Jon Riley disappeared 8 years ago. Only now does his sister have hope for a proper investigation
After Justice Gloria Epstein insisted on a review, detectives are taking a closer look
For nearly a decade, Judi Riley says she's been relentlessly pushing for Ontario police to take the disappearance of her brother Jon seriously — repeatedly offering to submit her DNA to help with the investigation, or at least sit down to share what she knows.
Until recently, she said she's been ignored by investigators and left in the dark about what steps have been taken in looking for Jon Riley, last seen in the spring of 2013. The then-47-year-old had left his Meaford, Ont., home to spend a couple of days in Toronto and was never heard from again. It's not known if he made it to the city.
"We had an amazing bond," said Riley, describing Jon as "the quintessential typical big brother, the jokester" who stepped in as the family's empathetic patriarch when their father died when they were both in their 20s.
In 2014, an investigation by The Fifth Estate found that despite the fact Jon had been missing for more than a year, police hadn't added his name to the national missing persons database maintained by the RCMP.
"I wake up every day with a sense like, I've got to find my brother," Riley said in an interview last week from her home in Hawaii. "It's a gaping hole that can't be fixed."
Criminal investigators now reviewing case
It wasn't until this summer — eight years after Jon's disappearance — that the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) agreed to assign detectives with its criminal investigations branch to review his case, according to an OPP email sent to Riley on July 23 and seen by CBC News.
The decision came after retired court of appeal judge Gloria Epstein intervened in April, sending a letter to the OPP and the Toronto Police Service, asking they consider and respond to Riley's concerns — a request confirmed in the email.
Jon Riley's case is one of many in Ontario that critics say police have done too little to solve over the last decade, demonstrating the lengths some families must go on their own to find out what happened to their loved ones.
Epstein headed a civilian review panel into missing persons struck in 2018, following the arrest of serial killer Bruce McArthur. It examined the deaths of LGBT community members and concerns about how Toronto police investigated their disappearances.
The review panel's final report this spring found there were "serious flaws" in these missing persons investigations, including unnecessary amounts of secrecy that undermined public trust.
Epstein's review didn't include Jon's case — Toronto police told CBC News they looked into whether Jon could've been one of McArthur's victims, but found no evidence linking the two men — but Riley said she was still invited by Epstein to share her family's experiences.
This spring, Epstein got in touch with her again, Riley said.
"She said that my story that I shared with her about my brother, it really helped her to understand the changes that needed to be made in the system," Riley said.
"And so she asked me if she could write a letter on my behalf to police to sort of put fresh eyes on the case and just bring attention to what went wrong."
The review panel did not respond to CBC's request for comment from Epstein.
Riley to give 1st police statement
Riley said she spoke to an OPP detective earlier this month who will be managing the case. The OPP has also assigned Riley a victim specialist to support her through the process.
The conversation set into motion a few of the steps that Riley says she's advocated for since 2013. For the first time, investigators will take her statement about what she knows about Jon's disappearance. Police have also agreed to take a sample of her DNA to confirm the DNA sample they have on file for Jon is his — something she's been offering to do for years.
But the meeting also revealed a number of concerning details about police's handling of the case that Riley said left her feeling gutted. She said she's sharing these details with CBC News not to slam police, but to raise more awareness about some of the protocols she believes need to change.
She wants it mandatory for police to file a report when a person goes missing, and to immediately add that person's profile to every national missing persons database.
An OPP spokesperson confirmed the investigation into Jon's disappearance is active and ongoing, but declined to provide more details or explanation for any delays.
"As with any investigation, the OPP takes this matter seriously," said Sgt. Kerry Schmidt. "The OPP sincerely sympathizes with families who have experienced the disappearance of a loved one and who are seeking resolution."
Toronto police spokesperson Meghan Gray told CBC News in an email they are not investigating Jon's disappearance as there is no information to corroborate whether he even arrived in Toronto.
"After receiving Justice Epstein's letter, we did a thorough review to ensure any possibility for TPS involvement had not been overlooked," said Gray. "We are confident the Toronto Police Service has done everything within its jurisdiction. Pending any new information received, we … believe this investigation should remain with OPP."
Family struggled to report Jon missing
In the weeks after Jon disappeared, Riley said a family friend went to Toronto Police Service's 22 Division numerous times on her behalf to report him missing. Unbeknownst to either Riley or the friend, officers didn't file a report or take steps to locate him, she said.
It wasn't until December 2013, eight months after Jon's disappearance, that Toronto police said officers spoke to his mother to indicate she'd have to file a report with the OPP's Grey Bruce detachment, which is responsible for the area where Jon was last seen.
And it was only then that police started their investigation, Riley said.
Toronto police acknowledged the error to CBC News last week.
"The initial contact from Jon's friend could have, and should have, been responded to differently by the Toronto Police Service," said Gray. "For instance, an officer should have gathered basic information about the case and initiated contact with the police service of jurisdiction on behalf of the friend."
As soon as a person is reported missing, it's imperative police begin their investigation right away, said Davut Akca, with the University of Saskatchewan's Centre for Forensic Behavioural Science and Justice Studies.
Akca declined to weigh in on Jon Riley's case, but spoke about missing persons investigations generally.
The first steps police should take are interviewing friends, family members and witnesses to establish when and where the person was last seen, what they look like and their daily routines, he said.
"Memory fades as time passes, so it's very important to reach out to these people," Akca said.
All these years later, the OPP were still not aware the family had struggled to get police attention during those crucial first months after Jon's disappearance, Riley said.
"It taints the perspective as soon as someone picks up my brother's file," said Riley. "We reported him missing over and over and over and over again — but it wasn't recorded."
Questions about DNA sample
There were also the roadblocks to getting Jon into Canada's national missing persons databases.
Riley said she was under the impression police had added Jon's profile, including his DNA, to the National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains in 2014. That way investigators could identify him if he ended up in a hospital or, in a worst-case scenario, if they found human remains.
But Riley said the OPP investigator informed her last week that Jon wasn't added to the National Missing Persons DNA program until 2019, six years after his disappearance.
"That was heartbreaking for me," Riley said.
Neither the OPP nor Toronto police answered CBC's questions about which databases Riley had been added to or when.
TPS's Gray said while the DNA program began in 2000, it didn't begin accepting DNA for missing persons until 2018. Riley said this was never communicated to her.
It's also not mandatory for investigators to submit a missing person's DNA to the RCMP-maintained databank, said spokesperson Robin Percival. The profile can only be added if other investigative procedures have been tried and failed.
Riley said she has further learned from police that the DNA sample on file for Jon may not be his; it was extracted from a pair of headphones found in his home that was also rented out to a number of other people.
Riley said she was assured by police that they had his DNA; she assumed they'd used it to rule her brother out as a McArthur victim during that investigation.
"It's a pretty monumental bungle on their part," said Riley, noting that the OPP have now agreed she should submit her DNA to help in the investigation.
Riley said she hopes this conversation with police marks a turning point and that one day she will find her brother.
"I've been crying in a cave, in the dark, calling out," she said. "My brother needs me. I need to find him. But … everything will happen in time."