Father of missing woman calls in drones to help others seeking lost loved ones

Donated drones are being used to help locate five women who have disappeared in the Okanagan since 2016.

'In any situation, no matter how painful it is, you can still get up and keep fighting'

On April 30, 2016, Ashley Marie Simpson was reported missing to the Vernon/North Okanagan RCMP. Her father John Simpson used drones to to help in her search.

John Simpson is determined to use the novel experience he gained in a troubling search for his daughter to help others who have lost loved ones.

Ashley Simpson went missing in Salmon Arm, B.C., in April 2016, and this spring her father travelled there from Ontario for a second time. He believed her body might be along the banks of a river or creek.

The area had been flooded and it was too dangerous to search on foot, but Simpson had an idea.

He told friends he wanted to borrow a drone, and was put in touch with a surprisingly young expert — a 14-year-old boy with a fleet of drones and a strong commitment to his hobby.

"It really got me thinking," said Simpson in a recent phone interview from his home in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. "Watching this young man, and his drone."

Simpson hired the boy to search the mouth of the Salmon River where it flows into Shuswap Lake. Although his daughter wasn't found, Simpson was resolved to get more drones into the hands of volunteer crews searching for missing people.

Okanagan's lost 

At least four other women vanished from the North Okanagan-Shuswap area since February last year:

Last month, RCMP confirmed that Genereaux's remains had been found in a search of a Salmon River Road farm.

Officers continued searching the property for more than a week after the discovery, sparking speculation in the community about what else investigators were looking for. The search formally ended on Friday.

Drones offer hope

Simpson went missing at age 32, and since then her family raised money for women's shelters.

But this year they added a golf tournament, and her father used proceeds to buy four drones, sending two along to B.C.

Jody Leon of the Splatsin First Nation in Enderby, near Salmon Arm, organized a search party for the women this spring that covered more than 100 kilometres.

Last week, she received the drones from Simpson and held a meeting for interested volunteers.

Leon said she's connected with a number of experienced drone operators, including some with longer-range drones and another who will help volunteers get licensed under Transport Canada regulations.

Their first drone search could be as soon as next week, she said.

"John Simpson has been a huge teacher for me in terms of resiliency," she added.

"In any situation, no matter how painful it is, you can still get up and keep fighting."

While Simpson doesn't think drones will find his daughter he aims to help others, hoping to eventually have a network across the country to search for loved ones.

"We'll fight this right to the very end," he said.

"We'll bring our daughter home and lay her to rest here."

The group's drones were donated from Ontario residents who heard the story of one of the missing women, who's originally from central Canada. (Jody Leon)

Laura Kane, with files from Brady Strachan and Rhianna Schmunk