RCMP, friends, and family still searching for answers in disappearance of Ryan Shtuka
Last year, 20-year-old Ryan Shtuka got off work from the lift department at Sun Peaks Resort at 7 p.m on Feb. 16 and headed home to get ready for a night out with friends.
After showering and getting dressed they got a ride into Sun Peaks’ village.
After a drink at Masa’s Bar + Grill, the group went to Bottoms, a popular local bar, for a silent disco night. Each person received a pair of headphones and chose which DJ to tune in to, switching back and forth as they battled for the crowd’s attention.
One of Ryan’s housemates, 31-year-old Chris Feeney, in B.C. on a working holiday visa from Australia, said the night went by in a flash.
“It felt like two Backstreet Boys songs and the night was over,” he said. “None of us were ready to go home and we heard about a house party that may be going.”
Tagging along with a group they left for the party on Burfield Dr. where they stayed until around 1:30 a.m.
“Most of the people there were regulars (or) lifties that I knew,” he said. “It was really a pretty mellow gathering rather than a party.”
Feeney, his girlfriend Kristen Lacko, and a friend were talking together and decided to head home, a short walk from the party on a road and trail they used often.
That night nearly 20 centimetres of snow fell and temperatures plummeted. It was the last time Feeney, or anyone else, would see Ryan.
According to Feeney, the next day it wasn’t immediately apparent something was wrong, as he headed to work without realizing Ryan hadn’t come home. After being alerted Ryan hadn’t shown up for work, his friends thought maybe he had gone home with a girl or crashed on a couch.
It wasn’t until after Ryan completely missed his shift and didn’t show up at home that they posted on a local Facebook group asking if anyone had seen their friend. By 9 p.m. they decided to call the hospital which advised them to call police, who arrived around midnight.
“By 1 a.m. we were all very scared,” he said. “(We) felt so helpless sitting in the house, none of us really slept that night knowing the next day was going to be a full search day with search and rescue, police, volunteers, helicopters and dogs.”
Almost one year later the valley has been scoured by hundreds of volunteers from across the world, Ryan’s family and friends, professional search and rescue groups, search dogs, cadaver dogs, Kamloops RCMP, the RCMP tactical team, a private investigator, psychics, a dive team, drones, helicopters and a plane.
According to Cpl. Mike Mucha from the Kamloops Rural RCMP detachment, hundreds of hours have been spent on the search and investigation.
After Ryan was reported missing two officers responded first, one of whom still works on the case.
Mucha said more than 300 tips to RCMP and Crime Stoppers have been followed up.
“I think we interviewed just about everybody in that community…We’ve taken that information from them and we’ve used it.”
But despite those tips and the massive search effort, little more is known for certain than in the first hours of the investigation. One such tip came from Kamloops resident Jim Reid, who was staying at Sun Peaks the weekend Ryan disappeared.
Reid, who was staying about a 20 minute walk from Burfield Drive, stated he woke in the early morning hours to a person yelling.
“It very much sounded like ‘Get in the car. Get in the fucking car,’” said Reid, who reported in the incident to the police a few days later. RCMP followed up with him twice.
Two other high profile tips, one involving a possible sighting on Fairways Drive around 2 a.m. and another involving an unknown man entering a home looking for party, also lead RCMP nowhere.
Mucha said they have no information or theory on what happened to Ryan. RCMP also have no information that indicates foul play and no persons of interest. He added nothing indicates Ryan was involved in criminal activity.
“It’s perplexing,” he said. “There isn’t anything there to suggest foul play…We’re hoping somebody knows something (and) one day will come forward or something will come up.”
Ryan’s mother, Heather Shtuka, hopes for the same.
“The probability (that someone knows something) is high,” she said. “If someone knows something and they have the ability to say something they have to be afraid. Not to be ominous or mean, but they know any day the truth could come out. (At least) I don’t have to go through every day afraid anymore, my worst fears have already been realized, but they do and that’s a huge burden to bear. I hope that if someone knows something they come forward.”
She last saw her son on Dec. 1, 2017, for a quick hug and kiss goodbye before he made the long drive from their home in Beaumont, Alta. to Sun Peaks.
Ryan, she said, kept in regular contact, often texting her and calling his father, Scott Shtuka, to keep him company while he drove to work.
“He told Scott ‘Dad I’ve been boarding 36 days straight,’” Heather said, adding he had just landed his first backflip.
She believes Ryan was happy in Sun Peaks, and doesn’t regret encouraging him to go.
“As someone who loves him I want to support him. Looking back now I could’ve said don’t go, it’s a big step, it’s far away. Maybe I could’ve kept him from going but he could’ve passed away two weeks later in a car accident. Life happens regardless.
“I will never in my entire life regret that.”
Since Ryan went missing a strong community has formed around the family. In addition to hours spent volunteering more than $90,000 was raised on GoFundMe. That money and other donations have helped the family support two households while not working for months, paid for travel costs between Beaumont and Sun Peaks and other expenses such as billboards and a private investigator.
“I feel like people have given so much, it feels like it’s too much,” said Heather, who remains on leave from her job. “At what point does it look like we’re asking for too much?”
There has been criticism online alleging the family spends the money on leisure travel and other costs unrelated to the search.
Heather said she continues to receives online messages saying she hindered the investigation by focusing the search solely on Sun Peaks and blaming her for her son’s disappearance, but she has chosen to draw strength from the positive posts instead.
She added she and her family receive a lot of support and wished she could provide the same protection for Ryan’s friends.
“They get the insensitive remarks but they have to hear it with no filter.”
One person Heather said she wishes had “more of a buffer” is Feeney.
Feeney travelled to Banff for a pre-planned trip with a friend from Australia two weeks after Ryan’s disappearance which resulted in online criticism. Some posts and messages implied he was involved with harming Ryan or covering up his death, that he was involved in other missing persons cases and that he has lied to police.
“I’ve definitely had some death threats, threats to turn me into the police, even people saying that they have a video of me doing something,” he said. “Of course it’s very hurtful…I think the family that have to read people’s judgements on Facebook have it the worst. His two younger sisters are the nicest girls and they are a loving family, they should not have to read stuff like that.”
Mucha said slander would be a civil matter, not for the RCMP.
Feeney added he spent as much time searching as he could, taking three days off to look immediately after, but as a seasonal worker money was tight.
“Do I know for sure that none of them (Ryan’s friends) up there know what happened to Ryan? No. But Ryan really really looked up to Chris Feeney…if he and Kirsten didn’t go out he would stay in,” said Heather. “I’ve always believed Chris and Kirsten were true friends.”
Feeney remembered talking to Ryan about music, rugby and Australia as they quickly became friends. They lived together for two months before Ryan disappeared.
“It took Ryan a few days to open up,” he said. “It didn’t take long for him to start teasing my Australian accent by saying ‘heaps I reckon’ all the time.”
Looking back, he said, there isn’t anything he would do differently.
“People often say ‘why did you leave without Ryan’ and of course we all regret that. We are all adults and can make our own decisions. I’m pretty confident that if Ryan wanted to leave with us at the same time as us he would’ve told us to wait a second for him.”
Now back in Australia, Feeney described the last year as strange.
“The rest of the winter was hard for everyone in Sun Peaks knowing that something had happened to one of us…Our house was never the same.”
He added without an answer it has been hard to move on.
“I have absolutely no idea (what happened to him). All I know is that I don’t believe he would’ve gone anywhere with people he didn’t know, I don’t believe he would’ve wandered off into the woods or was drunk enough to wander off without knowing where he was. And I know for a fact he was young, fit and experienced in cold weather.”
One year later, as Feeney and Ryan’s other friends struggle to understand what happened that night, RCMP are still moving ahead with the case and follow up all tips that come in.
The Major Crimes Unit and the Kelowna General Investigation Unit are now reviewing the file.
Mucha said it’s frustrating as investigators feel for the family and want to give them closure. He added new technology could help in the future.
Volunteer searchers will begin grid mapping and resume searching this spring as they extended the search area down the mountain toward Kamloops.
While the snow remains, Heather, Scott, their daughters and family and friends will be in Sun Peaks in February to mark the one year anniversary of Ryan’s disappearance. Plans are being finalized for a fundraising dinner, candlelight vigil and other events to remember Ryan.
The plan, Heather said, is to create fewer sad memories and more happy reflections of her son, showing the story of his life from a young boy whose grandmother bought him snowboarding lessons, to a teenager getting his license and taking day trips to ski areas, to the young man who arrived in Sun Peaks, boarded for a month straight and landed his first backflip.
“I want Ryan to be more than whatever happened to him on February 17,” she said.