Hamilton Cold Case: Disappearance of Sheryl Sheppard focus of CBC investigation

Sheryl Sheppard was 29 when she vanished without a trace in 1998. Now, in the second season of CBC's award-winning podcast Someone Knows Something, the cold case is being investigated with fresh eyes.

CBC's true-crime podcast Someone Knows Something looks into the cold case of Sheryl Sheppard

Hosted by award-winning filmmaker David Ridgen, season 2 of the podcast explores the disappearance of Hamilton native Sheryl Sheppard, who vanished on January 2, 1998. 12:42

It's one of most notorious cold cases in Hamilton, and now the second season of CBC's true-crime podcast may uncover details never seen before by the public in the case of the 1998 disappearance of Sheryl Sheppard. 

David Ridgen, host of Someone Knows Something, takes part in a Q&A about what led the show's investigative team to the story, that is the focus of Season 2, and where the story may lead them next.

Q: Tell us about the story of Sheryl Sheppard.

A: Sheryl Sheppard was 29 years old when she disappeared roughly around January 2, 1998. She had been to a New Year's Eve party on December 31, 1997 with her boyfriend Michael Lavoie, and at that party, Michael had proposed to her and she said yes.

It's very interesting how information can be shaken out of those memories and every episode in Season 2 reveals new information.- Dave Ridgen, host

That was one of the last times people saw her. Some people spoke to her on the phone after that, including her mother Odette Fisher, the next day.

And then some time between January 1 and 2, she disappeared, and has never been seen. No remains or trace of Sheryl has ever been found.

Lavoie, who was allegedly the last person to see her, claims that he dropped Sheryl off at a hotel in Niagara Falls, on the evening of Jan. 2, Friday night.

He left her there and then never saw her again. He claims that it was a hotel that she would be exotic dancing. 

David Ridgen, host of the award-winning true crime podcast, Someone Knows Something (Mahnoor Yawar/CBC)

So there are many claims and counter-claims about whether Sheryl was ever there dancing or not, whether the story had any credibility or not, and so we're investigating the entirety of the case, looking into all the different aspects of it, including Michael Lavoie's story.

Michael was named, or implied, as a prime suspect in the case by Hamilton police and certainly in the media, there's been a number of aspects of his behaviour and things that he's done or not done with regards to Sheryl's case that have brought these allegations in his direction. 

 'The podcast is a live investigative process, so we're not finished yet.'- Dave Ridgen, host

There's a lot of people who knew Sheryl that are interested in finding justice, that have come forward and are speaking to us.

We've spoken to police and former police, and we've tried our best to speak to everyone involved in the case thus far. It's an ongoing investigation. The podcast is a live investigative process, so we're not finished yet.

SKS is a true crime podcast, hosted by David Ridgen. Season 2, investigating a new cold case, will launch on November 21. 0:30

Q: You had a bit of a personal connection to the story in Season 1.

A: Yeah, season one was the case of Adrien McNaughton, which we're still working on. We just finished a dive in Holmes Lake, which is where Adrien disappeared from back in 1972. He was a 5-year-old boy.

I grew up in Arnprior, where Adrien was from, in eastern Ontario. I knew the family, and my mother and father knew the family, and my siblings knew the family, the McNaughtons.

I had a personal connection in that way, it always felt like one of those unsolved black clouds that was hanging over the town, and people had convinced me over the years to look into it because I've had experience in cold cases and looking into other aspects of true crime type stories. 

Q: Sheryl's case is decidedly different, and Hamilton's a very different town. What drew you to this story? Why here and why now?

A: Well, Hamilton's an interesting city. It's a character itself. The people that live here know that. For me, it's always been a fascinating place.

The case itself drew me in, as well, due to the various factors of there's family members very passionate about finding justice. We have Odette Fisher (Sheryl's mother) who's been working with me tirelessly.

Sheryl Sheppard in an undated photo before her disappearance in 1998. (Handout)

As a 70-year-old woman, she's quite a phenomenon. And we have interesting information coming out about various people to look at, people of interest. We have police interested in involving themselves.

It's just one of those cases that, once you hear about it, it just draws you in and it's impossible to let go of it.

It's a tough city but I'm used to the toughness and I like it, and I like the people here. I find, in general, most people I've spoken to have been very generous and they've stepped up and talked about what they know to try to help Sheryl's case.

Definitely someone knows something about this case, and I'm hoping that our podcast can draw those people out.

Q: It's interesting that, unlike the first season, there's a clear primary suspect in this case. How does that change the way you tell the story?

A: Well, in the first season, there were so many different possibilities of what might've happened to Adrien.

It was like an open loop, an open circle. You could go in any direction.

The second season is a bit different, in that everybody might feel like there's a certain direction I should be looking in, and so our task is then to unravel that and unpack that.

And try to look in as many different places as possible and try to get outside of the box that's been circumscribed for us by the media and the police, and not necessarily point fingers at the same person.

Sheryl Sheppard's mother Odette Fisher with news clippings from the time of her daughter's disappearance (Dave Ridgen/CBC)

So we have a task at hand that's quite different than season one, I think audiences will be fascinated by just that process alone. 

Q: In the almost two decades since this story came to light, there has been a lot of reporting around it and investigation into it. Are there new details being uncovered as you research?

A: Every episode that we have sketched out now, and in every interview, new details come out that have not been heard before.

Certainly not by the public, and even by the police. So it's quite fascinating when you approach these cases again with a fresh set of eyes years later, you can always pull more out and find more people.

It's like opening a wound. When you open the wound, you can clean it, it can heal better. That's how I look at it.- Dave Ridgen, host

Remember more people are open to speaking about it, because time has changed. Past affiliations, people who were loyal to some people are no longer that loyal.

Or people just forget how they were supposed to behave and they just talk to you openly. So it's very interesting how information can be shaken out of those memories and every episode in Season 2 reveals new information.

Q: Criticism for true crime series often stems from the fact that there's no definitive end. Are you hoping that there might be some kind of resolution, or close to one, as we come to the end?

A: For me, it's the process that's more important, to me and I think the family members who work with me.

The outcome, of course, we'd like to see that wooden gavel hit the bench, and hear a conviction, or a story where justice has been found.

But really, it's a cold comfort to know that somebody goes to jail for something and you don't know where your loved one is.

The most important thing for most cold-case family members that I've worked with is, "Where is the person? Where's the body? Where is she, is she still alive?"

That's something that would be really satisfying, is to find out where Sheryl is -- way above who did it, for me and for all family members I've worked with and probably for audiences.

The case with SKS is that we're a process-oriented show.

The process of investigation is in fact that main focus, and audiences have to appreciate that family members going through this process is very difficult. They go through the process, something they weren't expecting to do. Some things sometimes are pretty difficult to face. 

Q: You speak to Sheryl's mother Odette during the first episode of Season 2. What's that like, sitting down and having this conversation, even though she's gone through it so many times?

A: Odette's a tortured soul. She's definitely gone through this process, she's worked with reporters in the past. None of them nearly as in depth as we have. I've been working with her for months and we go on the road for days together. She is just one of those family members that just won't stop.

It's consumed her entire life. Every conversation revolves around Sheryl or her family in the penumbra of this case.

I think that the more she talks about it, the better it is for her. I think if she holds that stuff in, if you hold things in, it tends to eat you up or dissolve your innards.

So working with family members is very delicate. You have to delve into areas that they finally discover something about their loved one that they never knew, and it's hurtful.

It can be. In this case, we certainly discover a lot about Sheryl that Odette never knew about.

And we discover a lot about many aspects of the case.

All it is, it's like opening a wound. When you open the wound, you can clean it, it can heal better. That's how I look at it. The process is really like facing the fears or facing that dark place, and coming out the other side.