In church, Cory Westcott preferred to practise his faith in silence. He sat in the back, paying attention but not singing any hymns.
Yet on Sunday, Aug. 30, 2020, when he and his friend Chad Tonnos entered church together, Westcott headed confidently for the front row.
“He stood up to sing that morning and he had never sung like that before, ever,” Tonnos says.
“He was very involved in the service, and singing every song, and I thought to myself, this is amazing.”
Tonnos had introduced Westcott to the services at Nelson’s Kootenay Christian Fellowship hoping it would help his friend deal with his addictions. He thinks Westcott’s behaviour that morning could have been some sort of breakthrough.
But Tonnos would never find out, because after that church service he never saw Westcott again.
Over the next few days, Tonnos and Westcott’s friends Dan Nillo and Bethany Warren tried to get in contact with him, with no reply. Later in the week they called the police and reported him missing.
Westcott, who was 34 at the time, has never been found.
Westcott was a man of contradictions. Though he suffered from addictions, he was committed to beating them and setting up an addiction treatment centre in the Nelson area. His appearance belied his personality: his friends say he was a generous and friendly man with a strong Christian faith, but his size, extreme tattoos and forthright opinions sometimes intimidated people.
The Nelson Police Department says the case is still under investigation and calls the disappearance “suspicious.” Westcott’s mother Dee Zacher has taken several search parties out into the rural area in which he was last seen, and she has maintained a Facebook group asking for tips and clues.
Zacher believes there are people who know what happened to her son but who are staying silent, and she wants to know why.
Looking for answers
By asking around, Warren and Nillo concluded that Westcott was last seen when he left the home of Bonnington resident Isaac Roberts on the night of Aug. 31, 2020.
A few days after he was reported missing, the police contacted Warren to say her pickup truck had been found with the keys in it, abandoned on Rover Creek Road near the Kootenay Canal.
The pickup was registered in Warren’s name but was being used that summer by Westcott. Warren and Westcott had been in a relationship for a year until about three weeks previously. She says they were still friends who texted each other every day.
Warren and Nillo drove to Rover Creek Road to meet the police and claim her vehicle. Warren says she wasn’t questioned by officers who only handed over the keys.
Warren wondered who had driven the vehicle to that spot and questioned whether the police had checked the truck for fingerprints. She says they did not mention having done this.
“I was just in such shock,” Warren says. “What does this mean? Is he found? Is he alive? Is he dead? I’m trying to wrap my head around why this vehicle is sitting out here.”
When asked by the Nelson Star whether any forensic work had been done on the vehicle before it was released to Warren, the Nelson Police Department declined to comment, saying the case was still under investigation.
Warren and Nillo, shaken by the mystery of the truck and their missing friend, decided to go directly from Rover Creek Road to the last place Westcott had been seen – Roberts’ house in Bonnington.
“I wanted to look this person in the eye,” Warren says. “I wanted to try and get a read on the situation. We talked with him, he was smiling, and he assured us he knew nothing about the disappearance.”
She says Roberts told them Westcott had left his house late at night on Aug. 31 and that he had seemed happy.
“Then we left and I drove the truck to my place and I parked it there,” Warren says.
The police flew a helicopter over the area and sent divers into the canal over several days while a small vigil of Westcott’s friends and family waited on the shore.
Officers eventually questioned Warren about Westcott’s activities leading up to the disappearance. But because the couple had separated and she had not seen him for several weeks, she had little information to give.
The Nelson Star was not able to interview Roberts for this story. He was found dead in September, 2021. The RCMP reported it as a non-suspicious death.
An entrepreneurial child
When Westcott was a child growing up in Kelowna with his mother and his older sister Crystal, he was very active and curious about the world, Zacher says.
He started working out with weights when he was 12 because he was small and was bothered by bullies at school.
“He actually started working out really hard,” she says. “I had to come down on him and say, ‘No, no, no, you’re going too hard. You’re going to hurt yourself.’”
Westcott had an entrepreneurial streak as a child. At age 12 he was given dozens of stuffed animals by a man who ran a claw machine. She says this was her son’s first job: selling stuffed animals at a stand beside the road.
A year later, without telling his mother, he took a job in a carnival booth. She tried to convince him he was too young but eventually gave in and took some days off from her own job so she could keep an eye on him as he worked.
“He always was up to something, inventing something. He would take the VCR apart, see what it was made of, and put it back together. Thankfully, it still worked.”
Nillo noticed this ambitious attitude as well.
Westcott was 18 and new to Nelson when he first met Nillo, who recommended that Westcott go tubing on the Slocan River but warned him to take food because there was none for sale at the river.
“And then the next day, I’m tubing down the river with a bunch of friends,” Nillo says, “and all of a sudden, there’s Cory with a barbecue and a cooler selling hotdogs and hamburgers. He was just that kind of guy.”
From his teenage years until his disappearance, according to Zacher, Westcott had many jobs including bartender, bouncer, oilfield worker, jewelry maker, construction worker and sawmill worker. He also went to theatre school briefly. He was trying to find his niche in the world, his mother says.
She thinks her son’s addiction started when he was given morphine after dental surgery. She was concerned and discussed addiction with him, but he shrugged it off as temporary pain relief.
Westcott never had the opportunity to ask for guidance from his father.
“I think not having a relationship with his father probably was straining for Cory,” Zacher says. “I would imagine it would be for any boy, right? His father wasn’t present in his life, which Cory terribly regretted.”
She says her son’s father reached out from his deathbed in New Brunswick in 2013, asking Westcott to come and see him.
“He wanted to make amends with Cory for not being there. But Cory didn’t go. He was too far into the drugs at that point.”
‘A big bad guy who was nice’
About a year before his disappearance, Westcott had returned to Nelson from Vancouver to be closer to his family and re-think his life, Zacher said. She is not aware of what her son did for a living in Vancouver, but says he regularly went to addiction treatment and meetings.
Tonnos said Christianity was an icebreaker when he first met Westcott at a potluck at his home about a year before Westcott’s disappearance.
“He had a big tattoo of Christ on his neck,” Tonnos says. “And I’m covered in Christ tattoos as well … He was open to God. I felt a duty to him as a fellow believer.”
At first Tonnos was intimidated by Westcott’s muscles and tattoos, thinking he looked like a gangster or an Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter, but then they connected while watching UFC Fight Night.
Westcott, Tonnos found, did not act like a fighter or a gangster.
“Cory was very nice to everyone,” says Tonnos. “He was like a big bad guy who was nice.”
As the two started to hang out often, Westcott opened up about his addictions. He told Tonnos that he had a dream of recovery, starting a new life and building a centre for young men who were struggling with addiction or were potential candidates for gangs.
But Tonnos realized that dream was a long way off because Westcott was addicted to ketamine and was “still losing the battle.”
Nillo had known Westcott much longer than Tonnos, and he was also very aware of Westcott’s addiction and his powerful desire to leave it behind.
“While addiction doesn’t define him, it’s an important part of his story,” Nillo says.
Zacher says she and her son were both in despair over his addiction.
“Cory wanted to get better desperately,” she says. “We talked about it, and he said, ‘Mom, if I can just shake this and get past it, life would be good.’ It weighed on him. I could see the weight.”
In Nelson, Westcott attended rehab and more than one church, went to various kinds of counselling, and took part in spiritual ceremonies using ayahuasca (a plant-based psychedelic drug), all in an attempt to overcome his addiction.
Westcott’s personality often hid his addiction. Nillo and Tonnos say they fondly remember Westcott’s laugh, and Warren says Westcott kept her laughing throughout their relationship. She says he would connect with elderly strangers in the grocery store by cracking jokes and getting them laughing.
“He just had this charisma about him and kindness that shocked me. From his exterior, it’s not what you would expect at all.”
Warren recalls going out for coffee with Westcott but having trouble actually getting to the coffee shop because Westcott would buy sandwiches and give them to homeless people on Baker Street, spending time with them in friendly chats, forming relationships with them.
Nillo says not everyone thought Westcott was funny or likeable and that his personality was complex and sometimes extreme. Some thought he was too direct, to the point of rudeness, and sometimes politically incorrect.
He was a polarizing figure, misunderstood by many people, Nillo says.
“When he was doing well, it was larger than life. When he wasn’t, it was larger than life. That was Cory. He was like some kind of a dazzling creature, honestly.”
Warren said that despite Westcott’s own struggles with addiction, he was focused on helping others with theirs. He also helped her with issues in her own life.
“There was just a spark in him. It lifted me up. I had my own things that I needed to work through, and he was always pushing me to be a better person, to be the best me … What do I want to aspire to? What goals do I want?”
His supportive attitude toward Warren makes the social media response to Westcott’s disappearance especially bitter for her. Commenters said she was responsible for the disappearance, calling her a murderer and a conspirator who knew more than she was telling. Warren said many of the accusers did not know her and had never met Westcott or his family.
She was especially hurt when the commenters went after members of her own family. It caused her to withdraw into herself, and she thinks this may have led some to think she wasn’t doing anything to help find Westcott.
“I’ve never lost someone who I loved this much and meant this much to me. I’ve never experienced grief like this. It was a very new and hard experience for me.”
Warren acknowledges the pain of Westcott’s family.
“I can sit here and say it’s hard for me, but I can’t imagine how it is for his mom and sister, to have a family member just gone, poof, no answers.”
‘The nights are long’
Several times since her son’s disappearance Zacher has taken search parties of friends and supporters out onto Crown land in the Bonnington, Beasley and Mountain View areas near the house formerly owned by Roberts where her son was last seen. She laid each piece of land out in a grid pattern, marking it with flagging tape to make sure every inch was covered. They searched for a body or suspicious disturbances of the ground.
She says she was sharply focused on the task, but fearful.
“I’m determined, very determined to find him. But at the same time, the heart-wrenching part is, what do I do if I find my son’s body laying out there?”
Zacher has stepped up the search by engaging Please Bring Me Home, an Ontario-based non-profit organization whose team, according to its website, includes expertise in law enforcement, forensic investigations, search and rescue, and human-remains detection.
She says the group will arrive in Nelson this summer with advanced equipment and will search the Rover Creek and Bonnington areas.
Zacher relies a lot on her intuition. She believes that her son was murdered and the body was hidden. She thinks someone other than Westcott parked the truck on Rover Creek Road.
How else could a man simply disappear and not be found? she asks. Despite her opinion that he was murdered, Zacher said she is not aware of anyone who would have wanted to harm him.
She recalls two days spent in a boat with search and rescue workers on the Kootenay Canal just after her son’s disappearance.
“I was watching the sonar with them, for my son’s body. I knew he wasn’t there. I said to the search and rescue, ‘You know what, I don’t think Cory is here, I don’t feel him here. I don’t believe he’s in the canal.’”
And after a two-day search, it turned out he wasn’t.
Zacher wants to see evidence of her son’s death. She wants to know what happened, even if she never learns the why of it. So her tormented search for answers continues.
“The nights are long. But trying to bring him home keeps me going.”