Miss­ing chil­dren: Two fathers united in heartache

‘This is start­ing to look like Julie’s story,’ Sur­prenant says of Ariel

Montreal Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - JESSE FEITH

Nearly 20 years af­ter his daugh­ter dis­ap­peared, Michel Sur­prenant still keeps a light on in his back­yard each night. The small light, fas­tened atop a five-foot lamp post, is sym­bolic for him — a sign to Julie that he’s still wait­ing for her, he says, wher­ever she may be.

But it also rep­re­sents how Sur­prenant has cho­sen to cope. When a per­son dis­ap­pears, he says, you have two choices: be­come con­sumed by what he calls “the re­al­ity” of the sit­u­a­tion — the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the the­o­ries of what hap­pened — or fo­cus on hope and what­ever pos­i­tives you can.

For a decade, he shared his ap­proach with other Que­bec fam­i­lies, be­com­ing a pub­lic face of sorts for dis­ap­pear­ances in the prov­ince. When he left that role in 2014, he wasn’t sure he would ever get in­volved in an­other miss­ing per­son case. He has his own bur­den, he says, and is still work­ing through it.

Then, in mid-March, he read the head­lines about Ariel Jef­frey Kouakou. He saw the 10-year-old’s smil­ing face on news­casts and in news­pa­pers. He saw Ariel’s par­ents, too, try­ing to stay strong.

As the days went by, and more de­tails emerged, Sur­prenant felt the need to reach out to them.

“There were no clues, no leads, noth­ing,” Sur­prenant said over a cof­fee in Ter­re­bonne this week. “I said to my­self, ‘This is start­ing to look like Julie’s story.’ ”

Sur­prenant met Ariel’s par­ents at their home in Ahuntsic-Cartierville soon af­ter, and has since been by their side at news con­fer­ences, of­fer­ing sup­port and guid­ance. He has been struck by the re­silience the boy ’s fa­ther, Koua­dio Frédéric Kouakou, has shown through­out.

“I told him to do ev­ery­thing he can to stay ac­tive,” Sur­prenant said. “That’s all you can do. As long as you stay ac­tive, you’re feed­ing your hope.”

Julie Sur­prenant, 16, dis­ap­peared on Nov. 15, 1999. She was last seen by a bus driver, get­ting off at a stop near her home in Ter­re­bonne.

From early on, po­lice sus­pected Sur­prenant’s up­stairs neigh­bour, a man named Richard Bouil­lon. He had a his­tory of vi­o­lent crimes, in­clud­ing sexual assault, and was un­der pro­ba­tion at the time. Of­fi­cers ques­tioned him, but had noth­ing to charge him with.

The search for Julie con­tin­ued. More de­tails would only emerge in 2011.

Five years ear­lier, in 2006, Bouil­lon fell ter­mi­nally ill. On his deathbed, he con­fessed grim de­tails to a nurse: he had raped sev­eral boys and girls, he told her, and had kid­napped, raped and killed Julie Sur­prenant. He put her body in a sports bag with bricks and dropped it the Riv­ière des Milles Îles, he said.

Given the new in­for­ma­tion, po­lice searched the river. Sur­prenant stood by as they did, but Julie’s body was never found.

Dur­ing a pub­lic in­quest into Julie’s “prob­a­ble death” in 2012, Que­bec coroner Cather­ine RudelTessier con­cluded Bouil­lon was likely in­volved.

“The Sur­prenant fam­ily’s dis­ap­point­ment at not be­ing able to know the truth is un­der­stand­able,” she wrote.

Ariel Jef­frey Kouakou was last seen on March 12. He walked to a friend’s home, but found he wasn’t there. That same day, a woman spoke to him in Parc des Bate­liers be­side Riv­ière des Prairies. Se­cu­rity footage shows him en­ter­ing, but not leav­ing the park.

Mon­treal po­lice have said they’re con­vinced Ariel drowned in the river when he got too close to the snow-cov­ered water­front. His fa­ther, how­ever, main­tains his son was ab­ducted.

“The hope is still alive,” he said dur­ing a news con­fer­ence last week, shortly be­fore unveiling new search efforts. “We have great hope.”

For Sur­prenant, see­ing the par­ents out talk­ing about their son’s dis­ap­pear­ance is en­cour­ag­ing. As dif­fi­cult as it can be, he said, it’s a nec­es­sary step.

“If the story dies, any in­for­ma­tion about it also dies,” he said. “You need to keep the story alive to give the in­for­ma­tion a chance to come out.”

Af­ter Julie’s dis­ap­pear­ance, Sur­prenant ded­i­cated him­self to do­ing just that. He pushed for changes to the code of “pro­fes­sional se­crets” that gov­erns nurses and for broader ac­cess to Que­bec’s sex of­fender registry.

He stayed ac­tive, ad­vo­cat­ing for the causes, and found strength in his old­est daugh­ter, An­dréanne. In the mean­time, he kept pro­cess­ing Julie’s dis­ap­pear­ance.

“You di­gest it, di­gest it, di­gest it,” he said. “Then at one point, you’re able to ac­cept it. It can take months or years, but you can get there. You’ll al­ways be sen­si­tive to it, but you learn to live through it.”

But he still has dif­fi­cult days, he added. He feels a sharp pang of an­guish ev­ery time he hears of a miss­ing child, and took it es­pe­cially hard, in 2015, when he learned hunters had found Cé­drika Provencher’s re­mains.

And as of­ten as he has been told he needs to, he hasn’t mourned. In his eyes, do­ing so would mean “clos­ing the door.” It’s the same rea­son he never wanted a tomb­stone made for his daugh­ter.

In­stead, he and An­dréanne asked the town of Ter­re­bonne to con­sider a com­mem­o­ra­tive mon­u­ment where Julie was last seen. To mark 15 years since she van­ished, it was un­veiled in 2014: a sculpted bowler hat, like the ones she of­ten wore, rest­ing on a plaque in her mem­ory. Fresh flow­ers were planted around it this week.

Asked how he sees Julie’s dis­ap­pear­ance to­day, Sur­prenant hes­i­tated. There are things he has come to terms with that he never thought he would, he said. He’s more ra­tio­nal than he once was, more serene.

“But Julie, wher­ever she is, is still wait­ing to be found,” he said. “No mat­ter the state she’s in, she’s wait­ing for us to find her.”

Sur­prenant, at 64, is in the mid­dle of mov­ing. He’s sell­ing his home in Ter­re­bonne to live some­where more se­cluded, near a lake, where he can slowly ease into re­tire­ment.

His plans aren’t fi­nal­ized yet. He bought a piece of land and in­tends to build. But, he said, one thing he knows for sure — some­where on his new prop­erty, he will in­stall a lamp post and, on top of it, a light will al­ways be left on.

Julie, wher­ever she is, is still wait­ing to be found. No mat­ter the state she’s in, she’s wait­ing for us to find her.

MICHEL SUR­PRENANT

DAVE SIDAWAY

St-Lau­rent Mayor Alan DeSousa said Thurs­day that the city should ex­tend the Or­ange Line north to the Deux-Mon­tagnes train line while the nec­es­sary equip­ment is on-site.

PETER McCABE/THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Michel Sur­prenant left, with Koua­dio Frédéric Kouakou. “I told him to do ev­ery­thing he can to stay ac­tive,” Sur­prenant said. “As long as you stay ac­tive, you’re feed­ing your hope.”

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