In loving memory of Alicia Ross

Sharon's Story

Article On August 16th, 2005, I went for an evening stroll with my daughter, Alicia, through Pomona Mills Park. While the family dogs ran and sniffed their way through the park, we spoke of what a wonderful summer Alicia was having. She was doing tremendously at her job, and she had a new boyfriend. Alicia was so eager for the next day — she'd been advised of a promotion in-the-works. I said, "This is your summer. You deserve it."

Later that evening, I said goodnight to my Alicia at about 11 pm in the family basement. We laughed. She had spent the evening with her boyfriend, Sean, playing pool and burning CDs. He said goodnight to her on our front lawn at about midnight. Neither of us would ever see her again.

On the morning of August 17th, Sean called 911 to report Alicia missing. He'd tried to reach her the night before when he got home — no response from her cell phone. No response again in the morning. She hadn't shown up for work. He then contacted my husband and I, and we rushed home to find the street covered with York Region Police cars, and the house filled with police officers — all looking for Alicia. In Alicia's room were her cell phone, her purse, her cigarettes, her keys. Her bed had not been slept in. Her laundry lay folded, ready to be put away. Her ring was by the bathroom sink — she'd washed for bed. Her car was in the driveway — she'd never gone to work. The backyard was strewn with Alicia's shoes, a glass, a cigarette, and the back yard gate had been left open. A sickness fell over us.

This was the beginning of The Search for Alicia Ross.

Detectives immediately entered our home and began questioning everyone. Again. And again. And again. The property was sealed off. Can you provide us with a photo? I found one I thought she looked especially happy and sweet in, never realizing that photo would forever be identifiable with the Summer of 2005. I gave them the photo of Alicia, happy and smiling. That night, and in the following days and nights, Alicia's picture appeared on every television. Newscasters were asking the public to help find Alicia Ross. That photo was no longer the face of a smiling young girl at a family wedding. It had become the face of a missing young woman.

Within a few hours, our street became a scene of camera crews, reporters, TV vans, police cars. A large command post York Region van was parked across our driveway, giving us some semblance of privacy. The York Region's Victim Assistance Officer arrived immediately, and stayed at that post for weeks, constantly keeping the family abreast of any new information, and always ready to take in any information.

Our home backs onto a heavily wooded ravine area. By the next day, August 18th, helicopters and canine units were sweeping the ravine, and the first search parties were out, but the unit assigned to the case could not handle the volumes of volunteers who showed up to search. Word had spread — a girl was missing.

On the morning of August 19th, the Toronto Star headline read, "Police expand search for woman". We put up a new mezuzah on the family home's front door, and on Alicia's bedroom door, hopeful that they would keep Alicia safe. I took out two of my late mother's mezuzahs and put them on my daughter's bedside table, where they sit to this day. Anything to keep Alicia safe.

Over and over, on every news station, like a ticker tape, newscasters were asking for the public's help. On Friday morning, August 19th, I opened The Toronto Sun to see my daughter's "missing" photo covering the front page, with the headline, "Where's Alicia?" The caption said, "Alicia Ross is not the kind of person to just disappear, police say, but the 25-year-old — last seen two days ago by an acquaintance outside her Thornhill home — has vanished." The inside title read, "Police fear for woman."

The story was now national, and friends and family members across the country were calling. "What's going on? Where is Alicia?!!!" Where was Alicia.

In the late afternoon of August 19th, a massive rainstorm swept Southern Ontario. It was a Friday, and that night, I and several friends stripped soaking clothes from kids coming in from the search, who'd been caught in the storm. Many were covered in red ant bites from the ravine. A buffet dinner was set up for so many people that Friday night. The house was packed. Shabbat candles were lit, and along with the prayer welcoming Shabbat, mothers prayed for the safe return of Alicia.

On August 20th, The Sun caption read, "Search Goes On — No Leads in Hunt for Alicia." The search had now expanded north to Highway 407 from Bayview Avenue, east to Highway 404. Teams were organized. Over 400 volunteers searched the ravine. Experienced officers scoured their way through dense forests with dangerously steep inclines. Groups of 60-70 officers were directing groups of 100 at a time to search.

On August 20th, my family decided it was time to send a message to Alicia, and to direct a message to whoever knew where she was. Time to speak to the press. Time to appeal to the public. I spoke before the press at a local school, beseeching anyone who might know where our Alicia was, to come forward. My message to my daughter was: "Alicia, remember what we discussed. It takes strength to survive. I've never broken a promise to you, and I promise to you, you will come home soon." To the public, I said, "To anyone who may have any information as to where Alicia may be, I beg you to come forward."

A therapist came to the house and we all gathered around in the den for a three hour session. One of us was missing. We each spoke of the ways we missed her, how much we missed her, how we feared for her, our favourite memories of her, and how we visualized her coming home. Shawn said, "I never play music anymore," and we all confided that none of us did either. I pictured myself running down a hospital corridor into her room, into her waiting arms.

Detectives kept at it — was there something, anything that someone might have forgotten to mention? CSI had immediately sealed off Alicia's room and went over every square inch of it. By the end, her room and belongings were covered in black fingerprint dust. The shoes, cell phone, glass, cigarette, and her purse had all been taken as evidence.

The first week after Alicia's disappearance was a blur for my family. The police had set up command posts outside our home, and down the street. The "missing" photo was being plastered in storefront windows, on fences, in car windows, everywhere across the GTA. Time was spent gathering more posters, handing out posters, asking everyone and anyone to put up a poster. Cottagers were handing it out at marinas and convenience stores across the province, as far north as possible. It appeared on the jumbotron at the Blue Jays game that weekend. Eventually, it appeared on jumbo screens in downtown squares, and on the video screens of gas stations everywhere.

From the first night, our family went to bed every night with land phones at the ready, and cell phones fully charged and ready to be grabbed. We cried as most people breath. Lights were left on. Where are you? Call. Call.

The shrine on the front lawn started small, and soon grew. Each day brought flowers, memorial candles, notes. I watched as people knelt and prayed daily. Food continued to pour into our home. Food to keep the body strong, and to help the mind cope and keep faith high, because faith does wane. Friends and strangers poured into the house at all hours — "Are you okay? Do you need anything? Is there anything we can do?" My family came from Montreal, feeling so ineffectual so far away. Family needs family. They went back hoping and praying for a sister and her husband and their brood.

The search had begun locally and soon exploded beyond expectation. Hundreds and hundreds of volunteers, neighbours, relatives, police, and strangers showed up to help in the search. It reached a point where volunteers were turned away — can too many people care? Neighbours and strangers alike sent food, flowers, messages of hope. By Day 2, prayers were being recited in places of worship around the world, and continued. One man wrote to me that he'd asked his rabbi if there was a special prayer he could say for Alicia. His rabbi replied, "Of course, and we say it every morning." Anything to find Alicia.

The police continued their investigation, their interviews, their searches. Our family continued to live the nightmare no one should live, as day became night and night became day, over and over and over. Visitors came and went. Police came and went. Press and camera crews came and went. We waited for Alicia. Call. Call.

The August 22nd issue of The Toronto Sun said, "It has been more than 5 days since Alicia Ross vanished without a trace and the chances of a happy ending to the story are dwindling." The Toronto Star quoted one of Alicia's friends as saying, "She's coming. She's coming home soon."

On August 23rd, the police opened a dedicated tip line for anyone with information on Alicia's disappearance. Later that day Alicia's car was towed for forensic testing. The Toronto Star headline said, "Police focus on foul play". She was soon put on the America's Most Wanted website.

On August 24th, after putting it off as long as we could, we called Alicia's sister Trisha who was studying in Australia and gave her permission to come home. Just until we find Alicia, we said. Being ostracized from the situation, not knowing where her sister was and what was happening, Trisha was suffering too much. Within an hour, she'd booked her ticket and said, "Pick me up tomorrow night." We all hoped her visit would end happily, with her sister waving goodbye when she went back to school in Australia. Not to be.

On August 25th, police advised that Alicia had probably been abducted by someone she knew. The search was expanded — anyone who'd had anything to do with Alicia, socially or otherwise, was contacted and interviewed. Neighbours were interviewed, some re-interviewed. Yards were checked. Fields were scoured. The search went on and on and on. Find Alicia.

I gave my first press interview to Christie Blatchford of The Globe and Mail. Christie's article, entitled "'Pray for my Daughter' says the Mother of Alicia Ross," appeared in The Globe on August 25th, above a photo of my happy happy family. One big happy family. After the interview, when she was leaving my home, Christie said, "Don't stop with me." Anything to find Alicia.

So, on August 27th, I looked at the pile of newspaper reporters' cards on the kitchen table. Everyone wanted an interview. I only wanted one thing — my daughter. It was time to do something positive — waiting and waiting was useless. I called Linda Diebel of The Toronto Star. "Yes, yes," she said. "We want to help." That Sunday, our family's privacy was gone. Our story, our family, and our Alicia filled 3 full pages of the paper. The headline read, "We're never giving up." I thought, how could I do this to my family? Anything to find Alicia. The search widened.

Press conferences were held daily at the command post. I looked at The Star article, and sent Trisha and Andrew to go to the press conference and speak again to the public. What should we say? Talk to your sister. They looked at the cameras and said, "We know you're okay. We have not given up. We know you will come home."

On the morning of August 27th, Christie Blatchford's "A Prayer for Alicia Ross" made a city cry. "This girl, this one girl." No.

In late August I received a call from Brodie Fenlon of The Toronto Sun. "Mrs. Fortis, are you still willing to give another interview?" Yes, of course. I had been given access to Alicia's room 2 days earlier, and had spent hours washing the black fingerprint dust off everything. My daughter's room was as before — clean and filled with posters and prints, tons of bottles and jars of 'smelly stuff', photos, her laundry, etc. After the interview, I said "Would you like to see my daughter's room? He sauntered carefully through it, smiling at photos and trinkets. Looking down at a photo of Alicia in Israel, he smiled and said, "Ah yes, the obligatory hookah in the cave shot." The article appeared on September 2nd, and said, "Alicia's Room is Waiting."

Also on September 2nd, with school about to open, the command post in the school yard down the street was disbanded, but the public was advised that the search was still strong and ongoing. Find Alicia.

During all these weeks, our family was constantly contacted by psychics, all convinced they knew where Alicia was. The family went on too many wild good chases, each time terribly disappointed. One trip took us to Barrie, where a psychic convinced us she was being held at a Holiday Inn. She later changed her story to a boat in Parry Sound. Another was positive she was near the Humber River in Woodbridge. We scoured the area. Each futile search was so heartbreaking. Anything to find Alicia.

Cards and letters, phone calls and emails continued to pour into our home. People had taken this disappearance of this young girl very personally. She had become "everyone's daughter". I kept giving radio and TV interviews whenever asked, determined, as was the press, to "keep the story alive". Each interview was more painful than the previous for me. Always the same — a mother's hope. Anything to find Alicia.

On September 17th, the one-month anniversary of Alicia's disappearance, I gave 2 painful television interviews. I almost felt sorry for the reporters. The one-month anniversary brought forth articles in the newspapers. The Toronto Star quoted me as saying, "Somebody knows something. I need her back."

On September 20th, 2005, a neighbour admitted to York Region Police that he had killed Alicia, and he led them to her remains. On September 21st, I received the news from my husband. "Come home." We called our children. "Come home." We then phoned Trisha in Australia, with that painful call she now dreaded. "Come home."

When the news broke, The York Region Police command post van immediately returned to our driveway. Camera crews and reporters again converged on Bronte Road. Interviews were over.

CSI arrived again — this time next door. Every day I looked — next door.

On September 21st, 2005, Alicia's killer was charged with Second Degree Murder. I stood at my front door, and looked at the news media outside my house, all waiting. I sat down at my computer and wrote an email to Christie Blatchford.

"If God had said to me 25 years ago, 'I have a baby girl for you, and you will love her, and she will love you, for 25 years, but then you'll have to give her back,' knowing Alicia and the beautiful woman she became, I would have said yes. But God didn't give me the choice, and I wasn't prepared to give her back, not this way." I'd joined the ranks.

For two more weeks, we waited while the Coroner's Office performed their job. The media left. Cards of hope were replaced with cards of sympathy. During the "search" time, the media had always asked for a "different" photo of Alicia. All the photos had been taken out of frames, out of wallets, and out of albums. They now sat in a pile on my dining room table. My kids compiled it into a huge 4' x 10' collage. Shawn brought home a large wooden base. The photos were carefully placed on the board, and the table glass was placed over it. Protect the photos — this is Alicia.

During the Shiva mourning period, almost 1,000 people visited our home and looked at the collage of photos, and Mindy's Book. They came away saying, "Thank you. We feel like we now know Alicia."

Alicia was finally returned to us, but she didn't come home the way we'd all visualized and hoped for in our August therapy session. My daydreams of one day planning my beautiful daughter's wedding were gone. No bridesmaids. No toast to the bride. No bridal gown. Pallbearers. Eulogies. A casket.

The funeral was held on October 7th, and over 1,500 people attended. My family was given some private time before the service, each of us speaking to her one last time. Last whispered messages.

The procession made its way slowly up Dufferin Street to Pardes Shalom Cemetery. We were amazed to see that at each intersection stood a uniformed police officer, holding back traffic. All stood still. Each officer was saluting. Saluting Alicia. Our family was honoured beyond imagination.

Alicia was buried with letters from her loved ones. Her brother, Jamie, gently placed a canoe paddle on her casket. We'd all signed it with phrases of sweet nothings... "Happy Paddling"... "I'll Love You Forever".

On October 8th, I looked at the pile of newspapers on my kitchen table for the last time. "Alicia Ross Laid To Rest".

Several weeks ago, after 3 months, I went back to those papers that had covered the funeral, and this time I read the articles carefully. Two described our anguish so beautifully, I can't understand how these women can relate.

Alicia The photos have been scanned for this site, and are ready to be returned to their homes — albums, frames, and wallets. The newspaper articles are going into a journal. I get the occasional phone call from a reporter — "How are you doing?" I still get stopped by people who recognize me and wish us only peace and happiness. Alicia's friends come by all the time. Friends and family are so careful to protect us. People really do care.

But, as Pink Floyd wrote, "Wish You Were Here".