This is part three of a four-part series by APTN Investigates looking into the disappearance of Frank Gruben.
It’s late September in Fort Smith, N.W.T. and Frank Gruben has now been missing for almost five months. RCMP Sgt. Cagri Yilmaz has agreed to take APTN Investigates on a ride along to some of the areas Frank was last seen.
“Our patrol area for Fort Smith is huge,” says Yilmaz from the front seat of his patrol vehicle. “Only a fraction of it is accessible by road.”
Yilmaz says the police focus has been on Fort Smith itself.
“He had no means of transportation, so he was mainly walking in town,” says Yilmaz, who adds that in their initial investigation the RCMP put calls out for those who may have given Frank rides.
“We’ve checked with all the airlines in the N.W.T. We have no indication that he’s ever left the town of Fort Smith.”
As with any missing persons case, the first 48 hours are critical. Yilmaz says Frank’s case was no different.
“The moment something is reported to us, we’re already behind,” says Yilmaz. “I don’t know if we can ever be ahead, but in this case, we want to be as close. We don’t want to be several days or weeks behind. That’s a major hurdle for us.”
Yilmaz says almost all the tips received have come through the N.W.T. and Nunavut CrimeStoppers.
Mountie says new legislation could help the investigation
Yilmaz has been stationed in Fort Smith since August 2022. He has been involved in Frank’s case since the beginning.
“In my nearly 14 years of policing, this is my first missing person investigation where someone has been missing for so long,” says Yilmaz, who is originally from Montreal.
He says that while he understands the community’s frustration over why Fort Smith RCMP weren’t taking more of a lead in search and rescue, the Mounties don’t have mandate for that and that there are barriers because of funding.
“It is not the mandate of the RCMP to lead a search and rescue team,” says Yilmaz. “We can assist depending on the circumstances with a police dog or things like that or drones, you name it. Whatever resources we have, but those are, it is not a mandate that the RCMP has up here. So, it has to be a community led search.”
Yilmaz says there is an urgent need to pass new missing-persons legislation in the territory which would allow the RCMP greater authority to check Frank’s confidential records.
“There is an urgent need for us to get that information, because we want to know where this guy is,” Yilmaz says. “There’s a mother that’s been crying every day since he disappeared, and we want to give her the answers that she’s looking for.”
In June of 2020, the Northwest Territories promised to develop missing-persons legislation.
When APTN Investigates spoke with N.W.T. Premier R.J. Simpson for this story, he indicated that new missing-persons legislation was still in progress.
Such legislation would give the RCMP access to financial, health and telecommunications records of missing people and the records of those they were last seen with. Also, the ability to apply for search orders – which they can’t do when there is no proof of wrongdoing.
For example, it would allow RCMP to clear up the mystery of a strange message received by Frank’s mother, Laura Kalinek.
Unknown sender creates unusual hurdle for investigation
At 11:39 p.m., on May 8, just over an hour after Anne Jackson filed the missing persons report, Laura Kalinek received a text message from an unknown number saying it was Frank and that he needed picking up because he can’t miss court the next day.
The message said he “got charged with sexual assault.” APTN has tried contacting the number and has left a message. APTN also spoke with Cpl. Matt Halstead, a media relations officer for the N.W.T. RCMP about the strange message. Halstead says that investigators are aware of the text.
“Frank Gruben does not have any charges outstanding for sexual assault,” says Halstead.
He says one major barrier to the investigation is the fact that Frank didn’t have a personal cell phone. Family and friends have confirmed that someone smashed Frank’s phone between January and February, so he had no active personal phone data plan.
“[With a missing persons act] we could include other phones he had access into. Maybe he doesn’t have a cell phone but we know that he routinely uses a cellular phone and we might be able to satisfy a justice of the peace or a judge that it’s in the public interest to allow us to have a record of those phone calls and that might open some things up to us,” says Halstead.
In a statement after our interview, Halstead indicated that RCMP cannot provide further information on the message, or its unknown sender.
According to his friends and family, Frank had two Facebook accounts and used them frequently to stay connected. Across Canada, Halstead says another barrier police face without the legislation is being unable to access people’s communication through social media platforms.
“With or without missing person legislation in place, we cannot access Facebook or other American-based social media content and accounts,” he says.
According to Facebook’s policy on reporting missing persons, they will only release information about someone’s account if safety is a concern to law enforcement. But Halstead says that’s only for American police.
“We basically have to get a police officer in the United States to write a search warrant to those companies, and of course, anything outside of the homicide or terrorism, we’re not likely to have that happen,” he says.
Halstead is referring to a process called a Mutual Legal Assistance (MLAT) request. Through an agency in Ottawa, Canadian police can request assistance from officers in 35 other countries with which Canada has treaty relationships. But the process is long and can take more than a year in some cases. It also requires Canadian police to have direct evidence in their possession in the first place.
“It’s a very challenging sort of aspect when they provide service in our country, but they don’t respond to our judicial requests,” Halstead says.
New missing-persons legislation could empower the RCMP to gather that evidence.
MMIWG inquiry showed need for new legislation: Robinson
The call for nationwide missing-persons legislation came in June of 2019 with the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls as part of their 231 calls for justice.
Former inquiry commissioner Qajaq Robinson told APTN that from a national standpoint, there should be no excuse for missing persons legislation delays for the territories.
“It’s very sad to me that this is something that has not been prioritized,” says Robinson. “We heard it from families and survivors who are suffering unimaginable horror of not knowing where their loved one was.”
According to Robinson, the inquiry showed the need for police forces to have updated investigative tools when it comes to missing-persons cases without evidence of foul play. Without these tools, which would be provided by new legislation, she described the difficulties faced by police as a potential “dead-end road”.
Fort Smith RCMP Sgt. Cagri Yilmaz shared some of those difficulties with Investigates. According to Yilmaz, at times “we felt like we were making a step forward, then two steps backwards,” regarding the investigation. “That was very frustrating.”
“Hearsay is not reasonable grounds for peace officers to apply for a warrant,” he adds when asked what is needed to confirm foul play. “If I have enough evidence or reasonable grounds to believe that an offense has been committed, I can apply for a warrant to help me further an investigation.”
Yilmaz stresses the importance of conducting the investigation into Frank’s disappearance the right way.
“We can’t pressure them,” says Yilmaz, regarding potential witnesses. “What if we have a major development in a year or two, but we’ve pressured the witness when we should not have and they told us something that’s incriminating? Then that doesn’t become admissible in court, so we’re walking on eggshells and have to be mindful of the law.”
Robinson provided context for Yilmaz’s caution.
“There have been cases where police have used improper techniques to try and get information and that information ends up not being credible,” Robinson says. “And it harms an investigation and there is tremendous pain that happens when an investigation isn’t done but also when it’s not done properly.”
“I’m not saying that someone is suspected of killing Frank here, but sometimes you come to a dead end and there’s nothing else you can do,” says Yilmaz. The RCMP told APTN that it’s “not in a position to provide [Investigates] with any names of people who have or have not provided statements to the police in this active investigation.”
Yilmaz says he remains hopeful for more leads on the case, if and when people come forward.
“All these people are aware that if they have any information, or if they change your mind, they’re more than welcome and they can come and talk to us,” says Yilmaz. “That’s been made very clear with them. The mother will never be able to mourn the loss of her son. She has nothing to turn the page.
“She’s got nothing, nothing but a memory of her son, so if you have any information, I would beg you to please come forward.”
Robinson joined Yilmaz, and others Investigates spoke to, in calling for the public to provide any information they can.
“Somebody knows something. Somebody knows something and I think we have to keep saying his name and we have to keep talking about this and supporting the family and hope that answers come,” says Robinson.
Next story: Family, friends, N.W.T. premier call for information
Contact Crimestoppers to submit a tip anonymously by phone at 1-800-222-8477, or online by clicking on the “Submit a Tip” button at nwtnu.crimestoppersweb.com.
You can also call the Fort Smith RCMP detachment directly at 1-867-872-1111.
If after reading this story you’d like to talk to someone for any reason, you can call the Hope for Wellness line at 1-855-242-3310.
Watch Karli’s full episode of the Frank Gruben investigation here: