Winnipeg Police will not help Drag the Red search river, will monitor safety

The Winnipeg Police Service says it will not become more actively involved in Drag the Red efforts this year, despite calls from the group for them to help search, or even lead the effort. Police will continue to monitor the group from a safety standpoint.

Drag the Red volunteers called upon police to help during this spring's search - even lead it

Drag the Red began Sept. 17, 2014 with volunteers on both the water and shore. Those in the boats dropped metal bars and hooks about four metres deep and trolled the river, while those on the bank combed through the grass, trees and scrub. (CBC)

Winnipeg police say they do not expect to become more actively involved in Drag the Red's spring river search, beyond watching out for the group's safety.   

"At this point I don't believe we will become any more involved that we were last year," said Staff Sgt. Rob Riffel in an e-mail.  Riffel is responsible for the force's river patrol and underwater search and recovery units.  He was also the member in contact with Drag the Red during last year's search.

"We will continue to support their efforts from a safety standpoint to ensure that their searches are carried out in the safest possible manner," he added, "We will also continue to offer assistance with regards to our knowledge of the river."

Drag the Red volunteers are preparing to search the Red River again in the next few weeks.  They are calling on the city's police service to be more active in the search for bodies and evidence in the river's murky water.

"We're really hoping they take a more active role rather than sitting in a boat watching us, and kind of supervising," Bernadette Smith said yesterday.  She spearheaded the Drag the Red effort last year. Smith has been searching for her sister Claudette Osborne since 2008.

"We think that's not a very good use of our taxpayers' money to have police sitting in a boat watching," Smith said, "We're really hoping that they're actually dragging with us, if not even leading it."

Smith said volunteers hope to meet with the city's police board about the search in the next month and that their efforts get more traction with a new mayor in office.

She set up a GoFundMe page this week with the goal of raising $10,000.  That money will go towards purchasing new boats, gas and dragging equipment, such as bars and welded hooks.  Last year volunteers searched with three boats - this year they hope to have as many as five boats on the water, with three volunteers per boat, plus riverbank searchers.

Sweeping the river and its banks is a direct action that helps families, Smith said.

Bernadette Smith's sister Claudette Osborne disappeared in 2008 and hasn't been seen since. (CBC)

"We have so many people in Manitoba that are missing and we don't know where they are and if that alleviates some family's thoughts of if their loved one is in there, then that helps us." 

Searching could start in a matter of weeks - as soon as the ice melts and conditions are safe for volunteers.

Smith says Drag the Red volunteers have broader plans in mind. She would like to set up a foundation to help families whose loved ones go missing in lakes or rivers, and potentially have boats at the ready to deploy to other communities besides Winnipeg when needed. 

"When families - their loved one - goes into the water, whether it's in a community or a city... we would be able to have some funds readily available to help those families," she said. 

Last year's efforts turned up items including animal bones, dentures, toothbrushes and hair combs, all items that Smith says volunteers turned over to police. 

Of those items, Riffel said, "Only a few items were sent for analysis and none yielded anything of interest."

Last year's search started at the Alexander docks, which is where police pulled 15-year-old Tina Fontaine's body last August. Volunteers searched north to the Louise bridge, around the Redwood bridge and also near Kildonan Park. Ground crews swept the banks from the docks to Chief Peguis Trail.

Smith says volunteers plan to search these areas, but also will search south of the Forks as well.

She said being able to do something active means a great deal to families whose relatives may be missing. 

"I think it helps tremendously," Smith said, "I think in terms of feeling like you're doing something and it helps you in terms of your healing too and to have a peace of mind that your loved one isn't in that area." 


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