New details about Tess Richey's final hours may provide clues about her slaying

Nearly two months after Tess Richey disappeared and was found dead in the Gay Village, CBC Toronto has learned new details about her final hours from a woman who was one of the last people who saw her alive.

Woman, one of the last people to see her alive, says 22-year-old 'seemed really upset'

New details have emerged about the final hours before Tess Richey disappeared on Nov. 25 after a night out with a high school friend in the Church and Wellesley area. (Tess Richey/Facebook)

Nearly two months after Tess Richey disappeared and was found dead in the Gay Village, CBC Toronto has learned new details about her final hours from a woman who was one of the last people who saw her alive. 

Richey, 22, went missing on Nov. 25 after a night out with a high school friend at Crews and Tangos, a nightclub on Church Street. Four days later, her mother found her body in a stairwell outside a building undergoing renovation — just doors away from where she was last seen. 

According to police, Richey and her friend, Ryley Simard, met up with a man sometime after they left the club at 1:30 a.m.

The group was captured by security cameras around 3 a.m. near a hot dog cart at the intersection of Church Street and Wellesley Street East.

Richey's death has been ruled a homicide and an autopsy revealed she died of a neck compression. Police have named the man she is seen with on the security camera video as a person of interest in the case, but haven't identified him.

'Nothing about him that stood out'

A woman named Michelle, whose last name CBC Toronto agreed to conceal over concerns for her safety, said Richey, Simard and the man walked by her house, near Church and Dundonald streets, around 3:30 a.m. while she and a friend were outside smoking after they finished work.  

"They were kind of loud and rambunctious and she thought she was disturbing us so she was like, 'Oh I'm sorry. I didn't mean to disturb you,'" Michelle said of Richey. 

From there, the strangers struck up a conversation, despite having more than a 20-year age difference.   

"She seemed really upset and I was really drawn to her," said Michelle. "She was telling me that she recently broke up with her boyfriend so she was upset." 

Security camera images of a man Toronto police would like to speak to regarding the homicide of Tess Richey. (Toronto Police Service)

Michelle said they talked for about 20 minutes, during which Richey, Simard and the man introduced themselves. But Michelle says she doesn't remember the man's name. 

"He was quiet the whole time. He basically blended in with the background," she recalled. "There's nothing about him that stood out. That's why I didn't remember his name. He just became invisible."

She describes him as polite and shy, like "the guy next door."

"I actually believed it was a friend of hers," she said, noting when Richey got upset during their conversation the man comforted her. "I would never in a million years think he would have hurt her." 

Richey was found dead one day before what would have been her 23rd birthday. (Rachel Richey)

The group went to leave around 3:45 a.m. when Simard says she got a text from her boyfriend asking where she was. Richey and Michelle exchanged phone numbers before the group left heading westbound along Dundonald Street toward Yonge Street. 

"Sometimes I think if I had maybe stood outside for a few minutes more and just watched to see what happened, but there was nothing that made me question her safety," said Michelle. 

Simard said she had been drinking at the bar and doesn't remember leaving Richey and the man on Yonge Street when she caught the College streetcar home. 

What happened after 4 a.m. between Richey and the man remains unclear. 

Police have reviewed video footage obtained shortly after Richey's body was found.

"There's an alley there and a stairwell and this is where we last see Tess," said Det. Sgt. Graham Gibson.

 "Following this, we don't see Tess anymore ... and she's not seen by any witnesses following that time."

Gibson said the surveillance footage shows the man exiting the stairwell on his own, then heading northbound on Church Street.

'I'm here with two pairs of jeans'

Richey's family has been critical of how police handled the investigation in its early days. 

Richey's mother, Christine Hermeston, and a family friend found her body lying near the base of an outdoor stairwell at 582 Church St. on the afternoon of Nov. 29. 

Hermeston drove around four hours to get to Toronto from North Bay, Ont., to search for her daughter.

Tess Richey's mother, Christine Hermeston, says she's 'completely living in a nightmare' after the slaying of her youngest daughter. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

With no updates in the case, nearly 60 days later, Hermeston is still in the city looking for clues about the man her daughter was with in her final hours. 

"I'm here with two pairs of jeans and I'm wearing my kids' clothes," said Hermeston, who adds she can't go back to North Bay until she finds out what happened to her daughter. 

The mother and daughter lived together in Toronto until two weeks before Richey went missing because she went back to North Bay to take care of her property there. She adds they had plans to spend Christmas together in Toronto before Richey was killed. 

A memorial for Tess Richey at the side of a home on Church Street where her body was found. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

Richey's sister, Rachel, told CBC Toronto the last records they have from her that evening is an update at 3 a.m. from her FitBit, which marked her step count, and then a series of messages from Uber at 4 a.m. that were sent to Hermeston's cellphone because her account was set up using her mother's credit card.

The messages Hermeston received from Uber suggest Richey had ordered a ride, but then it was cancelled 15 minutes later. It is unclear whether Richey or the driver cancelled the trip.

I won't let them forget that someone is out there.- Christine Hermeston

Richey's FitBit logged that she took close to 300 steps after 3 a.m.

Rachel said they recently counted the number of steps Richey would have taken between the front entrance of Michelle's home on Dundonald Street to where her body was found on Church Street. She says they determined the distance totalled 126 steps, adding they don't know where Richey was when she took the other half of the steps.   

"It's just trying to fill in as many possible details as we can find," said Rachel. "Anything that can fill in any blank." 

'I won't let Toronto forget about Tess' 

Richey's family members say their search for information hasn't allowed them to focus on their grief. When they're at home, Hermeston said they're constantly thinking of new ways to solve the mystery of Richey's death. 

"You're completely living in a nightmare because you just wonder what went on in that period of time down there," she said of the stairwell where Richey's body was found. 

Tess Richey's sister, Rachel, left, and mother, Christine Hermeston, say their search for information hasn't allowed them to focus on their grief. (Sue Goodspeed/CBC)

Rachel said she grew up with four sisters — Tess was the youngest — and they're used to sticking together. 

"I think one of the reasons why it's so impossible for us to let go of control or let go of the situation, to leave it in somebody else's hands is because we've never done that," she told CBC Toronto. 

"We've always very strongly taken care of each other and solved our own problems."

Amid the family's efforts, the Toronto police professional standards unit launched a probe into how officers approached Richey's disappearance.

Chief Mark Saunders said the investigation is an opportunity for the force to review and analyze its procedures in missing person cases. 

"I won't let Toronto forget about Tess," said Hermeston. "I won't let them forget that someone is out there." 

About the Author

Amara McLaughlin

Online reporter, CBC Toronto

Amara McLaughlin is a digital journalist at CBC Toronto. Originally from Alberta, she began her journalism career in Calgary but now calls Toronto home. She has also worked in Jerusalem, Washington, D.C. and Hamilton, Ont. amara.mclaughlin@cbc.ca

With files from CBC's Greg Ross