‘That’s the last thing he said:’ Tracing the final steps of Thre Windego

The 16 year old’s path would lead him to die in a seedy Fort Frances motel room

Thre Windego

This picture of Thre Windego was taken when he was 13. Submitted.

Brittany Ottertail says she was just about to go to bed when a 16-year-old boy knocked on her door in the early morning hours of April 17.

She let him in because it was a face she knew well.

“He said he had nowhere to go and he asked if he could sleep there and I told him of course,” said Ottertail, adding he often showed up to her place alone.

Ottertail lives at the former Nugget Motel in Fort Frances, Ont., a place known for its impoverished tenants and drug use.

Still, she made him a bed and went to sleep herself with her boyfriend at about 6 a.m.

“He came and hugged us, and he told us he appreciated everything we do for him. That he loved us,” said Ottertail, who was devastated.

“That’s the last thing he said.”

Hours later, at approximately 3 p.m., Ottertail said she was awoken by two other people who were also in the room – they told her the child was unresponsive.

She said one of the people admitted to giving the boy fentanyl.

Ottertail said he was cold to the touch.

“They didn’t wake us up until it was too late. They didn’t even bother calling an ambulance right away,” said Ottertail of the two other people in the room at the time.

Those were Thre Windego’s last moments alive.

An OPP vehicle parked outside the unit where Thre Windego died in Fort Frances, Ont.

Windego’s death is under investigation by the Ontario Provincial Police, which continued to hold the scene where he died as of Thursday morning.

It’s also been flagged by the coroner’s office, because Windego was in care of Weechi-it-te-win Family Services, a First Nation child protection agency paid to provide services to nine local First Nation communities.

A death in care triggers a coroner’s investigation, as well as one by the province.

APTN has spent the last two days piecing together Windego’s last days alive, as well as his time in care of Weechi.

It’s clear he had a tumultuous time in care going through several caregivers (foster parents) over the years, while also living on the streets of Fort Frances leading to his death in a seedy motel at age 16.

Those who cared for Windego described a loving and caring boy.

“He really was an amazing kid,” said Erika Butler, who was Windego’s caregiver from 2016-2019.

But he also had a lot of anger, especially after the deaths of his mom, Tracy Windego, in 2018 and grandfather, Harry Windego, the following year.

“After his grandfather died, Harry was his idol, it got very rocky very quickly. He ran away from our house,” said Butler.

That placement with Butler broke down in November 2019. She says months later allegations of physical abuse surfaced after she kept pushing Weechi to help Windego. The allegations were later dropped.

Windego went to live with his sister, Autumn Windego, 27, at Rainy River First Nations, about 30 km west of Fort Frances, along with her partner and their two young children. It was the first time they had ever lived together.

By September of the following year, he couldn’t stay there any longer and was sent to live with a cousin until January 2021 when that placement broke down too.

He then went to live at his girlfriend’s mother’s house. While he was there Windego reached out to Butler on Facebook.

“Weechi stopped caring about my whereabouts. Only reason I live with my girlfriend,” he wrote he believed in a Facebook message in March 2021.

He explained to Butler how he gotten started using hard drugs and was worried about overdosing on fentanyl.

“I remember when I thought I couldn’t get addicted to anything. The only reason I thought that was because I never knew what addiction felt like,” he said.

He would have been 13 at the time he wrote that.

APTN confirmed the boy was living at his former girlfriend’s home for much of 2021.

Two people said Windego lived there for about five months before his worker at Weechi contacted them.

“I asked [the worker] why after all this time was she contacting me now? I asked her what her case files said on what his whereabouts were and then It took her another couple of weeks to reply,” said one resident of the home, who asked that their name not be used.

“If he was out of sight, then he was out of mind.”

Later that year, however, he was on his own again after an incident at the girlfriend’s home.

Local resident Aurora Cupp told APTN she was leaving Fort Frances towards Atikokan on the evening of Sept. 13, 2021 with her son and husband when she picked up a hitchhiker.

It was Windego walking along Highway 11.

She brought him to her house, and he called his worker.

Cupp said she remembered Windego told his worker over the phone that he refused to go back to his girlfriend’s home. Someone from Weechi picked him up at about 3 a.m.

He was then sent to live with an aunt in Winnipeg.

“But my brother didn’t want structure and started not listening,” said his sister, Autumn.

That arrangement worked until April 2022 when he was back in Fort Frances. A volunteer at a Fort Frances drop-in centre told APTN she kept calling Weechi throughout the summer reporting he was there.

This was after a big flood and the unsheltered in Fort Frances started putting up tents at the daily drop-in.

“We would find him in tents. I called many times that summer,” said Traci Lockman, co-founder of The Family Centre.

By August 2022 he nearly died of an overdose, said Lockman.

“They got him breathing again. He was going in and out, so I called 911 and stayed at the tent watching him,” she said.

Lockman called Weechi again days later when they found him back at the drop-in centre. A worker came to talk to him and left without him, said Lockman.

She posted on social media about how Weechi left him there.

A band councillor from nearby Couchiching First Nation, with close ties to Weechi, responded to the post.

“Where’s his wicked sister that’s fighting systems like Weechi on APTN and talking about every child matters?” wrote someone from Kourtney Perrault’s Facebook account on Aug. 14, 2022 referring to Autumn Windego, according to a screenshot of the comments.

“Oh ya . . . she didn’t want him when he was in her care and threw him back in the system.”

APTN contacted Perrault through email but she didn’t respond.

Autumn said she helped find two of his placements with family and kept pushing Weechi to get her brother the help he needed. The agency is the service provider.

There was also something that Windego never knew about his sister that often put a barrier between them.

It was something Autumn could never bring herself to tell him while he was alive – she was conceived through rape.

Their mother hated Autumn all her life and even said so on her deathbed.

Autumn would grow up in care just like her brother, where she was sexually abused several times, and didn’t find out about her mom’s rape until after her mother passed.

“I could never bring myself to tell him because I was so ashamed,” said Autumn.

She said this in part led the breakdown in her home, but he also ran away a lot at all hours.

Autumn said wanted Weechi to install cameras but they never did. She thought if she had cameras she would at least know when he last left the house in case he went missing.

Autumn is furious anyone would doubt her love for her brother.

Without knowing the facts.

“I am the first in four generations to raise my own children. This is a difficult and messy cycle to break,” she said.

Soon after the overdose at the drop-in centre, Weechi placed Windego in another home belonging to Jess Badiuk, who is also an intake worker at Weechi.

Badiuk’s partner at the time was Kourtney Perreault.

News of Thre Windego’s death created drama online once again.

“We did everything in our power to keep him safe and to give him a place to call home when no one else would. Addiction is f**king hard,” wrote Perreault in a profanity-laced Facebook post earlier this week.

“Jess spent countless hours driving him around at any hour when he was going through psychosis because it was the only thing that would calm him down.”

APTN reached out Badiuk about his last days.

We heard she kicked him out.

Santino Smith, 20, told APTN he was also living at Badiuk’s home for the last two months.

That is up until April 16 when Smith said Badiuk kicked both him and Windego out of the home.

Badiuk first dropped Windego off at the Husky gas station at around 10:30 p.m. and then Smith said she drove him to Northwest Bay First Nation.

“That’s the last time I seen him,” said Smith. “He said, ‘I’m homeless bro. We’ll see each other next time you’re in town.'”

Smith said Windego was kicked out of Badiuk’s home several times.

“He would always come to the bedroom window I was staying in telling me to open the door and of course I would, even though Jess told me not to,” said Smith.

He said several older teenagers also lived in the home at the time. APTN knows at least one was in the care of Weechi, as well.

Smith said he’s not connected to care and moved in when he was 20.

“I just started living there when I got kicked out of my girlfriend’s house. I messaged [Thre] right away when I had nowhere to go and he just said come over,” said Smith. “I do have a drinking problem too … all I did was drink and play music pretty much.”

APTN asked Badiuk about this but she refused to answer any questions in her replies and kept referring to Windego as “her child.”

“I’m not answering your questions because it’s none of your f**kin’ business,” she wrote. “I know how much I loved him and how much I did for him and that’s all that matters.”

She didn’t refute a single fact APTN provided her.

That includes issues around Windego appearing in court for a theft under $5,000 charge from May 24, 2022 and another on Dec. 6, 2022.

Emails obtained by APTN show the court was growing frustrated with Weechi for not appointing a lawyer. Sources said Windego kept missing court appearances and court officials reached out to his sister, Autumn, for assistance in November and January.

He was last in court just a couple of weeks ago, charged with assault.

Court records show he was released on bail into the custody of Weechi on April 3.

Smith said Windego came back to Badiuk’s after his release.

“I let him back in,” he said. “(Badiuk) told him that he wasn’t supposed to be there, but he just stayed anyways.”

Four days before his death, Weechi also rented a room for him at the La Place Rendez-Vous hotel, according to sources.

Sources said he wasn’t there much and that they never saw a worker with him. The day after his death hotel staff checked his room and it looked like no one had been there besides a few empty aerosol cans.

The room was canceled by Weechi on April 18, according to a source.

A couple days after Thre Windego’s death, someone was spray painting these messages all over downtown Fort Frances.

APTN put questions to Laurie Rose, the executive director of Weechi and board president, Carrie Atatise-Norwegian.

Rose responded saying she wasn’t allowed to answer the questions.

“You can be assured, however, that despite your unfounded allegations otherwise, this agency did everything humanly possible to protect the youth that you insist upon exposing to media treatment. We grieve his loss; we demand that you respect his passing in a manner that does not sensationalize your campaign,” she wrote.

Many questions remain about his time in care and his last days.

“I am broken by the passing of my brother. The system failed Thre. I don’t blame any particular caregiver that was taking care of Thre. The agency is responsible to care for and protect children, especially children as vulnerable as my brother,” said Autumn.

Too many caregivers and staff at Weechi lack the proper training, she said. She speaks from experience having worked for the agency.

The agency also has a documented history of neglecting children in its care, including severe cases of sexual abuse, as APTN has reported in a series of stories since 2020.

APTN’s reporting also triggered the province to call for an independent review of the agency’s operations, but it has yet to begin.

At the time of Windego’s death, a person to lead the review hadn’t been appointed yet.

Read More:

Independent review of Weechi-it-te-win Family Services to begin ‘imminently’

Autumn wondered if her brother would be alive today if the province acted quicker on our reporting.

The Ontario government offered condolences to the family and friends of Windego.

“While we are unable to speak to details due to an ongoing police investigation, we take these matters seriously. Our focus remains on ensuring that the support children, youth, families, and communities receive is responsive and available whenever it is needed. Ministry staff are standing by and ready to assist police in the investigation of this tragic event,” said Patrick Bissett, a press secretary for the minister of Children, Community and Social Services.

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