Happy-go-lucky. Fun to be around.
Those are Det. Const. Melissa Elaschuk’s memories of her childhood friend Nicole Morin.
“Nicole and I would walk to school together every day,” recalls Elaschuk. “We had a lot of fun playing together. We would make our own fun (using) our imaginations and play outside, and we used to go swimming all the time in the pool that was for (our) particular building.”
Nicole was just eight years old when she vanished from her Etobicoke condo on the morning of July 30, 1985. She’s never been seen since.
By all accounts Nicole was a regular eight-year-old: she had a cheerful personality, was wary of strangers and liked going to fairs, the circus and McDonald’s.
“We got along really, really well. We found the same things funny,” said Elaschuk, an investigator at Toronto police’s traffic services detective office.
Nicole Louise Morin, born April 1, 1977, lived with her mother, Jeannette, in a penthouse unit at 627 The West Mall.
It was a particularly hot day in Toronto on July 30, 1985, and Nicole made arrangements with her friend Jen to go swimming in a pool at their building complex. This wouldn’t be the first time the duo would meet up to go swimming.
“The arrangement was made over the phone and the plan was to meet in the lobby at 11 a.m.,” said Const. Nicole Sutton of 22 Division, who’s been investigating the case for the past few years. “Just before 11, Nicole had finished up some food, said goodbye to her mom, who was in the apartment, and was seen walking out the apartment door to head towards the elevator to go down to meet (her) friend.”
But 15 minutes later, Jen buzzed up and told Jeannette that Nicole hadn’t shown up.
“Nicole’s mom had just assumed that maybe they had missed each other and Nicole had gone out either to the pool or was playing with some other kids on the property at the back of the building,” Sutton said. “Nicole’s mom was running an in-home daycare at the time, so she had smaller kids that she was responsible for and therefore she wasn’t able to leave the apartment.”
It wasn’t until hours later that Jeannette realized her daughter was missing and contacted police.
“Once police were called, they responded very quickly and they started to do active searches and canvassing throughout all of the apartments,” said Sutton.
Staff Sgt. Madelaine Tretter, who has been managing the case since 2008, said the search for Nicole was “the largest search” in Toronto police history at the time.
“All kinds of resources were deployed in attempting to find Nicole.”
Roadblocks were set up, and police used sound vehicles (police cars with PA systems) to inform the community of the search.
“They had officers driving around giving audio descriptions of Nicole,” said Sutton.
The morning after Nicole’s disappearance, Toronto Star crime reporter Cal Millar began his shift at 627 The West Mall.
“After she’d been missing overnight, all the media started to gather and the police intensified their search and brought in officers from right across Metro (Toronto) and started to basically fan out across Etobicoke looking at every possible location (where) they might find something,” said Millar, who retired in 2005. “The thought of investigators immediately was an abduction and that was the biggest fear of course as well … In the building, they went door-to-door, and if they didn’t get an answer in an apartment, they went in (anyway). There weren’t concerns about ‘we’re violating people’s rights’ or anything like that.”
At the start of his early morning shift, Millar went up to the Morin apartment and, to his surprise, found Jeannette and her estranged husband Art just sitting inside. “They were alone in their apartment so we talked for quite a while,” he said. “They were devastated, and they were just moving mechanically.”
Millar said his mind was not only on covering the story but helping the Morin family.
“You wanted your story to make sure that the community was aware that the girl was missing and encourage them to do everything possible to help find her, like, ‘Did anyone know anything?’ ‘Did anyone see anything?’ And you wanted your story to sort of draw out those individuals.”
Millar, who was also a founding member of Toronto Crime Stoppers, noted this was the first major case the crime-fighting organization got involved in.
Crime Stoppers quickly offered a $1,000-reward for Nicole’s safe return, printed posters and produced a video re-enactment. Jen played the role of Nicole, and Millar’s eight-year-old daughter played the role of Jen in the original re-enactment, which was aired within weeks of the disappearance.
Police would later offer an unprecedented $100,000 reward, which is still active today.
“It became the largest police investigation at the time. It involved the largest number of police officers. They didn’t have a lot of volunteer searches because the police had the manpower,” said Millar, adding police also formed a major task force that was kept together for years.
The investigation took on many twists and turns, looking at family connections, suspects in child homicides (there were an unusually high number of child murders in the Toronto-area in the mid-1980s) and religious cults.
In another strange twist, it was discovered that Nicole wrote in a diary that she was going to disappear.
“I have no idea what that would mean,” said Tretter, noting she doesn’t want to “speculate about the writings of an eight-year-old child. “I know when my kids were eight they’d write all kinds of things down.”
There were also those who tried to insert themselves into the investigation by claiming responsibility for Nicole’s disappearance.
“There are an endless number of tips … that have come through over the 34 years,” Sutton said.
And the tips continue to come in.
“I was just following up with a tip last week,” Sutton said in a recent interview. “We do get tips (from) throughout North America.”
Many parents became more cautious after Nicole’s disappearance.
“There was a societal shift that came about,” said Elaschuk. “The innocence was kind of shattered or ripped away from the community at the time.”
Tretter took part in a re-canvass of 627 The West Mall on the first anniversary of the disappearance.
“I’ve spent a large majority of my career in Etobicoke, so it was always the case that we talked about,” she added. “And since taking over the case, it’s certainly been a priority for me to do the case as much justice as we possibly can. We may never find Nicole, but I certainly hope that we find what happened to her and that we’re able to let her father know.”
Jeannette died not knowing what happened to her daughter.
“For as long as she lived, she did everything she possibly could to get her daughter safely home, and she never ever lost hope,” Millar said.
Art, who lived in Mississauga when Nicole disappeared, still lives in the Greater Toronto Area. Through police, he declined an interview request for this story.
Current investigator Sutton said Art still believes that Nicole is out there somewhere and hopes someone will come forward with answers.
Her childhood friend Elaschuk said she too hopes someone will give police that “last bit of evidence” to solve the case.
“It is kind of baffling that after all these years we still don’t know.”
Anyone with information is asked to contact 22 Division investigators at 416-808-2205 or Crime Stoppers anonymously at 416-222-TIPS (8477), online at 222tips.com or text TOR and your message to CRIMES (274637).