By: Amy Cleary
It’s hard to lose someone you love, no matter the circumstances. But what amplifies the pain and agony is when a loved one goes missing and there’s no answers
Crime in Newfoundland and Labrador has always been relatively low. While there’s certainly been high profile criminal cases – Dana Bradley’s unsloved murder being one that always comes to mind – this province has been blessed when it comes to being seen as a safe place to live and raise a family. But not always.
The Herald was given the opportunity to discuss the mysterious and troubling cases of missing women Cortney Lake and Jennifer Hillier-Penny with their families.
Hell on Earth
The darkest moment in Lisa Lake’s life was when she was told by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) that her 24 year-old daughter had disappeared. The Herald sat down with Lake to honour her daughter’s memory and to shine a spotlight on the continuing police investigation.
“I can’t believe it’s a year, in other ways it seems a lot longer. It seems like forever since I have spoken to her but it doesn’t seem that long since I saw her,” said Lake, cupping her hot chocolate at a busy St. John’s coffee shop.
Lake’s daughter Cortney Lake was last seen on security camera footage getting into a black GMC truck just before 8 p.m. on June 7, 2017. Investigators with the Major Crimes Division of the RNC have confirmed a deceased man is the only suspect in the investigation.
For Lake, the experience of dealing with her daughter’s disappearance has been difficult.
“Since this happened, in my mind, there is no such thing as hell. This is hell, on earth. Hell is not this bad,” said Lake with emotion in her voice.
According to the Lake family, Cortney was a ‘wonderful person’ and ‘the life of the party’. She was also a gifted mother. “She was a wonderful mom to her little boy,” said Lake, mourning the type of mother her daughter had been.
As a family, they are dealing with the disappearance the only way they know how.
Bring Up Her Name
“Every day at a time, one day at time, every minute at a time. Is it easy? No it’s not,” said Lake. The worse moments for Lake are when she is out in public performing everyday errands.
“When this first happened, it felt to me like if someone would say to a cancer patient who had two days to live, ‘how are you doing’. How do you think I’m doing?” asked Lake.
To be honest, instead of asking how Lake’s doing, don’t be afraid to ask about Cortney. “Come talk to me, bring up her name. I may cry my eyes out, I may talk to you for two hours and not shed a tear, ” said Lake.
Lake’s fondest wish is to find her daughter. “As I always say, she deserves the dignity of a proper burial,” said Lake with emotion. The search for Cortney continues. The family often gathers together at the kitchen table, where they will plot out points of interest to search.
“We usually sit down as a family; mainly myself and my two sisters. We plan the search. We don’t go by a map,” said Lake with conviction.
The many Newfoundland volunteers who come out to help find Cortney are appreciated beyond measure. Lake does caution anyone who makes the decision to help, however. Be Prepared.
“We are looking for a body,” warns Lake. Since the investigation has been updated from a missing person to a homicide investigation the RNC has “stayed tight lipped” to protect any evidence that they might have collected, shared Lake.
Keep An Eye Out
However, Lake still holds investigators in high regard. “The RNC are amazing, and I can’t say enough good about the RNC and the investigators,” said Lake. Lake has a request for every Newfoundland and Labradorian. While hiking and camping, keep an eye out for any disturbed dirt or anything out of the ordinary. Be observant.
“We are going to be resuming our searches. Where are we going? We have no idea yet, ” said Lake with passion.
The family has searches planned for the next couple of months. If anyone is interested in volunteering to help the Lake family, join the Facebook group Help us find Cortney. Lake and her sisters continually post updates about any activities, and how to become involved.
As a mom, she will never give up. Lake has only one hope this year, she says. “My biggest wish was to just find her, We need to find her.”
Jennifer Hillier-Penny went missing at 8 p.m. on November 30, 2016, leaving behind her personal belongings including her cell phone, purse, shoes and jacket.
The Herald had the opportunity to speak to Hillier-Penny’s sister Yvonne Hillier-Decker about the circumstances surrounding the disappearance.
“She dropped me off at the hospital that night. She was going home to lie down,” said Hillier-Decker.
Hillier-Penny worked full-time for Labrador-Grenfell Regional Health Authority, and was well loved in the community.
“She was friendly. She helped anybody that needed help. She had a heart for older people. She wasn’t a person who was out partying,” said Hillier-Decker.
Hillier-Penny was reported missing to the RCMP on December 1, 2016. Since the investigation, the detachment has interviewed over 100 witnesses, and conducted extensive searches using everything from aircraft to police dogs.
Hillier-Decker says she feels conflicted about the RCMP’s investigation.
“Sometimes I wonder if they are doing all they can do, but they won’t tell us what they are doing or what they know, but it makes you wonder sometimes because it’s been a year and-a-half now and still we don’t have any answers,” said Hillier-Decker.
They Failed Her
As Hillier-Penny’s best friend, Amy Patey tells The Herald that not knowing has been the hardest.
“I had a friend text me. The text said that Jennifer was missing and that’s how I found out,” said Patey.
Seeing the family every day is a reminder of the friend she lost. “This is on your mind all the time. As soon as you see the family, you can’t help but remember,” said Patey.
Being close to Hillier-Penny and her family, Patey knows how important she was to everyone.
“She was a beautiful women. She was very caring, she loved to laugh. She lived for her children. They were her main focus in life. Jennifer was the type of person that if you met her at her work or at the mall, she didn’t walk on past you. If she knew that you had children, she would ask you ‘how’s your children?’ She really cared about everyone,” said Patey.
Patey doesn’t hide her feelings about the RCMP’s investigation.
“I hope that they are doing all that they can possibly do, with the resources that they have. I feel that in the beginning they failed her. Now that they see the seriousness of this case, I hope for Jennifer’s sake that they are doing all that they possibly can,” said Patey.
The community support for the Hillier family has been tremendous. The community has been responsible for large volunteer searches, plastering missing person posters, and whatever the family may need during this tragedy.
“The community has been awesome. They are out there doing whatever we want done. They are there to help no matter what,” said Hillier-Decker.
The family was also surprised when the community came together creatively and helped the family spread the word.
“Her nieces got together and they decided to do a car magnet, it has Jennifer’s picture on it, and all of her of her information,” said Patey.
Sales for the magnet exploded in St. Anthony. “I don’t think there’s too many cars in the area that don’t have one,” said Patey.
As grateful as Patey is towards the community for support, she’s upset about why so many are being silent.
“I can’t believe that there’s nobody that knows something. We live in such a small community. People know everything about everybody, you’re not living in St. John’s, where you don’t know your neighbour. You know your neighbour, you know what everybody is doing,” said Patey.
Both women have a request to the public, and it’s pretty simple. “If there’s anybody out there that knows anything to come forward with information,” said Hillier-Decker.