This is the first in a two-part series on the disappearance of Charlene Catholique.
It started with a phone call. Veteran reporter Roy Dahl was settling into his workday in the office of Native Press on 49 Street, now The Black Knight Pub.
Around 10 a.m. a call came through to Dahl’s desk. “That wasn’t unusual,” said Dahl, “Back then, everything happened by telephone.”
The newspaper often received random calls from the public notifying them of wedding anniversaries, events, “we were a conduit to the community,” he said.
But this call was different.
It was from Ernestine Catholique, and she was distressed: her niece, Charlene, had been missing since Saturday night.
Could you help me get the word out? She asked Dahl.
On July 21, 1990, 15-year-old Charlene Catholique, like many Yellowknife teenagers, went to the arcade, in the basement of a furniture store on Franklin Avenue.
“The arcade was a local hangout. You’d go there on a Friday or Saturday night and there’d be 50 or 100 or so kids.” said Dahl.
At that time, Dahl described Yellowknife as a strong community in a state of promising transition. The “gold phase” was gearing down and there were murmurs of diamonds.
The population hovered around 18,000 and most people knew each other.
“There was an air of comfort,” said Dahl, describing lunches on the long picnic benches at The Miner’s Mess where one could go alone, and dine with 10 or so others they knew from around town.
There was drug and crime underground, said Dahl, but low-level: marijuana selling and bootlegging once and while, and “certainly not the violence attached to it like today.”
Teenagers roamed freely, especially in places like the arcade, even late at night.
“There wasn’t any fear. All the kids went there, and in Ernestine’s mind, there was safety in numbers.”
Charlene was staying with her aunt Ernestine on Sissons Court. She had come to Yellowknife from Lutsel K’e to attend a Dene Nation Assembly in Dettah with her cousin. She was described as sensible and almost shy.
But when she didn’t come home that night, her aunt started to panic, prompting her to call the paper.
Dahl told her to not worry, telling her, maybe she’s staying at a friend’s place? She is a teenager, and it’s close to the end of the school year. She’ll show up eventually.
Briefly, that seemed to settle her down.
The RCMP confirm the last time someone saw Charlene was in the early hours of Sunday morning, July 22, a month after the summer solstice. “There wouldn’t have been any darkness,” said Dahl.
She was walking along Highway 3 about half a mile from the intersection, in the direction of Yellowknife or Behchokǫ̀ (reports differ on where she was headed).
“She was reported missing by family in Yellowknife around the same time she was last seen,” confirmed Cpl. Mike Lewis from Yellowknife’s RCMP.
A week later, Ernestine called again: Charlene was still missing. She’d heard she left the arcade with an older man and another friend of hers to go to a party in Fort Rae (now Behchokǫ̀).
Dahl drove out to the area she was last seen, his mind racing with possible scenarios. “Could someone have grabbed her and taken her into a bush? We drove along the side of the road and looked for something, anything and found nothing — no clothing, jewellery. Nothing.”
Dahl wrote about Charlene’s disappearance for the Native Press, and once it hit newsstands, everyone in town was talking about her.
“You could even go into the Gold Range and people would say — have you seen Charlene?” said Dahl.
Stg. Rod O’Brien from Yellowknife’s RCMP unit was assigned as the lead investigator to the case and told Dahl they were doing everything they could to locate her.
The case is still considered active and open and is with Yellowknife’s Historical CaseUnit (HCU).
“The RCMP, civilian agencies and private citizens have conducted many physical searches over the years based on information received from the initial investigation and tip information that has been provided over time,” stated Lewis in an email.
Each missing person investigation differs depending on the circumstances, added Lewis, including the physical evidence and the technology available at that time.
When Charlene went missing in 1990, there wasn’t much to go off, other than public interest, which quietened down over the years. Until 1996, when Dahl received another phone call.
He was now working at CKLB Radio making announcements and producing commercials that summer and it was mid-morning when a call came through.
“It was a deep male voice, it sounded distorted, like when you use a computer program,” said Dahl.
The caller said just three words: “Charlene’s been found.”
Before Dahl could press him further, he hung up.
Dahl contacted the RCMP straight away and they advised him that if he called back, to make sure his recorder was on and ask as many particulars as possible.
“I think it was a hoax, somebody playing on the community fears,” said Dahl. Nevertheless, it renewed his interest in the case, one that still haunts him to this day.
“We don’t know how far she walked down the highway before she was picked up by someone. She must have been picked up by someone. She could have walked one mile or ten. We don’t know,” said Dahl.
He believes Charlene’s case may go unsolved like countless missing and murdered Indigenous women. “It may remain open. Like an open wound,” said Dahl.
Later that same year, 24-year-old Mary Rose Keadjuk vanished. She was last seen at the Gold Range Hotel, where she was staying with friends. In May 1992, the partially-clothed body of 17-year-old Mariella Lennie was found floating near Con Mine. Next month, her unsolved case will turn 30 years old.
The highway to Behchoko has changed since 1990, added Dahl, and people have moved away. The RCMP is hoping that the rise of social media and technology may help the investigation.
“As a reporter you write about so many tragic events and this is one that sticks with you. I’m always reminded of Charlene. I keep seeing that picture in my head: it’s the only picture we have of her, a hopeful smile, an expressive face, and looking forward to the end of the school year and a future that will never happen.”
Anyone with information on Charlene Catholique or any open investigations is asked to contact the NT RCMP Major Crimes Unit at RCMP at 867-669-1111 or Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-8477.
Have you got a cold case you want Yellowknifer to investigate? Email firstname.lastname@example.org