Tania Marie Murrell: What happened to the first-grader 31 Years Ago?

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Edmonton, Alberta, is mainly known for the massive West Edmonton Mall, which put a mostly unknown city on the map in 1981, attracting visitors across Canada and beyond. It remains North America’s largest shopping mall. Edmonton is a large city with a population of nearly one million today. 

And while it boasts numerous attractions and exceptional views of the Northern Lights, Edmonton also has a decent amount of crime, particularly gun violence, despite the country’s strict gun laws. Global News reported in December that “EPS (Edmonton Police Service) statistics showed as of Nov. 30, there had been 204 shootings — compared to 144 shootings this time last year. That’s an increase of 42 per cent.”

It’s not a surprise. Large cities typically have higher crime rates than small towns, and Edmonton is no different. In the 1970s and 1980s, several young girls disappeared or were murdered in and around Edmonton. Some of those cases remain unsolved. But it was the disappearance of an Edmonton first-grader in 1983 that sparked fear in parents, changed the way one school handled student arrivals and departures, and mercilessly and slowly destroyed a family.

Who Was Tania Murrell?

The Murrell family
(L) Jack & Vivian Murell with Tania’s brother, John shorlty after her disappearance (R) Tania with the family’s dogs (Photo credits: Byron Christopher & Calgary Herald)

Tania Marie Murrell was born to Jack and Vivian Murrell on June 20, 1976. The family resided in a small home at 10426 145th St. NW*, west of downtown Edmonton.

Tania was a first-grade student at Grovenor School, 10345 144 St. NW, a five-minute walk from home. Her younger brother, John, 5, attended kindergarten at the same school.

Jack worked as a carpenter for a local builder, while Vivian managed a local bakery. Because of their busy work schedule, the young couple relied on the children’s aunt to help care for their children while working. Vera Stortz babysat Tania and John before and after school, on non-school days, and in the summers. She had watched them for the past three years.

In a 2013 interview with the Edmonton Sun, Vera described Tania as a “happy girl” who loved to sing and adored animals; the family had a German shepherd named Harley. Vera said Tania wanted to be a veterinarian when she grew up. 

But the Murrells’ world would be turned upside down, and life as they had known it would abruptly end. 

Where is Tania?

It was a frigid 12 degrees Fahrenheit on January 20, 1983. Vera arrived at the Murrell residence with her nine-month-old son Dustin after her husband, Gary Rothermal, dropped them off around 7:30 a.m. Vera recalled Tania and John were eating breakfast, and the television was on.

Jack left for work, and Vivian chatted with Tania about her outfit for school.

“Tania thought what she was wearing was too tight. I remember Vivian saying, ‘Oh, wear whatever you want.’ Tania settled on her black Harley-Davidson T-shirt and green corduroy pants,” Vera recalled.

Tania could not find her knapsack, so Vivian put her school items in a plastic Safeway bag, “taped it up,” and left for work around 8 a.m.

Vera asked the children what they wanted for lunch because they always walked home on their lunch break. They answered with macaroni and cheese. Vera hugged them each, and the kids walked to school, arriving about five minutes later.

School dismissed at 11:07 a.m. for lunch. Around 11:20 a.m., John returned home without Tania, which was odd because the little girl was always on time. Furthermore, she typically waited for John at school, but for some reason, on this particular day, she did not. 

When Vera asked John about Tania, he said other students told him that Tania went to a friend’s home at the end of the street, but Tania was not there when Vera arrived. She immediately sensed something was wrong and called Vivian, who notified Jack.

Tania’s parents arrived home shortly after and called the school. They learned Tania never returned from lunch, prompting the Murrells to call the police. 

Edmonton police discovered that Tania left school around 11:10 a.m. wearing a blue winter coat with a white fur collar, green cord knickers, a black Harley Davidson T-shirt, and high brown boots. She was headed toward home. A teacher watched her until she was out of sight.

Authorities believed Tania exited the school through the east doors. However, Brandy Ewashko, Tania’s best friend, told The Sun in 2013 that Tania went out the north doors. She walked alone carrying some money and intended to stop at a nearby 7-Eleven convenience store.

The Hunt for Tania

Edmonton, Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta

Edmonton police and volunteers canvassed the area around the Murrell home and Grovenor School, knocking on doors and searching for clues. Florence Loyie (Edmonton Journal, January 6, 2006) writes, “It was the most extensive door-to-door search ever mounted in Edmonton”. The only thing searchers found was Tania’s Safeway bag at the school.

Authorities also launched an air search and subsequent ground searches, which produced no results. Tania had vanished into thin air.

Police received two reports from people who said they saw a woman dragging a little girl similar to Tania’s disappearance at the intersection of 144th St NW and 104th Avenue, a half block from the school and towards Tania’s home. One of those witnesses was a local realtor who said it looked as if the child fell and the woman either dragged or helped her. 

He described the woman as between 40 and 60 years old, 5’8′, with brown hair, and wearing a blue or brown quilted coat with a hood.

However, police could not confirm the sighting, and the woman might have been taking her child to or from school. Interestingly, that woman never came forward, and the police never located her and the child.

The Edmonton Journal stated in February 1983, “Citizens at search headquarters also reported a mystery telephone call Wednesday from a young girl who asked for her ‘Mommy’ and identified herself as ‘Tania.’ The line went dead seconds into the call.”

Parents soon criticized Grovenor School for how they handled students arriving at and leaving school.

According to the Edmonton Journal, “First-grade students, like Tania, had a staggered or “split-entry” timetable, resulting in students arriving at and leaving the school at different times. The system makes students easy targets for abduction or attack because they are walking to or from school when there are no other students on the street.”

Shortly after Tania disappeared, the school changed their policy and had all first-grade students arriving and leaving simultaneously. They also requested parent volunteers to watch the children in the library before the start of school and at the end of the school day.

Tania’s disappearance made national headlines in Canada, and her case appeared on some U.S. television shows. However, she was never found. 

Rumors About Parents

The rumor mill began spreading stories about Tania’s parents’ involvement in her disappearance and claiming Jack was in a motorcycle gang and involved in drugs and unpaid debts – all of them untrue, the police said. The Murrells eventually relocated to Kelowna, B.C. According to reports, the couple took and passed lie detector tests. Police ruled them out and never believed they had anything to do with Tania’s disappearance.

Extortion and Hoaxes

There were a few prank phone calls and calls of people trying to get money, which sadly happens often in cases of missing persons. One of the worst cases was that of Richard MacKenzie Matthews, 23, of Harrow, Ontario, who was sentenced to three years in prison. He called the Murrells and demanded money from Jack for the return of his daughter. 

Police arrested Matthews at a downtown phone booth after city police had secretly taped a series of calls he made to the Murrells. (Times Colonist, June 27, 1983)

Tania Murrell Missing Children Society

One month after her daughter vanished, Vivian Murrell started the Tania Murrell Missing Children Society to help find missing children like Tania because there were no organizations open at that time. This was eight months before Child Find launched. Vivian shut down the organization in May 1987 due to financial troubles.  

Main Person of Interest

While many of the newspaper articles I read did not mention any possible suspects or persons of interest, a 2006 article in The Journal did, although they never named him. 

The man was a friend of the Murrells and is now deceased. He lived in Edmonton in 1983, but after Tania disappeared, he and his family moved 2,000 miles away to Courtright, Ontario, near Detroit, MI. 

Nearly three years after Tania’s kidnapping, Vivian gave birth to her third child, Elysia Murrell, on November 12, 1985. Elysia said in 2006 that the man was obsessed with her mother, and she believed he kidnapped Tania.

Police said he helped search for Tania and wrote a bizarre poem that “may have implied knowledge of what happened to Tania,” writes Gary Poignant. (Edmonton Sun, January 18, 2013)

The man was working outdoors on the morning of Tania’s disappearance but could not prove where he was, and police said his alibi was not “iron-clad.”

He took a polygraph test, but the results were inconclusive. Two city detectives spent 11 hours interviewing him in 1993 but could not rule him out as a suspect. In 2013, he and his wife were separated, but she supported him and did not believe he had anything to do with Tania’s abduction. 

Byron Christopher wrote What Happened to Tania? in 2020 and named the man in his book and on his website. According to Christopher’s comment on his website, the man was Lorne Douglas Thomas, who died from cancer on August 10, 2016, at age 65.  Elysia showed her dislike for the book in a comment on the same post.

Some sources state that Thomas had a daughter named Tania. According to his obituary, this is incorrect. It lists two surviving daughters, Tina and Tiffany. Could one of them be Tania? Maybe. But I honestly do not think he could have raised Tania as his own without getting caught. All the police had to do was visit his home and interview his daughters.

Thomas also has a son. I found the son on Facebook, but he does not appear to be friends with his sisters. However, I found one sister through another relative, and she does not look like Tania and might even be younger.

I believe the woman seen dragging a little girl on the day of Tania’s disappearance is the person who kidnapped her, and Tania was the little girl. Thomas was around 32 in 1983, and this woman was between 40 and 60. I have no idea how old his wife was in 1983, but I assume she was closer to his age. The woman might have looked older than her age, however. 

Whoever that woman was, she knew Tania walked home for lunch daily and waited for her. Tania did not scream for help, which might suggest she knew the woman and did not fear her. 

I don’t understand how only two people nobody saw this woman and the girl. Didn’t any teachers see her?

I think the logic behind Thomas being the abductor makes little sense. If he was obsessed with Vivian, why not abduct or harm her? Why take Tania and not John? And if he did kidnap Tania, I’d expect him to have killed her as payback for turning him down or whatnot, not raising her as his own, as some believe. Raising her would have been a considerable risk. However, he moved 2,000 miles away, so it is possible. I honestly have no idea what happened to Tania, but I think she may still be alive.

Life After Tania’s Abduction

Tania’s disappearance destroyed her family, and it is heartbreaking to learn what they went through on top of losing her. 

More than three years after Tania vanished, Jack was charged with pointing a firearm and possession of an offensive weapon in a domestic incident in July 1986. At the time, the Murrells lived at 11435 39th Avenue in Edmonton. 

Elysia has said that both her parents started drinking and abusing drugs and ultimately divorced. Both contracted Hepatitis C, which caused further health complications. Jack lost a leg and died in 2005 from kidney failure. Vivian suffered a brain aneurysm that same year. On New Year’s Day 2011, Vivian, 55, was found dead on her couch in Peachland.

John Murrell was only five when Tania vanished, and the two were very close. 

It ruined him. When my sister disappeared, all the attention went to finding her, and he was basically neglected. He started acting out. He has been in and out of jail most of his life because he has a bad drug habit. I’ve seen my brother about five times in my whole life.

Elysia Murrell in a 2006 interview with Florence Loyie of Edmonton Journal

Gary Poignant from Edmonton Sun interviewed John in January 2015. He had met Jack and Vivian in the days following Tania’s abduction. Of John, he wrote, “I remember him as a quiet boy playing with the family dog…” 

According to Poignant, John was “upbeat” and wanted to start a new life in Edmonton. During the interview, John talked about his lost sister.

“I cried when she didn’t come home that night. She was my best friend,” he said.

When Poignant asked John if he thought losing his sister led to his troubled life, John shook his head and firmly said, “It was my choice. I just started hanging out with the wrong people.”

John even spoke about the person of interest.

“I would like to talk to Uncle ‘L’ and ask him if he knows what happened to Tania.” 

Shortly after the interview, John died from a methadone overdose. He was 37.

Elysia, now 38, is married with two children. She and her family live in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Elysia works as a nurse to honor her missing sister, whom she calls a “caregiver.” She believes Tania is still alive but does not know her true identity. 

If you have information regarding Tania’s disappearance, call the Edmonton Police Service at (780) 423-4567 or Child Find of America at 1-800-I-AM-LOST (1-800-426-5678).

*I am confused about the exact location of the Murrell home in 1983. Most reports say they lived on 145th Street N.W. However, Jack said in February 1984, “You can stand on the corner, look one way and see the school. Look the other way, and there’s the house.” This leads me to believe the family lived on 144th Street N.W., the same street as the school, and the corner he was referring to was 104th Avenue and 144th Street N.W. I Google street-viewed both locations. You can see the school from 144th Street but not 145th. 

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True Crime Diva

True Crime Diva

I've blogged true crime since 2010, happily taking up only a tiny corner of the internet. I'm not here for attention; I'm here to tell you their stories.

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