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30-year-old St. John's cold case gets new review

01/15/2013 03:58 EST | Updated 03/17/2013 05:12 EDT
A CBC News investigation into the disappearance of Henrietta Millek three decades ago has prompted police to take a new look at the case.

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary has requested more testing using today's DNA technology.

While the case may be cold, police investigators believe the mystery behind Millek’s disappearance can still be solved.

"I believe that there are people in the community who have knowledge and for various reasons are afraid and unwilling to share [it] with us,” RNC Supt. John House told CBC News.

Just 25 when she went missing

It's one of the oldest missing persons cases in Newfoundland and Labrador — a cold case, as cold as the day in late 1982 that Henrietta Millek vanished.

The Inuit woman — described as fun loving, with dreams of becoming a nurse — was just 25 when she disappeared.

She was last seen at a St. John’s club.

"I think someone took her, I really do,” said Assumpta Lawes, who tended bar at the Key Club on Water Street West that night three decades ago.

Police believe Millek was at the Key Club on or about the night of Dec. 11, 1982.

It was the last place she was ever seen. Her family and friends never heard from her again.

"I'm always thinking, where is she?” said Millek’s best friend, Mary Pia Benuen. “Is she still alive?”

Benuen grew up in Sheshatshui and met Millek in Labrador. Both women had come to St. John's to further their education.

Millek lived in a boarding house in downtown St. John's.

She was taking courses at MUN, working as an Inuit translator and cleaning houses to make ends meet.

“I do have a lot of good memories of her,” Benuen said.

One of the last memories caught on camera was a visit to Victoria Park. In the photo, Millek is holding her baby Byron, who was born in St. John's.

Millek was drinking a lot after Byron was born, Benuen says. Her baby was taken into foster care.

"Byron was her whole world, and she was looking into trying to straighten her life up so that she could get Byron back," Benuen said.

The week before Millek disappeared, the two friends had made a plan to see Byron, who was living with foster parents in Makinsons.

They were going to ask the foster mother to get Byron baptized. Benuen would be his godmother.

The night before their trip, Millek asked Benuen to go downtown. She decided to stay in.

Millek went out on her own. She ended up at the Key Club.

It’s the last place she would ever be seen alive.

Concerned for her safety

As manager of the Key Club, Assumpta Lawes tended bar every night. Millek was one of her regulars.

On the night Millek disappeared, Lawes remembers becoming concerned for her safety.

"She [had] been crying, and I often said to her: ‘What's the matter with you tonight?’ And she'd never answer me. But someone was after her or something, definitely."

Sometime late that night, Millek made a phone call to her friend Benuen at her boarding house.

It was the last phone call she would ever make.

“As I was coming out of my bedroom, I heard my landlord say to whoever was on the other end, 'Mary is asleep and I'm not waking her up,'” she said.

The next morning, Benuen’s landlord told her the late-night caller was Millek.

The landlord told her Millek “sounded a little bit drunk and upset,” Benuen said.

“So that's when I thought maybe something was happening, because Henrietta never calls me at this house.”

Benuen waited the next day for Millek to arrive for their planned trip to Makinsons, but she never showed.

"It’s not like her at all to just disappear … Byron was her whole world — she wouldn't just take off and leave Byron like that,” Benuen said.

In the days that followed, she searched everywhere for her friend.

She wonders what Millek wanted to tell her that night on the phone.

Was she in trouble? Did she need to be rescued?

"What if I answered the phone?” Benuen asked. “Would things have been different now? Would my friend still be around if I had taken that call?”

It bothers her that she may never know.

2 men in beige coats

To this day, Lawes is bothered too — bothered by a bad feeling she had in the Key Club that night.

And bothered by the memory of two unfamiliar men in beige coats.

She didn’t know who the men were, and had never seen in them in the Key Club before that night — or after.

Lawes says she moved away from the bar to attend to something in the backroom.

"When I came out, her wallet was thrown on the floor and she was gone, and them two fellas were gone too."

Who were those men? Where had Millek gone?

Thirty years later, nobody knows.

But police have reason to think otherwise.

Trouble at the Key Club

RNC Supt. John House says police learned that Millek was having trouble at the bar that night with some men at a table.

"People have told us she was she was very upset and crying, and she had approached staff at the bar, who comforted her,” House said.

It wasn’t until about two weeks after her disappearance that Millek was officially reported missing by her landlord.

Lawes remembers when police came to the bar.

She had something they'd want to look at — Millek's purse.

Lawes had found it while cleaning up the bar the night Millek disappeared.

"It was a funny thing … the purse was [thrown] on the floor for me to get, that's what I thought, because she had it in her hand, unless someone grabbed her and she threw it on the floor,” Lawes recalled.

Inside the purse was $8.15, Millek’s address book, her bank book, and the keys to her boarding house.

Purse the only piece of evidence

Eight years later, the case landed on House’s desk.

The purse was the only piece of evidence in a case that was growing cold.

House recalls the frustration he felt trying to investigate Millek’s disappearance.

"I met with people who were clearly afraid and reluctant to share with me what they knew,” he said.

“I once had a phone call — an anonymous phone call — at my office from a person who indicated he had significant information and was willing to meet me. I went out at the pre-determined place, but the person didn't show up."

Police had suspicions, and several people of interest.

But they were never able to identify the men who were in the bar the night Millek disappeared.

Now, 30 years later, the case remains unsolved.

Following the CBC's inquiries, however, police are going back to the only piece of evidence — Millek’s purse — to look for answers.

“We don't know if it was taken from Henrietta and thrown or how it ended up in the corner,” House said.

“That's something that may be useful to conduct more analysis. There's what's called ‘touch DNA.’ So a very cursory contact with an exhibit, a casual touch or grabbing it and holding it, may conceivably have left cells belonging to the person.”

That analysis could take months.

Without a clue from the purse, police are back where they started — investigating a cold case that gets colder with every passing year.

Family believes Millek is dead

In Nain, Henrietta Millek's family members believe she is dead.

"I will always mourn my wonderful daughter,” said her mother, Verona Ittulak.

“I will always mourn for her.”

All that's left are memories of her daughter’s cheerful voice and bright smile.

Meanwhile, Mary Pia Benuen says she still thinks of her friend often, even three decades after her disappearance.

“If I knew what happened to her, maybe I could go on and accept what has happened,” Benuen said.

“But the not knowing is the hardest part.”

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