The 21-year-old disappeared after getting in a fight in September 2014

Update: Family confirmed Justin Rhodes’ body was found March 25, 2015. For the updated story click here.

“DOES ANYONE KNOW WHERE Justin IS???”

That frantic Facebook post on Sept. 26, 2014 by Karleen Thibault marked the beginning of a search for her son Justin Rhodes.

Just two days earlier, Calgary Police said Rhodes went to a house party and a fight broke out; Rhodes was the victim and police charged an unnamed 20 year old with common assault. Police ultimately concluded the incident was unrelated to Rhodes’ disappearance.

Rhodes left the party in a vehicle but never made it home. At an October news conference, Staff Sgt. Travis Baker said Rhodes asked to be let out at the intersection of Southland Drive and Acadia Drive S.E. at 10:30 p.m. No one has reported seeing or hearing from him since.

According to his friends and family, the disappearance is out of character for Rhodes. The sociable 21-year-old would not have cut all contact from everyone he knows. While no one interviewed can say what happened on that night, just to disappear is not like him. Police have issued an alert for Justin McKinnon-Blomme—Rhodes‘ legal name.  Thibault, who took the Thibault when she married a few years ago, raised Justin as Rhodes, a name she assumed as a child when her mother married.   

A mother’s view

Descending down several flights of stairs into the Fish Creek Sports Club, I passed by walls dotted with missing-person posters for Rhodes. On a desk sat a stack of freshly copied posters waiting to be affixed to telephone poles and bus shelters. Here I met his mother Karleen Thibault who — with her husband — run a taekwando class.

She looked tired and reserved as we sit down, but immediately her eyes lit up as she started to talk about her son.

She told me that Rhodes was the outdoors type growing up. Born and raised in Calgary, Rhodes had many opportunities to spend time in the wilderness. Thibault said that while many of his peers would be playing video games, he would play to fit in but would rather be active outside. Whether it was biking, hiking or camping, Rhodes would always be the most comfortable when in nature with his parents, half-brother and their extended family.

“He loved getting together with our family,” said Thibault. “Our family is very close so every summer and long weekend in August we all went camping together. He used to love coming up with ideas, ‘Hey let’s all go for a hike and invite the rest of the family.”Justin Rhodes (far right) had a passion for the outdoors that he loved to share with his family.

Photo courtesy of Karleen Thibault

This love of family and positive demeanor continued throughout his life. Thibault said Justin always had a need to care for people and ensure they were happy. As she struggled with depression and anxiety she said Justin was there to look after her.

“Like little kids will do for their parents anyway; make them tea to make you feel better or maybe you’d wake up and he would have made breakfast.”

In junior high Justin joined the Royal Canadian Army Cadets as an extension of his need to help people and learn as much as he could about the world, even winning cadet of the year.

She jokes that it was always a fight to get him to go to cadets but when she went to pick him up he would regale her with all the new things he had learnt. She said that even at the young age he was never satisfied and always needed to know more in what Thibault calls his “quest for knowledge.”

As he grew up, the need to protect and help people persisted into the dream of becoming a paramedic. He completed his emergency medical responder course.

Thibault said her son ran to help when a person was struck by a train at the Somerset-Bridlewood LRT station about a year and a half ago. Rhodes was at the Tim Hortons near the tracks when he heard about the accident. Having his advanced first aid, he sprinted to the station. She said his first thoughts were about remembering all of his training in case he was the first on scene.

Some of Karleen Thibault’s favourite memories of Rhodes were when the family went camping and she could have wonderful conversations with him.

Photo courtesy of Karleen ThibaultAlthough he arrived just as paramedics did, Thibault said, “He had an adrenaline rush of, ‘I know stuff and I can help somebody.’”

During the interview Thibault’s voice breaks as she tells me about his great laugh and how he gives really great hugs. Tears come briefly.

“He’s always been there for me,” said Thibault after a moment. “Whenever I’ve needed it, if I’m not feeling well or if I’m going through anxiety he’s there in a flash. And he’ll be there for anyone that needs him.”

Justin’s friends

I met Rhyse Tremel, Rhodes’ friend of nine years, at his house in the Calgary neighbourhood of Cranston, straight from his job as an electrician. He pulled off his boots, asked his roommates to turn down the metal music blaring from the living room and grabbed a beer.

Pushing his shoulder length hair back, he made himself comfortable at the kitchen table. Once he started talking about Rhodes his near-surfer-like voice became punctuated with reminiscence and careful thoughtfulness.

Tremel said Rhodes’ intentions were always pure, “I remember when Justin got his first aid done for the first time and for the next while after he would not shut up bragging about how he got his first aid. He was so proud of it too because all he wanted to do was help people.”

They met in Grade 7 and bonded over a shared love of music. Tremel said Rhodes was the first person to introduce him to the classic rock legends and he remembers sitting together in Rhodes’ mother’s basement listening to Pink Floyd’s album Animals.

“We would put on the third track, Pigs and we’d play the beginning,” Tremel said. “And it would take us like half an hour to get the first four bars but we always had a blast doing that.”Rhodes and Tremel have been friends since Grade 7. Although a lot has changed as they have grown-up, their friendship still remains strong.

Photo courtesy of Rhyse Tremel

Tremel said Rhodes had a passion for so many things growing up. His knowledge for electrical circuitry and pyrotechnics were astounding for a 12-year-old kid.

“Justin was a bright kid and not a lot of people saw that. He had a lot of passion for what he did,” Tremel added.

Despite his excitement for knowledge, Tremel said when Rhodes entered Centennial High School some of his interests waned.

“It seemed that almost everything about what he truly desired started to… maybe not fade but it started to disappear to those who couldn’t see it. It was still there but it wasn’t apparent a lot of the time.”

Thibault added Rhodes didn’t fit with the structured learning of school. With attention deficit disorder his mind would be going at all times. He would pose questions and become frustrated when he didn’t get the answers he was looking for. She added that he sometimes would challenge the teachers. Rhodes eventually dropped out of high school late into his Grade 12 year.

Justin’s struggles

Tremel said, “Justin focused a lot of his time and energy on women, partying and having a comfortable lifestyle rather than putting in the effort and getting through certain parts of life that people don’t necessarily want to do.”

“Even though it wasn’t ideal he wanted to embrace life and he wanted to flow downstream the whole way. It’s almost like he didn’t want to walk a path,” Tremel said.

Eventually drinking started to become a problem for Rhodes. On both sides of his family, Thibault said there is a history of addiction issues and it was possible alcohol started to become a coping mechanism in his life. Thibault said there might have been a struggle with depression although she couldn’t say for sure.

Justin Rhodes has been described by his friends and family as having a huge heart and he would go out of his way to help those closest to him.

Photo courtesy of Karleen ThibaultTremel said there were some issues: “But for the most part Justin wasn’t destructive. He wanted to have a good time and he wanted everyone else to have a good time too. Justin truly was the life, he was the life of everything.”

After leaving school he was still living at home and working various warehouse and landscaping jobs while also helping teach the four and five-year-old Mighty Dragons at his parents’ taekwando school.

Although he had a bold personality, it could get to be a problem when he had been drinking. Tremel said he had been in trouble with police a few times, although nothing serious.

Trying to change

Knowing he could have a problem with alcohol, Rhodes, with the help of his friends, quit drinking for a period of time in 2010. Tremel said the New Year’s Eve after he had been sober Rhodes brought a flat of non-alcoholic beer with him.

Thibault said, “I drove him to his friend’s place and we stopped to pick that up. His friends in the vehicle had said to him, ‘Justin that is so impressive that you’re grabbing this non-alcoholic beer instead of regular beer.’”

“It was funny, we had a great time,” Tremel said. “It got to the point where Justin was realizing for his first time what it was like to party not being drunk. That night was a great success.”

Although his sobriety didn’t last as long as he would have wished, Rhodes was trying to make a change in his life.

“That is why this has all thrown us really off because he was trying to improve everything, doing his best to get his life back on track,” Thibault said.

Even his current job as an arborist showed he was dedicated to improving and it was a positive outlet in his life. He constantly found himself torn between being an arborist and his other passion of becoming an EMT.

Thibault explained that Rhodes loved his job as an arborist because he could spend his days in the wilderness working with some of his close friends.

“He loved the peacefulness of what they do,” said Thibault. “He’s always, since he was little, had a love of climbing trees. As high as he could possibly go.”

She said another part of the appeal of working in the field is that there is a lot to the job and in a way it helps Rhodes calm his mind because he has many things he needs to focus on at once. In a way the demand on his mind provides him with a sort of clarity.Being an arborist is a tough job, but the taxing mental exertion was said to help Justin Rhodes clear his mind.

Photo courtesy of Karleen Thibault

“Justin is very much a thinker. He’s also ADD so his mind just kind of goes crazy but he has found that when he is climbing the trees and working he is actually able to focus on his job at hand because there are so many things he has to think about.”

Tremel said, “Not only did he take a lot of pride in his work but he was very concerned, cautious and aware about his work.”

“If you would point out something to him or if you’d do something that related to his work that would bring up a concern for him he was all on top of that.”

Tremel explained that Rhodes had a lot of ambition in his career and he strove to have all his passions coalesce into what Tremel described as a ‘masterfully complex career’.

Rhodes’ dream was to become a fully licensed paramedic and once achieved he would move to the United States and attend a specific course to become an explosive demolitionist. Eventually he would come back and work with his brother’s tree company until retirement.

Moving forward

Rhodes’ disappearance has affected hundreds of people. The Facebook page “Help Bring Justin Home” has nearly 3,500 likes at the time of publication.

“I have been so overwhelmed by the support,” Thibault said. “Not only the people on Facebook across everywhere but in Calgary in general. No matter where we went everyone was jumping on top of it.”

She has been doing everything she can to bring Rhodes home. They are still pursuing every lead and continue to put out flyers and signs, hoping that someone has information that will lead to him.

I cold-called Justin Mills, another friend of Rhodes, and immediately he agreed to meet with me. A few days later we were sitting in the Tim Hortons in Bridlewood with steaming cups of coffee, talking about Rhodes.

Mills knew Rhodes since they were seven but recently they met again at a friend’s house. In the last two years they had been inseparable. Mills said Rhodes was incredibly sociable and funny, “He could talk to anyone.”

“Me and him could be bad for each other at times.” Mills said. “But always having fun though.”

“I don’t even know how to really say it but he was a one-of-a-kind person and everyone deserved to meet him. He was likable and very charismatic.”

Meanwhile Justin Mills said he feels the worst might have happened, “I think that he was murdered. I’ve said this before to the detectives. I don’t know who, I wasn’t even in the province (on the night he disappeared).

“Just trying to figure out the truth but nobody knows too much. Somebody knows but I just don’t know who that person is.”

Investigation deadends

The Calgary police said there are about 3,300 missing persons a year, or nine a day. “For nine people a day there would be no attention on them. We have to judiciously choose who we use the media for,” Sgt. John Hebert said.

Rhodes’ family, friends and complete strangers have come together to spread awareness about his disappearance with the hope of someone giving information leading to him.

Photo by Evan ManconiIn Rhodes’ case the Calgary Police Service wants the public’s support. Staff Sgt. Travis Baker said the police has collected hundreds of hours of surveillance footage, interviewed people and conducted four formal searches, all to no avail. There have been no definitive leads as to what happened that night.

“We have no indication of foul play whatsoever. We basically have spoken to everybody who was with him that evening, that was at that party and who had seen him that day,” Baker said in the news conference. “We’ve run down every lead we can from there as well. No indications at this time of any type of foul play, we aren’t ruling that out but certainly don’t have anything that is pointing us in that direction.”

“Nobody knows where he is,” said Thibault. “Nobody, out of all those friends and all those Facebook people. He’s 21, it’s not like he just decided to up and go. I want people to know that because sometimes I feel because he’s 21 people are not looking as hard.”

“If you look at a missing person who is 10, it’s different than a missing person who is 21 and I totally understand that. It does not hurt any less for the parent.”

From the City of Calgary Newsroom:
McKinnon-Blomme is described as being Caucasian, approximately 5-10 tall and 140lbs with a slim build. He was wearing a black leather jacket and dark jeans when he was last seen.

Anyone with information about McKinnon-Blomme’s [Rhodes’] whereabouts are asked to call police at 403-266-1234 or Crime Stoppers anonymously using any of the following methods:

TALK: 1-800-222-8477
TYPE: tttTIPS.com
TEXT: tttTIPS to 274637

emanconi@cjournal.ca