40 years unsolved: “As if the Earth had opened up and swallowed her”

The middle child of working class, immigrant parents, Christine Ziomkiewicz built a comfortable and promising life by the time she reached her mid 20s. She had a bachelor of science degree, a good job at a lab at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and a loving and close family. On Father’s Day weekend in 1978, she baked a cake for her dad, Stefan. The following Friday, June 23, Christine bought groceries after work, chatted with a neighbour as she arrived home at her apartment and went inside. No one has seen her since. Police say she was murdered, though they have not found her body or a crime scene. 

“It was as if the Earth had opened up and swallowed her,” Joan Ziomkiewicz would later say.

The mystery outlived the heartsick mother.

The elder Ziomkiewicz died in April 2007 at age 91. Her husband, Stefan, died five years before her.

A devout Catholic, Joan Ziomkiewicz prayed often.

“She used to say that gave her the strength to get through this kind of thing,” says Bernie Ziomkiewicz, 55, the youngest of the family’s three children. “I think she certainly prayed a lot – she prayed for Christine.”

Her prayers were never answered.

No one has been charged in connection with her disappearance. In the four decades since she vanished, there have been few clues and remarkably few theories about what became of her, except one tantalizing possibility – the suggestion that she left her apartment on that notable day in the company of a young man who has never been identified and who has never come forward to authorities.

Family members have given up any pretense of believing that the police could be wrong in their conclusion about what happened to the petite, pretty young woman with hazel eyes and thick, dark-brown hair.

“The conclusion the police came to back then, and it’s exactly the conclusion I came to on my own reasoning, is probably it was a rape and murder by someone she knew and it could well be it was somebody she didn’t know as well as she thought,” says Bernie Ziomkiewicz, a technician in the physics department at Queen’s.

When police searched Christine’s apartment, they did not find anything suspicious.

There were no signs of a struggle, no sign she was planning to leave the city and no indications that she was troubled. The only thing missing was her envelope-style, brown leather purse.

By all outward appearances, Christine Ziomkiewicz was a model of organization.

Her life became a tableau. A bag lay on her bed with a new sweater bought that day tucked carefully inside.

Fresh strawberries chilled in the fridge.

A few dirty dishes were neatly stacked by the kitchen sink, waiting to be washed.

The weekend ahead was mapped. On the desk calendar page for Saturday, June 24, there was a note reminding her to wash her prized possession, a new, red, 1978 Honda Civic.

In her absence, it became Bernie’s car. He drove it for more than 10 years.

***

Christine Ziomkiewicz worked in the Queen’s University lab of physiology professor Seon Shin (left)

Det. Matt Funnell, one of two Kingston police officers carrying the burden of 11 lost lives, spoons his words like measured servings of a potent spice.

“I have to be guarded because everybody wants their case worked on at the same time,” says the investigator who heads the Kingston Police cold case squad.

“Everybody” is a collective of dozens – mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles – who are pining for loved ones who were beaten, stabbed and, in some cases, abducted and killed. In three of the Kingston cases, bodies have not been found.

Funnell won’t say if investigators are actively working on the Ziomkiewicz case.

The cold squad, formed early in 2005, is reviewing 11 murders, Kingston’s only known unsolved homicides. (In 2009, a Winnipeg man was charged in one of those 11 cases, the murder in 1970 of a Teddy Matier, 64, but the charge was withdrawn in 2011 during a preliminary hearing because of inconsistencies in the testimony of a key witness.)

Funnell notes that with just two investigators, the unit has a mammoth task in reviewing all of the exhibits, statements and documents that have been generated by cases spanning 32 years – the oldest is from 1970, the newest from 2002.

“The reality of it is we try to spend a great deal of time trying to focus on one and follow up leads on others as they come in,” Funnell says.

He will not say which case is being focused on now.

But he says repeatedly that leads have not been exhausted in any of the 11 cases. He also said the investigators are doggedly combing old files, mindful of an axiom among investigators: The name is in the box.

It is a reminder that killers are often exposed as someone police once interviewed, someone whose name already appears in a box that holds case files.

Funnell says the Ziomkiewicz case has been perplexing since the start.

There were few solid leads even in the critical few days and weeks after her disappearance.

“It has the most mystery to it,” he says.

Six weeks after Christine vanished, police had received just two tips. Neither was helpful.

Three decades later, Funnell offers an enticing morsel.

“I do believe that there is a person still alive who knows what happened to Christine Ziomkiewicz, or at least who is responsible for that act, so our job is to tap into that person and to sufficiently motivate them to come forward,” Funnell says. “I don’t know that the original investigators would have had the benefit of that information to the extent maybethat time has given it to us, but I do believe that the answer is still with a living person, and we’re optimistic that one day we might be able to bring that person on board.”

Funnell said the person isn’t living in the city.

He declined to offer any more information about the mysterious individual who is not, he clarifies, a suspect in the case.

“By no means [have we] got that kind of a solid lead that makes that leap,” he says. “The individual is actually a person who may hold information that might lead us to a person of interest.”

Funnell says investigators pinpointed this person through a review of old case files.

“There’s a description of circumstances attributed to this person that reads like it might have something to do with her,” he says.

***

Christine Ziomkiewicz earned a bachelor of science degree at Brock University

June 23 was a regular workday for Christine Ziomkiewicz. She was at the lab in Abramsky Hall early that morning, as always.

“She was a good worker,” says Seon Shin, the Queen’s physiology professor who had hired her as a research technician. Christine, who had a bachelor of science degree from Brock University, was the senior of two technicians working on experiments with hormone secretions. 

Retired and now living in London, Ontario, Shin was startled to realize so much time had passed.

“Wow, that’s long ago,” Shin says. “Not only is it sad, but [it] is a real mystery.”

He has often wondered what happened to the conscientious young woman he thought of as a quiet, “ordinary person.”

She was rarely, if ever, absent, always friendly and performed her work ably. Because of it, Shin says he paid no attention to her phone calls with friends or family.

He did not notice daily calls with a boyfriend in the weeks leading up to June 23.

After work that day, it appears Christine went directly to the Kingston Centre where she shopped, primarily for groceries, then drove to her Park Street apartment.

On her desk calendar for the day, she had written a task list: “return Bernie’s mixer, groceries?, shopping, laundry.”

Bernie Ziomkiewicz says he didn’t see his sister that day. She did not return the egg beater that she had borrowed about a week earlier.

By the end of the weekend, Christine’s mother was curious why she could not reach her daughter.

Joan Ziomkiewicz called Bernie, who was working at the time as a technician in the chemistry department at Queen’s. She asked him to check on Christine at work the following day.

Christine had never taken off for several days without telling someone where she was going.

“I’ve never known her to do that,” says her brother.

He phoned Prof. Shin’s lab several times on Monday, but was told Christine was not at work. She had not called in to say she wouldn’t be at work.

The family’s concern grew.

“Panic might be too strong a word, but kind of, definitely a concern that sort of slowly gets more and more intense or serious,” Bernie Ziomkiewicz says.

He called the lab again Tuesday but got the same response.

Christine’s parents called police that day, June 27, to report her missing.

It is unclear how quickly or effectively Kingston Police responded to a report that a responsible citizen had not been seen for four days.

Her car was parked, as usual, at the Park Street apartment building.

Police did not release any information publicly until the end of that week. A small, insignificant news story appeared near the bottom of Page 2 of The Kingston Whig-Standard on June 30, noting that police were looking for a woman who had, by then, been missing a week.

Police did not release, or perhaps had not collected, any information about what Christine was wearing the day she vanished.

“My parents weren’t entirely happy with police activity,” says Bernie Ziomkiewicz.

He was not immediately interviewed by investigators.

“Actually, it was a long time before they did, and that kind of surprised me,” he says.

Funnell says it’s hard for him to comment about the quality of early work on the Ziomkiewicz case.

“Because of the way it happened, it certainly was a difficult case to get started,” he says.

Time has improved investigative techniques, he notes.

“Looking over the [11 cold cases], we have found things that we would do differently today,” he says.

***

Christine Ziomkiewicz

The love life of a missing or murdered person is something on which investigators key. Murders in Canada are often crimes of passion and killers are typically known to their victims.

Christine Ziomkiewicz was pretty, outgoing and socially active. At five-foot- three and 110 pounds, she was delicate and cautious, according to most.

She dated, but there was never any suggestion that she was promiscuous or took risks.

“I wouldn’t say she was a risk taker,” her brother says. “I would say, though, I think she could be a bit socially naive. She could be very quick to befriend people and maybe not be quite as discriminating as one might be.”

For decades, an enticing, unexplained lead has lingered. A year after the disappearance, Christine’s parents revealed publicly that a private investigator they had hired concluded that she had met a new boyfriend in the six to eight weeks before she vanished.

Christine called the man several times daily, most regularly at 10 a. m. each day. Those calls extended through most of May and June.

No one knew the man’s identity.

The investigator concluded that Christine left her apartment on June 23 with the man.

It’s uncertain if police ever located the man or confirmed his existence. A poster produced by Kingston Police and sent across the country to police departments states that Christine was not in a relationship at the time.

Only one of the two Kingston Police officers who worked on the case in 1978 is still alive.

Ed Brash, retired nearly two decades from a 34-year career with Kingston Police, said his memory is hazy and he doesn’t really want to talk about this old, unsolved case.

“I’m not sure I want to go back there,” he says. “It went on and on, and it’s still going on.”

He doesn’t believe that investigators ever had evidence that Christine left her apartment with a young man on June 23.

“I don’t believe so,” he says. It’s not the kind of detail that Funnell will discuss.

“There was all kinds of rumours around,” Brash says.

Paul Teevens says he’s not the mystery man who supposedly left 200 Park St. with Christine, although he dated her shortly before she disappeared.

“I took Christine out a few times,” says Teevens, who recently retired from a 35-year career at The Beer Store. The couple went to the movies and one time he was at her apartment for a New Year’s Eve party.

“She was very likable,” says Teevens, 59.

He first became a friend of the Ziomkiewicz family when he attended elementary school with Christine’s older brother, Chris.

The two became pals.

Teevens say his relationship with Christine wasn’t serious.

Police interviewed him twice, he says, once by telephone and once at the police station. He was never asked to sign a formal statement and he never sensed that the questioning was accusatory.

The day she disappeared, he was working at the beer store on Cataraqui Street.

Teevens says Christine ended their dating.

“I think she told me she was seeing somebody else but I’m not really sure,” he says.

Teevens says he never heard the new boyfriend’s name.

There was one significant man in Christine’s life, a suitor she met at Brock University in St. Catharines.

The pair were engaged, says Bernie Ziomkiewicz, who met his sister’s fiance.

“I think he was a good fella,” he recalled.

His parents also approved of the match.

It dissolved a few years before her disappearance. Christine’s fiance was in New Zealand for graduate studies when he contacted her to say it would be best if they ended the engagement.

***

Exhortations to shadowy figures aren’t the only hope for the Ziomkiewicz case and 10 others, says Funnell.

“No one case fits into the category that the forensics are dry,” he says.

There is hope that new technology, applied to old evidence, may provide breakthroughs.

Most notably, in some cases, exhibits were never tested for DNA. Science has evolved to allow the extraction of matching samples from tiny portions left behind by killers.

“We are waiting with bated breath on a lot of cases that, you know, maybe our answer has been in our property lockup for years,” he says.

After the cold case squad was formed, investigators conducted what they called a forensic audit of the unsolved cases, with an emphasis on the exhibits still packed away on shelves in a property room.

Many exhibits, from nearly all the cases, were sent to the Centre of Forensic Sciences in Toronto, where they are being re-examined.

“It would be irresponsible to list which ones, because the bad guys know what they did at what crime, so I would be careful about that,” he says.

In some cases, exhibits are being tested for the first time. Reports are beginning to trickle slowly back to the investigators.

Because Kingston Police had so many exhibits to send to the overtaxed centre, they prioritized, sending first the exhibits that were most likely to produce clues.

It is possible that DNA particularly might finger a killer if that person has committed a serious crime in the past few years that led to a court-ordered DNA sample.

Those samples have been collected in a national databank of offenders. Old samples can now be tested against that growing databank.

“If we don’t catch up to you through the traditional investigative efforts that we put forward, then it’s only a matter of time [before] the computer will get you,” Funnell says.

With no body and no apparent crime scene in the Ziomkiewicz case, DNA advances may not help, but Funnell insists there’s hope that it can be solved. The big break may be just one tip away. Someone may be holding information that they believe is inconsequential but fits nicely in the bigger picture to which only police are privy.

“We ask people not to evaluate their information, that no piece is too small,” he says.

Police are still offering a $25,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and prosecution of Christine’s killer or the recovery of her body.

*Note: This is an edited version of a story researched and written in 2008. It was first published in The Kingston Whig-Standard newspaper. In the 10 years since the story was first published, there have been no developments in the case.


In 2013, Ziomkiewicz’s case was added to a federal government website featuring information on missing persons and unidentified remains across Canada. The listing for the case includes basic details and one photo of Ziomkiewicz. The website is an initiative of the National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains, operated by the RCMP.

That year, her case also was highlighted by the work of a Toronto artist, Ilene Sova, who painted portraits of missing Ontario women. “My aim is to metaphorically shine a light on what is hidden or not openly spoken about: Violence against women, mental illness, homelessness, and sexual violence,” Sova said, in a statement released in 2013, in anticipation of an exhibit of the work. “By creating this work I hope to evoke thoughts about violence against women in our vicinity, one that will encourage further consideration and discussion about what conditions create an environment where women are at risk of violence in our streets, homes and romantic relationships.” Sova said she researched each case in detail before painting the portraits. Sova’s website showcases 21 portraits in her “Missing Women Project.”

 

A portrait of Christine Ziomkiewicz by Toronto artist Ilene Sova
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