police never confirmed if this was true.

To show support for Tamra and the family, residents would wrap ribbons around trees and leave both teddy bears and angels on the steps of the Keepness house.

On July 13, 2004, a $25,000 reward was issued by the Regina Police Service for information about the case, this after searches for Tamra had been suspended. The case was quickly changed from a missing persons investigation to one that was criminal in nature.

On July 19, 2004, Dean was charged with assault causing bodily harm in relation to the fight he’d had with Russell on the night of Tamra’s disappearance. While he tried to appeal, he was denied and sentenced to nine months. Two days later, Tamra’s siblings were removed from the house by Social Services and placed into foster care. Neither government officials or the police would say if this was related to the case, but the house was once again searched after they left.

Just under a month after Tamra went missing, a vigil for the missing girl was held at the family’s house.

On August 11, 2004, Troy was charged with assaulting Dean with a baseball bat, during which he sustained minor injuries. Troy told investigators that he’d gone over to the house to try and get answers about his daughter’s disappearance.

In September 2004, unsealed search warrants revealed police had evidence to believe Tamra had been abducted, as blood had been found on the floor, on the front porch and on bicycles sitting on the porch.

That same month, investigators searched Muscowpetung First Nation, approximately 60km northeast of Regina. The week-long search involved 30 people from the Regina Police Service, the RCMP, Montreal Lake Cree First Nation, and Search and Rescue Regina. While a reason wasn’t given as to why the search had moved north, it’s believed investigators were trying to establish a connection between Tamra and a burnt-out Volkswagen van found on the reserve. The van had been stolen just 10 blocks from the family home on the night the young girl went missing and a jail guard named Sherry Ann Rose had told police that she and a former inmate had stolen the van, picked up Tamra and dumped her body in a ravine on the reserve. A massive search was conducted, with special attention given to ravines and gullies. The waterways were drained with compression pumps and thoroughly searched, but nothing of interest was found. It was later deemed that remains found in the van did not belong to Tamra, and Sherry Ann Rose confessed to having made the story up in order to get her abusive boyfriend locked up. As a result, she was charged with mischief.

Pasqua First Nation was also searched based on tips from the public and visions from First Nations elders.

A six-person task force was established to investigate leads in the case. It would eventually be pared down to just two detectives.

In December 2004, Walter William Obey of Muscowpetung First Nation was charged with assaulting Sherry Ann Rose. He had also been charged with stealing the van that had been found burnt out on the reserve.

At one point during the investigation, Troy was charged with assaulting a female. He claims the assault occurred due to the stress he’d been enduring as a result of Tamra’s disappearance. He was sentenced to house arrest for the charge.

In June 2005, a new team of investigators were assigned to the investigation. That same month, a memorial march was held to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Tamra’s disappearance. This would be replaced the next year by an annual barbecue.

In October 2005, searchers brought in cadaver dogs to aid in the investigation. They searched around Regina for three days, with a specific focus on the north end of Winnipeg Street, Wascana Lake and Wascana Creek. This would be one of the last major searches for Tamra, as the search would be scaled back in April 2006.

Dean has publicly stated that he feared for his safety during the early days of the investigation because he felt the police and the community believed he played some role in Tamra’s disappearance. This sentiment sometimes resulted in the family member’s safety being put into jeopardy. In one instance, three people jumped Lorena after accusing her of selling her daughter in order to buy drugs, something she has repeatedly denied.

In August 2008, seven officers were assigned to work exclusively on the case.

The reward for information was doubled to $50,000 in June 2014. The increase was approved by the Regina Board of Police Commissioners and it has been renewed every year. The police chief hopes the continuation of the reward will allow the family to see they still care about finding Tamra.

During 2014, a hand-drawn map of Muscowpetung First Nation was uploaded to Reddit, with the user claiming the wells on the reserve contained Tamra’s remains. According to the user, she’d found the map amongst the belongings of a deceased relative and that her grandmother had gotten it from a late aunt who’d drawn it up based on visits to a person in prison. While she didn’t have any firsthand knowledge of the investigation, she recalled her family talking about wells and felt the map might be worth something to the investigation. As for why she shared the map on Reddit instead of contacting the police directly, the user claimed to have previously submitted tips via the RCMP, the Regina Police Service and Crime Stoppers, only to never receive a response.

Upon learning about the map, investigators looked to see if it held any real value. This resulted in a search of the reserve, which was done by the Regina Police Service, members of Tamra’s family and the Fort Qu’Appelle detachment of the RCMP. They looked through over two dozen wells with a special camera, but found no evidence that Tamra had ever been there. While an attempt was made to contact the Reddit user in the hopes of learning more about the map, investigators have said they don’t believe it to be an authentic piece of evidence.

The experience was very upsetting for Tamra’s family. It’s been noted that the search prompted renewed interest in the case.

The family has consulted with psychics, elders and mediums. The police have also been in contact with elders, who told them they’d had visions of a child near rocks, trees and water.

In May 2015, Tamra’s case was one of 122 highlighted by the province of Saskatchewan during Missing Persons Week.

In July 2018, a class action lawsuit was filed against the federal government. Tamra’s case was one of many listed. It claimed the federal government had breached the charter rights of Indigenous families to security and freedom from discrimination, and that numerous negative experiences were had as a result of the alleged mishandling of cases. It also claimed that the RCMP shared a responsibility with the government, given it’s a branch of the federal government. The claimants sought $500 million in damages for the RCMP’s handling of the investigations and $100 million in punitive damages.

In May 2019, the RCMP launched a week-long campaign to bring more attention to 45 missing children in Canada. Tamra’s case was one of the one’s highlighted.

Toward the end of 2019, the Regina Police Service renewed its commitment to solving the case. It’s still an active investigation and is currently in the hands of the Cold Case Unit. Investigators are still reviewing and working on case files, and they continue to regularly receive tips – approximately 16 a year. While no arrests have been made and no evidence found to explain how and why Tamra went missing, it’s believed she is deceased and that foul play was involved. However, full details of the investigation haven’t been released due to the ongoing nature of the case.

Lorena has said she doesn’t like to talk about the early parts of the investigation, given the negative focus that was on the family at the time. She also shares that the numerous rumours took a toll on everyone. She agrees with investigators that someone out there is currently withholding information and, as such, she and the family continue to pursue leads on their own time.

THEORIES:

1) The general theory in the case is that Tamra was abducted by a stranger. Some people think she may have wandered away and been abducted by a driver who was cruising the area at the time, while others cite the home’s location. It’s less than a block from the Oskana Community Correctional Centre, a halfway house for federal parolees, and is located near the Salvation Army’s Waterston House, which is known to shelter former inmates and drug and alcohol users. Some feel that Tamra’s disappearance may have been at the hands of someone staying at either location.

While there are many theories surrounding who could possibly have been involved, Lorena is certain her daughter was taken between 9:00am and 10:20am on July 6, 2004. This is further supported by Raine’s version of events, which state Tamra most likely left the room during early/mid-morning.

2) Some in Regina feel Tamra may have been abducted by someone in the drug trade or potentially sold by her mother in order to pay a cocaine debt. The authorities asked Lorena if her daughter’s disappearance was related to the drug trade in some way and Lorena fiercely denied it.

3) There’s a slight chance Tamra’s disappearance is related to the argument Dean and Lorena had on the night she went missing. However, this is seen as unlikely, as both have said the argument was not about anything major and was simply a small spat between partners.

4) It’s possible her disappearance is the result of an accident. While this line of thinking opens up to many possibilities, one idea brought up theorizes that Tamra may have gotten lost after leaving her home. Possibly scared, she then crawled into somewhere so small that she’s never been found. If this is the case, then it means the young girl has most likely passed away.

5) Some have speculated that Tamra’s unstable home life could have played a role in her disappearance. They feel the evidence for this stance comes from the investigators’ theory that Lorena, Dean and Russell have not been completely forthcoming regarding the events of July 5 and July 6, 2004. However, as aforementioned, all three individuals claims they’ve been completely truthful with those investigating the case.

6) A final theory held by the family involves a drifter that used to stay at the house. Lorena informed police of the woman, whose name is currently unknown, as she used numerous aliases. However, it is known the children called her “Big Auntie”. She is said to have been a sketchy character who frequently lied to Lorena. She had been staying at the house before Tamra’s disappearance, but left after she and Lorena had a falling out. She has not been seen since.

Is it possible she abducted Tamra in revenge, or could she have had another motive for abducting the young girl, if she was indeed involved?

AFTERMATH:

Every year, the community holds a barbecue in Tamra’s honour, just a few blocks from where she disappeared. It’s held by the Regina Treaty and Status Indian Services, and the Regina Police Service sends officers to help serve food. According to the family, they hold it to show everyone they’re still looking for Tamra and to also lend support to other families of missing and murdered Indigenous women. They’ve shared that seeing the amount of people who come out and show support has helped them hold onto the hope that one day she’ll be found. Until that day happens, the barbecue will be held yearly.

Unfortunately, Lorena no longer has any family pictures of Tamra, as someone threw out a large portion of her property a few years ago. The only images she has of her daughter are those featured on the missing persons flyers.

Many of the investigators who initially worked on the case have since retired. However, they are still dedicated to solving the case and say it frequently comes to mind.

Lorena has moved repeatedly since Tamra disappeared, having been evicted numerous times. She spends her days working odd jobs and has shared that she fell into sex work not long after her daughter went missing. Her other children have never been permanently returned to her custody and the three babies she gave birth to after Tamra’s disappearance have since been taken by Social Services.

Tamra’s twin sister, Tannis, is currently in university.

Russell Sheepskin passed away on January 1, 2009. Those investigating the case wonder if he knew any more information that may have been useful in finding Tamra.

Lorena feels hopeful that she’ll one day see her daughter again. She does not think Tamra is dead, despite what investigators have said.

Troy has shared that he tries not to dwell on the case, but that it’s hard not knowing if Tamra is alive or dead. He says he harbours guilt over having lost custody of his children in the years leading up to her disappearance.

CASE CONTACT INFORMATION:

Tamra Jewel Keepness went missing from the 1800 block of Ottawa Street in Regina, Saskatchewan on July 5, 2004. She was five years old, and she while what she was last wearing is unknown, it’s believe she could have had on a light blue striped halter top with pink accents; light blue jeans; and either rubber boots or pink and white shoes. She may have been barefoot. At the time of her disappearance, she stood at 3’5″ and weighed between 35 and 40 pounds. She had bobbed dark brown-to-black hair and brown eyes. She has two circle-type birthmarks on her stomach, one dark and the other lighter in colour, and a scar on one of her legs, just below the knee.

Currently, her case is classified as a missing person. If alive, she would be 21 years old.

If you have any information regarding the case, you can contact the Regina Police Service at 306-777-6500. Tips can also be submitted to Child Find at 1-800-387-7962 or anonymously via Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.

Image Credit: Regina Police Service

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