Vancouver Island
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

New clues help the quest for answers about Melissa McDevitt’s disappearance

The 39-year-old has been missing since Dec. 9 after she embarked on a hike at Sea to Sea park in Sooke

By Tori Marlan
July 4, 2023
Vancouver Island
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

New clues help the quest for answers about Melissa McDevitt’s disappearance

The 39-year-old has been missing since Dec. 9 after she embarked on a hike at Sea to Sea park in Sooke

By Tori Marlan
Jul 4, 2023
Melissa McDevitt out on a hike with her dad Tom. Photo: Submitted
Melissa McDevitt out on a hike with her dad Tom. Photo: Submitted
Vancouver Island
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

New clues help the quest for answers about Melissa McDevitt’s disappearance

The 39-year-old has been missing since Dec. 9 after she embarked on a hike at Sea to Sea park in Sooke

By Tori Marlan
July 4, 2023
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New clues help the quest for answers about Melissa McDevitt’s disappearance
Melissa McDevitt out on a hike with her dad Tom. Photo: Submitted

Security camera footage captured Melissa McDevitt walking toward the Sea to Sea Regional Park in Sooke on Dec. 9 at 1:58 pm. She wore a maroon jacket, dark pants, and an olive knit hat. In her left hand, she held chrome hiking poles. Her arms swung lightly; her gait was steady. She took a few steps, then briefly disappeared behind a tree. After emerging, she took 38 more steps, then disappeared again, this time for good.

Six months later, not far from Melissa’s last known whereabouts, her father, Tom, stands on a stranger’s porch, knocking lightly on the front door. The woman who opens it looks warily at him, a tall man with a bushy white mustache and baseball cap, holding a red folder. Her face softens when he hands her a flyer about his missing 39-year-old daughter.

“It's just reminding people that Melissa is still out there,” he tells her. “We’re just making neighbours aware that if they happen to be hiking in there, or have people visiting, just please pass on about her circumstance—and, of course, this tells you the contact information.”

The woman nods as he talks. The headquarters for the official search effort in December were across the street from her house, in the parking lot where Melissa’s car was found. More than a dozen search and rescue organizations from across the province scoured the park’s vast network of trails. RCMP sniffer dogs joined them on the ground; a helicopter with heat detecting sensors searched from above. With no trace of Melissa and heavy snow on the way, the search was called off after nine days, on Dec. 19. 

“I was watching that the whole time and just feeling so sorry for you guys,” the woman tells Tom.

“It’s not as bad as it was on December 9th,” Tom says, “but it’s still pretty bad.”  

Sea to Sea is the second largest regional park in the Capital Regional District. It spans  more than 9,800 acres and has 57 kilometres of trails. The initial heart-wrenching realization that Melissa may have met a terrible fate in the park has evolved into another painful realization for her parents: that they may never know what happened to their daughter and may never be able to bring her home.

That’s why Tom is out knocking on doors. He wants to keep Melissa fresh in people’s minds, to remind those who’ve heard about her that she’s still missing—and missed—and to raise awareness about her situation among those who didn’t see the initial blitz of news coverage.

Even a small piece of easy-to-walk-past evidence—a tattered bit of clothing, a hiking pole—could provide valuable information.

A large sign at the park's entrance with information and photos about Melissa. Photo: Tori Marlan / Capital Daily

The security camera footage is just about all searchers have had to go on. Cell phone service is unreliable in the park, which is rife with dead zones. Records from the phone company offer no clues, Melissa’s phone having pinged its last tower before she even parked her car. She had a Garmin watch that stored her location data in the cloud, but it turned out she hadn’t been using it.

But now, after half a year without progress, Tom suddenly feels optimistic. “We’ve got some new information that's going to really help us narrow down where to look for her,” he tells the woman.

He just hopes that information will be enough for the RCMP to justify restarting the search.  


Tom and his wife, Maggie, split their time between North Carolina and Victoria. Melissa lived in their condo in Victoria during the winter months, when her parents weren’t there. After being unable to reach her on the evening of Dec. 9 or the next morning, and after learning from a neighbour that her car wasn’t in its assigned spot in the building’s parking lot, Tom called VicPD and reported her missing. Melissa was planning to return to North Carolina for Christmas, and she had a flight back to the States later that day.

Tom told a VicPD officer that Melissa had recently spent time hiking in Sooke. A few hours later, her car was located in the parking lot of the Jack Brooks Hatchery, near Sea to Sea’s trailheads, and Sooke RCMP took over the investigation.

Just past the parking lot and a salmon interpretive centre, the park entrance is marked by a sign warning of rugged trails and “large carnivores.” Signs nearby more specifically warn of bears. 

Melissa was an experienced hiker but “far from a survivalist,” according to Tom. She left in her car items that might have helped her survive for a while in the wilderness—her heavy coat, bear spray, a mylar blanket, a vest with water, crampons. 

Melissa out on a hike, sitting inside a hollowed out tree. Photo: Submitted

Tom flew to Victoria after he reported Melissa missing and stayed for several days of  the official search. He returned again, with Maggie, in early May. Since then, he has regularly spent time in the Sea to Sea park—often with a group of experienced hikers who were moved by Melissa’s story and who felt compelled to launch their own search effort after the one coordinated by the RCMP ended.  

“In many ways, it’s therapeutic to come in here,” Tom told me on a recent trip to the park. “It’s walking in her footsteps, doing what she enjoyed doing, doing what she probably did the last couple of hours of her life.”

The volunteers hit the trails three times a week—on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays—and methodically coordinate their efforts, posting GPS images of the trails they’ve covered and exchanging other relevant information on the Facebook group Finding Melissa, which has 225 members. 

One of the volunteers even searches deep off trail, reporting back the locations of cougar dens and sightings of turkey vultures.

Tom is grateful for their help. “It’s a huge area out there,” he said. “They're making an uncommon commitment.”  

None of the searchers knew Melissa, but, as fellow outdoor enthusiasts, they say they feel an affinity for her. 

Melissa’s clear passion for the wilderness is evident from the Instagram account @mindfulofmelissa. Excerpting her old social media posts, the account showcases Melissa’s photos of the natural world, her descriptions of what she saw and experienced, and her meditations on the rewards of pausing to take it all in.

“Beauty always presents itself if one just takes the time to stop,” the account quotes Melissa as writing in 2018. “On this day I found a lovely stretch of wildflowers in a very busy area, and when I crouched among the flora a whole new world opened up before my eyes.” 

One of the volunteer searchers, a woman who sometimes hikes alone and who wears a sheathed knife on her hip, says she’s helping out because she hopes people would do the same for her if she were to go missing. Another created the flyer that Tom has been handing out. It has information about Melissa on it, as well as photos, and asks anyone who may encounter her belongings to leave them untouched and report their location to Sooke RCMP. CRD turned the flyer into a large sign and bolted it to a wooden pole at the park’s entrance, under the district’s own wildness information sign.   

On a recent search, the group was flagged down by a man running toward them. His hiking partner had fallen and broken her leg. Tom’s phone was the only one that was able to pick up a signal. When the first responders arrived, one of them remembered him from the original search for Melissa.

It’s possible, even likely, that Melissa, too, injured herself in a fall. She had stamina but lacked strength and coordination. 

She was born with an extra X chromosome at the dangerously low birth weight of two-and-a-half pounds. “The pediatrician said she would never catch up with her muscle tone,” Tom said. “She said, ‘When she's 18 years old, she'll have muscle tone more like a seven- or eight-year-old.’ And she was right.”

Along with weak muscles, Melissa had “child-size” feet, according to her parents, and easily lost her balance on uneven ground. “Melissa always referred to when she would slip and fall as she ‘had a tumble,’” Tom said.

Once she broke her ankle 10 miles into a hike on Mount Rainier. With the support of her hiking pole, she managed to get herself out of the park. “Had it been a leg, she would have never been able to walk out,” Tom said.  

Maggie believes that whatever happened to Melissa, she did not survive it. Tom holds open the possibility that she’s still alive. Perhaps she was smuggled out of the park in a manner that escaped the security camera’s notice? 

Tom McDevitt (second from right) with a small group of volunteer hikers hoping to find clues on what happened to Melissa. Photo: Tori Marlan / Capital Daily

But the more likely scenarios, the McDevitts know, are that she succumbed to injuries after a tumble, was hit by a falling branch or tree, had a fatal run-in with a cougar or bear, or became disoriented to the point where she couldn’t find her way out of the park. 

When Melissa walked toward the park on the day she went missing, there were just under two-and-a-half hours of sunlight left. Her mother speculates that she ran into trouble after venturing off-trail, perhaps for a photo. “She loved silence, everything raw, nothing that's been adulterated or modified,” Maggie told me. “All of her photographs speak to that. Sometimes I'll pull up something on the iPhone that she posted on Facebook, and I think, ‘What's that?’ And then I'll tap it, and I'll see what she was looking at: a kernel or a cord that had different colouration that was unique. She was looking for the unique, because she knew that she was unique.”


Melissa had alopecia and found it difficult to make and maintain friends, Maggie said. After graduating from college with a degree in anthropology, she didn’t launch in the way that’s usually expected of college graduates. She was lacking in time management skills and wasn’t “a good fit” for regular employment, according to Maggie, though she successfully worked seasonal jobs for the US government in the Forest Service and National Park Service.  

The McDevitts had the means and the desire to help Melissa create a life in which she could devote herself to her passions, namely reading and spending time in nature.   

But in recent years, thinking about their own mortality and Melissa’s future, the McDevitts encouraged her to be more independent. She began spending more time living on her own. 

When Tom arrived at the Victoria condo in December, Melissa’s mark was all over it. She had piles of books around and a shopping bag filled with library due-date receipts. A table in the living room was covered with sea glass and rocks that she had collected on excursions and sorted according to shape or kind.

Though Melissa was highly intelligent, Tom said, she sometimes made unwise decisions, especially “on hiking trails, ice fields, skiing double diamond stuff that she wasn't really qualified to do.” 

The McDevitts tried to guide her, but she seemed impervious to their efforts. “You can support your adult children, you can provide for them, motivate them, but you can't lead their lives for them,” Tom said. “And that was the dilemma with Melissa. We knew that she didn't always make the best judgment about things.”

The McDevitts pleaded with Melissa not to hike alone. The suggestion became a “bone of contention.”

They considered imposing restrictions. 

“My wife and I had discussions, probably not even six, eight weeks before Melissa disappeared, about if she doesn't change her behaviour, maybe I need to take the car away,” Tom said. “It was our car. But listen to how silly that sounds—you’re going to take the keys away from a 39-year-old?”

Instead, they kept pleading with her to heed their advice not to hike alone—or to at least send them an email about the trails she’d be tackling, or leave them a voicemail, or just put a note on her dashboard in case something happened and she needed help. 

Melissa didn’t want to bother. She told them that nothing would happen to her.


A breakthrough came in mid-June, a few days before Tom went knocking on doors. 

He’d been thinking about Melissa’s watch. If she hadn’t been using the Garmin, perhaps she’d bought a new one. He started googling around for Garmin competitors. On one competitor’s website, he was able to log in using Melissa’s email address and a familiar password. 

Melissa’s account revealed GPS data for the six months before she went missing—a “profound finding” that provided a “shot of adrenaline,” Tom said. 

While the cloud doesn’t contain information about Melissa’s whereabouts on the day she disappeared, a clear pattern emerged. 

“She wasn't one that would just go willy nilly off the trail,” Tom said. “Her data shows that she followed trails fairly religiously, that she might deviate off for 100 feet, because she saw an opening where she'd go look at the view or something, and get right back on the trail.”  

The data also indicates that Melissa tended to scope out her routes in advance, doing a preliminary hike for a kilometre or two, before returning the next day, or the day after that, for an extended version. 

It turned out that Melissa did a short Sea to Sea hike the day before she disappeared. She entered the park 17 minutes before sundown, hiked Grass Lake Trail for about a kilometre, turned onto Blue Tarp Trail, and then hiked for another two kilometres, before turning onto Amanda’s Trail. She stopped 29 minutes into her hike, then turned around in the darkness and retraced her steps out of the park.

Tom McDevitt at the entrance of Sea to Sea Regional Park with the sign reminding visitors of Melissa's disappearance. Photo: Tori Marlan / Capital Daily

On longer outings, the data showed, Melissa usually hiked in loops, rather than going in and out of parks on the same trails. 

Armed with the new information, Tom and the volunteer searchers zeroed in on routes Melissa could have taken from Amanda’s Trail if she’d wanted to make a loop. Based on her hiking history and the time she’d started out on the day she went missing, they assumed she intended to hike for two-and-a-half or three hours, covering about eight kilometres at most. 

With that in mind, the volunteers identified a high-priority search area. The trails within it had been previously scoured, so they figured clues might lie somewhere off trail in that area and that Melissa likely would have headed downhill rather than uphill if she were injured. 

Tom shared the GPS data with the RCMP, hoping it would encourage the Mounties to bring back trained search teams. Even a few ATVs to shuttle searchers to the trailheads would greatly maximize the amount of time that could be spent searching deep in the park.

The GPS data was also valuable for another reason: it revealed that a closer viewing of the security camera footage was warranted. 

The data showed that Melissa left the park around 5pm—after dark—on that practice hike the day before she went missing. When police reviewed the footage with that timestamp, Melissa was visible—but only barely, making Tom wonder if police might have overlooked footage of her leaving in the dark on the day she went missing. If so, it would mean that the possibility of an abduction between the camera and her car would have to be considered and the search area would need to be widened beyond the park. 

But when police rewatched the footage, Tom said, Melissa wasn’t seen exiting the park. That doesn’t rule out foul play, he said: “It's just a very low probability, but frankly, until she is recovered, or found, that will always remain a possibility.” 

Finding even“circumstantial evidence” in the form of Melissa’s belongings would bring some relief: “That’s enough that I know that we would feel that Melissa did perish out there,” he said. An absence of evidence means that the McDevitts could spend the rest of their lives wondering what happened to their daughter. 

“If she was abducted, somehow murdered, disposed of, and eventually found as a Jane Doe, that would be quite awful,” Tom said. “But it wouldn't be as bad as not knowing.”

The not knowing leaves open the possibility—however small—that she’s still out there and needs help. 

“We all lose loved ones. You lose your mother, your father, siblings, aunts, uncles, friends. People get killed in car accidents, they get cancer and die. You can cope and deal with that. But when you don't know,” Tom said, his voice trailing off. “Why do people have funerals? Why do they have—depending on their religions—an open casket? I mean, people want to view and get closure, say goodbye, and know the person is really gone.”

On June 29, Tom got one piece of news he’d been hoping for: the RCMP and the Juan de Fuca Search and Rescue team would be restarting the official search for Melissa based on the new GPS data. He said trained searchers are scheduled to go back out starting the weekend of July 8. 

Article Author's Profile Picture
Tori Marlan
Investigative Reporter

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