'In the dark:' Search for Holly Ellsworth-Clark moves beyond Hamilton
'We still don't really know what we're looking for'
Digital billboards with the face of Holly Ellsworth-Clark flash around Hamilton, but her family's hunt for their missing daughter is now moving beyond the city.
After two weeks of fruitless searches and impassioned community outreach, their minds and focus are turning away from Steeltown, looking at Toronto and as far away as Montreal.
They know who they're looking for and they know where they've searched. But little else.
"We still don't really know what we're looking for," her father Dave Clark says. "We're not even certain if she's here."
He and his wife Greta were set, living in Calgary after raising three grown kids.
Now, they are in a real-life nightmare: stuck in an unfamiliar town, with few clues, and no knowledge of how to go about finding her, but nonetheless pulling together large-scale search efforts with the support of well-meaning people they don't know.
Community answers the call
They've rallied local police and the entire community, but as they transform a Hamilton Airbnb into an investigative headquarters, each day still feels like their first.
And as time passes, their worst fears interrupt any moment of peace.
"I go home and cry. I hide from people. And when I'm out in public, I try to hold myself together," Kate, Holly's sister, says.
The Clark family grasp at any incoming tips.
Holly went missing on Jan. 11 after leaving her home near Sanford Avenue North and Cannon Street at about 4 p.m.
The rain beat down on her when she vanished, barely dressed for the weather.
Kevin Bryan spent 30 years as a York Regional Police officer, investigating countless homicides and missing persons cases. He says it's never easy for a family when someone goes missing, and the desire to do something yourself is understandable.
"Very often when you're missing a loved one, no matter how much the police are doing, it doesn't seem they're doing enough. Police have dead ends as well," Bryan says.
"The family in all likelihood doesn't know who she's associating with here ... Where do you go? How do you start searching, especially not being familiar with the area?"
Tips and searches
The Clarks came to Hamilton right away and began plastering posters across town before frantically posting on social media.
Online groups of cyber sleuths like Guardians of our Angels Missing Persons Canada began spreading the word and soon, turned in Hamilton to help.
The team grew and started a public Facebook group dedicated to Holly. Thousands have joined, sharing information and theories.
As tips poured in, the family and civilian search squad scoured the streets, referring to their Google Map with every past search, every poster and every tip location.
Holly, 6'1 and 200 pounds, went for routine runs and hikes, leading the team into local parks, the Escarpment and the James Street Stairs.
But none of the crew has professional training. And most never lived in Hamilton.
Still, they've chased most clues alone, rather than direct tipsters to police.
"I don't love that," Bryan, the ex-detective says.
"Any time a tip comes in, especially in a missing persons case, [officers are] on it pretty quick ... they want to find her."
Police insistence that there is no evidence of foul play in Holly's disappearance has done little to stop her family from chasing a number of scary scenarios.
We're trying to piece it together as best we can, but we're still fundamentally in the dark.- Dave Clark, father of Holly Ellsworth-Clark
When the Clarks arrived in Hamilton, they went to police with few clues about her life in town.
Seventeen days out, not much has changed. The moments and thoughts leading up to Holly leaving are still shrouded in mystery.
"Having an idea of what exactly went on is sort of fundamental and we still don't know that," Clark says.
"The police are having an enormous problem with that, as are we, and we're trying to piece it together as best we can, but we're still fundamentally in the dark," Clark says.
What clues do they have?
A window pane beneath Holly's room, which sits above a storefront, was boarded up after she shattered it trying to enter her home on Jan. 10 — the day before she left.
It may have been out of fear strangers were following her. She told her parents two men chased her through the forest days earlier.
Her roommates say they called 911 worried about her mental health, spurring Holly's brother and sister, Caleb and Kate, to travel from Toronto to visit.
But Holly was upset before that. She was coping after a break-up with her guitar player boyfriend and the end of her band — part of why she moved to Hamilton from Toronto in October 2019.
On Jan. 11, she called her family begging for a plane ticket back home. Her parents missed the call.
Surveillance footage from about 4 p.m. shows Holly leaving her home, wearing a black long sleeve shirt, black pants and black boots.
She was upset, distraught and ''in crisis."
Besides some money, she left behind her coat, her phone and almost all other belongings.
Her family hasn't seen her since.
Hamilton police have thrown the K9 unit, Ground Search and Rescue, the Criminal Investigative Division and their Patrol and Action unit at the void.
They've also coordinated with other police services and followed up on every tip from the public. It led to several witnesses saying they saw Holly on Jan. 12, though the sightings are unconfirmed.
"There's been lots of resources put toward this, that's for sure, and we're not giving up," Hamilton Police Const. Lorraine Edwards says.
After a tip, Holly's investigation zeroed-in on the Budget Inn on King Street east at Sanford Ave., a location that had a part in the sequence of events in the Yosif Al-Hasnawi shooting.
Holly's family staked out the building. They worried she was inside, doped up and in the arms of human traffickers.
At first, the Clarks accused police of sloppily searching the inn, but officers eventually looked in every room. Police said the Inn management was fully cooperative with them.
Detectives don't think there is anything criminal in nature related to Holly's absence.
"She left her residence and she was distraught and in crisis," Edwards says.
Holly's family didn't accept that answer. It led to protests outside of the motel while the Clarks criticized investigative efforts.
Gignac, from the Guardians group, said the bitterness lasted a few days and may have worked against the search.
Some signs read “Bring Holly Home” and “We Love You Holly” amid fears she is the victim of human trafficking — but officers don’t believe that now.<br><br>The public interest in what Hamilton police is investigating as a missing persons case has amplified in the last few days. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/HamOnt?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#HamOnt</a> <a href="https://t.co/nYztIChewF">pic.twitter.com/nYztIChewF</a>—@bobbyhristova
Bryan, the former officer, sympathizes with the family, but thinks officers are doing their best.
"On the outside, where you, I and probably the family are to some degree, we're speculating without all the evidence the police have," he says.
"Not always will police share all the information they have with you and that can be very frustrating."
Looking in new places
The family's search pivoted from the motel. Now, they're trying to break into Holly's mind and restart.
But some frustrations linger. Dave says he contacted surrounding police services and claims they had little information about Holly.
"We have a system that will [only] work fine for missing people who want to be found. Unless people turn up and police find them, there's simply no system that updates [different police services]," he says.
She has support that most forgotten and missing people don't.- Chris Gignac, Guardians of our Angels Missing Persons Canada
Gignac says the fight to find Holly is impressive, with friends flying from Calgary, Halifax and her birth province of Newfoundland. Some have left, many haven't.
"Holly is extremely loved and she has support that most forgotten and missing people don't," Gignac says.
On Jan. 22, hundreds of locals met to survey the streets for Holly.
With fears she could be hiding in a building or shelter of her own design, two waves of volunteers searched predetermined grids within a roughly five kilometre radius.
Night came, volunteers left. More tips and calls emerged, but Holly didn't.
Clark doubts a similar search will happen again, as they look to the rest of Ontario. Volunteers are now putting up poster in Montreal and Toronto.
"She did have some money and would've been able to travel some distance," he says, despite her bank account remaining untouched.
While most know Holly as a missing person, her family says she's a tough, stubborn, music-loving athlete with a personality that made waves.
She pinned down competitors to win gold and silver medals at national wrestling competitions at the University of Calgary.
Before she graduated in 2016, her father taught her three chords on guitar, leaving her smitten by music.
She spent a year writing her own melodies, which eventually led her to move to Toronto and then Hamilton.
When Holly wasn't playing at bars and open mic nights, she was roving through forests or scouting out graffiti murals.
Close friends say she was passionate about justice.
And Holly's family hopes to find her soon.
"The hardest part is not having my daughter ... missing her and really having no idea when we'll see her again," Dave says.
Anyone with information can call the police tip line at 905-546-4925.
The Clark family is also accepting tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- This article has been amended to note that the Budget Inn fully cooperated with police in their search of the hotel.Mar 06, 2020 3:52 PM ET