Hypothermia or homicide? 2 Manitoba families question MMIW cases
CBC News investigated deaths deemed to be not suspicious after families raise doubts
Olivia Gabriel believes in her heart that her sister Rocelyn didn't just freeze to death.
Nicole Daniels' family feels the same way. Both believe suspicious circumstances led to the women dying of hypothermia, and they believe police could have done more to investigate.
Both women were found unresponsive in the snow.
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Rocelyn Gabriel, 20, was found between bins at a recycling centre in Portage la Prairie, Man., in 2014.
They weren't far from home. The deaths have been ruled not suspicious in nature, but for their families, that's not good enough.
The cases are part of a larger, national project that looks into 34 deaths of Indigenous women across the country in which the families have doubts about police findings.
CBC found four cases in Manitoba. Here are the details of two of those cases:
Stephanie Daniels, 20, remembers the last time she saw her older sister Nicole.
At the time, Stephanie was going to bed and Nicole was going out, it was about 10 p.m.
"I remember walking up the stairs to go to my room, and I [saw] her getting ready in the bathroom …. She had really nice makeup on, like smoky, smoky eyes," she said of Nicole.
"The next day, me and my sister [Alicia] were outside … then our mom called us in and she told us Nicole didn't come home that night."
Daniels' body was found behind a strip mall on Regent Avenue less than 12 hours later, on April 1, 2009.
Stephanie added, "She told us there was a match. They found a girl a couple blocks away … [she] fit her description, her jacket, her boots."
"She told us she had a date," said her stepfather, John Fosseneuve. "When she jumped into the truck … I could see the driver's head. He looked bald; like, no hair."
The family wants to know if the man she was last seen with had any involvement in her death. They believe something happened between them that night. The autopsy report said a condom was found in her jacket pocket.
"Once he was done wih her, he just disposed of her," said Joan Winning, who is Nicole's aunt. "He would probably treat his dog or his cat better. He probably wouldn't throw it out of his vehicle, but her … why?"
Winning wants the Winnipeg Police Service to reopen Nicole's case. She said her family fought to get Nicole's case added to a Manitoba task force on missing and murdered Indigenous women that was created in August 2009.
Winning said her niece's case was never added, because police had determined no foul play was involved. The summary of the autopsy report read, "Her jacket had been removed and her blouse undone suggesting paradoxical undressing due to hypothermia."
The family does not think police investigated the case well enough and wants to know why no charges were laid. The autopsy found a large amount of alcohol in Nicole's system.
"Where is a 16-year-old going to get alcohol?" Winning asked. "She didn't have a job, she didn`t have that kind of money to put that much alcohol in her system herself. Someone supplied her with all that alcohol."
Fosseneuve was the last person to see Nicole alive and said she was sober when she left home.
The autopsy report documents 11 cuts and bruises on various parts of her body, including her face, arms, wrists, legs and inner knee area. The colour of the bruises ranged from red to purple to yellow or brown.
"That's just the big question: what happened that night?" asked Stephanie. "So many things could have happened … all those questions are left unanswered."
Winnipeg police confirm that officers interviewed the man Nicole was last with the night before her body was found. There was no evidence of a sexual assault or that the man had supplied her with any alcohol, according to police, who said the investigation and autopsy determined her death was not a homicide.
Joyce Gabriel doesn't know if she will ever get over losing one of her seven children.
Her daughter Rocelyn was 20 years old when she died of hypothermia.
Portage La Prairie RCMP eventually ruled out foul play in her death, but said the case is still active.
"It should have been one of us instead of her. I would have replaced her," said Joyce.
Rocelyn was found nearly frozen to death outside of a recycling centre in Portage la Prairie. She was wearing two sweaters but didn't have her coat. Her purse was found some distance from where she was. Her sister, Olivia, said that was not like her.
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"I believe in my heart it's foul play. No one's going to tell me different," said Olivia, 24.
She said her sister took good care of herself and her belongings, and she always took a cab or called for a ride.
Rocelyn was out with her cousin and sister that night, but they ended up getting separated. She was last seen around 4 a.m. CT on Jan. 26, 2014.
There was a blizzard that night, with winds gusting up to 80 km/h, and the wind chill made it feel like –40 C, according to Environment Canada.
The family doesn't know how Rocelyn ended up at the recycling centre, but they are convinced she wouldn't walk there, especially considering the weather.
"She was trying to flag somebody," said Joyce, citing surveillance video footage of her daughter at the recycling centre.
"She kept going to the highway and then she kept going back to where the corner is. She kept doing that every time she seen a vehicle."
"They didn't investigate it properly," she said. "That's something that they need to check. That should have been the first thing that they checked, was the videos."
Olivia added, "Like any other case, it just seems like it's just another Aboriginal … just another one that went missing or murdered. Didn't get enough attention, didn't get the justice."
"We are still hopeful that years after the fact, someone with a crucial piece of information will contact our investigators," said Sgt Bert Paquet in an email.
"Recent cases like Michael Kalanza and Teresa Robinson certainly showed that we never give up and go to any length to solve crimes and bring closures to the families affected."