Don Petterson walked out of the old Port Alberni RCMP station on Sixth Avenue 24 years ago after spending a night sobering up in a jail cell, never to be seen again.
The ache of not knowing what happened to her father has never gone away for daughter Lisa Petterson, who now lives in Merville on Vancouver Island. Petterson and her family returned to Port Alberni on Father’s Day, June 21, 2020 to put up a sign asking for information about her father’s disappearance.
A single mother of five children with a successful business as a baby portrait photographer, Lisa Petterson travelled all over the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island working while her parents looked after the kids. Although living in Surrey at the time, the family loved Vancouver Island and was looking to relocate.
Don Petterson had come to Port Alberni from Surrey to look at retirement properties around Sproat Lake, Lisa Petterson recalled. He was 57 years old and a few years away from retiring.
“My Dad had a week off of work—he worked for Overwaitea Foods (now Save-On-Foods) for 25 years and he got a ride over with a truck driver then met up with real estate agents to look for property,” she said. “He knew how much I loved Port Alberni.”
Don “got into a little bit of mischief” and was trying to sleep it off on a park bench in what is now known as Gyro Williamson Park when the Port Alberni RCMP picked him up. “They threw him in the drunk tank for the night,” Petterson said.
“The RCMP let him out the next morning, and he went to a bank machine, withdrew $300 and that was the last that was heard from him.”
That was June 9, 1996. Now, Petterson is hoping someone remembers something about her father. She and some family members and friends were at Williamson Park again on Father’s Day 2020 to erect a sign and offer a reward for information.
Petterson has never really stopped looking for her father. She felt police were slow to react to Don’s disappearance at first. She asked the bank to release security photos of the person who took out money from her parents’ joint bank account, but the bank wouldn’t release them to her.
“It wasn’t until I got a lawyer that they took it seriously,” she said. “Now I think things have changed quite a bit.”
Don Petterson disappeared long before Facebook and other social media, so his daughter called friends in Port Alberni and asked them to help search around the local lakes. They used CB radios to communicate with each other as they searched as many backroads and lakes they could think of, but couldn’t find any trace of Don.
The family put the sign up on Father’s Day hoping it will jog someone’s memory. “People that would be coming holidaying in B.C., they aren’t leaving, they are staying in the province (due to COVID-19),” Lisa said. “People are going in the backcountry. They might find remains or somebody might remember seeing him, or somebody might have a conscience and say ‘I hit him on the side of the road on the way to Ucluelet.’
“I believe somebody knows something. Maybe they’re scared.”
Petterson’s mother died on Mother’s Day in 2011 not knowing what happened to her husband. The months and years following Don’s disappearance were tough on Petterson’s mother both emotionally and financially, Petterson said. People would say he probably left town and was in a foreign country, or retired elsewhere and didn’t want to be found—things that were hurtful for the family to hear, Petterson said.
“He was three years from retirement,” granddaughter Patricia Dawn said. “The way people would talk about him…he would never have left.”
Patricia Dawn, sister Alexis and brother Cole accompanied their mother to Port Alberni on Sunday to help put up the sign and reflect on life with their grandfather. The older two remember more about life with Don, but Cole said he was only four years old when Don disappeared. “I didn’t realize how important he was in my life until later.”
Patricia Dawn says she remembers “bits and pieces” of her grandfather, who went missing when she was seven or eight. “One of my earliest memories of him was going for walks. He would have to lean over to hold my hand because I was so tiny.”
Alexis said she has many memories of her grandfather, “all of them good. When I was cold, he would zip me in his coat. He used to chew Copenhagen chewing tobacco and to this day I love that smell. He had such a strong, gentle aura about him.”
Alexis remembers when she and her siblings realized that Pop wasn’t around anymore, and that her mother danced around the topic. “I remember seeing my mom’s face and thinking, ‘oh, he’s dead.’ They didn’t think we were old enough to know.”
She doesn’t feel any anger over his disappearance or lack of information about her grandfather. “I do feel sad there was no peace, there was no closure. That my grandma died never knowing.
“I always hoped that wherever they are now, they are together.”
Petterson said turning 57—the same age her father was when he disappeared—has brought back a lot of feelings for her. “It’s melancholy,” she said. “I’ve had a good life and my kids are healthy and happy. But that’s the one piece of the puzzle that’s missing. It would be nice to put it to rest.”
Petterson has set up a Facebook page called Where is My Dad? to encourage people to reach out to her. Her phone number is on the sign, and anyone with information who is afraid to speak up can call CrimeStoppers.