Missing: last fall, Ann Marie Potton hiked up Whistler Mountain - and vanished without a trace.(Cover Story)

At dusk, the fog drifts in off Lake Ontario, lapping against the shoreline just beyond George and Maureen Potton's backyard fence. When they first moved to this manicured cul-de-sac on the sprawling outskirts of St. Catharines, Maureen warned her two school-age daughters about the lake's mercurial moods. But that was before other perils shattered the serenity of their Niagara peninsula community--before the spectre of Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka's bungalow only 10 minutes away had confirmed every parent's most horrific nightmares. Now, Maureen Potton cannot read the daily news accounts of Bernardo's trial and refuses to follow the lurid details on TV. She has her own acquaintance with a parent's worst fears--a tale that she is still trying to make sense of as she recounts the Thanksgiving weekend nine months ago when the phone rang at 10:30 p.m. in the family's Collingwood ski chalet.

"That'll be Ann Marie," Maureen Potton said as she reached for the receiver. Two nights earlier, her eldest daughter had called from Whistler, the British Columbia ski mecca where she had just arrived for a second winter on the slopes. At 24, Ann Marie had been wistful at the thought of spending her first Thanksgiving away from home. But she had assured her mother that, after finishing work at the resort's Mad Cafe, she was going to meet friends for a potluck feast. She had volunteered to bring the squash, but she confessed that she didn't have a clue what to do with it.

Maureen Potton had chuckled as she dictated the recipe. "It's my fault she doesn't know how to make squash," she thought. She had encouraged her two girls in sports and music, not domesticity. Twice a week for six years, she had chauffeured Ann Marie between after-school rowing practice in St. Catharines and rehearsals with the Toronto Children's Chorus two hours away. Now, in her daughter's pink bedroom upstairs, rowing medals dangled from colored ribbons across from a 1982 commendation signed by then-Toronto mayor Art Eggleton after the children's choir won first prize at the Llangollen international festival in Wales. Over the bed hung another framed note from Mila Mulroney congratulating her on running the 1992 Shinerama fund-raising campaign for cystic fibrosis at the University of Western Ontario, which broke campus records. Accomplishments had come easily to Ann Marie. But, as her family loved to tease her, culinary prowess was not one of them.

When Maureen Potton picked up the phone, she was prepared to hear the chronicle of a madcap Thanksgiving meal. Instead, Cpl. Darryl Little of Whistler's RCMP detachment was on the line. "I just want to let you know your daughter is missing," he said. "She was last seen hiking on the mountain yesterday afternoon and she didn't turn up for work this morning. We're starting a search now."

Missing. The word hangs in the air as heavy as the evening dew settling over the poolside patio table where a floral-covered photo album sits unopened. George Potton still struggles to get his tongue around it, no matter how many times he has related the details. At 2:30 a.m. on the night he learned Ann Marie had disappeared, he dialled Air Canada to make a reservation for Vancouver, only to discover that the planes were fully booked. Then, he phoned a pilot friend and explained his plight. It was the first time he would call on the contacts built up over a lifetime in the advertising game and Conservative politics. But it would not be the last.

Over the next nine months, as he set out on a search that would become a testimonial to one family's love and grit--and unique connections--he blazed a trail that he is turning into a resource manual for other families to follow. For as he discovered, Ann Marie's case fell into a limbo for which no ongoing search facilities or support systems exist. …

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