Melted ice cream, a single sandal left behind on the floor of the car, and footprints found near the scene of an abandoned car: those were the clues that Norah and Romy Carpentier, sisters aged 11 and 6, had been in the vehicle with their father when Martin Carpentier had an accident near Saint-Apollinaire, Que., on a warm night in July 2020.
Carpentier didn't wait for help. Instead he fled into the woods, his daughters in tow.
The first police officers to arrive on the scene of the accident on Highway 20 just southwest of Quebec City didn't realize a tragedy was about to unfold.
Eighteen hours later, Carpentier would kill both girls before killing himself. The children's bodies would be found three days later; their father's, nine days after that.
Their deaths shocked Quebecers.
The provincial police force, the Sûreté du Québec (SQ), claimed they'd jumped on the case of the missing girls quickly and that nothing more could have been done to save the Carpentier sisters.
But individual police officers, some now retired, offered Radio-Canada's a different assessment of how the case unfolded.
They say had the search not been so disorganized, less time might have been lost, and mistakes made early in the investigation cost them precious hours that might have made the difference between life and death.
"Personally, I think we botched it with the 24 hours we lost," said André Bernard, a former SQ ground search specialist.
Now retired, Bernard agreed for the first time to speak publicly about the case that marked the end of his police career.
It was Bernard and his team who found the bodies of the two girls after three days of searching near Saint-Apollinaire, on July 11, 2020.
"I really thought we could have made a difference," he told . "It didn't have to end this way."
Lack of urgency from the start
At 9:20 p.m. on July 8, the night of the girls' disappearance, 911 operators began getting calls about an abandoned vehicle that had been in an accident on Highway 20. In the recordings obtained by Radio-Canada, witnesses described what they'd seen.
"It just happened," said the first.
"There's no one in the car, but there's a child's car seat inside," said the second.
The airbags had been deployed, and in addition to the sandal and ice cream, there was a wallet, a tablet and a cellphone left in the car.
A few minutes after officers located the vehicle, the cellphone began to ring. An SQ officer answered. The call was from Norah and Romy's grandparents, saying they were worried: their former son-in-law had left with the girls to get ice cream at 8 p.m., saying he'd be back with them in an hour, and he still hadn't returned.
Marcel Savard, a former SQ deputy director general who spoke with about the case, said the SQ officers failed to grasp the urgency of the situation.
"Remember, there was ice cream and other clues that the girls had been there," he said. The moment it was clear the girls weren't with relatives, he said, the situation should have been treated like a crisis.
"What are you going to count on? The possibility that the children are at risk — or the person that reassures everyone" that the children are safe with their father, he asked.
"I think the job of the police is more often to assume the worst."
The search begins
Search specialist Bernard and two of his colleagues did not get the call to come from their base in Mascouche, 240 kilometres away, until the morning of July 9. They arrived knowing only that there had been a car accident and someone was missing.
A dozen other SQ ground search specialists were also on duty that day, but they were more than 400 kilometres away, in Lac-Saint-Jean, providing security for Quebec Premier François Legault.
Highway patrol officers were called in to help in the search, the officers divided into two teams of seven. The search to find Norah and Romy began at 9:30 a.m., 12 hours after they first disappeared, and six hours before it's believed Carpentier killed them.
Bernard, in charge of one team, focused on the north side of the highway that morning, finding nothing. It was not until afternoon, on the south side of the highway, that they found a crucial clue: a footprint made by a sandal. It was an exact match for Norah's, found on the floor of the car after the accident.
Bernard said it was a major breakthrough in the search effort. "It confirmed that Carpentier and the girls had been there, though we didn't know when."
The discovery quickly led to another print about 800 metres away, this time belonging to the younger of the two girls, Romy. Bernard accompanied a search dog and its handler to try to find more clues from there, but without initial success.
At 8 p.m., 24 hours after the girls had been last seen, and just as the Amber Alert came into effect, the search was called off for the night. Bernard said there weren't enough officers available to carry on round the clock.
"We just weren't enough people," he exclaimed.
However, sources who spoke to said the Quebec City police service (SPVQ) had offered its own specialized search teams earlier that day. The SQ reportedly refused their offer.
By the time the search resumed the next morning, a coroner would later conclude that the girls were already dead.
That morning of July 10, Bernard was shocked to find out that the SQ was now focusing its efforts elsewhere: seven kilometres from where the last clue had been found, in a small residential area where people reported having heard cries during the night.
"I don't understand it; I just don't understand it," Bernard said. "In searches like these, you start at the last place they were seen or known to have been."
All that day, he voiced his concerns to his direct superior, without success.
"It's the strategy of last resort," agreed Alain Croteau, a retired SQ search and rescue co-ordinator.
Croteau, who agreed to analyze the Carpentier operation for , was firm: it was a mistake to move the search to an area several kilometres away from the location of the last clue, even if people had reported hearing someone cry out.
The procedure should be to send one team, or a dog with a handler, for example, to verify the information and see if it is relevant to the case.
"But you never, ever, ever, ever move the whole search operation to go there. Never!" he said.
After a second unsuccessful day, the searches were again suspended for the night. By then Norah, Romy and their father had been missing for 48 hours.
The next day, July 11, officers finally returned to the last known location, the site of the second print. Soon after, Bernard found the bodies of the two girls.
Budget cuts led to fewer resources
The tragedy in Saint-Apollinaire came at a bad time for the SQ.
One year earlier, Mario Bouchard, then SQ deputy director general, announced that the force was abolishing three emergency search units. About 70 officers who had been trained, specialized and outfitted in ground searches were affected by the decision.
The plan was to redeploy them as highway safety officers. The new directive, in case of a disappearance, was to call the local highway unit to help out.
Croteau, the retired ground-search expert, compared the situation with asking a surgeon to call in staff from random hospital departments when an operation had to be done.
"Searching in a forest like that is a very specialized job. There are some people who can't even find milk in their own fridge," he said.
Bernard, Croteau and other SQ personnel who spoke to agreed that the outcome might have been different in the Carpentier case, had emergency search teams not been dismantled.
More officers could have been deployed more quickly, which would have allowed that first footprint to be found much earlier, Croteau said. That would have pointed them in the direction of the second print quickly, which led Bernard's team to where the bodies were ultimately found.
"We would have saved that whole day. We could have potentially saved two days," Croteau said.
The SQ declined s requests for an interview, saying they would wait to see the story before offering a statement.
Translated and edited by Laura Marchand
Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca