The Vanishing Point: Monica Jack headed home but she never arrived
It was a clear spring day that Saturday in 1978, when 12-year-old Monica Jack and her 14-year-old cousin Debbie John embarked on a childhood adventure: riding their bikes into the nearby town of Merritt to go shopping.
It was the first time Monica’s mother Madeline Lanaro had given her permission to do such a long trek. It was 12 km along Highway 5A from Monica’s rural Nicola Lake home to Debbie’s house in Nicola, and then the two rode another 10 km into Merritt, a city in B.C.’s Interior.
“It was going to be a good day. We had money to go shopping,” John said, the memory still eliciting tears more than 30 years later.
Monica, who was to turn 13 in a few days, had received money from her father to buy new shoes. She also purchased a birthday gift for her younger sister Liz, who had just turned 11.
The two parted ways close to John’s house. “I went home and then she went home,” John said softly.
But Monica never arrived.
Her body was not found until 1996. In October 2007 her name was added to the RCMP’s E-Pana investigation, which is probing the disappearances and murders of 18 girls and women along Highways 16, 97 and 5 over the last 40 years.
Thirteen of the 18 victims on the so-called Highway of Tears list were under 20 years old. Monica, 12, was the youngest.
Here is her story.
Monica was the third-youngest child in her family and was mainly raised by her mother, who is now a retired social worker. The girl’s father Philip Swakum owned a ranch nearby, where Monica liked to visit his horses.
She was a popular girl, both within her large family and among all the neighbourhood kids.
“Monica was beautiful, cool and sweet. She wore bell bottoms,” sister Liz Kraus recalls now.
“She always took care of me. She never let anybody hurt me.”
Added John: “Everybody loved her. . . She was always in good spirits. I don’t think I ever saw her get mad.”
She was a good student. “She had already decided what she wanted to be when she grew up. She wanted to be a social worker and work with kids,” Lanaro said during a recent interview at her Spences Bridge home, where she was surrounded by her close-knit family.
There are carefully cherished items in Lanaro’s home that the family proudly shows off: a clown-shaped wooden spoon holder and a yellow floral blanket, two of the last gifts Monica had given to her mother; the trophy the family won for their float in the 1977 Kinsmen parade in Merritt, when Monica wore her grandmother’s buckskin dress; and the intricate wooden native carving she made at school, which was photographed by the local newspaper at the time.
The family did not have a lot of money, but the girls have happy childhood memories of swimming in Nicola Lake and hiking the local mountains for picnic lunches. The kids collected errant golf balls and sold them back to the local course, using the proceeds to buy candy at the store.
Well-perused family photo albums show Monica blowing out birthday-cake candles, dressed in shorts with her arms around younger sisters Liz and Heather on a hot summer day, holding a Bible — a gift from a relative — smiling with a new pair of moccasins, sitting with Liz on the hood of Lanaro’s beloved yellow Mustang. Monica was just starting to get into sports, and was turning into a talented softball pitcher.
By the dining room table, where the family shares a meal to remember Monica, hangs a large, brightly coloured collage with three pictures of the pretty, slender teen, surrounding a native image of two loons, the sun and some feathers. A constant reminder of their loss.
Earlier on the morning of May 6, 1978, Monica had helped her mother bake Liz’s birthday cake before she set off on her bike ride.
Lanaro and the other adults in their large extended family were getting ready for a favourite tradition: fishing for trout on nearby Stoney Lake, an all-night affair. For generations, the adults caught fish by the bucketful, using bonfires and blankets to keep warm; this time the children stayed home — the teenagers looking after the younger cousins and siblings.
On her way to Stoney Lake that fateful evening, Lanaro saw her daughter riding her bike home from the shopping trip and offered to give her a lift for the last little way. Monica refused; she wanted to complete her journey on her own. “She didn’t want to ride in the car. She wanted to ride her bike,” Lanaro said quietly, wiping away tears.
The mother and the other adults continued driving to Stoney Lake and did not find out from the children, until they returned to the house the next morning, that Monica had never made it home.
“We didn’t know what to think and we called the cops right away. They came out pretty fast. They got boats and they searched the lake,” Lanaro said. “Then we started looking and looking.”
It was family members who found Monica’s prize bike thrown down a bank off the highway, not far from their house.
Neighbours had heard shouting from that area around the time Monica is believed to have disappeared but they dismissed the noise as a couple squabbling. “It took me years to be comfortable driving by there. I still cry,” said Lanaro.
Area residents reported earlier seeing a man standing in the area where the bike was found, as well as a light-green truck with a camper on the back.
That was the last year the adults went out as a large group for the traditional trout fishing, instead leaving some behind at the houses. And since Monica’s disappearance, children in the extended family have not been allowed to ride their bikes on the highway and are closely guarded by their parents.
The whole family’s innocence had been shattered.
Lanaro has overheard comments from people who, over the years, thought the family should be done grieving. “I have heard people say, ‘Her daughter probably just ran away. People don’t steal Indian kids,’ ” Lanaro recalled. “You don’t ever get over it.”
Then one day in June 1995, forestry workers came across some human remains in a ravine off a logging road on Swakum Mountain, about 20 km from where Monica’s bike had been found.
It took until February 1996, nearly 18 years after the girl disappeared, to confirm through DNA testing and dental records that Monica had been found.
A police officer phoned Lanaro at work. “He said, ’Madeline I want to talk to you.’ And I knew right away,” she recalled, crying.
Three of Monica’s sisters went to the police station to collect a box containing her clothes. They braced themselves before opening it, and Kraus was overcome by the small size of her big sister’s pink floral top, brown cords and blue running shoes.
“It was the little clothes of a little girl. She was small, but I never thought of her like that because she was my big sister,” Kraus said.
About 150 relatives and friends made a pilgrimage up the steep mountainous road, and along a rugged trail, to see where Monica had been all these years. It was a snow-covered trek, and people helped each other on the treacherous climb to the isolated spot. “It was so nice to see that kind of support from the community,” Lanaro said.
“We went and got her spirit,” John added, noting the turnout was a testament to how popular Monica had been nearly two decades earlier.
Burying a child is a traumatic event, but at least it put 18 years of uncertainty to rest.
“I guess the worst part of it, really, was the not knowing. We think of ourselves over the 18 years, and we hear of people who disappear and we know how the families feel because we have been through the same. The hurt never stops,” Lanaro said.
Police said in 1996 that they had a suspect but not enough evidence to lay charges. It isn’t clear if that person is still considered a suspect today. Investigators said at the time that the suspect was not a local man, and described him as someone who was once married and had also lived the life of a drifter.
Officers investigated the possibility that child killer Clifford Olson was responsible for Monica’s death, the family says, but determined he had an alibi on the day of her disappearance.
“We just have to find out who did it, but it still won’t go away,” Kraus said. “We wait and wait and wait. We waited that long to find her. We won’t give up.”
Lanaro is skeptical, however, that there will ever be an arrest in the three-decade-old case. “I honestly don’t think we’ll find out. [The killer] could be dead now.”
And, John wondered, “if we found out, would it make our lives any different? Because it won’t change what happened. I try to remember her the way Monica was a long time ago, and try to envision her the way she would be today if she were still here.”