Case File Overview
70-year-old Stephanie Stewart worked alone as a wildfire spotter at the Athabasca Tower lookout, located approximately 15 miles (25 kilometres) northeast of Hinton, Alberta on the outskirts of Jasper National Park.
Stephanie was reported missing at 9:00 am on August 26th, 2006 when she failed to check-in that morning; routine check-ins were required 3 times a day. Another fire spotter was sent to investigate. Stephanie was nowhere to be found.
Athabasca Tower and Cabin
Stephanie was last heard from when she chatted on the phone with a family member the previous evening at around 9:00 pm.
At the time of her disappearance, Stephanie wore glasses, stood 5 feet 2 inches tall (158 centimetres), weighed roughly 105 pounds (48 kilograms), and had blue eyes and mixed grey, auburn hair.
Stephanie remains missing.
Case File Theories
Ran Off to Start A New Life
Did Stephanie abandon her post to start a new life? This theory is extremely unlikely. By all accounts, Stephanie was an adventurous, healthy senior and a beloved mother. She loved her job and had 18 years’ experience fulfilling her duties as a fire spotter, with 13 of the years spent at the Athabasca Tower lookout. Apparently she relished her time there, tending the garden, doing crafts, and reading many books. This doesn’t sound like a life that Stephanie longed to escape from. Also, her Dodge Ram truck was still parked on site. It’s not probable Stephanie would set off to start a new life on foot in the forest. The police are adamant that Stephanie just didn’t walk away from her life. No doubt the authorities monitored her credit cards and bank accounts and they were untouched. I believe that this theory can be readily dismissed.
Misadventure / Animal Attack
Did Stephanie somehow manage to get lost? The watchtower is located in a dense mountain forest. However, Stephanie had been working on site for 13 years, so I believe this isn’t the answer. Or was she killed by an animal and then dragged from the scene? Maybe. But the authorities conducted an extensive ground, water, and air search of thousands of kilometres of land. Even infrared technology was used and turned up nothing. Given this, the police officially ruled out an accident or animal attack as the cause of Stephanie’s disappearance.
Was Stephanie murdered? The police insist that Stephanie’s disappearance is the result of a homicide. Items were missing from the cabin: two pillows with blue covers, a burgundy sheet, a Navajo-patterned duvet, and Stephanie’s gold watch. Was Stephanie sexually assaulted and killed on the bed? The perpetrator could have wrapped Stephanie in the bedding and took both it and her body in an effort to hide evidence of the crime. Was Stephanie killed during a robbery and that is why her watch is missing? Or did the killer merely steal the watch because they saw the opportunity?
Crucially, the police have told the media that forensic evidence at the scene led them to conclude that Stephanie was murdered. However, they decline to reveal specifics to “protect the integrity of the investigation.” It has been unofficially reported, though, that enough blood was found in the cabin to indicate that Stephanie had been killed. Was Stephanie murdered by someone that she knew who travelled to the lookout for the sole purpose of killing her? Or was she killed by someone who just happened to come across her alone in the wilderness? The latter is more possible than one might think, as the Athabasca Tower is reportedly only 3 miles (5 kilometres) from a main road.
Was Stephanie murdered by Travis Vader? Vader is serving a life sentence for the murder of Lyle and Marie McCann, aged 78 and 77. The couple disappeared shortly after they left their Edmonton-area home in their RV for a camping trip to British Columbia in July, 2010. Vader, a drug addict with a history of arson, theft, and weapon charges, killed the McCanns during a robbery west of Edmonton. After murdering the couple, Vader disposed of their bodies in the woods and then burnt their RV. The McCanns’ remains have never been found.
Lyle and Marie McCann
It has been reported that Vader was in the area when Stephanie disappeared. He might have killed her during a robbery; recall that Stephanie’s gold watch was missing. Also, Vader has a propensity for killing seniors. It has also been suggested that a warm pot of water that was found on the stove at Stephanie’s cabin could have been an attempt to start a fire. As Vader likes using fire to destroy evidence, this could be possible. Even if Vader was responsible for Stephanie’s murder, I doubt he’ll be confessing to it anytime soon. He still actively denies any involvement in the murder of the McCanns. And, of course, he hasn’t disclosed the location of their bodies.
What do you think happened to Stephanie?
Stephanie’s daughter Lorie mourns the loss of her mother. She told the media that “Mom’s a hell of a woman. She’s very strong, she’s very capable … The tower life is her life.” Although Stephanie’s loved ones long for answers, as a small consolation Stephanie’s legacy lives on in the improved safety enjoyed by fire spotters in Canada since her disappearance.
The Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, of which Stephanie was a member, has implemented multiple safety recommendations that have since spread throughout Canada. For instance, lockable gates and fencing have been installed around the cabins and watch towers. Bush from around the cabins has been removed to improve visibility. Cabin doors and windows have been fortified. Staff also received self-defence training and are now equipped with panic buttons.
If you have any information about Stephanie’s disappearance, please contact the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Hinton Detachment at 780-865-2455. A $20,000 reward is still being offered by the Alberta government and the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees for information that solves the mystery of what happened to Stephanie.
Related Reading and Listening
10 years since wildfire spotter Stephanie Stewart vanished near Hinton, Alta. – Global News article
$20,000 reward still offered for information to solve Stewart case – Hinton Parklander article
Travis Vader sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of killing elderly couple – The National Post article
Disappearance of Stephanie Stewart – Thinking Sideways Podcast episode