This is how I parsed the evidence:
Day 1 – (March 29, 2007) Any criminal plot would need knowledge of her whereabouts this day: where she stayed in a new city.
Day 2 – (March 30, 2007) Any plot would be put into action, the last proven day she was alive. She wrote her last diary entry in Hama, Syria, this day.
Day 3 – (March 31, 2007) A wild card day. No evidence can be trusted other than what she left behind. A hotel clerk (last witness) report is either true or not. True or false narrows down possibilities further.
I had a two-year late start investigating. It took me a year to understand case details fluently. Evidence remained timeless. But I had never been to this country, or experienced any nation similar.
* * *
I sorted options for a criminal plan, clandestine communications, a disappearance location, and secret transport – weighed against risk for a 48 hour window.
Nicole was alone.
Always on the go, Nicole took a day trip out of Hama to Apamea on Day 2, leaving only a window of 24 hours local to where she disappeared in Hama on Day 2/3.
Not knowing all details of Nicole’s plans narrowed what a 3rd party could do in 24 hours – and who that 3rd party could be.
* * *
This search for Nicole was like a quest for the Holy Grail.
* * *
Day 3 told me she didn’t run away. In Hama's Cairo Hotel, she left behind her personal diaries and photos, things she would never let someone else have. She was meticulous about protecting her diaries and photos.
Her bank and email account activity ceased permanently since March 29, 2007 ("Day One"). She left behind savings, untouched. Her visa (# 000166020 - Syria) expired on April 5, 2007. Her Canadian passport (JP588938) was not used to cross into Turkey, her next destination. Jacqueline Nicole Vienneau, 32, 5' 6", 130 lb, brown hair and brown eyes was missing.
* * *
Strangely, she left behind bus stop instructions a Cairo Hotel clerk in Hama reported giving her at 830am on Day 3. During a police search, Cairo Hotel management admitted removing these instructions (a map on a card) from evidence.
Nicole’s rigorous handwritten instructions to where the hotel clerk said she was headed were left also behind in her hotel room. Why were sightseeing instructions, tediously copied, left behind?
* * *
Did she suddenly accept a private hotel car offered to her? That might explain why she left bus and destination instructions behind. But the hotel clerk reported her refusing a car, opting for cheaper mini-buses. After the last bus stop in Al Hamra, this additionally required three car rides (with site stops and return) by taxi or hitch-hiking for 42 km.
This is the Lonely Planet map Nicole copied with her handwriting. Red = mini-bus route. Purple = taxi/hitch hike route (locations marked wrong on map) Blue = unplanned notable destination (also mapped wrong) Yellow = already visited.
No witness reported seeing Nicole outside the Cairo Hotel at any location on Day 3. She vanished without a trace. Witnesses may have also feared police interviews.
I analyzed satellite images of routes from Cairo Hotel to the mini-bus stop in Hama. And photos on the ground. Nicole's fiance Gary Schweitzer and brother Matthew Vienneau re-traced steps on May 17, 2007. Missing person posters en route yielded no leads. A reward first posted on June 5, 2007, is still unclaimed. There was no ransom demand. Not one shop-keeper, driver (hotel, taxi or bus), shepherd, or site manager interviewed reported seeing Nicole on Day 3. Passport registration is common (but not persistent) for bus trips and site visits. No registry available showed her passport marked down on March 31, 2007.
* * *
Or, was she taken from her 4th floor hotel room, a converted kitchen, any noise sheltered by neighboring restrooms and a balcony outside. Her day pack could have been pre-packed with passport, camera and sunglasses and taken with her – leaving sightseeing instructions out in her room she planned to read that morning. The only way into her room would be past the 3rd floor lobby (and hotel clerk) or via the roof (using climbing gear). Nicole's blue and grey New Balance running shoes were gone.
* * *
I’ve thought about her stepping outside on the morning of Day 3 to grab a bite or beverage in a local market or souk – leaving sightseeing instructions behind – but no witness reported seeing her in the street on Day 3. Nowhere past the hotel.
I’ve thought about her being pushed into a closed 2nd floor government office, below the 3rd floor hotel lobby, but why were bus stop instructions left behind?
So far, I conclude either someone she trusted knew the way to her destinations (she was offered a tour by car) or she was abducted from her hotel room, her day pack taken, pre-packed with camera, wind jacket, hat, sunglasses and passport. Why sightseeing instructions she needed may have been left behind.
Narrowing the perimeter, eliminating theories, requires additional investigation I cannot conduct from where I sit. I can only trace habits. There are so far no photos from the day she disappeared to dissect visual patterns. Only from the day before in Apamea.
* * *
Looking at all traces (or lack there of), all roads lead back to Cairo Hotel. A budget hotel located one block from the Mayor's office. I have often wondered if someone Nicole met knew she was headed to Hama and cased places recommended by Lonely Planet: The two backpacker hotels are next door neighbors (Cairo Hotel, Riad Hotel).
* * *
The last reported witness worked the hotel graveyard shift. The clerk saw her on Day 3, at 830 am, asking him for bus stop instructions, he said. He was also last to see Nicole on Day 2, just before midnight. His uncle owned the hotel for three decades. The clerk quit his job soon after Nicole’s disappearance to start a juice business, he said.
When Nicole disappeared, the clerk was given a major sum of money from a Tunisian woman. She reports she was duped into investing – for their future. She said the clerk's close friend drove a taxi. But this doesn’t say what happened to Nicole. Nor is it proof of a link.
A lie detector test concluded the clerk knew something. What – he didn’t say. If he was an accomplice, it’s punishable by death in Syria. Is he a patsy? Or a legitimate suspect? Or, unfortunately, the last witness. Did he see something more? Is someone powerful causing this clerk to clam up? Was he paid to facilitate something? We know he does unscrupulous things for money.
If he was involved, why were Nicole's belongings still at the hotel? If he wasn't involved, why were Nicole's sightseeing instructions left behind? That puzzles me most. Was this made to look like something? Or left behind accidentally? There's no plausible random cause and effect I can see.
At a minimum, a woman he knows, says he’s capable of duping a woman for financial gain. I had always wondered if the Tunisian woman's payment was for human trafficking. When Nicole disappeared, human trafficking spiked in Syria because of 1.5 million desperate refugees fleeing Iraq. Anytime there's a war in Iraq, crime surges in neighboring nations. So many people pimped daughters and orphans to survive. Traffickers financed hotels and used them as places for business.
I was offered by a Syrian a contact who had access to underground tunnels and secret hideouts in mountains. But typically these places are only accessible to locals who speak Arabic. There are places you could hide Nicole for years - from Syria to Turkey to Abu Dhabi. And even to Tel Aviv crossing areas unguarded. It's a poorly policed multi-billion dollar industry of several million people being traded.
It’s uncommon for a woman or a foreigner to give a hotel clerk an investment to start a business. But investigators believe the Tunisian woman.
As a foreigner, she cooperated. Local women in Hama as a custom refrain from talking to male strangers. This significantly reduced many possible witnesses coming forward.
* * *
American tourists Meredith Fox and Barbara Law registered at Cairo Hotel on Day 2 (March 30, 2007) were found on September 27-28, 2007. Barbara recalled recommending the Beehive Houses at Sarouj to Nicole (they are en route to the castle at Qasr Ibn Wardan). Meredith and Barbara were traveling with American Catherine Lu, who had the exact same name as a Canadian friend of mine teaching at McGill University (who was also contacted by volunteers). Volunteer detectives have been ubiquitous online and offline.
The American tourist report is consistent with the Cairo Hotel clerk’s Day 3 report that Nicole asked for bus instructions to get to the Bee Hive Houses and the castle at Qasr Ibn Wardan.
But why were the instructions left behind?
The hotel promotes a private sightseeing tour by car to those destinations. But Nicole was extremely frugal. The bus ride would cost less than $1 (but it required 42km of hitch-hiking for two stops - Beehive Houses and the castle were past the last bus stop at Al Hamra). The private hotel car tour was priced at $20 or so. Was a cheap ride offered to a beautiful woman?
* * *
On Day 3, not one shepherd, shopkeeper, taxi driver, bus driver or site manager reported seeing her. They were first interviewed on May 8, 2007. She vanished without a trace.
On Day 3, only Amine Benyahia was registered at the castle at Qasr Ibn Wardan. The gatekeeper said he was Swiss. In Arabic, he wrote, his name as Amin Benyahia امين بن يحيى. The registry showed he had an Algerian passport (his passport # was later found at his hotel), and that he was born in 1984 to Monica and Abbas Benyahia. Amine's driver was found in 2007 at the Riad Hotel, next door to where Nicole stayed. He reported nothing suspicious. Amine was never found.
I've always wondered if he Googled his name and noticed anything. December 24, 2011, I found an Amine Benyahia born 1984, a fluently English-speaking, conquest-driven globetrotter with classmates who went to Syria. He was even prominent on LinkedIn and YouTube. Still not one Amine Benyahia (b 1984) امين بن يحيى. has voluntarily surfaced as a witness. I even found a Benyahia genealogy tree discussion with Abbas Benyahia commenting on his ancestors but saying nothing on his descendants.
Nicole dinner dated a Swiss man (nameless in her diary) on March 17, in Damascus, 90 minutes away. Could this also be Amine Benyahia امين بن يحيى. ? No Swiss man has surfaced since Nicole disappeared in 2007. How could a Swiss man who dinner dated Nicole stay off the grid? Would he by chance not contact her ever again? In nearly five years, did he not notice missing Canadian woman reports in Lonely Planet, in street posters or references online to a country he had visited? It took me two years myself to find out Nicole was missing, randomly.
* * *
On Day 2, a Friday, there were login attempts around 830pm with her Hotmail account, RCMP/FBI/Microsoft confirm. Connections are shaky in Syria. The logins succeeded but the sessions disconnected. Witness accounts can be shaky. This is the last non-human evidence of Nicole’s possible existence. But she didn’t email. Her last email was on Day 1 to her family, wanting to come home early.
Among Nicole's belongings, a web café address near the Cairo Hotel was left behind. The owners left the business soon after Nicole disappeared. Nothing suspicious was found.
* * *
On Day 2, at sunset in Hama, Nicole wrote in her diary. Her last word was “content.”
"Hyper glowing lush green meadows and mountains. The sky was ultra deep blue. The wildflowers colourful and abundant. Vista heaven...I treated myself to figs and strawberry ice cream (not at the same time) once I finally dragged myself away from Apamea. I had taken my book with me and spent a long while just relaxing with the birds, butterflies and sunshine. Now I am back in Hama writing while the sun is starting to set. Content."~ Nicole Vienneau, March 30, 2007
This is the last indisputable proof of when she was alive. Her own words. She had just taken a day trip to Apamea, taking several mini-buses. Witnesses in Apamea remember her there. And somehow, within 24 hours, she would disappear from Hama. After nearly five years, no one reported seeing her outside the Cairo Hotel on Day 3.
* * *
She arrived in Hama on Day 1, checking in early afternoon at the Cairo Hotel. She wrote her last emails to her family, desiring to return to Canada earlier. She explored Hama.
In her diary, on Day 1 (March 29), Nicole wrote she socialized with Americans in the Cairo Hotel lobby. Who were these Americans? Nicole was spotted eating with them. Sifting through the fact sheet, I only recently noticed these Americans were not the same Americans registered on Day 2 found by Nicole's brother Matthew Vienneau. Meredith Fox, Barbara Law and Catherine Lu didn't eat with Nicole and weren't registered on Day 1.
* * *
Before Day 1 in Hama, Nicole stayed in Palmyra for four days. This is Syria’s greatest tourist attraction, along the Silk Road.
There, Nicole is only registered at the Citadel Hotel for two days. What happened on the other two days? Is this a book-keeping discrepancy or a factual report? The government required all hotel guests to be registered. The owner of Citadel Hotel, once recommended by Lonely Planet (now no longer), knew the owner of the Cairo Hotel. A Czech couple who met Nicole on the bus to Palmyra was found by a volunteer and phoned by Matt on July 18, 2007, in Brno, Czech Republic. They had dinner with Nicole on March 25, 2007 in Palmyra. The Czech man said they only stayed in Palmyra two days, leaving Nicole there.
The Czech man via a translator (Matt's co-worker volunteering) said Nicole was wearing revealing jogging apparel in Palmyra. In Syria, having bare arms would be considered revealing.
This is a cautionary tale of French women being taunted with "make sex" in Palmyra:
* * *
I wondered how the Czech man could see Nicole jogging early in the morning. Did Nicole stay with the Czech couple for two days? He said they only stayed in Palmyra for two days – leaving Nicole there. Do they have pictures? And why did the Czech couple only stay two days in a recommended four-day trip? The Czech man knew Nicole would be visiting Hama and Apamea next.
"Jacqueline" Vienneau at Citadel Hotel registry (bottom) in Palmyra, March 25/26, 2007. The Czech couple registered with her: Andrej Prachar (b.1970) of Brno-Zidenice and Jana Kamínková (b. 1979). There is no departure date for Jacqueline (Nicole) Vienneau. The entry for her is not the same as other guests. Was she a +1 guest of the Czech couple? The hotel reports only a two-day stay for Nicole. Nicole didn't report changing hotels in her diary.
* * *
The hotel kept two registries, one for locals, one for tourists. A soccer team stayed there. That registry disappeared. Nicole led her team once in scoring (8 goals) as a striker in Vancouver, Canada. I did find a Benyahia (born 1984) who played soccer in the Olympics but no link to this case.
* * *The Slovenian reported the Czech man sold travel maps in Brno. Nicole's diary reveals she did not visit the main tourist attraction during the Czech couple's two-day stay in Palmyra (March 25/26). Did the Czech couple see the main site without Nicole or leave without seeing it? Why? Nicole did "chores" and saw Palmyra's main attraction on March 27, 2007, when the couple said they had already left.
I’ve found holes in so many statements - inconsistent with evidence, but no smoking gun. I can only analyze evidence so much. Only on-site investigation and in-person interviews can help resolve questions. But this place is so far away. On March 29, 2007, Nicole took mini-buses from Palmyra via Homs to Hama. No one on those buses has surfaced to offer a witness account. She disappeared within 48 hours of getting off the bus in Hama.
* * *
Local police didn’t even do forensics on Nicole’s hotel room. Her hotel key was not returned, her belongings, left behind. Political police were reportedly called into Nicole’s room on April 3, 2007, and somehow cleared her of being a political threat by April 6. My friends in intelligence say it is not that rapid to clear anyone they review.
Dismissing Nicole's absence caused the investigation of her disappearance to be delayed by one month.
A Toronto reporter based in Syria told me how there is very "little competence" policing in Syria – expect no investigative science. The only kind of policing they may have is to "beat people up" for answers. But in general, crime is not investigated, as we know crime investigation here.
* * *
No one was immediately notified of Nicole’s disappearance in April, 2007. Only Nicole’s mother Kathryn Murray knew. Nicole chatted with her every two weeks (an agreement they had). By April 8, Kathyrn Murray had alarm bells when an Easter greeting to Nicole had no response. She told her family April 13, Nicole was incommunicado. After more time passed to be sure, a missing person report was filed with Foreign Affairs (April 19), RCMP (April 23) and Interpol (April 29).
RCMP/Interpol couldn’t locate Nicole's last whereabouts, or even pinpoint what country. On April 29, RCMP saw Nicole's bank accounts. Activities permanently ceased after March 29, 2007 ("Day One"). On June 5, 2007, RCMP saw Nicole's Hotmail account, untouched since March 29 (last emails) or 30 (failed login). Foreign Affairs confirmed on May 2 Nicole's passport was not used to enter Turkey, her next stop outside of Syria.
Frustrated by the pace, Matthew Vienneau posted a blog on May 1, 2007, seeking witnesses. Within 24 hours, Nicole’s last whereabouts at Cairo Hotel, in Hama, Syria, were identified. Matt called the Cairo Hotel on May 3, startled to find Nicole’s belongings still there, one month after she disappeared. Missing person posters were distributed locally on May 4, in week five of Nicole's disappearance. Eventually a missing person newspaper ad was approved for publication nearly three months after she disappeared (to the chagrin of tourism politicians) but the reward was not allowed to be posted to encourage future kidnappings.
Matthew Vienneau's blog, to date the most effective evidence gathering vehicle, was featured by Wired magazine after generating hundreds of volunteer detectives, finding dozens of witnesses and evidence police could not find.
Matt had traveled with Nicole until March 14, 2007, departing from her in Egypt. Nicole's fiance Gary Schweitzer stayed home in Vancouver, British Columbia, to tend to business. Nicole in her life regularly saved money to go on solo world journeys.
Nicole worked at a major commercial real estate firm in Vancouver which raised significant funds to help search for Nicole.
When i knew her, she worked at Blackberry's webmail supplier. She had a fine arts degree and went to the same Toronto high school as former NHLer Eric Lindros. Unlike her dad David Vienneau, who covered Ottawa politics at Toronto Star and Global TV, Nicole had no political interests. She was not religious either. She loved the outdoors and adventure. She had multi-cultural dexterity. She could make anyone feel at home. I don't recall her ever speaking about politics or religion once during my travels with her. Five years before she disappeared, she worked in administration at Bodwell, a school with international students in Vancouver, Canada.
Nicole’s fiancé Gary Schweitzer would fly to Syria and personally comb through Nicole’s mapped paths, finding evidence and witnesses, resolving questions. He walked every kilometer of a 42km path from Al Hamra (last bus stop) to the Beehive Houses and castle at Qasr Ibn Wardan. His first two trips were on May 12, 2007 (two+ weeks with Matt) and June 17, 2007 (six weeks). He acquired hotel and bus registry lists. On June 29, 2007, he found a Czech couple registered at Citadel Hotel with Nicole. They traveled on the same bus as Nicole to Palmyra.
Nicole’s mother (starting July 5 with her husband Bruce) returned to Syria many times. The family exhausted more than $100,000 in private funds. Sometimes foreign airlines are kind to fly them without charge. Getting a visa isn't easy. The First Lady of Syria has corresponded with Nicole’s mother to maintain interest in the case. To give you an idea of how known this case was in Hama, Matt on May 19, 2007, posted: "On the minibus back we met a soldier from one of the nearby bases who knew who we were just from looking at us, and said it was all over the base." A French-Canadian tourist in Hama with similar build to Nicole was approached by several people who read the story.
The on site investigation started on May 6, 2007, with a Canadian traveler asked by Nicole's family to review her belongings at Cairo Hotel. Who you can trust is unclear; it's unknown who caused the disappearance. The Canadian Embassy retrieved Nicole's belongings on May 7. A woman who traveled with Nicole was interviewed and shared photos. Morgues, hospitals and prisons were reportedly checked by local officials.
Nicole left behind all clothes but what she wore that day. Photos of what she wore are posted on Matt's blog and Nicole's missing person website.
The investigation officially started a month after Nicole's disappearance. There’s only so much you can do from Canada, where media was alerted on May 5, 2007. Though crime investigation is rare in Syria, RCMP are out of jurisdiction. International intelligence agencies don't deploy for crimes. RCMP Constable Ian MacLellan of Major Crimes was assigned on May 14, 2007, but local police in Syria sought no help. There was no interest in DNA or dental records. Syria did authorize missing person info for domestic newspapers on June 14, 2007 (week 11 of Nicole's disappearance). Language and cultural barriers proved challenging. And limited police reports sent from Syria by the Canadian Embassy to Nicole’s mother were intercepted by Ottawa. Specifically, the privacy unit of Foreign Affairs which redacted a lot of information destined for Nicole's mom (from her own lawyer). A missing person has "privacy" rights.
Ottawa has withheld files since 2008, citing the Privacy Act. Nicole, who is missing, apparently has to grant consent for her missing person files to be reviewed via a Freedom of Information Act application. This has compounded the torment experienced by Nicole’s mother, and recently started a media frenzy.
* * *
Readers and viewers wrote publicly how Canada's Privacy Act shielded information about their missing loved ones. Two families who lost loved ones in Haiti publicly declared they were not receiving information from Foreign Affairs. Other parents wrote of missing children. One widow reported not knowing how her husband died on federal property.
How could Nicole Vienneau give consent so her missing person files could be reviewed? Foreign Affairs' use of the Privacy Act effectively impaired private efforts to analyze evidence, search for Nicole, investigate what happened and pose questions for suspects.
The files intercepted or redacted by the privacy unit of Foreign Affairs ironically were sent via the Canadian Embassy as a secure channel to reach Nicole's mother. They were sent by a lawyer paid by Nicole's family. It seems Foreign Affairs has more resources to block information than to find. One newspaper reported only 14 case workers were assigned to 6000 Canadians in distress in 2008.
Major Canadian media outlets put the story on front page: The Toronto Star (front page, editorial, and blog). The Ottawa Citizen (editorial). CBC Radio's As It Happens (Live Interview). 1010 Newstalk (interview), Roy Green Show (interview). Hamilton Spectator (column), National Post (blog), and so on.
Reporters agree when a Canadian is in peril abroad, families are on their own. Sadly, politics and political pressure are needed for any practical result.
The person(s) who caused Nicole’s disappearance may take solace in international bureaucracy, but evidence remains timeless. Day 1 and Day 2 are very telling.
Ed ~ Nicole's family was interviewed for an October 8, 2010, article which reported 6,000 “distress situations” in 2008 - arrests, deaths, medical emergencies and disappearances of Canadians. Only 14 case workers were assigned to 6000 cases.
There is a court case that is underway in Syria related to Nicole's case. No Canadian media outlet has reported it, maintaining the secrecy that shrouds this case.