Episode 112: Jolène Riendeau

April 15, 2024

A ten-year-old girl walks to the store and never returns home, launching a search for answers and for justice. What happened to Jolène?

Episode Media
Jolène Riendeau (CBC)
Jolène Riendeau (Canadian Press)
Map of locations in Jolène’s case (Google Maps)
Location where Jolène’s remains were found (CBC)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a case out of Canada, the story of a family who has waited decades for justice. A warning before we begin: cases involving children are often the most difficult to process. This episode discusses sensitive topics and includes graphic descriptions, so listener discretion is advised.

On the afternoon of Friday, April 12, 1999, ten-year-old Jolène Riendeau left school and headed home. Jolène lived in the Pointe-Saint-Charles neighborhood of Montreal with her parents, René and Dolores, and her two siblings, 14-year-old Kevin and 8-year-old Andreanne. Their brick apartment building on Montmorency Street was conveniently-located near several parks, perfect for a family with three energetic children. Jolène especially loved to play at the park across the road, a big field where she often met up with neighborhood friends.

On this particular afternoon, Jolène walked through the door of her family’s small two-bedroom apartment and was quickly recruited to help her father with dinner. Jolène was skilled at potato peeling, so René put her to work in the kitchen as he prepared the other ingredients. When they had finished their preparations and everything was in the oven, Jolène asked her father if she could go down to the corner store. It wouldn’t be dark for a few hours yet, and she promised she would be back in time for dinner. René relented, giving his daughter $2 to spend on a treat for herself.

Jolène grabbed her blue fleece sweater – it was still early spring in Quebec and the weather was cool – and raced down the front steps of the apartment building, passing the convent on the corner and turning right down Grand Trunk Avenue. She crossed over the railroad tracks and walked a few more blocks until she got to the convenience store on Charlevoix Street. There, she spent the money her father gave her on a bag of potato chips and sat outside to eat them. The street was bustling with typical Friday evening traffic, cars and pedestrians passing by. Many people would have seen the young girl sitting outside the store, but no one saw what happened to her after that.

When the Riendeau family sat down to dinner at 5:30 that evening, Jolène still wasn’t home. Her mother was annoyed – Jolène did this sort of thing all the time. In fact, the ten-year-old had a history of staying out later than she should and had even run away a few times. Jolène was outgoing and energetic, but she was also feisty and rebellious. Dolores described her daughter as intelligent but problematic. A few years earlier, the problems at home had gotten so serious that Social Services had sent Jolène to live in a group home for four months.

But Jolène had been doing well lately, which was why her father had let her go to the store alone. Now, her parents were frustrated that Jolène had yet again decided to do what she wanted instead of coming home on time. They would just have to wait until she called; she always did.

However, hours passed and the phone didn’t ring. Dolores and René’s annoyance quickly turned to worry. By 1am, they knew they couldn’t wait any longer. They contacted the local police and filed a missing persons report.

The search for Jolène Riendeau began immediately. Police canvassed the neighborhood, knocking on doors and asking if anyone had seen the young girl. One of Jolène’s neighbors recalled seeing her outside the convenience store around 4:30 on Friday afternoon, not long after leaving her apartment. Jolène had been eating chips and wearing a pair of rollerblades. Jolène’s parents found this odd – Jolène didn’t own rollerblades. Had she met up with friends on her walk to the store and borrowed a pair?

Dolores was confident that her daughter wouldn’t have gone off with a stranger, but she worried that Jolène might have tried to help someone who needed it. She told The Montreal Gazette, “She was very helpful with her friends and maternal to younger kids. She might have befriended someone who asked for help.”

All weekend, search teams scoured the city. They talked to Jolène’s friends and schoolmates and searched her favorite hangouts. They looked in backyards and alleyways, searched sheds and outbuildings. A K-9 squad took search-and-rescue dogs down to the Lachine Canal, which separated the Pointe-Saint-Charles neighborhood from downtown Montreal. Members of the community passed out flyers with Jolène’s picture and helped spread the word that a child was missing.

But even after all their efforts, there was still no sign of Jolène. A spokesman from the Montreal Urban Community police told The Gazette, “What worries us is that no one has seen her and she’s been gone for 48 hours. We have no witnesses, no suspects. It’s very mysterious. We want to put all our energy into finding this child.”

Although Jolène had a history of running away, police didn’t think that was the case this time. Jolène had left the house with just $2 in her pocket and the clothes on her back. In the past, she would pack a knapsack and head to a friend’s house. After a few hours, she would call home and let her parents know she was okay. The fact that she hadn’t done that this time was a huge red flag to investigators.

Dolores told The Gazette that although their family had its issues, although Jolène’s behavior was erratic and troublesome, all they wanted was for Jolène to come home safely. “Not having your child in bed at night, not knowing if she’s cold, if she’s in a ditch – it’s a nightmare. She’s the one who made us glad, who made us sad. I just want her back.”

The case was handed over to the police department’s major-crimes division, who set up a command post outside the Riendeaus’ apartment building. They partnered with the Missing Children’s Network, a Canadian non-profit organization that helps families in Quebec find their missing children. Volunteers with the Network passed out nearly 500,000 flyers across the entire province and got Jolène’s story featured in local media. But days turned into weeks, and there was still no sign of Jolène.

Police were receiving a steady flow of tips about the case, and they followed up on every lead, but nothing was panning out. No one had seen Jolène run off or get abducted, no one had heard any screams or seen any suspicious vehicles. It truly was as if Jolène had vanished into thin air.

Constable Christian Emond told The Gazette that they were looking for any and all pieces of information, no matter how small. “We encourage everyone to call us, whether they think it’s important or not. People think they might be bothering us. We want to be bothered.”

On April 21st, police divers checked the Lachine Canal again, this time with a sonar-equipped search boat. According to police, an anonymous caller had said to look in the canal on Charlevoix Street across from the Magnan Tavern. The caller told them they would find something there, but wouldn’t specify exactly what. For three hours, the boat passed up and down the canal, dropping buoys any time the sonar picked up something they couldn’t identify. But after two days of searching, they had nothing to show for it. They hadn’t found a single clue that might lead to Jolène.

In May, Jolène’s picture was shown on America’s Most Wanted, one of the most watched television shows in North America. A local youth organization even offered a $5,000 reward for information in Jolène’s case, which was later doubled, but still, there were no credible leads to follow.

However, investigators remained hopeful that they would find Jolène alive. Detective Lieutenant Jean-Francois Martin told The Gazette that in most cases of missing children, they would have found a body by now. “When we look at the other cases, we can see there’s a chance she’s still alive. That’s why we’re still hopeful.” Detective Martin also said that they hadn’t received any ransom calls or any indication that Jolène had left the province. “It doesn’t look like she ran away just for the sake of running away by herself. A 10-year-old couldn’t survive by herself this long. If she ran away, she’s with other, older people who have her under their control… In the past, children who were kidnapped left some kind of trace – whether it’s another kid who saw them or saw someone suspicious. In this case, there’s nothing, nothing to show she was kidnapped.”

But as the one-month mark approached, Jolène’s family began to fear that she would never come home. In an interview with The Gazette in May of 1999, Dolores said, “If I could somehow get a message to her or the people who have her, I’d ask them to let me have my daughter back. She belongs to us, and she’s only a child. It’s cruel to play with a child’s life… When she was a baby, I wrapped her in blankets. Now, I wrap her in my prayers.”

Months passed, and Jolène’s story began to fade from the public eye. Where her picture was once on the front page every single day, the updates began to slow. Jolène’s 11th birthday came and went, and her family continued to cling to the little bit of hope they had. Dolores told The Gazette, “She’s missing, but not forgotten. Deep down in my heart, she’s very much alive. She’s too bright, too intelligent for anyone to do anything wrong to her.”

Then, two years after Jolène disappeared, her name was in the paper again.

In June of 2001, 29-year-old Mario Bastien was convicted of murdering 13-year-old Alexandre Livernoche in the city of Sorel, just an hour north of Montreal. While awaiting trial, investigators had questioned Bastien about Jolène’s murder, believing he could have been involved. According to The Gazette, Bastien had called the police multiple times in the days after Jolène disappeared; he claimed he had done it just to annoy them. However, Bastien had done the exact same thing in the days after Alexandre disappeared. Ultimately, Alexandre’s body was found buried in a sandpit behind Bastien’s apartment. Bastien confessed to luring the boy to his trailer, sexually assaulting him, and burying him alive.

When investigators asked Bastien point-blank if he had killed Jolène, Bastien denied it, saying he had been in jail at the time she disappeared. But according to court records, Mario Bastien had been free on bail in April of 1999. Investigators interrogated Bastien for days and had to take a polygraph test, but the results were never made public. Commander Andre Durocher told The Gazette that they were taking a hard look at Bastien. “He has said some things that we have had to verify. There are things that we have to validate. But the investigation has not progressed.” After that, Mario Bastien was sentenced to life in prison, and Jolène’s case went back on the shelf.

In May of 2005, the case was in the news again. A prison informant had told detectives that he had overheard another inmate confess to killing Jolène and throwing her body into the Lachine Canal. Six years after their last search, dive teams were at it again, combing the dark waters of the canal while Jolène’s family looked on. Dolores told The Gazette that they were still hoping for the best. “It’s a normal human reaction to hope they find nothing. I try not to think of the worst. I can’t believe she’s dead, not until we have a body… My first priority is to find Jolène, either alive or dead, but to find her.”

After several days of meticulously combing the canal, the search was called off. There was no sign of Jolène.

The years passed, and Jolène’s family worked hard to keep moving forward. Eventually, they left the brick apartment building in Pointe-Saint-Charles and moved to Montreal East. Dolores said, “I couldn’t handle it anymore – it was too hard to be there.” Jolène’s siblings grew up, and Dolores and René became grandparents. Dolores began volunteering with the Missing Children’s Network, connecting with other families who understood the pain of losing a child and not knowing where they had gone.

Then, on September 9, 2010, construction workers digging under a bridge made a horrible discovery: bones buried in the dirt.

At first, investigators weren’t even sure the bones were human. Over the following weeks, multiple tests were performed until they were certain: they had found the remains of Jolène Riendeau.

However, investigators decided to wait before telling Jolène’s family. Because Jolène had been missing for so long and they had so little information about her death, they wanted to gather more clues that would hopefully lead them to the truth – and to a suspect.

Jolène’s remains had been found under the Nun’s Island Bridge, just a mile away from the convenience store where she was last seen. The bridge was part of one of the busiest highways in Montreal, and the spot where Jolène had been was just feet below a bike path that was regularly traveled. How had Jolène ended up under the bridge without anyone seeing? How long had she been there? And who was responsible?

Finally, in May of 2011, investigators told Jolène’s family what they had learned and brought them to the place where her remains had been found. They were given a private moment below the bridge to mourn together, laying a bouquet of baby tulips in the spot where she had been. As heartbreaking as it was to know that Jolène was gone, they finally had an answer.

Of course, there were still dozens of questions. Investigators were keeping the little information they had close to the vest, things only Jolène’s killer would know. And they were confident that Jolène had been killed, even though they wouldn’t say how they knew. Sergeant Ian Lafreniere told The Gazette, “We have a very serious lead and we don’t want to jeopardize it and allow a guilty person to escape justice.”

Shortly after announcing the discovery of Jolène’s remains to the public, police also announced that a suspect had been brought in for questioning, someone who had been on their list since early in the investigation. They wouldn’t reveal the suspect’s name, but he was later identified as 47-year-old Robert Laramée, a sexual offender who had lived in Pointe-Saint-Charles in 1999 and whose daughter had gone to school with Jolène.

Laramée had a long history of sex-related crimes, including convictions for assaulting minors. Multiple women had accused Laramée of sexual assault; in 2007 he had held a woman against her will for over 24 hours before she escaped and ran to a pharmacy where she called the police. During an interview with police in 2001, Laramée said he had sexual impulses that he could not control. He told the investigating officer that the impulses made him violent and he wanted to get treatment. But he later told the court that he never went to therapy or followed through with any of his treatments.

When Montreal police brought Laramée in for questioning about Jolène’s murder, he denied having anything to do with it. He also refused to take a polygraph, something he told Montreal news station LCN that police had been bugging him to do for years. “I said, ‘Look, I have rights. I won’t do a polygraph.’”

According to Canadian law, a suspect can only be detained for 24 hours before they have to be either charged or released. Unfortunately, even after all their hard work, investigators just didn’t have enough to hold Laramée. Sergeant Lafreniere told The Gazette, “When we announced we had found the body and that the case was a homicide, we said we were on a serious trail. That trail led us to this man… There is a difference between knowing who the suspect is and bringing him to justice. This is where we are at now. Investigators are still working on the case, and I’m telling you this is not over.”

On May 13, 2011, Jolène’s family gathered at St. Charles Parish to finally lay her to rest. The priest who had baptized her as a baby presided over her funeral, and at the end, the family released ten white doves in Jolène’s memory. They had waited 12 long years to say goodbye.

In the weeks after Jolène’s funeral, her family used the media attention to appeal to the public for help. In a press conference, Dolores told reporters, “Until he is arrested, sentenced, and put behind bars, there will be a sexual predator walking our streets. He ran for 12 long years, but he isn’t going to run anymore. Let’s make sure it is him and make sure he won’t roam the streets.”

Jolène’s family was sure that Robert Laramée was responsible for her death, and they were frustrated that he was allowed to walk free. In June of 2012, Dolores confronted Laramée in a Montreal courthouse where he was on trial for assault. During a break in the proceedings, Dolores caught Laramée in the lobby, jumping on him and hitting him repeatedly in the head. She knocked him to the floor, angrily shouting at him until a courthouse constable was able to pull her away. Dolores later pleaded guilty to assaulting Laramée, but the judge showed mercy and dropped the charges. Dolores thanked the judge, saying, “I was always convinced that Robert Laramée was the suspect in my daughter’s death. But what I did showed a lack of respect for the court. I’m terribly sorry for what I did.”

Robert Laramée was convicted in 2012 of forcibly confining and assaulting the woman he was dating, and he was sentenced to 4 years in prison with 3 years of probation. The judge in the case ordered that he undergo a psychological evaluation. Robert Laramée was declared a long-term offender and was added to the national sex offender registry for 20 years. He was sent to the federal penitentiary, where he has been off and on ever since.

As of this recording, no one has been charged with the murder of Jolène Riendeau. I can only presume that investigators are still collecting evidence and biding their time until they can make an arrest. There is no happy ending to this story, but I still believe that there can be justice for Jolène, no matter how long it takes to get there.