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Cold case involving alleged sexual offender a worry, says expert

Vernon Martin remains missing 12 years after spectacular fire
thumbnail_Vernon Martin
Vernon Michael Martin

It was 10 years ago this month that a mystery surrounding a spectacular fire and the disappearance of a prominent Prince George business owner only deepened.

On Dec. 18, 2009, the Northern Thunderbird hangar at Prince George Airport burned to the ground.

A pickup truck belonging to Vernon Michael Martin was found parked outside the structure, which he co-owned and where he had an office.

While it was presumed he had died in the blaze, the build up of ice during the firefighting efforts delayed a search for his remains until the following spring. Four months after the fire, forensic investigators picked through the rubble for two weeks but to no avail.

Then, in May 2012, news broke that in November 2010, RCMP in Vermillion, Alta. had issued warrants for Martin's arrest for alleged sex-related offences involving minors. The allegations were based two sets of complaints dating back 35 to 43 years ago. 

Alberta RCMP Cpl. Roy Savinkoff recently confirmed that a warrant for Martin's arrest remains active and his whereabouts continue to be a mystery.

"On this particular investigation there are no leads to suggest where he might be," Savinkoff said.

Presuming that Martin made himself disappear because the chances of being convicted were high, the fact that an alleged sexual offender could still be on the loose is a concern, according to Michael Arntfield, a professor at University of Western Ontario whose work has included analyzing unsolved crimes.

"We know from studies that child sex offenders have the highest recidivism rate of any convicted offender, and those are convicts," Arntfield said. "This is someone who hasn't been convicted, it sounds like, and has gotten away with it so far, so there is an added element of public safety that people should be concerned about. Wherever he is, he poses a danger, presumably, to that community."

Fires and drownings tend to be the preferred way of staging a fake death, he said. Fortunately, Martin's disappearance was not a case of a "homicide staged to look like a suicide" where a body is recovered but not of the person who wanted to go missing.

Evading police for as long as Martin appears to have been able to do so is becoming increasingly uncommon, Arntfield said, particularly as police move towards computerized record keeping. But it's not impossible and tracking down a culprit can sometimes be a matter of a "lucky break."

"Recognized in a crowd in a sports game on TV or just walking down the street. There are some interesting stories about how these people get discovered," he said. 

Being caught returning to the scene of the crime or hometown is rare, Arntfield said, because of the risk it implies.

Martin would be 67 years old by now but "child sex offenders remain threats well into their old age," Arntfield said.

When it comes to tracking Martin down, the more information the better, from favourite pastimes to tattoos or distinctive scars to notable speech patterns and other quirks.

"That's how you're going to get somebody to say 'hey, that's the guy down at the shop down the street," Arntfield said.

As it stands, Savinkoff said police have no additional details about his features other than height, weight, eye colour and hair colour.