Project Devote's logo is a puzzle in the shape of the province of Manitoba. It's missing a piece — just like the unsolved missing person cases the joint RCMP and Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) unit are pursuing. It's a reminder that these files need more — more time, more investigation and more information from the public.
Evelyn Stewart was vulnerable. It was 1998 and she was working in the Winnipeg sex trade to survive while struggling with a drug addiction. In the cold morning hours of March 20, her body was found in a parking lot. Her death — her murder — was violent, investigators said. It was violent enough that the person who killed her almost certainly knew her.
Stewart's killer has never been found. Her case is just one in a sea of dozens who are in similar circumstances — exploited Manitoba residents who have been found murdered or are missing. It's a problem Manitoba law enforcement is addressing with Project Devote, which is tasked with finding answers in 28 unsolved cases where foul play is suspected.
"These individuals are members of our community," says WPS Cst. Jason Michalyshen, Project Devote's spokesperson. "We are obligated to find out exactly what took place, to provide the answers that their families are so deserving of."
Some of the cases date back decades and leads are scarce on the ground. When the investigators are hindered by such a lack of information, this is where the outreach begins.
They're using billboards, street and bus ads, press conferences, YouTube videos — anything to remind the public of the faces of the missing women. Bold slogans such as "Do you know who killed me?" are emblazoned underneath rows of pictures and disappearance dates.
Below that, there's a number for the tip line.
"Even the smallest tip or piece of info can link to the bigger pieces we need — something as small as what our victim was last seen wearing, to something as big as who they were last seen with," says RCMP Sgt. Rob Lasson, Project Devote's team commander. "We believe that there are people out there that know a lot, but are reluctant to come forward. Our job is to think of strategic ways to extract that information."
Ultimately, Lasson notes, the goal is to grab people's attention and jog their memory. Even people who've been interviewed before might still have more information to share — they might just need a push to remember.
"If anyone knows about the investigation — maybe they previously knew the victim, or were an eyewitness — if that's in the back of their mind, we're hopeful and optimistic that they're going to pick up the phone," says Michalyshen. "These investigations could be one phone call away from resolving."
Each separate publicity push has been accompanied by a huge spike in awareness — and tips — from the public. In one case, a billboard asking for help with Evelyn Stewart's case ended up directly across from another advertising company's billboard, one promoting an adult nightclub. Public outrage ended up drawing more attention to the investigation, an unintentional, but welcome, result.
Publicity campaigns have also been tailored to specific victims — to the point of strategically choosing which neighbourhoods to poster with calls for information. By studying each case, investigators can find locations frequented by acquaintances, family or eyewitnesses who may have known the victim.
"We literally jumped in a van," says Sue Murray, a communications strategist with Manitoba RCMP and Project Devote. "We drove around the city scouting the best locations for large-format posters and billboards, choosing spots based on visibility, placement and strategy."
Nothing, though, can replace face-to-face interactions to help reach the public. Lasson will often travel to remote communities or visit a victim's family to deliver updates personally. Meeting the people involved, he says, has helped motivate him and the other investigators by creating a personal bond with the public.
"The public is one of the most important resources we can possibly have," says Michalyshen. "Without them, an already challenging task would be even more difficult. We so appreciate the patience, the co-operation and — without a doubt — the support of the public."