Nfld. & Labrador

A mother's regret: She helped save his life, then he took away her daughter

When Philip Smith took his own life, it took away the answers Lisa Lake is searching for — where Cortney Lake's body is.

When Philip Smith took his own life, it took away the key to finding missing mom Cortney Lake

In this childhood Christmas photo, Cortney Lake and her brother Colin sit by the Christmas tree. (Submitted by the Lake family)

This story is part of Stopping Domestic Violence, a CBC News series looking at the crisis of intimate partner violence in Canada and what can be done to end it.

The details of this story are disturbing and may not be suitable for everyone.

Cortney Lake wanted her Christmas ornaments back.

The last time she'd gone to retrieve her things from her ex-boyfriend, Philip Smith, it didn't go so well.

She, her mother and mother's fiancé found boxes of her belongings in flames on Smith's front yard in the east end of St. John's — the remnants of what her mother says was an abusive on-again, off-again relationship.

The only things missing from the burning boxes were her handmade ornaments. Smith kept those. 

"[Smith] said to her the day he got out of jail, he sent her a message, and said, 'If you want your Christmas stuff, I will come and get you, you come to my house, we'll go through it and I will bring you back," said Lisa Lake, Cortney's mother.

That's why Cortney Lake got in the passenger side of Smith's black GMC pickup truck, just before 8 p.m. on June 7, 2017.

Cortney Lake is seen in this dashcam video getting into a black GMC pickup truck at 7:54 p.m. on June 7, 2017, the last day she was seen. (RNC)

Haunting still images and video surveillance of Lake's last movements — including the moment she got inside the truck — shook the province, and prompted total strangers to search for the 24-year-old mother of one. She was never seen again, and her body has never been found. 

Lisa Lake said it's a question she gets asked often: why did Cortney leave in a truck with Smith? Investigators told her it was spelled out in text messages between the two.

"They assured me she had all intentions of coming home that day," she said. 

Making her heartache worse is a regret that weighs hard on her shoulders.

In the months before her daughter's disappearance, Lisa Lake received a call from Smith — he said he was killing himself.

Though Smith was on a court order not to be in contact, Lisa Lake said she couldn't let him take his own life. She called his sister.

Philip Smith survived but ended up in hospital for days recovering from the suicide attempt.

Lisa Lake has kept every article and write-up about her daughter, Cortney. (Ariana Kelland/CBC)

"If I had ignored that phone call or if I hadn't called his sister, Cortney would be here and Philip wouldn't," Lisa Lake said, crying.

"I got so much guilt built up over that."

When she disappeared

Lisa Lake's home in Mount Pearl is adorned in purple colours and butterflies, in homage to her lost daughter. There are candles and pins. Pamphlets left over from memorial services gone by. There are photos of happy memories. There are new school pictures of a son now growing up without a mother.

Despite the nearly three agonizing years without her daughter, or without the answers she so desperately wants, Lisa Lake holds strong. She'll take her last breath, she vows, looking for Cortney.

She remembers dates and times, and remembers vividly the pivotal moments in her daughter's case.

Volunteers analyze a map before heading out to search for Cortney Lake in Paradise in July 2017. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

Like when a private number called her phone at 10:32 p.m. on June 27, nearly three weeks after Cortney disappeared. It was Insp. Tom Warren, the lead investigator on the case. He said he needed to come by the house. It couldn't wait until morning.

"Tom put both my hands in his and he said, 'Lisa, we haven't found her but we know she was murdered,'" Lisa Lake said, fighting back tears.

"So I said, 'Who did it?' He said, 'I can't release to you who did it but this person had court orders to stay away from her.' I said, 'Philip Smith, God damn you.'"

Then there was 8 a.m. on Nov. 1, 2017, when she woke up to the sound of banging on her front door. 

She opened it to two members of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary, Warren and Const. Lindsay Dillon — officers who have become more like family in the time since her daughter Cortney went missing.

"Tom said, 'I got something to tell you.… Philip Smith is dead.'" Lake recalls.

"My immediate reaction: 'I told you so.'"

Lost answers

The RNC has said Philip Smith is the only suspect in the disappearance and suspected homicide of Cortney Lake.

When Smith took his own life in Bellevue, a community about 120 kilometres west of St. John's, the answer that the Lake family so desperately needed — where Cortney's body is — died, too.

He didn't leave a note, and searches in the area turned up nothing.

"I still haven't processed it. I will never give up hope in finding her," she said. "I kind of resigned myself to the fact that Cortney won't be home again. It's very hard."

Some of the answers Lisa Lake is seeking may lie with those Philip Smith had confided in. 

Lisa Lake vows to find her daughter but has come to accept that Cortney Lake is dead. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Both the RNC and Lisa Lake strongly believe there are people who are purposefully withholding information, even after Smith's death.

Of the more than 100 people interviewed as part of the investigation, some gave contradictory statements to police that could be disproved by video and photo evidence.

"Several statements that they have taken from people were very deceitful of places and times, people trying to vouch for Philip. And it was later proven to be untrue," she said.

Cortney Lake, 24, has been missing since June 7, 2017. (GoFundMe)

Lisa Lake has learned a lot over the past three years about domestic violence, and is disturbed by how rampant it is in the province and across the country.

It's not as if Cortney didn't try to get help, Lisa Lake said. She had emergency protection orders and peace bonds, and had spoken to police about how Smith assaulted her.

All for nought, Lisa Lake said.

"In my opinion now, from what I've seen, a peace bond isn't worth the paper that it's written on," she said.

Her hope is that one day someone will come forward with information that leads to Cortney's body.

And their searches will continue, with Bellevue being next on the list. Not only for a grieving mother, but for a son without his mom.

"I sat him down and I said, 'Philip Smith died.' He paused and he said, 'Well, Nanny, you know what? He won't hurt any more mommies.'"

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Ariana Kelland is a reporter with the CBC Newfoundland and Labrador bureau in St. John's.

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