WABUSH, N.L. — When she was a little girl, it didn’t seem strange to Shannon Leonard that her father had gone missing. It was just the way it was. She thought it was normal, she said, that it just happened sometimes.
She and her two siblings had always asked their mother what happened to their father, Nick Leonard, but didn’t get much of a reply. As she got older, she started asking more questions and trying to find out what happened on Labour Day weekend in 1990 when her father vanished without a trace from Loon Lake near Wabush, Labrador.
“I’ve went every route I could think of,” she told SaltWire Network from her home in Alberta. “I just want to know what happened, if he’s out there or not, I just want to know.”
Rumours swirled in Labrador West when Nick went missing from the town of fewer than 2,000 people. He was in the midst of a divorce and Shannon, who was six at the time, said he was sleeping a lot and seemed to be depressed.
There was speculation he had taken his own life, had faked his death, or was the victim of an unfortunate accident. Shannon said she’s heard many theories at this point and honestly has no idea what happened.
“It’s something you think about every day of your life,” she said. “It’s been 30 years. It’s always there, always on my mind.”
Another person who can’t get Nick Leonard's fate off their mind is Craig Porter, Shannon’s uncle and Nick’s brother-in-law. Porter, who is also the team commander of Labrador West Ground Search and Rescue, led the search for Nick in conjunction with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary and said it’s always stuck with him.
“He’s the only one we never recovered,” he said. “I’ve been with search and rescue for 36 years and that’s the only one. Even if it wasn’t family, I wouldn’t forget that.”
On Sept. 1, 1990, Nick — who had custody of his children — dropped them off with their mother for a few days to go to the cabin at Loon Lake to clear his head.
“When he dropped them off, the kids said to him, ’Bye Daddy, we love you,’ and the man never turned around to acknowledge his kids,” Porter said. “Those kids were his life, but that morning he didn’t even say goodbye to them. He told my sister, ‘If I can’t get over you, I won’t be back.’”
Nick went up to the cabin, walking eight miles in from the road to get to it. The day before he was reported missing, he ran into two other local men at the lake and chatted with them for a few minutes.
“They thought he was acting strangely — his eyes were a bit glassy, he just didn’t seem like himself,” Porter said. “They tried to get him to stay, and he said he had to get home; the babysitter was waiting for him. There was no babysitter. My sister had the kids.”
As far as can be determined, that was the last time anyone saw Nick Leonard.
When he didn’t show up to get the children a few days later, his wife called Porter and they set things into motion.
Porter and the police went to Nick’s trailer to see what they could find. School clothes had been laid out for the children and Nick’s paycheque was there, cashed, in an envelope. His wallet and identification were not there.
The next morning, they went up to the cabin and found the place had been trashed and a hunting knife was sticking hilt first out of the ground.
A kayak that was at the cabin was missing, which they found shortly after at Lower Loon Lake, upside down, with a broken paddle nearby. Porter said he was skeptical the kayak would roll over like that, even in windy conditions.
They mobilized a search for Nick, and the official one lasted a day and a half. They searched the shoreline and divers went down once. The search organized by the community went on for a month, but they found nothing.
“Whether it was staged or was actually an accident, I don’t know, I can’t really say,” Porter said. “I’m still curious about that one.
“We cruise every year, myself and my wife, and I look around different places when I’m down south, to see if he’s there. My parents went to their graves believing he wasn’t up there.”
In 2016 the case was part of a search and rescue cold case exercise and they searched the lake, finding nothing.
Porter, who knew Nick pretty well, said Nick swam like a fish, was an avid woodsman and knew the area like the back of his hand, so it would surprise him if Nick had gotten lost or was still in the lake.
“We never found a thing,” Porter said. “For nothing to have shown up there in 30 years, you would think something would move. Like I said, I always look for Nick when I travel.”
Still has hope
Shannon Leonard said she’s spent a lot of time looking into what happened that weekend and it’s exhausting to search for something for so long without finding out the truth.
While she’s not sure what happened, she holds out hope.
“I wish he was (alive). I never changed my last name,” she said. “I had the chance to get married, but didn’t do it, thinking there’s no one to walk me down the aisle, and what if he is alive and wouldn’t be able to find me?”
Since it’s been 30 years with no new leads, Shannon said she’s not sure if they’ll ever know what happened to her father.
She’d like to think even if he had disappeared on purpose, he would have come back by now. He has seven grandchildren, she said, and they would like to meet him.
“I know crazy things can happen and people make decisions that seem like they make sense that don’t. If he’s out there and sees this, I hope he’d come back and catch up on our lives. I’d forgive him. I can’t speak for everyone, but I would.”
If anyone has any information on what happened to Nick Leonard they are encouraged to contact the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary at 709-729-8073.
Evan Careen is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter covering Labrador for the SaltWire Network