Without a Trace: The Mysterious Disappearance of Aju Iroaga (1/6)

In 2006, a troubled engineering student vanished into the woods following a dispute with co-workers while tree-planting in Ontario. What happened to him? To this day, his family is still searching for the answer.

Without a Trace: The Mysterious Disappearance of Aju Iroaga

May 15, 2006

It was two days shy of his 26th birthday, but Aju Iroaga was in no mood to celebrate. The weather was damp as the engineering student stood at the roadside, dressed in a camouflage-coloured hoodie, jeans and leather runners, his head covered with a black tuque under a Tilley hat.

Aju was a long way from home: a 14-hour drive to his parents’ apartment in east-end Toronto, and 70 kilometres down gravel roads and a paved highway to the nearest town in this part of northwestern Ontario, White River. He had come to the bush just off the northeast coast of Lake Superior to make money planting trees. It was back-breaking work, but Aju knew the drill. He had done the same job a year earlier, for the same company―A&M Reforestation, based in Sudbury. Perhaps that’s why he had become so enraged that day when his supervisor told him he had done a poor job. She ordered him to replant the block of trees he had planted earlier that morning. He did. Not good enough, she said. He’d have to do it yet again.

Aju chafed at criticism at the best of times, but this was too much. Around midday, the tense situation with his supervisor had erupted into a shouting match, and he stormed off the work site. He was stranded: There was nothing in front of him but shrubs, balsam firs and Jack pines. He wanted to get to the company camp, which was about eight kilometres west of White River, most likely to pick up his belongings―his clothes, his Canadian and Nigerian passports, a weathered black wallet and his social insurance card―and head home to his family. But supervisors on the tree-planting team told him he’d have to wait until 6 p.m., when the day’s work was done and the rest of the crew would return to camp on the company buses.

So he waited for nearly four hours, standing along a gravel road―mainly used by loggers, but which had not been heavily travelled of late―near the tree-planting site. A supervisor reported seeing him there at around 3:45 p.m. That, apparently, was the last time anyone saw Aju Iroaga. He had vanished. At 6 p.m., the buses left the work site without Aju, then headed back to camp. 

May 15, 2006: 6:15 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

Over the next few hours, A&M Reforestation supervisors searched the area where Aju was last seen. They honked their horns and called out for him. Two of them would spend the night in their vehicles at the spot where Aju was waiting earlier that afternoon. At around 9 p.m., the company phoned the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) in White River; officers arrived on the scene at about 11 p.m. It was too dark to scour the woods for Aju, but the officers took down the particulars of the day’s events and notified the Emergency Response Team (ERT) so they could plan a search. This was now officially a Missing Persons case.

About 7,000 people are reported missing each year in OPP jurisdictions. Of these cases, typically the ERT becomes involved in about 200. Statistics gathered in the United States show that about 50 percent of the searches are resolved within three hours, 81 percent within 12 hours, and 93 percent within 24 hours. In other words, the overwhelming majority of Missing Persons cases are solved within just one day.

May 16, 2006

At daybreak, 18 ERT officers began their search, joined by seven volunteers from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. The lead investigator, Const. Greg Lathem, brought in three OPP canine units from Sault Ste. Marie, Kirkland Lake and Sudbury to try to pick up Aju’s trail. In addition, three helicopters were deployed―two OPP choppers that were brought in from Orillia, and a third that was piloted by a volunteer from Wawa―to fly over the thick brush in the area where Aju was last seen. The police searched all day until early evening, but neither the dogs nor the aerial surveillance produced any useful leads.

In addition to the site search, Lathem contacted the Toronto Police Service for assistance to obtain Aju’s next-of-kin contact information.

Next: Desperate for answers, the Iroagas turn to private
investigators in hopes of turning up new evidence.

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