Nathan O'Brien case: Police say civilian search teams not needed

Police say they do not need help from civilian teams in conducting the search for Nathan O'Brien and his grandparents, who have been missing for more than two weeks.

Citizen search effort to find clues has been officially called off after police request

Civilian search crews get organized before combing through a field in Airdrie on Wednesday evening as part of the community's effort to find Nathan O'Brien and his grandparents, who police say are presumed dead. The civilian search efforts have now been called off. (Devin Heroux/CBC)

Police say they do not need help from civilian teams in conducting the search for Nathan O'Brien and his grandparents, who have been missing for more than two weeks.

In a news release put out Thursday afternoon, the Calgary Police Service says while they are grateful for the overwhelming community support of the investigation, they currently have a 30-day search plan in effect which cannot be shared outside of law enforcement.​

Police say they are "systematically searching locations that have a high likelihood of locating evidence ... If the investigation reaches a point where public assistance is required, we will reach out."

On Tuesday, a civilian effort was launched to search through rural fields for clues in the suspected killings of five-year-old Nathan O'Brien and his grandparents, Kathy and Alvin Liknes.

After questions about whether it could continue on Wednesday, the civilian search was called off and the Facebook site for the event was taken down due to negative backlash on the site.

The group says they were being targeted online by people questioning their motives for searching and alleging that they were interfering with the police investigation.

However, while the official civilian search had been called off, a few people who had shown up to take part left after the announcement and headed out to do their own search.

"They need you, they need me, they need everybody here," said Martina Payne-Swagar, one of the people who decided to go out searching anyway.

"They need every single one of us to stand up and say, 'We have family. We have friends.' We may not know them, but if it was my family or my family member, I would want everybody to be there to help me.'"

Dozens of people divided themselves into groups and combed through nearby fields on Wednesday night.

Kevin Brookwell with Calgary police says he understands that people want to help, but questioned the usefulness of the search.

"These folks — God bless them — they've got hearts of gold, and they're giving of their time to come out and search but it's a bit of a blind search. They don't know what they're looking for," he said.

Court appearance

Earlier Wednesday, the family of the presumed victims said they appreciate the abundance of community support they have received over the past two weeks.

"It's incredibly sad, but it helps," said Alvin Liknes's son Allen. 

He was in a Calgary courtroom Wednesday for the first appearance of Douglas Garland, who has been charged with three counts of murder in connection with the disappearance of the five-year-old and his grandparents.

The three were last seen by family on June 29, and police believe they have been murdered, even though their remains have not been found.

Garland is facing two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of the couple and a second-degree murder charge in the death of Nathan. 

The 54-year-old wore a blue jail jumpsuit for his court date and appeared via video link in front of a packed public gallery. He stood almost motionless against the wall with his hands behind his back.

Douglas Garland, 54, has been charged with one count of second-degree murder in the death of five-year-old Nathan O'Brien and two counts of first-degree murder linked to the deaths of the boy's grandparents. (CBC)

The case has been adjourned to Aug. 14 because Crown prosecutors are still waiting for police disclosure.

Crown prosecutor Shane Parker says it normally takes 30 days for disclosure in a major crime — especially one that involved a homicide and missing persons investigation.

"It is a little challenging in this case because of the speed of the investigation," he said.

Police have not disclosed what they think motivated the killings, but it's been previously reported that Garland has connections to the Liknes family.

CBC News discovered that Garland and Alvin Liknes were involved in a patent dispute and that there was "bad blood" between them because of business dealings that had gone sour. 

Family connections

Garland's sister, Patti, is in a common-law relationship with Allen Liknes. He said she is "not good," but the vigils and search parties over the past week are really helping family members cope.

"The family has taken strength from it," he told reporters at the courthouse.

Relatives, neighbours and friends gathered at a park across the street from the O'Brien home on Tuesday night for a release of balloons as a tribute to Nathan and the Likneses.

Nathan O'Brien, centre, and his grandparents, Kathy and Alvin Liknes, have not been seen since Nathan's mom left the Liknes' home on June 29. (Calgary Police Service)

Family members said on Monday that they still hold out hope they may still be alive.

Despite the civilian search being called off, police Chief Rick Hanson told CBC's As it Happens that Calgary officials appreciate local residents to still be on the lookout for anything suspicious.

"We've encouraged everyone to have a look in those areas that they're familiar with," he said.

"In cases like this, when you have huge tracts of land that could have been the spot where the bodies were left, any help at all from people who can just check their properties would be appreciated. Even being aware that we're still looking to gather any evidence and anything that's out of the ordinary, people should let us know."

Even without bodies, police said the murder charges were laid because of the amount of evidence they have against Garland.

"We are putting a very complex case before the courts," Hanson said Monday.

While there is no "single smoking gun," he said investigators are confident with the evidence. DNA samples were collected from the Liknes home where police say​ a violent crime took place.

Crown confident in its case

The Crown says it's confident in its case against Garland even though the remains of the three have not been recovered.

"We've done it before and we'll do it again," Parker told reporters Wednesday. "It's obviously a little more challenging because bodies provide a whole lot of evidence for the jury, they provide a whole lot of evidence from a forensic standpoint, normally, for the police."

Crown prosecutor Shane Parker speaks to the media after attending Douglas Garland's first court appearance in the disappearance of Nathan O'Brien and his grandparents, Alvin and Kathryn Liknes, in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Parker said even though Garland has been charged, the investigation into the murders will continue.

"We still have time," he said. "We're still hopeful that the police will continue on with their searches. I think the chief of police has already given that commitment. The investigators are certainly working tirelessly to continue the investigation — not only the bodies but other evidence as well."

There has been a massive round-the-clock search for the trio involving more than 200 police officers. Police have also followed up on more than 900 tips from the public.

Parker said the investigation has focused on the Likneses' home, which is located in the southwest Calgary community of Parkhill, and the Garland family home in a rural area north of the city. But he says other evidence has come in with the help of the "good people of Calgary doing their civic duty."

"I would encourage people to continue to [submit tips to police]," said Parker. "Because we are getting evidence from a number of different sources, and that's encouraging from a community standpoint."

Garland to remain in custody

Defence lawyer Kim Ross says he has only spoken to his client very briefly. 

"He's not saying anything," said Ross.

Defence lawyer Kim Ross speaks to the media about his client Douglas Garland's first court appearance in the disappearance of Nathan O'Brien and his grandparents, Alvin and Kathy Liknes, in Calgary. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

"I just informed Mr. Garland what was going to happen in court this morning — that it was just simply going to go over, that we need to get this disclosure and that was it."

Ross says he will wait for disclosure to decide whether to seek bail — meaning Garland will remain in custody until Aug. 14.

Garland was arrested early Monday in a field near his home at the acreage under investigation at 1:30 a.m. MT — a property belonging to his parents that has been at the centre of the police investigation for more than a week.

He was out on bail on an unrelated charge of identity theft, and police said he broke the conditions of his release by being in the field at night.

The acreage was the site of police investigation in 1992 that led to charges of drug trafficking and possession of stolen property after Garland was caught making amphetamines. 

A document from the Tax Court of Canada indicates Garland was later discovered living under the stolen identity of a deceased 14-year-old car crash victim from Cardston, Alta.