Emma Fillipoff was 26, disoriented and shoeless when Victoria police encountered her outside the Empress Hotel on Nov. 28, 2012. They spoke with her, though her responses were mainly non-verbal, and deemed her fit to leave her there, in the cold and alone at 8 p.m.
“That was five years ago and no one has seen or heard from Emma since,” says her mother, Shelley Fillipoff.
In 2014, W5 aired an episode documenting Emma’s case. Jordan Bonaparte and his then-pregnant wife sat watching in their Halifax living room and he instantly felt a connection to the missing woman. “Emma just felt like someone I would have been friends with,” he says.
An avid podcaster, Bonaparte chose to feature her case on The Night Time Podcast, his successful audio exploration of “Canadian true crime, mysteries, and the weird.” What started out as one episode has now spun off into an entire series called Emma Fillipoff Is Missing, released in late October with new episodes in the works.
And the deeper Bonaparte dug, the more mystery he found.
“Every person I talked to, just led to so much new information that in some cases shocked me, and in some cases turned what I thought on its head,” he says.
On Nov. 28, Shelley flew to Victoria from her home outside Ottawa to bring her daughter back to Ontario. Emma had been on the West Coast for a year, and was struggling. She had called a few times that week saying she needed help to move home. Shelley landed at 11 p.m., missing Emma by just three hours, and ended up staying for 70 days to search for her, piecing together what she could.
Because Emma was an adult when she disappeared, it’s added a difficult element to an already perplexing case. Police warned Shelley that she may have gone missing voluntarily, that it can happen when people just want to disconnect from the world, and from their families. But that theory doesn’t hold up with the consistent reports of Emma’s declining mental health – from the police, friends and former roommates – that Shelley believes contributed to her vanishing.
“I think she had some sort of psychotic break, and I think she could literally be anywhere,” Shelley says, though she stopped trusting her instincts long ago. “My gut is a mess. My instincts aren’t what they were, they kind of all left when Emma did.”
Every day for five years, everywhere she goes, Shelley says people want to talk about Emma. And so does she, but the countless dead-end leads that come from people with good intentions has taken its toll on the mother of four. Diagnosed with PTSD and unable to return to her job as a school teacher, Shelley now lives a quiet life out in the country near Perth, Ont. working at her new profession: finding Emma.
“Shelley is just so desperate for answers and desperate for attention and awareness of Emma’s plight, and of her plight,” Bonaparte says. “When I’m doing anything related to Emma’s story, I feel like it’s completely different from other things that I do on my podcast. With this I feel like I’m actually helping.”
He’s not naive – he doesn’t expect to find out what happened, or where Emma is. Her case is so complicated, there’s so many people involved and everyone has their opinions about it, he says. But actively working on it has meant the world to Shelley.
“Jordan pours his whole heart into this, that’s the difference” she says, referring to other podcasts who have featured Emma’s story. “You can tell he feels a very strong connection to Emma.”
Now the father of a five-year-old son, that connection to Emma is so strong, she’s a part of the family in Bonaparte’s household and even his son has theories about where Emma could have gone: “maybe she went to the mall, dad, and it closed and she got locked inside.”
Next week, Shelley will fly to Victoria again, to host a vigil planned for 7:17 p.m. – the exact time police found first found Emma –in front of the Empress. It aligns with three other vigils across the country, one in Campbell River where Emma briefly lived, one in Perth and one in Halifax, hosted by Bonaparte. She’ll also meet with Victoria Police, hoping for some progress on the case, with new Police Chief Del Manak at the helm.
In a statement, VicPD said: “Our investigation into Emma’s disappearance is active and ongoing. We continue to receive tips, and we continue to follow up on them. We’ll keep searching for Emma until she is located.”
“I’m dreading it,” she says of coming back to the place that was so difficult to leave after 70 days and no answers. “Getting on that plane five years ago was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I felt like I was leaving Emma behind.
“We don’t have an innate ability to know what to do when a person goes missing,” Shelley says. But she’s learned, because she’s had to.
“If I don’t find her, who will?”