One day, 32 years ago, my brother’s grade 10 high school friend went missing. This was a time of no internet or cell phones. There was one home phone and one TV per house. We had house parties on Saturday nights, while Fridays were spent with girlfriends or a best friend. We all lived similar lives in an upscale Toronto suburb. It seemed far away from anything truly dangerous.
So, when she disappeared it was really strange. Amber Potts-Jaffery was one of us and then one night she never came home. Her face was posted all over the neighborhood and her mother and grandmother were in tears, asking everyone and anyone for information.
Toronto.com did a story a couple years ago, recounting the last time her mother and step-father saw her. After Amber stayed out all night, they found her in a hotel room on Lakeshore Drive. They brought her home and immediately after stopping the car, Amber ran out of the car and down the street. She flagged down a passing car and was never seen by her family again. Her mother has since passed away and Amber’s step-father still continues the search. He remains hopeful that one day he will see Amber again.
We never really spoke about Amber’s disappearance amongst my friends when it happened. She was a few years younger and a friend of my brother. While I knew her, it was easy enough at the time to refocus on other things. My friends and I quickly went back to focusing on fashion, hair, make-up, and boys. While the world progressively went back to our version of normal, her family still searched for her. Her disappearance was brushed aside, but never really forgotten.
Throughout the years, I often thought about Amber. Whenever I saw a friend of hers, I would ask if anyone had heard anything. The answer was always ‘no’. The police did not have a clue what happened to her. Of course, rumors circulated that she ran away from home to live in Florida or that she was abducted and killed or imprisoned in some nutjob’s basement.
It felt like it revealed a growing crack in our “perfect neighborhood” that wanted so badly to be seen as a place where nothing bad could happen. I wondered if this mask our society was wearing kept us all from discovering the truth.
When in 2016 ‘Serial’ launched their podcast platform of live investigations and deep dives into disappearances and murders, I listened and felt like I couldn’t stay silent behind that veil any longer. What if I tried to help and researched what happened to Amber?
How and where does one even start? I researched the missing persons’ bureau and found this profile on the Missing Children Database. I reached out to several such sources to see if there was any news anywhere about her, but sadly all trails lead nowhere.
I decided to post a Facebook page named ‘Missing, Do you know where Amber Jeffery is?’
Let me take a moment to tell you more about Amber. She had a loving mother and grandmother. Her mom, as a single parent, had moved to Muskoka while her grandmother lived in downtown Toronto. Amber became known as a runaway and would sometimes end up at her grandmother’s. I realized that hers’ was not a typical teenage gal’s life, like mine. She obviously had issues which we may never know, but these drove her to become a runaway.
My goal was to find someone connected to her regarding her disappearance. I put out some feelers and waited. Then one night I received a message. ‘I have information on Amber. Please call me at xxx-xxx-xxxx. I got your number from person X. Call me after 9pm.’
My life and priorities changed from that day forward.
The person I connected with was, to put it gently, a questionable character who told me that he had been friends with Amber and many other girls back in the day.
He told me that Amber got caught up with a bad boyfriend who was more her pimp than her boyfriend.
I was shocked and could not believe what I was hearing. I was so naïve. I had little, if any knowledge about the sex trafficking world and how someone would get caught up in it. He told me she would run away and stay with another girl downtown at his place above the George establishment, at Queen & Church. I got the woman’s number and contacted her.
I will not use her real name and will refer to her as Kathy. When I first contacted Kathy, she told me she had moved past those times and preferred that I did not bother her! She asked how I got her name and contact information. I quickly got the sense that I was out of my depth.
But, I somehow got her to open up and Kathy and I spoke five times, sometimes for hours, about her life and meeting Amber. This is what she shared:
Amber began to hang out with Kathy when they were about 14. Kathy already had a boyfriend who was pimping her and he wanted Amber to get into the trade; so Kathy’s job was to get her into the business by doing three things:
- Introduce her to marijuana and progress to any drug that was addictive; however, Amber never did more than weed.
- Brag to her about how her boyfriend bought her amazing presents and that he did this because he loved her so much.
- Introduce her to another pimp and get them hooked up as a ‘couple’.
- Make sure she kept this life a secret from everyone outside of their group.
This all sounded crazy and impossible. I found it hard to believe that this was Amber’s life at age 14/15. Little did I appreciate how common this approach was and still is. This was my brutal awakening and introduction to human trafficking as something that is happening all around us, even in our “perfect and safe” suburbs.
I now had a better picture regarding Amber, but still no one was talking about what happened to her. My contact trained her on how to make money on the streets as a prostitute. Amber had just turned 15 and none of her high school friends had any idea about her secret identity.
Amber’s boyfriend was a large, mean man and a bully who controlled her by telling her they are just making some money so they can buy a house and start a family one day. He would manage the money because that is what a good boyfriend did. A good boyfriend also keeps his girl in line if she misbehaves by asking too many questions or asking for more money. They had a typical pimp/prostitute relationship. I know it sounds like a script from a movie, but this was reality.
How did it all end for Amber? No one knows for certain. With all my phone conversations and hours and hours of interviews, I have pieced together a story of what most likely happened. There is no proof and no one is talking publically.
This is what I was told: Amber, Kathy and three other girls (I call them girls as they were young teens) often worked the Lakeshore Road motels. Conventions and conferences held downtown were their extra busy times and most hookups involved drugs and sex.
One night Amber was with a client and things got out of control. Amber never wanted to have sex with people, so she would just lay there motionless, and clients would get upset and her pimp would get angry and lash out at her.
That night, once the client complained and left, all the other girls were shoved into another room and told to shut the f— up. Keep silent. They heard noises and the next thing they were told was that Amber had decided to take off with a guy she met and that they should go and scrub blood out of the carpet, as Amber had a nosebleed. She was never seen again.
In pursuing Amber’s story, I learned about Shelley Desrocher, a gal that hung out with them and was now a missing case in the London area. I became obsessed with Shelley’s disappearance and I spent close to 2 years investigating what happened to her. My podcast about Shelley’s disappearance will take you through the catacombs of the underground economy, tough stories of women and the repulsive but very real and active sex trafficking trade.
I’m still not sure exactly what led me to take on these investigations as my own. But I hope that my efforts have helped the families of these women – women who deserved more from the world – to find some peace and closure, if not solid answers. I hope that it also helps people to see those cracks in our society that young people can easily fall through, no matter where they might come from.