Joe Grozelle's family maintains hope as OPP probes mysterious death 20 years later
Military cadet's body was found 3 weeks after vanishing from his RMC dorm in 2003
A pile of boxes — some marked "OPP" — fill the corner of a main-level room in the rural southwestern Ontario home of Joe Grozelle's family in Muirkirk.
The boxes contain the military cadet's belongings from his time at Royal Military College (RMC), including his laptop, cellphone, a broken watch and the clothes he was wearing when his body was found near the school in the Cataraqui River in Kingston.
His dad, Ron, still hopes one of those boxes might contain a clue to his son's mysterious disappearance and death in the fall of 2003.
"That's the reason it's still sitting there," said Ron Grozelle.
"We have never given up hope and are trying to find the answers. And just knowing that stuff is sitting there and available, if needed, by some agency or by someone to do some further testing — that's why it's there."
Joe's sister, Nikki, said seeing the boxes make her angry and frustrated over the lack of answers for two decades.
"We don't have a room with the memories of Joe. I don't have anything of Joe's because it's sitting in a box waiting for someone to look at it.
"My dad and mom have had Joe's broken watch since January of 2004. They didn't even have [the] autopsy report back yet, and they were handing back my brother's watch and his cellphone."
Oct. 22 marks 20 years since the third-year military cadet vanished from his dorm room in the middle of the night — turning up dead in a river 22 days later. The last known person to see Grozelle alive was his girlfriend, Melissa Haggart, who said she fell asleep in his room while they were studying and when she later awoke, he was gone.
Despite two autopsies, coroner's inquests, multiple police investigations and a Department of National Defence board inquiry, many questions surrounding Grozelle's disappearance and death remain unanswered.
Joe's death was originally listed as suicide by drowning by the Canadian Forces, but a coroner's jury later ruled the cause of death to be "unascertained, non-natural causes," and deemed the manner of his death as "undetermined."
The military probe's report revealed two medical experts testified Joe may have died before ending up in the water.
What happened to the 21-year-old military college student and varsity basketball player during the three weeks he was missing is still a mystery.
Key outstanding questions include: How did he die? Where did he die? When did he die?
Nikki Grozelle said there are some "very simple" questions her family should have answers to by now — but don't.
"I think that's what's driven us for 20 years. Because we've never had a cause or manner of death — every scenario goes through your head of how and why he ended up the way he did."
Ron said the lack of answers has been frustrating and he's had doubts about how things were handled ever since the original investigations.
"You have to look at the way things were done. And that's where I think our problem lies, with the fact that we don't have any answers today — not that we can't still get them. Jurisdiction has been a big impediment in this whole situation. We're dealing with provincial agencies and federal agencies."
Any answer they give us of what happened, we could accept it … just give us the truth.- Nikki Grozelle
In 2020, Ontario's chief coroner, Dirk Huyer, agreed to have the Ontario Provincial Police conduct a new investigation following a 2019 letter from Nikki Grozelle, after the province began conducting concealed homicide reviews.
"They're opening cases all the way back to Karla Homolka … where if the cause of death is undetermined, it seems those cases kind of putter out," said Nikki. "They don't get the same investigation if you had a cause of death."
Nikki hopes that after two decades of unknowns, her family will finally be able to make sense of what happened.
"That's half my life. That's my child's entire life. When he [Joe] held my son, my son is now 20. His whole life has been this case, the impact it's had on us on a daily basis.
"I remember conversations from 20 years ago saying, 'In five years we'll know more,' and then it was in 10 years. And now to wake up and it be 20 years later. It's unbelievable. Any answer they give us of what happened, we could accept it … just give us the truth."
In 2020, a stage production based on the unsolved story of Joe Grozelle was played out at a theatre in London — something Nikki believes played a key role in the chief corner reopening the case.
"I think if it wasn't for the play, I don't know if the chief coroner would have reopened the case. It was very interesting because at one night of production, all of the OPP investigators came and watched … we hadn't seen them in years, but they came to the play."
The case was originally assigned to an investigator who ended up retiring, then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
It wasn't until early 2022 that the investigation landed in the lap of OPP Det.-Insp. Shawn Glassford, who has met with the family, either in person or virtually, nearly every month.
"They're a very nice family and they deserve to know what happened," Glassford said.
Glassford reports directly to Ontario's chief coroner.
"Depending on what I'm seeking, we ask for the coroner's authority to obtain documentation and whatnot. There may be other things that I'm going to obtain … but for the most part, at this stage of the game, it's been documentation that I've obtained through the coroner's office."
According to Glassford, there's no timeline attached to his probe. He refuses to speculate when he might finish.
"It'll take as long as it takes. When I'm completed, I will be meeting with the chief coroner, as well as the family, to go over my findings and my thoughts. It all depends on what obviously comes with that."
Glassford said he has read thousands of pages and called the investigation "daunting" due to the sheer volume of information to review — but also a necessary one.
"I think it was a good decision. I think it's a timely decision. It's a worthy investigation. My goal is to provide the Grozelle family with some answers."
Joe's mother, Minnie, hopes so too.
"He's hopefully taking all these pieces of the puzzle. And so we have some hope that maybe we could get some answers."
I've found some things that are interesting to me that I'll be looking at further.- OPP Det.-Insp. Shawn Glassford
Now, roughly a year and a half into his investigation, Glassford said he's come across some items that could be considered new information that he needs to further investigate.
"I've found some things that are interesting to me that I'll be looking at further. I'm not going to share at this point. There are things I haven't shared with the family as well, and I think it's best not to at this point. There are some questions I need to ask and just to further look into some things that are of interest to me."
Nikki Grozelle said the investigation also keeps her hopeful. It's not that her family won't move on, she said — it's that they have "valid concerns."
"I'm hopeful that this police [investigation] finally, 20 years later, is going to listen. And I don't want to have to convince him why this evidence should be looked at."
"It's one thing to lose a loved one," said Ron Grozelle. "And it's one thing to lose someone and kind of know how that came about. But when you have no idea of what actually happened, it just kind of haunts you and ... there won't be any closure until we actually get some answers."
Any possible evidence inside the pile of boxes in the Grozelles' family home remains untouched since the original investigations, according to the family.
Glassford isn't ruling out the possibility of using new forensic technological advancements, if he believes the case and potential evidence warrants it.
"Sure it could. I won't get into that aspect of it … the evidence. But I mean, there's always that chance. That's something I'm mindful of and that I'm looking for. Is there anything that we can retest using the DNA technology of today as opposed to back in 2003?"
Glassford said that in cases like this, if there are questions surrounding evidence, it can be retested.
"They've been in their care ever since. So I'm not concerned about that."
No matter what direction the investigation heads, Ron said he isn't sure if he would be prepared to have Joe's remains exhumed again — unless there was a compelling argument for doing so.
"I'm not so sure I'd entertain a third autopsy unless somebody could convince us that would glean some sort of meaningful information.
"The second autopsy that was done did not produce any answers to what happened to how he died or any of that information. What they did do with the second autopsy, though, was they they took more evidence which should have been taken at the first autopsy."
Steadfast in search for answers
Regardless of the outcome from this most recent OPP investigation, Nikki said that after 20 years of no answers about her brother's death, her family refuses to stop looking for what happened to Joe.
"That's not an option. I can't turn off that part of my life to not want to know what happened to Joe. I'm hopeful that this review is going to glean answers to some of our questions. I'm tired. I am exhausted. But this is the kind of tired sleep can't fix."
Since his death, each year, the Grozelles travel to Kingston to replace a family-made memorial for Joe, which includes pictures of him and contact information should someone know something about the case. The memorial is close to where Joe's body was discovered on the edge of the Cataraqui River.
"Someone knows. Someone knows something," said Nikki. "And I think they might not even know they know. They think they reported it, but it's sitting in a file over here that didn't make its way over here. So unless they hear it or see it, I feel like it's gone and forgotten."
Minnie said that ever since Joe died, she's been forced to lead a different life.
"Your child isn't supposed to die before you. [It] took me many years before I could really be happy and smile. But I think of Joe every day. It's like a piece of your heart is broken. And I don't know if it'll ever heal. It would help to know, but I don't know if I'll ever know."
Ron said that even after 20 years, he's still unable to start the grieving process because his mission of getting more concrete answers surrounding his son's death isn't complete.
"I need to have that closure in order to be able to move on. We'll just keep going as long as it takes."
Ron said anyone with any information surrounding the case — no matter how minor they think it is — should come forward, even if it's just something they may have overheard.
"You never know where it can lead. One small tip, one small piece of information can take us maybe another step down that path.
"We may never find out what happened to Joe but we're going to keep pushing as much as we can to ensure that all the information that's available is thoroughly reviewed and that we don't leave any stone unturned."
According to Glassford, while he likes to be optimistic and hopes the family can get answers, he has also been realistic with them.
"We may not find answers that we were looking for. That is just the reality of it. And I'm hopeful that there is something that we can find or somebody calls something in."
Some tips regarding the case are still coming in, said Glassford, who calls it a "really good" thing. And he suspects they could ramp up over the next few weeks due to the 20-year anniversary.
"It could be a little detail that they've thought about for 20 years and they just want to get it off their chest — or something big that they've known about that it happened and they want to get that off their chest as well. Those are all things we hope for."
Glassford is urging possible tipsters to contact their local OPP detachment or Crime Stoppers.
"It's one of those cases that it's still 20 years later and people are still talking about it, especially in the Kingston area ... RMC. It's a mystery. And, it would be very nice to give the family that information they need to move on and to understand what happened to Joe."
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