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Searching for the missing link
It has been 50 years, but the Byman family still has no idea what happened to their daughter and sister when she disappeared at a picnic in 1961.
On May 6, 1961, the 12-year-old Brenda Byman from Dry Gulch went to stay with her grandmother in nearby Wilmer. It was her first sleepover and Brenda excitedly accepted the invitation of her friend Vivian who lived next-door to her grandmother’s to sleep at her house.
The next day, a Sunday, the girls took off on a picnic with some older boys and from that point on, nobody knows what happened.
When Brenda’s parents, Ingvar and Hilda Byman, came to pick their daughter up, they learned she had disappeared and the family started a search. At first it was just family and friends, remembers Audrey Pepin who was 15 when her sister Brenda disappeared. They built a bonfire that afternoon, throwing old tires in it and keeping it going all night, so Brenda could see the flames and smoke and find her way home.
“I was on the search every day,” Pepin recalls, “Me and my dad.” Soon after, more and more volunteers signed up to help. A search and rescue team from Kimberley as well as a group of Seventh Day Adventists from Spokane, vacationing in Fairmont, joined locals on the search for Brenda.
The Byman family estimates there were about 3,000 people in total, combing every field and thicket, searching creek beds, setting out nets across rivers and dragging the lake. The local mill shut down for two weeks and men lost their pay to help find the missing child.
“The townspeople raised money and brought a search dog in from the States,” Pepin adds. The dog picked up Brenda’s scent trail and followed it to a hill where it curled up and laid down, almost as if Brenda had been picked up at that spot.
Prospectors, hunters and loggers were keeping their eyes open in the bush, but no one found any clues as to what may have happened to the girl.
Over the years, the story disappeared from the headlines, but Pepin says her family never stopped searching. “My dad never stopped and a lot of his friends never stopped.”
One of her saddest memories of her father is of him standing by the large picture window in their house in Dry Gulch. “He used to stand there for hours and hours, just staring out the window,” she says, “He looked so lonesome.”
Over the years, many leads and conspiracy theories have come up, including painful stories of how the family went to hide Brenda in Ontario to bring her back to the Valley as an adult.
On the 40th anniversary of the disappearance, a man admitted he and some friends had come across a human skeleton in the mid-70s when they were only 12 years old. Having disobeyed orders to stay on their grandmother’s property, the boys hid the bones and kept quiet for 20 years.
The man could not remember the exact location and a search was unsuccessful.
“My brother and his friends went searching around there, but there was nothing,” Pepin says.
When a skull was discovered lying in the water near the shoreline in Invermere in 2006, the Byman family once again was paying close attention, however, it turned out that the skull was not part of Brenda’s remains.
The Byman family still talks about what happened on the day Brenda disappeared, they remember her birthday, but Pepin explains there is no closure for them, just questions. “We don’t know where her body is. We don’t know what happened.”
“My mother always keeps this little electric candle in the window,” Pepin adds. Their pain will never go away and all the Byman family can do is remember and hope that one day they will get the answers they have been looking for for 50 years.