BY HEATHER POLISCHUK, LEADER-POST
“Sometimes I try to picture (Tamra), when (her fraternal twin sister) Tanis comes over. I try to picture how she would look and from how they looked when they were small to just growing up. I just try to imagine how she would look if she was there.” -Troy Keepness
Troy Keepness remembers only too well the morning of July 6, 2004.
“Somebody showed up at my door asking if (Tamra) was there, and I was wondering why they were asking me that,” he says. “It didn’t really sink in until probably about an hour later and somebody else came by asking if she was there. And that’s when I knew something was wrong.”
Keepness says he went out to look for his five-year-old daughter — who, along with her siblings, was living at her mother’s home on the 1800 block of Ottawa Street — and soon realized nobody knew where she was.
“I honestly couldn’t tell you what kind of thoughts were going through my mind,” he says. “To me, I thought, ‘OK, hopefully she’s going to turn up, she’s going to turn up.’ It was way beyond my control to know or what was going around or what was happening at that time, why the heck was she taken in the first place, who was there? It was all in my mind.”
Seated in a Regina coffee shop 10 years later, Keepness wipes away tears as he talks about his daughter and the sense of helplessness that’s never left him.
“There’s part of me, I hate to even think that she’s dead, but what if she is?” he says. “I want a proper burial if it was that way. I hate to think of her being that way, but I’m scared that it happened ... I still hurt for her. How I feel about this is helpless. I don’t know what to do.”
Elsewhere, on a rainy day in late June, Lorena Favel-Keepness, who is Tamra’s mom and Keepness’s former partner, breaks down in tears as she talks about her daughter, who she says is always in her heart.
“She’s still there,” she says of her belief her daughter is still alive somewhere. “There’s nothing there that says she’s not there. I still have hope.”
Favel-Keepness says her life and those of her family members have been ripped apart over the past decade.
“It’s wreaked havoc on my life,” she says. “It’s affected everything ... I’m marred.”
Because rumours continue to swirl, Favel-Keepness says she’s been heavily impacted — and even physically attacked.
“They don’t even know she’s the best thing that happened in my life,” she says tearfully.
For their part, police have worked hard to discover the truth behind what happened, says Regina Police Service cold case coordinator Sgt. Alex Yum. With this high-profile case having generated close to 1,700 tips since Tamra was reported missing on July 6, 2004 — having been last seen by family members at her home the night before — police have investigated each in an attempt to solve this troubling mystery.
“We take every piece of information that’s given to us seriously until we can either verify it or rule it as being probably not likely at this point ...,” Yum says. “Unfortunately, we haven’t ruled out anything. It’s one of these investigations where you have to keep an open mind.”
One thing police are sure of is this: Someone out there knows what happened to the little girl — something that has, at times, frustrated investigators who have devoted countless hours and sleepless nights to this case.
“Yeah, you want to know what happened,” Yum says. “You want the answer. And sometimes, you want to shake the tree harder. And you would wish the people who knew something would tell you something more ... I guess because when you work on something, it becomes a part of you and you invest your own emotions and your own expectations and your own hopes. Yeah, I don’t think any investigator can totally separate themselves from that personal commitment or how it affects them.”
Police have had to function under a microscope, watched not just by the family, but by people across the nation who’d made a place for Tamra in their hearts.
“I remember at the time, it was one of those things that immediately grabbed the attention of the whole nation,” Regina Police Service spokeswoman Elizabeth Popowich says. “We were talking to reporters and media outlets from right across the country and even beyond because everybody either has children or is an aunt or an uncle or a sibling. Everybody was a kid once. And it was shocking and very emotional.”
“You mention Tamra Keepness and they instantly know about the file ...,” Yum says. “It’s very rare that you meet someone who doesn’t know. I’m receiving tips on a monthly basis, so it is still at the forefront of people’s thoughts.”
Despite those tips, what police really need is for someone to come forward and provide the full truth about the matter — something the family is praying for.
“Somebody knows and we pray for that person all the time (to) come forward,” says kokum Brenda Dubois. “But they’re not brave enough. They’re not brave enough to be responsible for what they’ve done, which is to create an absence in our community.”
As police search, so do family members. Both Dubois and another kokum, Marilyn Keepness, profess to watching for signs of Tamra each time they are on the road.
“She’s always there when I’m travelling,” says Marilyn Keepness. “I do a lot of travelling for my work and I look at different landmarks that the elders told us and I wonder. And we’re all like that.”
Tamra’s parents have had their own road to travel, a deeply personal and often-troubled one.
“At one point after she’d gone missing, I just wanted to drink myself right ’til I was dead,” Troy Keepness says. “I didn’t care about anything anymore. I must have seen something to turn my life around and to carry on to try to live and make a living.”
That something is seated near him in the coffee shop.
“I have a lady here and a son,” he says. “I have my other children. When I was drinking, I was going to drink myself to death and somebody said, ‘Your children love you.’ So that kind of saved me from myself and drinking myself to death. I know my children love me.”
The Tamra he remembers is a “little leader” who loved school and helped him take care of her twin sister and younger brother.
“She had this thing where she just knew what to do or how to do it,” he says.
Favel-Keepness smiles sadly as she talks about the little girl she remembers as being smart, tough and rambunctious.
“She was my little Einstein,” she says.
Popowich says it’s sad most people never had a chance to meet Tamra, the girl they have come to know only through missing person posters and the words of her relatives. If any good at all has come from this, Popowich says it’s the way one little girl has drawn a community together for a common purpose.
With 10 years passed, Tamra’s family, the police and the community are left hoping for that missing piece of information, the key that will bring this mystery to a close.
“Without that closure, (the family is) stuck in time, they’re frozen in the moment and they’re haunted by it — and they’ll be continually haunted until they get the answers to those questions,” Yum says.
Anyone with information is asked to call the Regina Police Service at 777-6500 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.