Cortney Lake went missing on June 7, 2017. While police and family believe she was killed shortly after getting into the truck of her ex-boyfriend, Philip Steven Smith, who killed himself last Nov., they desperately search for answers, her remains and closure
Ann Lynch and Lisa Lake are mother and daughter. Bonded by blood, and so much more; including grief, the two women embrace, cry, and body search one another – and each other’s purses – for Kleenex throughout our coffee shop conversation.
Lynch lost a grandchild – her very first – when Cortney went missing over two years ago. The tears flow too fast for speaking.
“It’s pure hell. I mean people will say things like, ‘Yeah. It must be like living in a dream.’ Yeah. We are living in a dream alright. A pure dream-like nightmare of pure hell,” Cortney’s mom begins.
Lynch bows her head. The winter was very hard, she admits. After so many searchers (search angels, as the family have dubbed the many volunteers) and so many searches, it was hard to let that go when the weather turned bad.”
Cortney’s grandmother never missed a search. She was at every single one, Lake shares.
“Searching gave you something to focus on. But the winter was very hard. I know the first sign that we had hailstones, I said, I’m on my feet, but barely. And I cried, because I was thinking this is the first one, the first storm. The searching will soon end,” shared an emotional Lake.
Lynch sobs into her hands, the pain obvious. Why did she want to speak, we ask? Still too shaken to speak, Lisa answers for her.
“My sisters, Glenda and Donna, have spoken out in the media, but mom wanted to be here today to speak publicly for the first time, so she could share her story, to give her a voice. I can say to you, Mom feels this or whatever. You know, Cortney was mom’s first grandchild. And it’s been two long years.”
Cortney was last seen on the evening of June 7, 2017 climbing into a truck driven by her ex-boyfriend, 25-year-old Philip Smith. Smith had just been released from jail hours before with the condition he stay away from his ex.
Little light of mine
Cortney left behind a young son, Oliver, who’s now eight. Both women say the lad is “doing well.”
“He’s doing good. He has his moments and he talks about his mom a lot more now, like if he’s over at night he’ll say, ‘tell me a funny story about mommy’, or about mommy and Uncle Colin,” says Lake.
Lake’s tattoo reads; ‘this little light of mine’, lyrics from a song often taught to children in Sunday school. It’s become almost a theme song for Cortney, she shares.
“I feel there’s a light of hope out there somewhere. That somebody knows something. They may not know they know. Or someone knows and I feel the answers are close,” Lake says.
Lynch twists her Kleenex. “Oh, they know they know. Oh yeah. I believe Cortney is somewhere and someone, or many someones, know exactly where we can find her. I mean, we need to find her. Find her so we can…”
The end breaks off into tears. It’s so hard to think that Cortney is gone. “Someone may have her? I mean, how do we know she’s gone? Unless they find her remains, we don’t know…,” Lynch speaks with hope in her vice.
Lake shakes her head. “She’s gone, mom. We know that.”
Ann nods. Smiles sadly. “It’s just hard …”
When remains were found in CBS recently, there was hope, or fear, depending on how you look at it at any given moment.
“Then the call comes in from the RNC, and they keep us informed, it’s not Cortney. When this happens, you hope. It’s like hell all over again as you wait for word,” says Lisa.
Hands are tied
While the family think they know, or have a feeling, where Cortney’s remains will be found, they say their hands are tied. As frustrating as that can be, they do understand and respect how the law works.
“They gotta have something concrete in hand. Like a sneaker or whatever. Something to go on to start a search. They can’t just say ‘well, Cortney’s Nan thinks she’s here. Or she feels this is where we should look.’ I get that. If I can go and start digging myself I’ll take it on, on my hands and knees or in the biggest tractor. Talk about loving your first grandchild? Yeah. Let’s talk about how far you’d go for someone you love. When my daughter was pregnant and I found out I was gonna be a grandma for the first time? Well, now. Let me tell you. I was some excited.”
Lake smiles at her mom.
“I’ll tell you how I told her. I was on my phone and go, ‘Hi. What are you doing? I’m coming down after to visit. That’s all I said. I didn’t once say I was pregnant. But she knew. She went, ‘No Lisa! You’re not! And we laughed.”
‘God, did I love her’
“I had three daughters, and now I was having a granddaughter. You just made me so happy. Very exciting time for all of us. And God, did I love her,” expresses a still emotional Lynch. But now, there’s smiles. Remembering that happier time.
The women share Cortney’s birth story. From the drive to the hospital to the actual labour and everything in between.
“What a day February 12th was when she was born. I kept going back and forth to the hospital. Just before Valentine’s Day. She was like a baby doll,’’ Lynch recalls.
There’s some joking as Cortney, at five pounds, was a little ‘scrawny’ and some jokes were made about giving the youngster some “real grub.” More smiles.
Lynch will be 74 on her birthday. While dealing with a loss at any age is rough, both admit it’s been a hard two years. “Mom played the role of mother to Cortney as much as I ever did. Mom played darts faithfully. When Cortney went missing mom took almost the whole two years off. I said, ‘Mom, you’ve got to live your life. You got to go back to darts and live your life’,’” said Lake.
A close family
Besides friends and those engaged in the search faithfully, what gets them through is one another. They are a close family. They celebrated Cortney’s birthday and every other occasion as if she was there with them. And they swear they will never forget her.
Oliver also gets them through. He even makes them laugh while gently mocking them. “He calls me sook and her bawl,” Lake laughs, referencing all the times the two spend crying over their loss. “It’s a way to make light of something that’s hard for a child to deal with. Seeing people you love and depend on crying all the time? That’s hard. So, sook and bawl are names he gave us to make light of it. And it always makes us smile. He’s just like Cortney in his spirit and spunk.”
Lynch smiles off in the distance. Some RNC officers pull in for coffee and she quiets again for a moment as she wonders if any of the men and women gathered know who they are.
“You don’t break the bond between grandparent and grandchild. When they told me they believed it was a homicide? That they were treating it as a homicide? Well, up to that point I was believing she’d be home. Cortney spent a lot of time with me. I’d feel it if she was gone. I know I would.”
‘I’ll never forgive’
Lake smiles. “Remember that GT Racer she wanted, mom?” Well, there’s a cute story that begins with mom saying no and nanny saying yes. They laugh.
The two women accept their lot in life, but they are not happy about it.
“I get calls. I say, ‘have you got her? What have you got? Like, just break it to me, just give it to me,’” says Lake rawly.
There’s anger. Bitterness. Loss. Thinking of the only suspect in the case, the now deceased Smith, Lake has three words.
‘‘I’ll never forgive.”
Thankfully, there’s much about the early days that are foggy. “When she disappeared, I’ll never understand why or how that could happen. But I would have loved to see (the person responsible) rot in jail. I feel stabbed in the heart and robbed of the chance to see that justice ever happens,” says Lake.
Lynch still feels that her granddaughter is simply lost. “You sometimes think she’s lying somewhere or feel that she’s lost so you still do hope. We’ve got no real proof that she’s otherwise. Until you have, until we get somewhere near her finally and can say, that’s her. She’s gone forever. For me, she’s just lost,” says Lynch quietly.
Lake lowers her head, taking her mother’s hand in her own. “I don’t know. I hope not. I hope she’s not gone. No, she’s just waiting for someone to find her,” says Lynch.
‘She’s not dead’
There was talk of a headstone Cortney’s father erected, but to these women, it’s much too early for that.
“I’m not acknowledging that because, because she’s not dead. No, not until you know she’s dead. You go further. You have to keep looking, no matter what you think you’ll find. What we want to find is Cortney, but we’ll take finding answers, too,” says Lynch.
Cortney’s brother Colin works away. Lake says she worries, but as long as she hears from him regularly she’s fine. It’s just hard.
“Mom is trying to be, trying for us, for me, to be strong. I try to be strong for mom. Well Oliver , we all want to be strong for him,” says Lake.
Someone Lake and Lynch want to acknowledge is what they call Cortney’s search angels.
“We have met total strangers that I would now sit around with and consider my immediate family. People check in on Facebook. They say, ‘Hi, how you doing?’ Or I get a phone call. All together I think we’re after coming into contact with over 300 people and every one of them are gold in our eyes,” says Lake.
It’s been two years. Mother’s Days. Christmases. Her birthday, and now the summer’s coming up again. The message they want to get out there is please, keep your eyes open.
“Somebody will walk with their rubbers somewhere and see something. Perhaps a hunter will find the answers,” says Lynch.
Looking for closure
“Going fishing. Campers. Anything. Running. I mean, we’re looking for closure, or that’s what they call it. But there’s never no closure. With her gone there never will be. But it’s a chapter we need closed. We find her body? Now that chapter’s closed. Now we’ll move on to the chapter of preparing for a funeral. And for grief. And then the last chapter is going to be dealing with anger,” says Lake.
The two women prepare to leave. Any last words? “We miss Cortney. We miss her terribly. (Smith’s) family have a place to visit their son. We don’t have that. That’s what we’d like to have. A place to visit. A mother needs to know where her child is,” says Lake.
Lynch twists her Kleenex and Lake states; ‘‘I was thinking in bed, as I think every night, where is she? And I feel like I’m on top of a globe. Where do I go? North? South? Which way do I look? I want a point to start from, and I’ll go to the ends of the earth.”
Besides their hope that Cortney will be found, they have one more wish; that she’s never forgotten.
“There’s photos, albums, memories. All the treasured pieces that keep her alive in our hearts, and in our minds. But sometimes you go; I can’t remember something, so you look back at a picture. But those pictures, those albums ended two years ago. That’s all we have,” says Lake.
Lynch scans through her phone, looking at pictures of Cortney. There’s one she wants to find where they are blowing bubbles. She’s obviously Grandma proud. “You try to smile. Because there were so many happy times. She was quite the character. She had so much spirit. I wish you could have met her. You would have loved her.”