British Columbia

Boy with a GoPro helps solve decades-old missing person's case

An almost three decade-old missing persons case in B.C. has been solved in part because of a curious 13-year-old boy and his GoPro camera.

Max Werenka, 13, spotted a submerged vehicle in Griffin Lake, near Revelstoke, B.C.

RCMP pulled this black 1986 Honda Accord from Griffin Lake, near Revelstoke, B.C., on Aug. 24, nearly 27 years after its owner, Janet Farris, disappeared. (RCMP)

Young Max Werenka wasn't looking to solve the decades-old disappearance of a 70-year-old Vancouver Island woman when he set out on a boat ride last month on Griffin Lake near Revelstoke, B.C.

But after a remarkable series of events — which included Max, 13, spotting a submerged vehicle with his GoPro camera just three metres from the shore — the teen had played a key role in delivering answers to the missing woman's family.

In the fall of 1992, Janet Farris, of Mill Bay, B.C., was driving to a wedding in Alberta when she vanished.

Her family notified police and, over the years, came to believe she'd been in a fatal car accident. But no trace of her — or her car — was ever found.

Then, last month, the body of a woman was discovered in an overturned vehicle at the bottom of Griffin Lake just off the Trans-Canada Highway, in the Monashee Mountains.

Police were led there by Max, who discovered the submerged vehicle while out on a boat.

Farris was driving to a wedding in Alberta in the fall of 1992 when she vanished. Over the years, her family came to believe she had been in a car accident. (Submitted by George Farris)

That discovery has finally brought answers to Farris's family. 

"I think the worst thing was not knowing," said her son, George Farris, 62.

"We kind of assumed that maybe she had gone off the road or fallen asleep, or tried to avoid an accident or animal on the road," he said.

The discovery unfolded after Max set out on the lake last month with guests who were staying at his parents' lake cabins. The boaters spotted what they believed was a car submerged beneath about five metres of water.

Max's family lives in Sherwood Park, Alta., but runs Griffin Lake Cabins on the shore of the small, mountain lake 27 kilometres west of Revelstoke.

Previous owners of the summer cabins had boated and kayaked on the lake for 17 years without ever seeing a submerged vehicle.

Police haul the car from Griffin Lake. A female body and Farris' identification were found inside. (Nancy Werenka)

The Werenkas notified police and two officers were sent from Revelstoke. They set out on the lake, taking Max along, but couldn't see the vehicle. So Max then jumped into the water with his GoPro camera. He surfaced with video of a vehicle upside down on the bottom of the lake.

After that, police sent a dive team, tow truck and boom and hauled a 1986 black Honda Accord from the water on Aug. 24.

A female body was inside.

RCMP Sgt. Thomas Blakney said police ran the licence plate and discovered the car was owned by Janet Farris and had been reported missing in 1992. They also noted the missing person case from that same year. 

Max Werenka, 13, was out on the lake, a popular tourist spot in B.C., when he spotted the submerged vehicle. (Nancy Werenka)

Police found identification belonging to Farris in the car. Soon after, RCMP told family members that her body had been found.

George said his mother's last known stop was at a gas station in Salmon Arm. 

After his mother disappeared, he said the family — along with police and search and rescue teams — scoured the roadside along the highway, but found nothing.

He says there was a lot of grieving, but in time the family came to accept she had died along the highway somewhere.

Police think Farris likely swerved to avoid an animal or lost control of her vehicle for some other reason and rolled into the lake. There was no visible front-end damage to the Honda, so they don't think it hit anything. 

The discovery of his mother's body has brought answers for George.

"Given a sad situation, it's the best of all outcomes."

He said his mother's remains will be cremated and placed alongside her husband who died in 1984.

Meanwhile, Max's mother, Nancy Werenka, says she is proud of her son who is still processing what happened. Their hearts go out to the Farris family.

"Oh my gosh. I was just ...  a lump in my stomach for the family," she said.

"How do you wonder where a family member is for 26 years and not know what happened to them?"

A view of the overturned car resting at the bottom of Griffin Lake. It was discovered just three metres from shore. (RCMP)

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.