Almost 10 years after an Australian foreign worker disappeared in mysterious circumstances and was later found dead on a B.C. mountain, a coroner has ruled the cause of his death is “undetermined.”
Owen Rooney, 24, was in Canada on a work visa. He had been employed in the hospitality industry in Kelowna before he went missing on Aug. 14, 2010. His body was found seven years later on Hardy Mountain in Grand Forks, a small community near the U.S. border.
Rooney’s disappearance was the subject of widespread media coverage, including documentaries by CBC’s The Fifth Estate and 60 Minutes Australia, but few answers had emerged regarding his disappearance.
A recent report from the B.C. coroner’s office shed little further light on what might have happened to him.
“A cause of death could not be established given the elapsed time between presumed death and discovery,” coroner Margaret Janzen wrote in her report.
She did find fractures that occurred at or near the time of his death to his sternum and a rib and concluded the cause of his death was “undetermined.”
Rooney’s mother, Sharron Rooney, said her family is glad to finally receive the report so they can put the process behind them, but they were disappointed that the coroner did not make recommendations for new RCMP protocols in missing persons cases to prevent a repeat of what she says was neglect in investigating her son’s disappearance.
“The assumptions that [the RCMP] took from the beginning was that it was [Owen’s] choice to leave … he was suicidal or he committed suicide,” she said from her home in Milton, Australia.
“If somebody walks out of a hospital with a head injury, you would think that [the RCMP] would respond. Wouldn’t you?.… The response from the RCMP was to drive around the streets for a little while…. Three days later: ‘We’ll send out the quad bikes to go look for him.’ That was it.”
The RCMP deny an early conclusion of suicide. They also have a different account of when they started the search.
“We were physically looking for him right from the start,” said Sgt. Darryl Peppler of the Grand Forks RCMP. “We were out patrolling, out looking for him. But the use of search-and-rescue wasn’t enacted until later.
Grand Forks Search & Rescue started actively looking for Rooney four days after he went missing.
“With the family being critical, I don’t think they’re reacting any differently than a lot of families,” said Peppler. “Their son… their brother … went missing and obviously … you want heaven and earth moved…. We encourage people to be critical about us but just know that there’s no one more critical about us than us.”
One of the unanswered questions is why Rooney went to the small tourist town of Christina Lake, which is almost a three-hour drive from Kelowna.
Why was he beaten?
Another mystery is why he was beaten not long before he died. With a bruised face and bleeding from both ears, Rooney went to the Boundary Hospital in Grand Forks, a small community near the U.S. border.
He was last seen by hospital staff sitting on a picnic bench on the hospital grounds. From there, he disappeared, leaving behind his backpack and phone.
Seven years later, on June 10, 2017, parts of his body were found by Grand Forks Search & Rescue during a routine training exercise three kilometres from the hospital, in the woods of Hardy Mountain.
“People who just go missing and aren’t accounted for are in danger. They can be murdered, they can be lost. So to negate missing people as a ‘uh let’s wait and see’ is a wrong response…. It’s irresponsible,” said Sharron Rooney.
After Rooney’s skull and remaining missing parts were found in the spring of 2018, his parents flew to Canada to look after cremation of his remains and return home with his ashes.
“I said I would never go back,” said Sharron Rooney. “Owen loved Canada and in some ways it’s fitting that he was partially cremated there and partially cremated here.”
‘It was closure’
While in Canada, the Rooneys visited Kelowna, where their son had lived and worked, and went to the location where his body was found.
The Rooneys met with volunteers who had helped search for their son, including search-and-rescue manager Barry Savitskoff, who organized a search every year until the remains were found.
“I was up on the mountain with [Sharron Rooney] and Steve for a good three to four hours sitting at the same spot where he was found,” said Savitskoff. “We had a lot of laughs and talked about him.
“I was just ecstatic. It was closure,” said Savitskoff about the moment his search team found Rooney’s body.
Grand Forks has a population of 5,000 and having an Australian foreign worker go missing there had been the talk of the city for the past decade.
“The whole city is ecstatic that we’ve closed the case,” said Savitskoff. “His posters were still up everywhere so it was always on people’s minds.”
Facebook message to mother
Rooney’s last message to his mother was through Facebook two days before he went missing, telling her that he was coming home soon.
The RCMP has told The Fifth Estate that the file on Owen Rooney is closed and that foul play is not suspected. They believe Rooney died by accident or suicide.
“If something more comes to light at a later time, we can always reopen,” said Peppler.
“Unfortunately the end result was not what anyone wanted. Mr. Rooney is not with us. But at the end of day, the fact that the family has some closure, has some answers … it’s just nice to see that this file has come to an end.”
New hospital protocols
An internal investigation in 2011 by the Interior Health Authority concluded that although medical management of Owen by staff at the Boundary hospital was appropriate, that the hospital’s medical observations of him were poorly documented and their communication with his family could have been better.
Rooney’s parents say they have forgiven the hospital for those actions because it has implemented new protocols as a result of the investigation, but the Rooneys say they have a message for Canadian authorities.
“Missing persons, it’s not their choice,” said Steve Rooney. “If we hadn’t gone over [to Canada] nothing would have happened.”
“Missing persons should be taken more seriously. You can say that but you need protocols to back it up,” said Sharron Rooney.
They said that although they still don’t have answers on how their youngest child died, they recognize that they are lucky compared to other families who never find their missing family member.
“There’s people who have had missing family for 50 years, they’re still looking, they never stop looking,” said Sharron Rooney.