By Lauren Pelley, Published on Toronto Star June 14, 2015
A call from Toronto police letting him know that his old friend had died sent Dylan Reibling on a quest to find out what had happened. It turned out to be a mystery without complete answers.
On a spring day in 2002, Dylan Reibling got a call from the Toronto police. He was sitting in his apartment above a computer shop on College Street, a tiny space in a rooming house crammed full of his possessions — a bed, filing cabinet, desk. It’s been 13 years since then, but the moment is seared into Reibling’s memory.
The call was about his friend Mike.
Reibling was a 23-year-old student at the time, and had recently been laid off by a small Toronto Internet service provider where he’d been working part time. His friend Michael De Bourcier, a jovial, heavy-set salesperson with short hair and piercing blue eyes, had been let go as well.
Their camaraderie was circumstantial, nothing beyond grabbing a beer after work or hanging out at office parties. Even so, it was a friendship, filled with reminiscing about their shared experience growing up in sleepy, small-town Ontario — Baden for Reibling, Goderich for De Bourcier — and the requisite shop talk.
After a few minutes of questioning about Reibling’s friend, an officer finally told him why police were calling: De Bourcier’s body had recently been found in his apartment and his death was deemed suspicious. It was from natural causes — a heart attack — but there was something odd.
De Bourcier, only in his mid-30s, had prepaid his funeral a week before his death.
Police believed he was living under an assumed identity based on phoney documents found among De Bourcier’s possessions, including a fake high school diploma and university degree.
Reibling, sitting alone in his apartment, was shocked.
But his name wasn’t really Michael De Bourcier.
At a dimly lit bar near College Street and Spadina Avenue in May, Dylan Reibling is sitting with a stack of brown file folders, filled with 13 years’ worth of handwritten notes, photocopies and research.
He’s now 36, tall and slim, with chestnut-coloured hair and a robust beard. A filmmaker by profession, Reibling spent a good chunk of his 20s and early 30s playing detective while unravelling the web of mystery surrounding his old friend.
In March, Reibling made a huge discovery while searching a database of Canadian missing person records.Looking at a photo of a man missing since 1992, there was no doubt in Reibling’s mind: He knew the smiling young fellow with a mop of brown hair. Maybe, just maybe, he’d found his friend’s real identity.
Spotting that photo came after more than a decade of amateur detective work. Reibling spent years researching leads, searching through public archives, contacting local and provincial police, funeral homes, former shared colleagues, potential family members — eventually hiring a private investigator — all in the hope of finding out the truth about Mike.
It all started with that phone call.
Police told Reibling they’d found his phone number on De Bourcier’s passport application, which made sense to the recent graduate. After being laid off, Reibling and De Bourcier had kept in touch through email.
De Bourcier hoped to teach English overseas and needed a passport, so he asked his younger friend to be a personal reference — and why not? They’d known each other almost two years by that point. Sure, it was two months too short for a passport reference, but Reibling agreed to fudge the numbers.
He recalls police giving him a slap on the wrist for being a reference for someone he barely knew.
But Reibling says he did know his friend, as much as you can know someone living a lie. So he started looking for answers.
A detective working on the case tipped Reibling off to De Bourcier possibly being from B.C.
Years later, Reibling found a newspaper clipping online, and learned his friend’s assumed name was the same as a 4-and-a-half-year-old boy who died in 1973 in Port Hardy, B.C. The boy, had he lived, would’ve been around the same age as Mike.
It all made sense.
Figuring out his friend’s real identity proved more difficult, compounded by institutional secrecy and privacy concerns.
“The more I met with resistance from the police, from institutions, from the Ontario Public Guardian and Trustee, from funeral companies — that made me push back,” Reibling says.
In December 2013, he began documenting his search for an upcoming documentary, Friends with Mike, set to be released later this year. During filming, he visited Goderich; there was no trace of his friend’s likeness in any high school yearbooks.
He also interviewed former colleagues, including Dave Gilbert, co-founder of now-defunct Velocet Communications, the parent company of the Internet service provider where De Bourcier and Reibling worked together for nearly two years.
Gilbert can’t remember De Bourcier ever opening up or hanging out with coworkers outside the office.
“He was always jovial,” he says in an interview with the Star. “He never declined to participate in things going on at work. He just didn’t participate in things going on outside of work.”
Reibling knew he needed more than hazy memories to find the truth about his friend. About a year ago, he hired private investigator Dave Perry, a former homicide investigator and partner and co-CEO of Investigative Solutions Network Inc.
“I recognized from the beginning that this wasn’t your typical case,” Perry says over the phone from his Pickering office. “And there was a family out there looking for this guy.”
Perry linked Reibling with a retired chief coroner, given the suspicious nature of his friend’s death.
It was easy to jump to conclusions and conspiracy theories: Was Mike a spy? Was he murdered? Was he in the witness protection program? Had he faked his own death? Was it even his body?
The truth was duller. The coroner confirmed it was just a heart attack, despite De Bourcier’s peculiar funeral prepayment a week prior. Perry thinks the overweight 37-year-old may have been feeling significant symptoms and didn’t think anyone would properly bury him since he was living under an assumed name, but Reibling has a different theory.
“He would’ve prepaid his funeral almost exactly 10 years after he went missing,” he says. “And anniversaries are important; they hold significance.”
Finally, on March 16, Reibling stumbled across that familiar face on a missing person report. It was a young man named James Scott Walton, missing from Caledonia, Ont., for more than two decades, who looked just like the man Reibling knew as Michael De Bourcier.
At the age of 27, Walton disappeared on Aug. 2, 1992, while heading to visit friends in Syracuse, N.Y. He was supposed to come back on Aug. 6, but his car was later found abandoned under a bridge in Buffalo with his wallet still inside.
Perry tracked down Walton’s family, still living in Ontario, to share the pair’s hypothesis and answer as many questions as they could. It was a bittersweet meeting for a family that had never given up hope. Yes, they had a potential answer, but it meant their beloved Jim was never coming home.
Reibling soon gained answers to some of his questions about the man he knew as Mike.
He learned his friend hadn’t attended high school in Goderich, as he said. Walton had only spent part of his childhood in Goderich; he moved to Burlington and finally to Caledonia, where he graduated from high school. He later studied political science at McMaster University before heading to Syracuse University for a master’s degree.
After speaking with the family, Perry took their findings to the OPP.
The OPP’s Sgt. Dave Rektor says the clear similarities between De Bourcier and Walton led the OPP to re-explore the case. Working alongside the coroner’s office, police were able to obtain a DNA sample from De Bourcier and Walton’s mother, Rektor says. It was a match. From a police standpoint, the missing person case was closed.
One of Walton’s family members spoke to the Star briefly, expressing their desire for privacy and their appreciation for Reibling, Perry and the police forces involved in a search that had taken more than two decades. Walton’s death isn’t the answer they were hoping for, though it does bring some degree of comfort, they say.
Even so, one burning question remains: Why did Walton vanish from Caledonia on a summer day in 1992, only to eventually adopt a seemingly mundane life in a city less than two hours away?
Sitting at a bar table in May, Reibling thumbs through his research, including photocopies of five other fake birth certificates from different cities in Ontario and British Columbia, and a Nova Scotia driver’s licence featuring the clear likeness of Walton. For 10 years, he may have been living under multiple identities, Reibling explains.
No one knows why.
“Sometimes I think about the enormity of things,” says Reibling, softly. “How all this was held together by the thinnest of threads. For 13 years, his body was sitting in a grave, and his family was out looking for him, and there was nothing bringing those two things together.” Walton’s family doesn’t know why their loved one disappeared, and the OPP do not have a motive. That part might be unresolved forever, according to Rektor.
Reibling says he’ll keep searching for an answer.
But the truth about Mike may always stay a mystery.