Typical of a cold case closed, puzzle pieces were already there, when you look back in hindsight.
It was just hard early on to piece it together. So many possibilities, so many hopeful leads and so many questions misdirect you.
Today marks the 5th anniversary of (Jacqueline) Nicole Vienneau’s disappearance.
Canadian Prime Ministers & party leaders once lauded her late father David Vienneau's courage in The Toronto Star. While battling cancer, he moderated the national elections debate. Nicole Vienneau worked for a Blackberry email provider, an international school & a major real estate firm where she was well-loved and stood out in life. She's been a painter, athlete and seasoned traveller.
A blog featured in Wired by her brother Matthew Vienneau generated several hundred volunteer detectives who found 80% of hotel guests staying near Nicole—and even passengers of a bus she took.
Within the first 24 hours , blog readers tracked down her last whereabouts. Her luggage, handwritten plans, diaries and recent photos were all still at the hotel. Her photos and diary entries drew the perimeter and timeline of her last known activities and her next plans.
She tediously copied a map to her next destinations mysteriously left behind in her hotel room. She'd been to ruins at Apamea (yellow). Highlighted in red is where a hotel clerk said she was headed next: Beehive Houses (Sarouj) and a castle (Qasr Ibn Wardan). But no one en route reported seeing her--not even just outside her hotel. She had been seen daily before this.
Somehow in a 44-hour window she disappeared after arriving in a city where no one knew her. The area was too freshly foreign to her to make any plans on her own. She relied on others for immediate activities--guidance from English-speaking strangers travelling or working at the hotel. She made an itinerary only after meeting new people there. Only so much time was left in this 44-hour window to actually do things. Her activities and plans identified so far by her family readily fills out this timeline.
Her bank/email accounts were never used again after this timeline. Somehow she vanished fast after meeting only a few people in a place she'd never been. Likely anyone who caused a disappearance needed more than one hour of time with her away from public view. That's not a lot of possibilities in 44 hours.
She spent a day trip outside the city where she stayed overnight, leaving about 36 hours to disappear in a city where she spent 2 nights inside a hotel. This further narrowed down the possibilities to no more than a 20-hour window outside her room. In that 20-hour window, her family confirmed 8 of her activities (6 inside the hotel, 2 outside).
Nicole Vienneau was seen Friday, March 30, 2007, on a day trip at Apamea, Syria, reading a book there for hours. She later returned to her base at Cairo Hotel in Hama, Syria. It's unclear where she ate but at sunset (~ 8pm) she wrote in her diary, that she was "content." From that point, proof of life get less definitive. The FBI, RCMP and Microsoft helped track there was a failed Hotmail session in her email account at 8:30pm. There was a login and disconnection, likely from a web cafe near her hotel (its card left among Nicole's belongings there). One month after Nicole disappeared, the graveyard shift hotel clerk claimed he saw her Friday in the lobby at 11:30pm and then Saturday morning around 8:30am asking for a map to the bus stop. No one else reported seeing her in that window of time or after. The bus stop map was left in her hotel room. Six months after Nicole disappeared, American tourists registered Friday night, recalled seeing Nicole that night suggesting she see the Beehive Houses (Sarouj) for which she hand-drew a map. That map too was left behind.
Missing from her hotel belongings, a red cap and red shirt with white sleeves were likely worn by her. She was as visible as Santa Claus from a football field away. Her passport, hotel key, camera, blue windbreaker, and day pack (blue) were also gone. She likely wore khaki pants, missing from her hotel luggage.
None of her day-trip possessions were found since. Everything else was left behind. Private diaries would not have been willingly left behind. But more puzzling, why was a map to the bus stop (which the hotel clerk said she needed that morning) left behind?
Interpol, which has Nicole Vienneau's DNA and dental records, has so far not reported finding her.
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For July 15, 2008, publication release, Lonely Planet referenced her for awareness on her planned route and in a section on tips for women. A blog summarizing case facts was tweeted daily for two years, reaching 122+ nations.
Nicole’s family even offered a reward.
But still, the most important witness, a Swiss traveller, whose name can readily be found by Google with Nicole’s story--in 2 languages he knows—has not surfaced after five years.
That elusive witness, who turned 23 in 2007, when Nicole disappeared, was the only tourist headed to where Nicole was headed. He was the only tourist registered in writing at that remote ancient castle Qasr Ibn Wardan near where Bedouin tribes roam.
He commissioned a car in a hotel (where he was not registered) next door to Nicole’s hotel.
He was driven by a private hotel tour car – a service shared with Nicole’s hotel.
Nicole was offered this car service by her hotel clerk but allegedly declined it, due to cost. However, it is very plausible she was offered a free ride by someone going there anyways. If she had taken the bus, she would have had to instead hitch-hike as a solo female traveller from the last bus stop to get to a remote castle (on a road with a 20-minute wait for a car sighting).
No mini-bus driver en route reported seeing Nicole. Her passport was not registered anywhere outside the hotel. No merchant has come forward to report seeing her that day anywhere en route.
Personal info of this Swiss witness going to the castle was found early on, and detailed enough to find him in the age of Internet profile pages.
The “Swiss” guy reported that he was born 1984 امين بن يحيى. (translated Amine Benyahia), son of Abbas Benyahia and Monica in Algeria. He had a 2007 (Swiss?) passport 01939205.
The gatekeeper said he was “Swiss.”
He was driven from Riad Hotel next door to Cairo Hotel (where Nicole stayed) by a car with license plate 028265. The driver's name Mohamed Khodr (an independent contractor) in Hama, Syria, was found by Nicole’s fiancé Gary Schweitzer who flew there many times to search for her, weeks at a time, along paths she mapped. The driver reported he did not see Nicole. Gary also went to the castle whose gatekeeper did not recall Nicole.
The tricky thing, however, about a disappearance, is that anyone could also be paid off or choosing to falsify/conceal facts when a possible serious crime is involved. You can’t fully tell who is telling the truth. Anyone, anywhere - between a hotel clerk (last to report seeing her Saturday morning) to a driver (of a ride the clerk says she never took in spite of offers) to a tourist site gatekeeper (who didn't recall seeing her) – could be offering a flawed witness report one month later. They were also not interviewed until more than 30 days after the disappearance. Who accurately remembers what they saw more than 30 days before? I wondered if a crystal clear account was valid or made up. Only Nicole's own images and handwriting were carved in stone.
Did she walk from Cairo Hotel to mini-bus stop spotted by no one?
Was she offered a free ride by car?
Hotel clerk reported spotting her 8:30 Saturday morning, March 31, 2007, and offered her a hotel car ride to her destination, but claimed she didn't like the cost and took a map to the bus stop instead. Even though the bus stop map was left behind, the hotel clerk claimed she left the hotel safe and sound that Saturday morning. No one but the clerk reported seeing her that day.
Dubiously, the hotel clerk had a history of taking money from a foreign woman who claimed he deceived her to get her money. He quit his job soon after Nicole's disappearance to open a juice business with this money. He was not exactly an upstanding citizen, who along with local political police, didn’t contact Canadian officials after Nicole's belongings were left at the hotel—for more than a month. Somehow in a few days, the “political police” also cleared Nicole of being a threat in the country (her visa expiring in days). A security clearance in any country usually takes more than a couple days. Did they know something immediately or was this just sloppy police work? No forensics were done on the hotel room. There's no such thing as CSI work here.
The web cafe whose card Nicole had also closed soon after her disappearance
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Mysteriously, Nicole also wrote in her diary she had dinner with a nameless “Swiss” guy in Damascus (90 minutes away from Hama) on March 14, 2007, two weeks before she was last seen. That “Swiss” man mentioned in her journal has yet to surface even though he probably knows more about Nicole locally than any other witness found beyond the hotel clerk. It is not known if Amine Benyahia and the nameless “Swiss” guy are the same person. But they do share one thing in common besides being Swiss: Neither has surfaced to contact Nicole’s family after five years. Is it possible that you never look up someone again after having dinner? Or even look someone up online? The "Swiss man" or Amine Benyahia would be an invaluable witness to offer evidence and help relieve the burden of Nicole’s mother who continues to search for her daughter.
The most obscure witnesses have been found to date. Yet the most prominent witness who’s name and details were more in depth and searchable (online) than any other witness has yet to contact the family. Nor has any of his peers or acquaintances to help clear up this case.
There are men with this name and birth year that have been found on YouTube, LinkedIn, Skype and Facebook – even one who had classmates who travelled to Syria where Nicole was when she disappeared. But none have contacted the family. A French-speaking Abbas Benyahia in Algeria – same name and location as father of the Swiss witness Amine Benyahia--has even been found in an old genealogy discussion online but has not posted since.
Given Swiss witness Amine Benyahia travelling alone at age 23 was local to Nicole at an international hostel-like hotel next door, the following would be plausible for his profile:
Likely speaks English if he hung out with Nicole or even as a Swiss national whose mother is “Monica” (English name)
Likely speaks other languages – writes Arabic, may speak French too with roots in Algeria (and possibly Morocco where the Benyahia name is popular).
Likely a 23-year-old student in 2007 (or recent grad)
Financial means to travel
Solo traveler which means he is also fairly independent and adventurous
Likely, as a Swiss national, he travelled to career opportunities outside of Algeria (or Morocco where the Benyahia name is popular) to a more Western nation for financial gain.
Finding him would significantly reduce the burden of this search for Nicole Vienneau. It would be like filling a crossword puzzle of difficult clues. This is the most known clue to fill out the spaces and reduce the possibilities, to see this puzzle much better.
Circumstantial evidence such as Nicole leaving her tediously freshly handwritten instructions to her destinations in her hotel room made us question if she did indeed accept a guided car ride. Additionally, she did not take a map to the bus stop from the hotel which she needed that morning for any bus ride. It's hard to fathom why these written directions were left behind if she traveled by foot and bus in a foreign area for the first time where many people don't speak English to offer verbal directions. A free guided hotel car ride offer by someone going there anyways seemed plausible. Or did she not even make it that far? Was she kidnapped at her hotel room & transported by car? She had to disappear somehow invisible to public witnesses.
How else was she not seen outside the hotel walking around town? She wore colours as visible as Santa Claus in a city where many women are veiled. In any interaction with a merchant, she would memorably not be able to speak the local language. No witness reported seeing her walking outside the hotel that day, yet she was seen everyday beforehand in witness reports. During her family and fiance's search, you could easily randomly bump into someone who knew about her disappearance. Missing Person posters were plastered along her route.
Amine Benyahia is the biggest known key to close to many unanswered questions and will likely reduce search possibilities by more than half.