Ben Kilmer with wife Tonya during happy days when they were hiking. (Photo submitted)

Ben Kilmer with wife Tonya during happy days when they were hiking. (Photo submitted)

Duncan man’s disappearance galvanized Vancouver Island

A look back at the search that tore at the fabric of a young family and close-knit friends

“Keep in your heart at all times that Ben, when he returns home safely, will be looking at this site to see the out-pouring of support and incredibleness of our community. He will be found so let us create a place of love, care and respect.

“His babies will also come here when they are old enough to see how their community came together to show their love and unwavering support to bring their daddy home.”

It is the keynote message of the Facebook page “Find Ben Kilmer,” a page launched in May in the wake of a mystery that galvanized a community and tore at the fabric of a young family and a close-knit network of friends, a page that grew to include more than 14,500 followers.

It is also the page that on Oct. 24 delivered the unfortunate news: Ben Kilmer — husband, father and subject of one of the biggest searches to unite Vancouver Island in recent memory — would not be coming home.

In life, Kilmer — most frequently described as a friend, family man and lover of the great outdoors — was anything but a public figure.

But in his disappearance he became a rallying point for Vancouver Islanders from Cape Scott to Race Rocks, for whom he came to symbolize the good things in life and how suddenly they can be stripped away.

“I have no personal connection to this family but from the day he went missing I was holding out hope that this seemingly happy and healthy man would be returned to his wife and children. I can’t imagine this outcome has offered any closure for those who loved him. I am so sorry to all who knew and loved Ben. Sending love and healing vibes your way.”

Posted to “Find Ben Kilmer” by “Sher Riffic” (whose profile picture features missing Campbell River teen Jordan Holling), the above sentiment has been repeated again and again, not only today and online, but on the street and in the woods since the day Ben was last seen.

A Cobble Hill-based electrician, Ben was 41, husband to Tonya and father to two young children when he went to work May 16. Later that afternoon, his white work van was found parked, engine running, on the side of Old Lake Cowichan Road in a heavily-treed rural area west of town.

His personal effects were left in the vehicle. Blood (the source of which was never confirmed) was also found inside. But the owner was nowhere to be seen.

Cowichan Search and Rescue was immediately called in, and had a search mobilized within an hour. Its numbers were quickly bolstered with an RCMP dog team and neighbouring SAR units from Ladysmith, Juan de Fuca, Saanich Peninsula, Salt Spring Island and Nanaimo. Volunteers went door to door, asking area residents to check garages and outbuildings. One agreed to drain his pond.

The experts were quickly joined by regular citizens, eager to help comb the area and expand the search. Their assistance was rallied through social media, where Tonya urged anyone who could to come and help with the search.

“I believe in every ounce of my being that we are close,” she posted. “I need drones, helicopters, planes!! Anything and everything! He is there!”

Ben was last seen on a Tuesday. By that Saturday, 119 convergent volunteers signed in at the Sahtlam Fire Hall, where the search was being coordinated. Others, including some using ATVs and dirt bikes, checked the hills and river valley independent of two coordinated searches. Friends set up a GoFundMe page aimed at hiring a private helicopter to help with the search.

Searchers were provided with gloves, safety kits and food donated by individuals and businesses from around the Island. Items like camping chairs, signs and posters were also donated. A volunteer in Ottawa organized a sign campaign. At least one man drove from as far as Calgary to help with the ground search.

The sustained degree of volunteer support caught search manager Shauneen Nichols off guard.

“It’s unusual for us,” she admitted. “I’ve experienced this on the short term but this is just amazing, to see it day in and day out.”

But after more than 1,000 hours and 16 square kilometres of searching passed with no sign of Ben, the active SAR campaign was halted. Friends and family continued to look, but without any leads, their efforts increasingly focused to other means.

A poster campaign that saw more than 70,000 copies distributed made Ben’s one of the most recognizable faces on the Island. Speculation —not all of it kind, or rooted in the evidence — flowed over social media. Some of it centred around a pair of similar-aged men who mysteriously disappeared the same day in Ucluelet, but no connection was ever made.

The couple’s 16th anniversary passed on June 1 with no answers.

A little over a month later, Tonya gave an impassioned plea for leads during a press conference at the RCMP’s Island District headquarters.

“We are devastated. We are broken without this man. He is everything, the core of our family,” she said as tears flowed and her voice cracked. “His love for us is unwavering. His devotion is unquestionable. His loss has shaken us to the core and I need our love to shake you also, so that no one remains silent, so that no amount of fear to come forward exists.”

But summer passed without news and the steady stream of Facebook chatter grew quiet.

Until Oct. 17.

Tonya said she received the news from North Cowichan/Duncan RCMP at 9 p.m. when Staff Sgt. Kurt Bosnell and Const. Scott Harder came to her door.

“The officers said, ‘We promised you that you would be the first to know. We received a call at 2 p.m. today. Ben had been found. He is no longer with us. ‘

Vancouver Island RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Tammy Douglas said Ben’s body was found by a hiker “well outside of the original search area.”

The news was released to the public today, sparking a massive outpouring of support across many social media platforms, whether from those who knew Ben, those who helped in the search, or those simply touched while watching from afar.

The requiem we leave to Tonya:

“I love you my friends. Please reach out to me whenever you need to. Know that I am being cared for by my friends and family and that my children breathe life into me daily. I am here for you, just as you are here for me. Ben has touched all of our lives in such a profound way. We are truly in this together. If we lean on each other, we will get through.”

— with files from Black Press

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