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Still Missing: More than a year after Scandiffio disappeared from Ladysmith’s Oktoberfest, his family has no answers

Sophie Kuijper Dickson
Ladysmith Dec. 20, 2023
Michael Scandiffio had a modest but generous vision for his retirement.
He wanted to take on a bigger role in his sons’ sports, dedicate more time to his basketball association, and spend some quality time with the new puppy his family had recently taken in, that he was quickly, to his surprise, growing attached to.
Mike, as his family called him, was a spiritual man, and he yearned to become more involved at the Catholic church he had been attending since he was born.
It was the church where his parents had gotten married, where he had been baptized as a child, where he married his wife Debora Brown, and where they baptized both of their two sons.
During his career working in communications, as a reporter and deputy-editor for The Hill Times, a political newspaper in Ottawa, as a producer for CTV, and later as a communications director for the federal government, he maintained an active role in the lives of his sons and in his community.
When Mike was not at work, he spent his time helping his sons with homework, coaching their sports teams, and volunteering with the church.
In his retirement, he wanted to lean into these communities, and spend more time with the people he loved.
“He was just a really gentle, kind soul. He loved to have deep conversations with people about philosophy and religion,” remembered Kelly Steele, Mike’s sister-in-law.
Steele spoke with THE EQUITY on a cold afternoon in November, just over a year after he disappeared from Ladysmith’s Oktoberfest.
She had just returned from a week in Florida with her parents – a trip she hoped would allow all of them a small window of escape from the complicated cloud of mourning, without closure, and with so many questions still unanswered that had hung over the family’s head since Mike had gone missing.
“That was the best thing about Mike,” Steele remembered. “No matter what opinion you had, he respected it, even if it was the polar opposite of his. He could sit and have a conversation with an atheist and really enjoy it and be interested in understanding why they believed what they believed.”
Aside from church, baseball, and basketball, Mike’s great love was his cottage near Otter Lake.
His parents had built it on Clarke Lake in the 80s when he was a teenager, and he had been going up ever since.
“He liked the sunsets and the sound of water and reading and just being outside with the kids,” Steele said.
Steele remembered how Mike and her husband, good friends, would get talking at dinner and continue their conversion on the front porch of the cottage, often long into the night after everybody else had gone to bed, and often with a tiny glass of scotch.
“One of the things that united them so strongly was their love of philosophy, and for Mike, theology,” Steele said.
“I imagined that they talked about the meaning of life and what comes after. He was always looking to do the right thing and feel part of the spiritual world that he so believed in.”
But Mike has not been able to enjoy the retirement he had long dreamed of.
On Oct. 1, 2022, he left Oktoberfest at the Thorne Community RA centre in Ladysmith to take some food from the event to one of his sons who had stayed back at the cottage with a friend. The plan was for him to return to the party later to pick up Brown, but Mike never came back.
When Brown called her son at the cottage, she learned Mike had never made it there at all.
Mike and his vehicle went missing that evening, and in the 14 months since he disappeared, not a clue has been found as to what may have happened to him.
While a substantial community search in the first weeks after Mike disappeared covered significant ground, the family says they remain largely disappointed by the lack of communication from the police throughout the course of their investigation.
For their part, the police say they respected protocol, and that they deployed all resources their protocol made available to them, but the family feels they could have done so while also being more transparent and empathetic in communicating what this protocol was.
The night Mike disappeared
Kim Cluff was one of the last people Mike spoke with before he disappeared.
She has been volunteering at Oktoberfest since she was a teenager. Her grandfather was Clarence Bretzlaff, who founded the festival just shy of 40 years ago.

On the evening of Oct. 1, 2022, Cluff was stationed at the canteen, selling sausages in buns.
“He and his wife came up, and we just chatted about how they wanted to take the sausages home to feed the teenagers. He was going to take this back to the cottage, and she was going to stay and wait for him. Both of them were very lighthearted, and laughing,” Cluff remembered.
“I wrapped up their sausages for them, and they were so appreciative, and the next thing I heard was about this man who had disappeared.’”
Steele herself wasn’t at Oktoberfest that night, but what she remembers of what her sister Brown told her, Mike was going to take the food back to his son while Brown stayed at the festival with a friend from the area.
“Mike is kind of a quiet guy. Deb, Mike and their friend were dancing and he was participating and having fun enjoying the live music,” Steele said, adding that her sister understood when Mike offered to take some food back to the boys at the cottage that he wanted to check the score of the baseball game that was on TV that night.
He left Ladysmith around 8:30 p.m.. It was an hour later, shortly after 10 p.m., when he had still not returned, that Brown began to worry.
She called Mike’s cell, which was low on battery when he left, but he did not answer, which Steele said was not out of the ordinary. So Brown called her son at the cottage to see why Mike was late.
“That’s when she found out he had never made it back with the food. So right away she worried, because there’s nowhere else he would go,” Steele said.
Steele said Brown spent the evening calling Mike’s cell phone over and over again, with no answer.
At one point Brown asked the police whether they could ping Mike’s cell phone to locate it, but according to Steele, the police refused because it was not proper procedure.
“Which I kind of get because she could be a psycho wife looking for her husband,” Steele said. “But at the same time, that would have made all the difference, so it’s a hard pill to swallow.”
Steele said Brown spent the remainder of the evening talking to first responders and other people at the event about whether people had seen her husband. Brown and her friend ended up getting a ride home with an Oktoberfest volunteer many hours later.
When Brown got back to the cottage, she borrowed her friend’s car and used it all night, driving the roads of the area, looking for her husband.
She knew Mike was a cautious driver, and that if he missed a turn and got lost in the dark, or if a deer jumped out in front of him, he could easily get overwhelmed and end up off the road.
But Brown found nothing.
The next morning, Sûreté Québec police came to the cottage to gather information needed to begin the search.
The police spent many hours at the Clarke Lake cottage, searching the area with special lights designed for looking in the forest.
That same day, they put out the first of a series of media releases notifying the public of the search.
It detailed Mike’s age, physical description, the make and model of the car he was driving – a 2017 black Ford Escape, with Ontario license plate BNXP701 – and the place he was last seen.
He was described as wearing blue jeans, a red t-shirt, and a red Raptors basketball cap.
After the police finished their initial questioning, Brown drove back to her home in Ottawa to update her other son about what had happened.
She stayed in Ottawa from then onwards, making occasional trips up to the Pontiac to check security camera video footage or meet with people doing ground searches.
Family and friends took turns staying up at the cottage in the weeks that followed, watching over it and acting as a local liaison with the police and the neighbours who were out searching.
“One thing we do know for certain is if Mike could get home to his wife and kids, he would do anything to make that happen,” Steele wrote in an Oct. 7 Facebook post, about a week after Mike went missing.
For weeks, the family was hoping and believing Mike would find his way home to the cottage, and they wanted to be sure someone was there to receive him.
The Pontiac search
Sergeant Marc Tessier is the spokesperson for Sûreté Québec, and the media contact for this investigation.
“It’s very hard, unfortunately, to determine exactly what happened,” Tessier told THE EQUITY in a sit-down interview in Nov. 2023
“He may have continued his driving, and maybe he’s not even in that area. When you find at least a vehicle, you can narrow the search in that area, but unfortunately in that case we haven’t found his vehicle.”
Tessier explained one of the first things the police do in a missing person case is search the area, including every house, within a 300-metre radius from the last known place the person was seen.
If or when that is not conclusive, they expand the search.
“But if we don’t have precise information, if the search area is too big, we can’t search everywhere, so that’s why we’re always trying to put the most probable areas that a person with a vehicle going that way could go,” Tessier said.
As far as anybody knew, when Mike left Ladysmith that evening, his plan was to go straight back to the cottage. He had hot food to deliver, and his son was expecting him.
This meant he likely would have taken the fastest route home, turning north out of Ladysmith onto the 303 heading to Otter Lake and then left onto Stephens Road, which is marked by a white picket fence along the highway.
But Steele said in all the years driving that route to the cottage, family members often missed this turn off.
In this case, instead of turning around, they would continue on through Otter Lake, turn left on Highway 301 in Otter Lake, and left again at the Otter Lake cemetery, onto the western end of Stephens Road.
Steele said it is not a stretch to imagine that Mike may have gone this way instead.
A third option also had to be considered. Instead of turning north onto the 303 out of Ladysmith, Mike could have gone northwest out of Ladysmith, taking the 366 towards the 301, and turned right on the 301 to get up to Stephens Road.
“The probability is that Mike would turn [onto the 303]. But what if when he pulled out the food slipped and went down on the floor and he got turned around and went straight, or hit a large animal,” Steele wondered.
Early in the search for Mike, footage recovered from a surveillance camera at the Bretzlaff Store in Ladysmith showed a black Ford Escape turning north onto Highway 303 around the time that Mike would have been heading that way, but neither the license plate nor the driver could be identified.
Without this identification, none of the above scenarios could be eliminated, and so these three possible routes came to define the parameters of what became the main search area.
Of course, at times these parameters felt arbitrary. There was no way of knowing, absolutely, in which direction Mike drove.
But highways 301, 303, and 366, and the shoulders, ditches, ravines, and lakes that lined them, were the places of logic, of sanity, of plausibility. These were the places where the family could do something, instead of standing idle as the police conducted their investigation.
Sergeant Tessier said the police searched both main roads and side roads with patrol cars and four-wheelers, and went door to door in the Otter Lake and Ladysmith areas, asking if anybody had seen anything or had security cameras that might have captured pertinent video footage.
He said the SQ also surveyed the area with a helicopter on two separate occasions, once on Oct. 4 and again near the end of the month.
Ottawa police were notified, as well as the police with the MRC des Collines-de-l’Outaouais, the Gatineau police, and the OPP in Renfrew.
Tessier said key information, including vehicle make and license plate were shared with these police agencies but could not detail the extent to which any of these units were involved in investigative work.
An Oct. 27 media release said officers were continuing their ground searches, as well as their investigative work, and called on the public, especially hunters, to keep an eye out going into deer hunting season.
Tessier said this was the last media update the police put out sharing general information about the search and that, beyond what was shared in these releases, he could not confirm details of what the investigators did or did not look into, or what areas they searched.
He could not say when police stopped their ground searches in the area, but he did explain that in standard protocol, there comes a point when an area has been searched numerous times with no results that police need to make a decision to end active ground searches.
Tessier said the file remains open, but that new information is needed to spark new ground searches or investigative work.
Without a new tip or clue to move the investigation along, no further resources could be deployed, he said.
Steele said the family had the most interaction with the police in the first week of the search, but that as time went on, it was increasingly difficult to get answers from them about what was happening with the investigation.
“We didn’t really know how many people they had. We didn’t really know where they were looking,” Steele said. “Because we weren’t really hearing very much from the police, we were just doing our own thing.”
Steele and Brown coordinated search efforts from Ottawa.
“I was what felt like 24/7 on my computer at home or with my sister on my laptop. Except for any sleep we were trying to get, we were doing that the whole time.”
In the first week after Mike disappeared, Brown hired a military drone specialist to try and get a more detailed aerial view of the area than she thought the helicopters would be able to provide, but nothing came of it.
Steele put out social media blasts on Facebook, and reached out to local ATV clubs and hunting clubs in communities including Campbell’s Bay, Ladysmith, Shawville, and even La Pêche.
“There were some really instrumental people who we got connected with,” Steele said.
Nathalie Gagnon, of Otter Lake, was one of these people. She helped the family print and distribute posters, posted Facebook Lives about the search, and coordinated ground searches in the area.
Steele said people were putting up posters as far as Val des Bois, searching ditches up the Picanoc, and taking boats out on their lakes.
“It was a snowball. It got big and it grew and it grew,” Steele remembered. She said hundreds of people showed up to help with the search for Mike.
“We asked people as far out as we could to search their properties and barns, and nothing came back,” Steele said.
“It’s kind of mind boggling you know? It’s not just a person missing, it’s a freaking hunk of metal, like where is it?”
Frustrations with police
Steele said the family had immediate concerns about the possibility that Mike might have ended up in one of the lakes in the area.
Both alternate routes Mike could have taken home, one if he missed the turn and looped back through Otter Lake, and the other if he took the 366 instead of the 303, involved driving a portion of highway that hugged a body of water, with no guardrail separating the two.
If Mike had missed his turn and approached his cottage instead from the western end of Stephens Road, he would have had to drive around McCuaig Lake.
“It’s super dangerous. It’s a dirt road with no guard rails, and there’s some steep turns with big drops, so right away that was a concern for us,” Steele said.
Had Mike taken the 366, he would have passed Sparling Lake, also right along the highway, and also without any guardrails.
Steele said the family presented these concerns to the police, and the response they got was, “limited resources, limited money. We can’t just dive every lake,” she summarized.
“I get that,” Steele said. “But I don’t think they dove one single lake.”
When asked to confirm whether any of the lakes had been dived, Tessier said none had been, and then clarified, after checking his computer file, that he had no information about whether the police had dived any of the lakes in the area.
The family encountered this resistance several times in the first month of the search. Because there was no clue as to a specific site that should be searched, the police were limited in what further resources they could deploy.
Steele ran into this when she reached out to a local search and rescue (SAR) volunteer group, Sauvetage Bénévole Outaouais, asking for help, only to learn from them they could not be engaged until the police requested their assistance.
“For a ground search to commence one of the key things is you have to have a starting point,” explained Steve Nason, director of operations for the organization.
He said police forces will call in the SAR team once they have a specific area to search.
With the MRC des Collines police, for example, the SAR group will be called in to take on management of the search under the jurisdiction of the police service. The police retain responsibility for the investigation work, and the SAR team will run the ground search.

But the investigative team leading the search for Mike never called in the SAR volunteers for assistance, likely because they had no starting point from which to begin.
The family also ran into a protocol road-block when they asked why the OPP could not be more involved.
“Mike was a resident of Ontario,” Steele said. “But we were told in no uncertain terms that this was the Sûreté’s [jurisdiction]. As far as we know, the OPP were notified but not involved.”
While Steele was frustrated with the dead-ends she kept running into when it came to finding additional resources for the search, she was also frustrated at how little the family was kept in the know about what the police were doing.
“It was very much, ‘we have our procedure and we need to follow it and we’ll let you know if anything turns up’,” Steele said, describing the tone the police would take the few times they would call with updates.
“So it just didn’t leave us feeling like a lot was being done because they weren’t sharing details about what they were doing, which is why we were in panic mode trying to collect people and do things because Mike could have had an accident and still been alive.”
This absence, whether a reality or only a perception, was reflected by people on the ground in the search area as well.
“People from the Pontiac were constantly reaching out asking why they weren’t seeing more police around,” Steele said. “We should have been able to say ‘the cops are doing this and that, and this is the procedure because of this,’ but we couldn’t even do that.”
Nathalie Gagnon said when she spoke with the owners of Coin Picanoc store in Otter Lake on Oct. 7, she learned the police had yet to look at the footage caught by the camera there.
The footage captured by the store, which sits at the junction of Highway 301 and the Pikano River Road, also known as the Picanoc, would have been critical to determining whether Mike had gone north up the 301 past Otter Lake or not.
“There’s not that many stores, and it’s quite a few days later, and they hadn’t looked at the footage yet,” she said.
Kim Cluff, the woman who served Mike food at Oktoberfest the night he disappeared, said she was never approached by any police.
When THE EQUITY tried to get some clarity about what had and had not been done in the investigation, including whether the police had been able to track Mike’s car or whether they had tried to locate his cell phone, Tessier said it was not police protocol to share details of the investigation.
“The family, they know what we’re doing, but it’s not public information.” Tessier said, adding that this is standard procedure, because the nature of Mike’s disappearance is still undetermined.
“If it’s a criminal case, every information has to be evaluated by a judge and not the public,” he said.
Tessier assured that proper protocol was followed and that the public had no reason to worry.
But by Steele’s account, the family did not know what the police were doing in their investigation. She did not feel, based on how the leading officers communicated with the family, that they felt the same urgency the family did.
She also raised concern that by her memory, the lead officer on the case was changed two or three times in the first months after Mike disappeared.
Sergeant Tessier would not confirm whether this was true.
“It was disappointing and frustrating and I’m a little angry about it too, for my sister,” Steele said, adding that what she saw of the search did not leave her feeling confident about how the local unit deals with missing persons.
“It left us feeling very alone and unimportant. I don’t think he got what he deserved from the search, and it’s not any one person, really, it’s just how the whole thing happened,” she said.
She clarified that while she is well-aware the police likely did more than they communicated, this does not change how their lack of transparency left the family feeling.
“If they had just talked to us on a more regular basis and been a little bit more empathetic it would have gone a long way in those early months that we were desperately holding onto hope that he would be found alive.”

SAR experts redo search

In July of this year, the search for Mike was given new life.
A veteran SAR team of two traveled to the Pontiac after learning of Mike’s disappearance, and that his file was still open.
The team, made up of partners Shari Hughson and David See, have volunteered their recovery efforts for dozens of cold cases in Quebec, Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta.
Typically, they show up after the initial search and rescue portion has been completed, often months, sometimes years later.
Their goal is to reactivate some form of search in the community, with the hopes that somebody comes forward with a new tip or piece of evidence that might help the family of the missing person finally get answers.
In the years they have done this, they have never found a body, but have found other objects connected to the case.
“That really was what we were trying to do while we were up there. Could we find something, could we stir up the community a bit to see if someone comes forward, because that’s the only way we’re going to dive deeper again,” Hughson said.

Hughson knows the agony that is wondering what has happened to a loved one who has disappeared without explanation. When she was in her early thirties, her spouse went missing.
An intensive SAR effort was deployed at the time, in the area where the vehicle had been found, but his body was not recovered until seven months later when a hiker and his dog found him hanging in a tree, only 50 yards off the hiking trail.
A big part of the motivation behind Hughson and See’s volunteer recovery work is helping people, families, find closure.
See is a private investigator, and was a SAR team leader in Alberta for more than three decades, where he worked closely with police departments to find missing people. Hughson is a nurse with a specialty in mental health issues. They are both outdoor survival experts.
See and Hughson spent three weeks in the Pontiac, combing over every possible place they believed Mike could be, within the confines of the original search area, marked by the three highways.
“We’re 98 or 99 per cent sure he isn’t in that search area, “ See said. “We’re sure his vehicle is not there.”
They went down embankments and into ravines with metal detectors, they followed up on leads about suspicious activity, they consulted with the police, and as they went they talked to everybody they met about what they were doing.
Both See and Hughson are also scuba divers.
“We did eliminate any body of water you could drive a vehicle from the road into,” Hughson said.
“There were two lakes we had told the family we did not clear. They got deep very, very quickly and you could enter that body of water from a roadway,” Hughson said, naming McCuaig Lake, specifically the section hugged by Stephens Road, and Sparling Lake.
“So those still do need to get dived. They absolutely are a possibility. Those are the only things in our view that are still left within that original search area of where he might have been.”
“And don’t get us wrong,” See said. “It’s not like it’s a 50/50 chance. It’s a very slim chance because he would have to lose control or dodge a deer at that exact spot where there’s a bend in the road. But we can’t eliminate it.”
See explained that when a vehicle hits the water, it can float at half a mile an hour for a couple minutes before it actually sinks, and once it sinks it can keep travelling along the bottom of a lake if it is sloped.
At the bottom of a deep lake, a black SUV would be difficult to detect from the air.
“A helicopter might eliminate a lake, but it’s not truly eliminated until you dive it,” See said.
Hughson and See said a person usually goes missing for one of five reasons: foul play, suicide, a medical event, an accident, or they choose to leave.
After their thorough search, the couple eliminated suicide and the possibility of Mike having willingly abandoned his family.
They agreed he would have had far more opportune times to execute either of these scenarios than the small window he had between the time he left Ladysmith and when his son and wife were both expecting him within the hour.
They also said foul play was statistically improbable within such a small time frame, and on an evening when there were so many people on the roads.
“So we’re down to a medical issue or an accident,” Hughson concluded. “Something sudden occurred to have caused the car to leave the road. And it’s ended up in somewhere that’s very, very hard to see.”
“Our standing theory is he’s gotten confused or turned around. He doesn’t drive a lot, and he doesn’t drive a lot at night,” See said.
“He’s just gotten turned around in the dark, and tried turning around somewhere and went down an embankment or in the water,” Hughson elaborated, adding that wherever this is, they are almost positive it is outside the original search area.
“Our theory is it’s just a matter of time of searching before you find them. It’s the needle in the haystack,” See said.
Life with no closure
This theory, that Mike is somewhere in the Pontiac, in a lake or at the bottom of an embankment, is what Steele and Mike’s immediate family still believe today.
“We feel in our heart of hearts that Mike had an accident in the vicinity of the cottage,” she said, adding that keeping Mike’s story alive in the Pontiac is all they can do right now, “keeping the word out there as much as possible that Mike is still missing, he was never found, and asking people to continue looking and listening.”
The family worked with Gagnon and the Oktoberfest team to get that message out at this year’s festival.
The police also put out a media release at the beginning of November reminding residents to keep their eyes open while they were in the bush over hunting season.
“I hope that Mike is still very much on [the police’s] radar, I hope that they don’t stop looking for him, and I hope they consider doing more than they have even a year later, like maybe sending some divers into a lake,” Steele said.
“Until we find Mike, it’s never too late. And we need to find Mike, because I just can’t imagine this going on forever, you know, for years and years.”
She said the family is surviving, because they have to, but that the grief is always present.
“It’s always there. I see it in their eyes,” Steele said. “When someone passes away, you accept it, and you’re like, ‘okay, it is what it is. They’re gone.’ But it’s so not like that when you don’t know what happened or where they are or anything.”
She said as time has gone on, people have asked the family whether they are planning a celebration of life.
“I can’t even imagine doing that at this point. It’s only been a year.”
The silver lining, for Steele, is the support she and the family have received from people across the Pontiac.
“We’re so grateful for all that they did, and continue to do,” she said. “Hopefully, one day, somebody will find him so that I can go on social media and tell everybody he was found.”

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