Missing - but not forgotten

VERNON - The living room in Alice Masters' home is stacked side-to-side with photos of children at family functions, graduations and marriages.

Frames line cabinets, rest on furniture and paper the wall - more than six decades of family for the mother to six, grandmother to eight and great-grandmother to one.

There is another set of photos, in a tiny booklet on the table in the middle of the room, that draws interest from a Kamloops RCMP member and a Summerland investigator.

A chubby blond and blue-eyed toddler stands, steadying herself and wearing a dress on her first birthday.

"I wondered if I'd stayed home that day, would it have happened?" Alice said.

* * *

Dave Bowers locks his Ford one-tonne crummy into four-wheel drive to pull his way up a track in the Red Lake area northwest of Kamloops. Rocky and overgrown, it's a slow grind through a forest clotted with Douglas fir, poplar and a thick understory of shrubs up to the site of a historic schoolhouse, one of many that dotted the wild country.

Bowers, who manages an industrial mineral quarry in the area, worked through the Interior and Coast of B.C. in high-lead logging for the past three decades. After hiking for dozens of miles here to stake claims for the mine, he counts it among the roughest he's slogged on foot.

"This has got to be right up there. There's deep ravines, potholes, valleys and swamps. It was probably a lot thicker back then - it's tough going."

The historic schoolhouse in the small meadow is gone, victim of a fire. The only evidence of habitation is a small piece of fencing, part of the pioneer history of the valley.

On a July morning in 1960, 30 men experienced in the bush, like Bowers, left Kamloops at 4 a.m. to look for Bette-Jean Masters in the rugged country where workers came chasing jobs in the fir forests.

Shoulder-to-shoulder, they searched in a one-mile radius for the 21-month-old girl, who didn't come home with her brother Jim and the four children of family friends out playing hide-and-go-seek.

"I remember the kids playing and coming back to the house," Alice tells the Mounties who have come to interview her on a summer afternoon in late July this year.

"They just came in and I said to my son, 'Where's Bette-Jean?' "

"He said, 'They took her.'"

* * *

Kamloops RCMP Cpl. Mike Mucha, along with missing persons investigator Cpl. Jennifer Sparkes, are looking into the disappearance.

RCMP in B.C. are providing new resources and staffing Sparkes' position to solve missing persons files, including with the use of DNA.

"There's good potential for an abduction," said Mucha, who is gathering new information on Bette-Jean's disappearance.

"It could be an abduction and murder - we don't know."

It was also thought the toddler may have been taken by a wild animal in the remote area that is thinly populated by ranchers and loggers like the Masters family.

The next morning, on July 4, area mills shut down and neighbouring families joined the search for the 21-month old. The following day, experienced searchers were dispatched from Kamloops to the settlement area, about four kilometres from the lake.

Later would come a police dog, bloodhound and a Red Lake hunting guide, who tracked bears and cougars, including studying scat.

"We never found shoes or torn bits of sweater or anything else," Jim Farquharson told the Inland Sentinel, under a story headlined Bears Hunted for Trace of Missing Girl.

The family also said Bette-Jean frequently wore sandals that would easily slip off.

One week after her disappearance, RCMP called off the search for Bette-Jean. More than two years later, police closed the file.

"They investigated as far as they could," said Cpl. Mucha.

The file at the Kamloops rural detachment includes details that a child's footprints, thought to be Bette-Jean's, were traced to the post office but ended there.

Like the schoolhouse, the post office is gone. Bowers, who toured a Daily News reporter through the area, also found remnants of the bush mills from the time that are today little more than piles of broken lumber amid the wet valley.

* * *

Cheryl Bunting grew up at a Red Lake home in the late 1960s with stories of the disappearance.

"I just heard about a little girl who went missing and I heard about the car," she said.

Mucha said the file contains a report of a 14-year-old girl speaking to a couple in a 1959 Chevy early the same morning that Bette-Jean went missing. The car was not from the area and police followed the clue as far as they could.

Police interviewed a man in Kamloops with a similar car but he had a good alibi. The potential clue yielded no more leads.

Mucha said police also sent letters to hospitals and clinics in B.C. and Alberta, alerting medical staff to watch for any new and unexplained family members.

The file was closed in early 1963. Alice and Maurice Masters moved to Savona. Following that came Blue River, Kamloops and Vernon. They never again heard from RCMP - until Mucha phoned Alice's daughter Phyllis earlier this summer to set up a meeting.

"We want you to know it won't be forgotten," Sparkes told Alice, accompanied by two daughters to listen to RCMP - her first contact with police in 50 years.

Bette-Jean's 80-year-old mother spent two hours being interviewed by Sparkes and Mucha, including providing a blood sample. Police obtained permission for DNA searches to be conducted, which can be cross-referenced with a federal databank for criminals as well as the coroner's service's DNA database from recovered bodies.

"My intention is not to give any hope," Mucha said. "I don't know there is any. I just think there might be something that furthers our investigation."

* * *

The two Masters sisters, who also came to have DNA samples taken and help Alice, said their mom and dad buried the pain of a lost child, rarely speaking about it in the years following the disappearance. The story was Bette-Jean was abducted but it was the buried past.

"I think that's the only way you could deal with it - the pain," said sister Phyllis Makarewicz, born after Bette-Jean disappeared.

Theresa Stafford, another sister who came later, said Bette-Jean's birthday on Oct. 7 became a sad day.

"I didn't want to say anything because I didn't want to get Mom upset. You don't want to stir up memories."

The two daughters said Alice was no longer the carefree mother - her trust stripped away on July 3, 1960. She kept a painfully close watch on her children as they grew up.

Alice's husband, Maurice died last year believing his daughter was abducted. He asked his family, if possible, to spread his ashes at Red Lake.

In his later years, Maurice confided to his adult daughters his hunger to know what happened.

"Dad said he just wanted to see her from a distance," said Makarewicz.

Bette-Jean's disappearance came up during family gatherings and weddings.

Was she raised well by a desperate couple that couldn't have children? Did they raise her well?

Was her hair still blond?

Alice broke down in tears once during the July interview with police and a reporter.

Today she has one wish.

"I'd like to know where she is and I'd like her to come home," she said.

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