Denise McKee, his mother, has been looking for him for 42 years.
On April 24, 1980, it was a lovely spring day, and three-year-old Jeffrey Dupres went to his next-door neighbors’ house to play with his best friend, Rodney.
Denise McKee, Jeffrey’s mother, was doing laundry in their Slave Lake, Alta. bungalow at the time, and she didn’t think anything of it; she and her husband Ray Dupres had only moved to the area three months before, and she was overjoyed that Jeffrey and Rodney, who was a couple years older than her son, got along so well. They were always going back and forth to each other’s places.
McKee’s sense of calm was fleeting. Rodney rang her doorbell twenty-five minutes after Jeffrey left for Rodney’s residence, wondering where his friend was.
Jeffrey had disappeared
McKee has no idea what happened to her son more than 42 years later. There hasn’t been a single day since — and there have been over 15,000 of them — when she hasn’t thought of him and wondered. In her best-case scenario, Jeffrey was kidnapped and is still alive today, possibly oblivious of what happened so long ago. In the worst-case scenario, she tries not to think about it. She is optimistic in the lack of evidence to the contrary.
McKee, an Ottawa resident since 1993 (and earlier – Jeffrey was born at the Grace hospital here in 1977), started the “What Happened to Jeffrey Dupres?” Facebook page in the intention of crowdsourcing a solution to the mystery. She launched a GoFundMe campaign last month to raise funds for a private investigator to set up a tip line (recoveragency.com), as well as examine possible theories and old leads, re-interview people who knew Jeffrey, raise awareness about the case, and use means that were unavailable or not used in the early 1980s, such as commercial DNA analysis and genealogy websites. Anything to find out what happened to Jeffrey and where he is now.
She commissioned UK-based forensic artist Tim Widden to produce an age progression portrait of what Jeffrey may look like now, at age 45, as part of this new investigation. There is also a $5,000 prize for information leading to Jeffrey’s location.
She acknowledges that it’s all a long shot. “It’s more likely that Jeffrey would find me than me finding him,” she admits.
But what else is a mother to do?
According to McKee, the initial reaction to Jeffrey’s disappearance was unequal. She claims that the police did little, maybe because they were preoccupied with the bushfires that ringed Slave Lake at the time. But she often wonders if it was because she lived in a part of town where many Indigenous people also resided that a missing child was not a top priority for the authorities.
When McKee suggested that the obstacles already in place due to the fires be utilised to search for Jeffrey, she was told that it was impossible because no information about the precise car they could be looking for was available. Police did, however, visit to her residence twice and do a polygraph test. She claims it took more than 20 years for her to be notified she was no longer a suspect.
Residents, on the other hand, were overwhelmingly positive, if ultimately futile. After McKee urged the disaster committee in Slave Lake to take the lead, hundreds of citizens physically joined arms to create a search team that spanned from one end of town to the other.
“I was marching in the hunt,” McKee recounts, “and the man alongside me, who didn’t know who I was,” worked at one of the plants threatened by the fires. He called his supervisor and informed him that he needed to go on the quest. When his employer said no, the man resigned. He quickly regained his work, but that shows how significant the hunt was to individuals. “The town welcomed me.”
When it was suggested that Jeffrey had strayed into a nearby creek, neighbors — mostly from the oil sector – demolished it so they could search the bed.
“There were adult men with rakes crying because they weren’t looking there to find him alive,” McKee adds.
When it became evident that Jeffrey was not in town, at least not in the open, the RCMP requested that the Armed Forces conduct a search of the forests. They refused, claiming that the province was required to conduct such a search. As a result of McKee’s outreach to Alberta MLA Larry Shaben, MP Jack Shields, and Premier Peter Lougheed, roughly 100 soldiers joined the hunt, with RCMP assisting from an aircraft equipped with an infrared camera. There was no evidence of Jeffrey, and the search was called off after four days of scouring the bush – nine days after Jeffrey went missing.
Meanwhile, new leads emerged. On the day Jeffrey vanished, a woman and her granddaughter observed a young pair — a woman in her 20s and a man in his 30s — stop their vehicle and pick up Jeffrey approximately a mile from his home. More information about the incident emerged under hypnosis: it was a late-model Chevy vehicle with a distinctive blue paint job and Northwest Territories license plates. The couple’s description was also determined.
McKee doesn’t doubt the most of the tale, but she has a hard time believing it was Jeffrey. “It was a warm day, and there were groups of children playing on the street. He would have come to a halt and played with someone. I asked the kids who were playing. They didn’t notice him.
“But I’m not inclined to believe,” she continues. “A part of me wanted to think that this lovely young couple had taken him. But you have to be skeptical of what you want to believe.”
After a fashion, life went on. “But you have no idea how empty your life is,” McKee says. “It’s just vacant. That was my responsibility: to look after him. And after that, every time I went out, I looked for him everywhere: on the street, at the mall, and everywhere else.”
However, what she was looking for eventually vanished. The three-year-old would hopefully grow into a ten-year-old, and eventually a twenty-year-old. But would a mother know her 20-year-old kid, whom she hadn’t seen since he was three?
At the same time, she was filled with self-reproach in addition to her fear and stress. That bothers her to this day.
“I feel terrible about losing Jeffrey,” she says. “I tell people that I have to be the world’s most helpful, tolerant person, and that’s not hard since I can’t quite be judgemental, can I? “I sent my child out to play once, and he never returned.”
McKee and Ray went on to have two more boys, Christopher in 1983 and Mark four years later. McKee recalls Chris being bullied as a child, with classmates claiming that his mother murdered his sibling. “I understand why they wanted to think that,” she says, “because it would have been so much better for Slave Lake if it hadn’t been for this mystery.”
She and Ray divorced in 1993, and she and the boys relocated to Ottawa to be closer to her family. But knowing she was over 3,000 kilometers away from where she last saw Jeffrey made it harder.
Meanwhile, over the years, others have come forward with information that has yet to be verified. A Saskatchewan teacher claims she taught Jeffrey in her Grade 4 class. A woman in Cornwall reported that her husband murdered Jeffrey. Some have claimed to be Jeffrey, including one individual from the southern United States and another who sent McKee a photo of himself in front of what the witness claims was the truck that Jeffrey got into that day. McKee invites anybody who claim to be her son to take a DNA test or go to the police. That is frequently the end of the talk.
The ordeal “changed me,” she claims. “That’s exactly what I am. I desperately want him to be alive. Although I have no idea what his life would have been like. Everything is excruciatingly painful.