Dateline   |  June 14, 2013

Deception, Part 1

A young sister and brother are torn apart when their mother disappears, and an elaborate sting operation traps a most unlikely villain.  Keith Morrison reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> the story you're about to witness is all too real though is may seem perhaps implausible like a play or a movie with at its dark heart something quite unspeakable. the actors are the family divided across a thin line separating truth and discretion. there's the gambler's last desperate hand. the voice, the presence summoned from the beyond. and the audacious undercover taper all to solve an 11-year-old mystery and put under the intense personal scrutiny a most unlikely villain who, depending on whom you choose to believe, may not be a villain at all. but in the beginning, in the beginning there was wilderness. vast and lovely. and a happy little family. a brother and sister who loved each other and loved their mom and dad .

>> i always thought of our family as a perfect little family. didn't matter where we lived as long as we were together, that was home.

>> this is anna siefert who at the time was anna rattay. home was a country cabin surrounded by trees and mountains of british columbia , canada. this is her lifrt brothttle brother, gabriel .

>> i always thought of my parents and family being perfect.

>> especially when you saw the dysfunction in families around you.

>> yeah, like parents get divorced? it didn't make sense to me. like how would you dieal with that?

>> and their parents -- the story as unlikely and romantic as anna and gabriel had ever heard. this shy, rustic french canadian laborer, denis rattay, who fancied himself a gambler, and wendy , the straight, wild girl who strayed so far from her middle-class roots in the connecticut suburbs. they met at a hotel in reno, nevada, of all places.

>> and he hardly knew a word of english. and she hardly knew a word of french.

>> yeah, they hit it off. when it came time for him to leave, she said, "take me with you."

>> so he did all the way back to canada, to northern saskatchewan . and against all odds, said denis ' sister, deanne, the wayward marriage of the preacher's daughter and ilit illiterate dropout worked.

>> what i liked is they seemed more friends than lovers. the way they talked, behaved. it almost didn't feel like husband and wife.

>> the kids -- anybody could see how close they were.

>> it wasn't just, how's anna , what's gab doing now, it was always anna and gab.

>> as their friend lois cook could see, denis was fiercely protective of all of them.

>> i would trum him to do the right thing and keep my safe. he was going to protect his family and his kids.

>> were you a daddy's girl?

>> yeah. i was. he was the rock that i had. he was calm. he was patient. i always considered him about as close as a hero as i girl could get.

>> the strong, silent hero who preferred long solitary walks in the woods to social gatherings. except for poker. there was usually a game in town. the family could use the cash, and denis figured he was pretty good.

>> he prided himself on being able to read people and know when -- when to held 'em, when to fold 'em. i guess he sort of could because he was winning quite a bit.

>> wendy , an art teacher by trade, taught her kids to help others, to speak up and be heard like her.

>> well, i think you're a little too domineering for me now. maybe tomorrow we can talk about that.

>> okay --

>> in this video, she organized a peace project that taught students including her own son about conflict resolution and respect.

>> that's just the idea of what she tried to do in her everyday life .

>> you were close?

>> very. she was incredibly nurturing, and i think what she succeeded in doing is that she raised a good son and a good man to live in this world as a sane person.

>> wendy wanted her children to have the emotional stability she couldn't seem to manage even in her solid middle-class upbringing. she was open about it, too. how she was constantly seeking something missing. how as a teenager she ran away from home, experimented with drugs. how her parents sent her to a psychiatric hospital back in connecticut .

>> she wanted to have a peaceful part of her. she wanted to be centered would be the word. but isn't that life? isn't that something common to all of us?

>> her quest seemed to be over. she was drawn to spirituality and for a time a group called the emissaries of divine light .

>> i remember her saying she felt -- she felt at home there. she did that, though. she religion bounced searching for somewhere to belong.

>> and then finally she and the family seemed to find it. a place to belong. the edge of the wilderness far from her connecticut past. a small house a few miles outside prince george , british columbia . denis took a job at a lumber mill . wendy found work off and on as a substitute teacher at the local high school . that might have been the whole story really except, well, every drama needs a catalyst, right? one day in 1995 , denis returned from work at the sawmill and told him family how a log hit his shoulder, knocked him out cold. when he tried to return to work, tough as he was, he just couldn't.

>> it turned out he had a lot of nerve damage down the right side of his body. he was left high and dry without being able to work anymore.

>> denis could no longer be the family's strong, stable protector.

>> once he lost his job, i think it was up to her to figure out, okay, like how do we make everything work.

>> then it was a hot morning in august, 7'70 1997 , when everything stopped working. gabriel was in the kitchen more or less paying attention when his mom and dad said they were off to run errands.

>> she waved a quick good-bye, down the stairs and out the door.

>> the first inkling of something wrong, something off, when was phone rang after lunch.

>> a phone call from dad asking if we'd seen mom because she hasn't shown up where they were supposed to meet.

>> anna 's dad told her her mom had dropped her off downtown so he could run errands while she drove on to tutor a student and meet a friend, then pick them up again at a hardware store . but she hadn't returned. as each hour crawled by that afternoon, anna 's worry grew. by nightfall, there was still no sign of wendy .

>> when i called the police to say i don't know where she is, can you help, the only question was has it been 24 hours ? and it hadn't been. so i kwoocouldn't make a reported yet.

>> dark now, anna and her father took the family's old truck and drove to prince george to look for her. they stopped by coffee shop , no wendy . as anna looked around, her eye caught something familiar.

>> there was the van sitting under a street lamp in a grocery store parking lot . i was so excited. the grocery store , i think, was just closed up. i thought, well, maybe she's on her way out of the grocery store . i knocked on the door, shade it, no, there's nobody there.

>> the van, white plymouth voyager , had picked up a dent neither one of them remembered on the driver's side door. weird. the van was locked, but denis had an extra key. inside everything looked normal, so anna drove the van home.

>> that night and the next morning, i just kept making phone calls . i called every friend of mine , every friend of hers. i called every number in the directory that she had. no one had seen her. no one knew what i was talking about.

>> what did all of that feel like?

>> it was like being in a nightmare because mom was never late. mom didn't miss appointments. she didn't just disappear.

>> the next day, denis and the kids filed a report with the rcmp, the royal canadian mounted police . they created a missing persons poster, wendy smiling and happy, her hazel eyes magnified by super-sized glasses. they plastered it around town. a day went by, then two, then a week.

>> i just kept waiting for her to walk through the door.

>> you expected that to happen?

>> i didn't know what else to do. for me it was, she's going to come back, right? i'm 15 years old and expecting everything to come and be norm am one of my really vivid memories is we went to see a movie together because we felt like let's have a little distraction from this trauma. i remember standing in line to go to the cinema, just feeling awful, feeling the weight of what's happening. having if feel odd that we're doing that. like why aren't we looking for her.

>> and denis , anna remembered her dad going for long walks alone, seemed devastated, lost, in denial.

>> he broke down for the first time. i'd never seen real emotion come from him before.

>> by then, wendy 's disappearance became news all over prince george .

>> i came into contact as a news reporter covering the disappearance itself.

>> frank peebles of the " prince george citizen ."

>> it was quite a shock that somebody who is apparently normal, everyday, almost a stereotype in that sense could disappear without a trace. she was everybody's mom, and she just disappeared.

>> a disturbing echo of other stories peebles knee all too well.

>> this town is used to disappearances. when wendy rattay disappeared, there was a hint, i would say even a strong whiff of suspicion that this was another highway of tears case.

>> highway of tears? now, what could that be?