The Girl Who Vanished

One Saturday morning, 15-year-old Sharmini Anandavel disappeared from her Don Mills home. Her neighbour Stanley Tippett was the prime suspect, but police lacked enough evidence to charge him. Over the next decade, Tippett embarked on a terrifying crime spree

The summer of 1999 would go on record as one of the hottest in decades. On the morning of Saturday, June 12, Toronto was already enveloped in a heavy blanket of humidity, and the Anandavel family didn’t have air-conditioning in their Don Mills apartment. Fifteen-year-old Sharmini was scheduled to begin a new job that morning; her parents wanted to drive her to work, but they were called away unexpectedly to help a sick relative. They asked her to leave the number and address of her employer. She had told them it was a position answering phones just a few blocks away. But Sharmini had told her close friends another story: that a police officer had offered her a $12-an-hour job as an undercover drug operative.

Like many families who had found refuge in Canada, the Anandavels struggled to make ends meet. Sharmini’s father, Eloornayagam, had moved from Sri Lanka to Toronto in 1994 to set up a new life for his family. He was soon able to sponsor his wife, Vasanthamalar, and their three children: Kathees was eight, Sharmini was 10 and the eldest, Dinesh, was 12. The whole family worked hard to build a new life in Toronto. One of the kids’ jobs was helping their father deliver the Toronto Sun and Toronto Star. On Friday nights, the family would pick up the flyer inserts for the Saturday newspapers. They’d assemble them together, sometimes ordering pizza, then they’d all get up early the next morning, the kids running around dropping off the papers in the pre-dawn hours. “That was like the worst job ever,” Kathees recalls.

The Anandavels managed, and the kids excelled in school. Sharmini was especially bright, both in intellect and spirit. She attended Woodbine Junior High for grades 7 through 9, and her smile beams from the pages of the yearbook. Girls often find their tribe in those early teenage years, sometimes oscillating between the mean-girl posse and the empathetic group. By all accounts, Sharmini belonged to the latter. Her Grade 9 homeroom teacher, Jody White, remembers her as a peacemaker, the one who would always notice if another student was lonely or in trouble. “She was such a vivacious, intelligent, loving person,” White told me. “But she wasn’t a pushover. She had opinions, and she wanted to be heard.” Sharmini sat next to Colin Braddock, a tall, athletic teenager. “She was so kind,” says Braddock, who’s now 35. “She was my first crush.”

At around 9 a.m. on that June morning, Sharmini left the apartment, but neglected to leave a contact number as she’d promised. Kathees walked his sister to the elevator. She pressed the button. The elevators opened. She stepped inside and the doors closed. Then she disappeared.

Sharmini’s childhood, 1994–1999: The Anandavel family moved from Sri Lanka to Toronto when Sharmini was 10 years old. She attended Woodbine Junior High School, where she made friends easily. By June 1999, she wanted a summer job to earn some extra cash

Around the same time, Stanley Tippett was driving by the building on his way to a job cutting grass. Tippett, who was 23 at the time, had lived with his wife and their infant son one floor below the Anandavels. Just a couple of weeks earlier, he and his family had packed up and moved to Oshawa, but he still had work in the area, so he was back that Saturday.

Sharmini’s family believed she’d gotten her job through Tippett, who was well-known in the building, especially among the children. He only worked odd jobs, so he was often hanging around. He’d take the kids in the building swimming at a North York pool and teach them judo. His appearance was also distinctive. He has Treacher Collins syndrome, a genetic condition that affects the bone development of his face: his eyes slant down away from his nose, he has a receding chin and notably small ears. From a young age, he wore hearing aids. “When he was little he was bullied a lot,” says Tippett’s mother, Susan Anderson. “People would make fun of the way he looked, beat him up.”

He also had a reputation for making up stories. He once told a group of boys in the building that he was a police officer and needed one of their bikes for an investigation. Tippett was not an officer, nor had he ever worked with police, but some of the children, including Kathees, believed he was a former cop. He would often patrol the building, and he wore a police jacket. He later told me he’d bought it at a flea market.

When Sharmini didn’t arrive home that evening from her new job, her parents were frantic. It wasn’t like her to be late. They didn’t know Tippett had moved, so they ran down to his unit, banging on his door. When there was no answer, the Anandavels called the police.

At the time of Sharmini’s disappearance, I was working as the Toronto Star’s crime reporter. I first met the Anandavels on June 16, after Sharmini had been missing for four days. The family was still hopeful Sharmini would come home. She didn’t fit the profile of a runaway, but maybe she had a secret life? Maybe there was a boy? Maybe she’d been kidnapped and was being held for ransom? Her parents even consulted psychics, who told them she was still alive.

They desperately wanted her story to be told, but racist rumours swirled in the press. Some reports suggested her disappearance had to do with an arranged marriage or Tamil gangs, which were waging public street battles in the late ’90s. I was pretty green as a journalist, but I knew these stories were false. Everything about Sharmini’s case pointed to an abduction. I didn’t think she was going to be found alive.

Tippett quickly became the prime suspect, and police were closely tracking his movements. They discovered he’d sold his car to a junkyard, and seized it before it could be destroyed. But the vehicle didn’t yield any clues. The only suspicious detail was that the trunk liner had been removed. Police never found it.

Sharmini’s disappearance, 1999: On June 12, Sharmini’s parents, Eloornayagam and Vasanthamalar, were frantic when she didn’t come home to her Don Mills apartment. Getty Images and Daniel Neuhaus

I joined forces with Dale Brazao, a veteran investigative journalist at the Star, to track Tippett down. He wasn’t hard to find—people tended to remember him. One day, we followed him from his apartment into a Canadian Tire in Oshawa. In the parking lot, Tippett marched right up to us, demanding to know why we were following him. He figured we were cops. When we explained we were journalists, he relaxed and casually sat on the trunk of a car. Then he talked—and talked. He seemed to relish the attention. He was well-spoken and polite, meticulously describing what happened after Sharmini disappeared.

He said the last time he’d seen Sharmini was a week before he’d moved out of his Don Mills apartment. Less than 24 hours after she was reported missing, he said, a dozen police cruisers converged on his Oshawa home. He was driven to 33 Division in the back of a cruiser. He didn’t have a lawyer during his interrogation. “I have nothing to hide,” he told us. “Why do I need my lawyer?” He vehemently denied he had offered Sharmini any kind of job, but admitted he had given her an application for a position at the local pool, and suggested that was likely why Sharmini’s parents were confused. “The cops were following me all over the place,” Tippett said. “I just figured I’ll let them do their job. They’re just wasting their time and wasting taxpayers’ money.” On July 1, we ran his story under the headline “Man’s Life ‘Hell’ Since Teen Vanished.”

In the weeks that followed, I couldn’t stop thinking about Tippett and Sharmini’s case. I kept hoping she’d suddenly walk back into her apartment. But four months after she disappeared, in October 1999, a father and son hiking the East Don Parkland Trail discovered human remains beside the river. There wasn’t much to find. The hot summer had caused rapid decomposition, and coyotes had ravaged whatever was left. All that was found were a skull and some bone fragments—no useful DNA or forensic evidence. Dental records confirmed Sharmini’s identity.

The aftermath: The Anandavels held vigils hoping for Sharmini’s safe return, but her skeletal remains were found four months later. The prime suspect was her former neighbour Stanley Tippett, who the author interviewed at the time. Getty Images

Toronto homicide detectives Matt Crone and Greg McLane were assigned to the file. They were veteran investigators, big in both stature and reputation. The most crucial clue they uncovered wasn’t at Sharmini’s burial site, but in her bedroom. It was a fake application for something called the Metro Search Unit. Police believe this may have been the bogus job offer—the ruse her killer used to lure her from her home. Crone was convinced the perpetrator was someone known to her.

I knew Tippett had a history of impersonating police officers, and he told me he’d given Sharmini that pool job application. But he was so obviously a suspect that it seemed, well, too obvious. Sharmini’s murder had followed a string of high-profile wrongful convictions in Canada, and I didn’t want to have the same tunnel vision that police had in those cases. And yet for Crone, the coincidences were undeniable. He was sure Tippett was the guy, but without any physical evidence tying him to the murder, prosecuting him would be difficult.

After the 9/11 attacks, I became the Star’s first national security correspondent. For the next 18 years, I travelled the world, trying to make sense of the relentless cycle of terrorism. During that time, there were still a handful of local crime stories I tracked, and Sharmini’s unsolved murder was one of them.

By 2004, Tippett was 28, and his family was growing. Eventually, he and his wife would have five children, three of whom inherited Treacher Collins syndrome. They lived in a townhouse in Collingwood. In September of that year, Tippett began stalking one of his neighbours, a young single mother. He’d look in her windows and sit in his van and stare at her home. He offered her rides. At one point, he made false claims to the Children’s Aid Society, saying she was unable to look after her six-year-old son. Murray Pifer, who lived nearby, told me he’d tried to help the woman, warning her against going anywhere alone with Tippett. Pifer didn’t know about Sharmini’s case but said he got a bad feeling about how Tippett acted around women, including Pifer’s daughter. She was 10, and Tippett offered to drive her to dance class. “No way,” Pifer said. Soon, the woman Tippett was stalking contacted police, and he was charged with criminal harassment. He pleaded guilty, telling the court he was sorry for “upsetting” his neighbour.

Tippett and his family moved to Peterborough the following year. One day in October 2005, at a Walmart job fair, he noticed a 21-year-old woman and introduced himself as “Jason Armstrong.” She had recently immigrated to Canada and told him she was desperate for work so she could sponsor her husband to come here from the Netherlands. Tippett promised her a job, not at Walmart, but at the YMCA.

Over the next eight days, he regularly contacted this woman. Once, he arrived at her home with a birthday card; another day, he ran into her—by accident, he says—at a Taco Bell. The woman was applying for a job, which angered Tippett, since he’d already offered her one. “He got kind of mad at me…saying he’s a man of his word and he’s not playing any kind of game,” she later testified. Tippett gave her a phony YMCA application, which she filled out. He told her they’d be working with the fire and police departments when people went missing. The woman became suspicious and called the Y to verify that there were job openings and that someone named Jason worked there. The YMCA called police, and Tippett was arrested.

Tippett’s pattern, 2005: Tippett was never charged for Sharmini’s murder, but he remained on the police radar. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to stalking a neighbour. The same year, he was charged with criminal harassment and attempted kidnapping of a woman he met at a Walmart job fair. Lauren Gilchrist

When I heard about the case, all I could think about was Sharmini. The fake job offer, the phony application, the vulnerable victim, the suggestion of a bogus police operation. It was the same story. Police seized Tippett’s van and found a trove of incriminating evidence. There was a concealed knife, a hammer, rope, plastic sheets and restraints. They discovered a pellet gun in his basement. Tippett was charged with attempted kidnapping and criminal harassment.

In late December, he pleaded guilty to criminal harassment, and the attempted kidnapping charges were dropped. Justice Lorne Chester noted how much worse the situation could have been. “It is not a quantum leap to think that we are dealing with a situation that could have escalated to physical violence against the victim.” Tippett was sentenced to two years in prison and a further three years’ probation.

Once he was released, Toronto police monitored him from a distance. Dan Smith, then a detective sergeant with the Peterborough police force, was responsible for keeping an eye on Tippett while he was on probation. “He was reporting to me once a week to check in, and he didn’t like me because I called BS on everything he told me,” Smith says. “We tried to manage him, but short of 24-hour surveillance or a bracelet or something to track every movement, it’s virtually impossible. The best offender-management plan on Earth isn’t going to stop a predator like him from reoffending.”

Which he did, on August 6, 2008, soon after his release. Tippett had started up an affair with a woman he’d met on the dating website PlentyOfFish, who believed he was separated from his wife. In fact, Tippett had told his wife he’d been in Toronto for kidney dialysis. Late that night, he was driving home from his girlfriend’s house when he spotted two drunk young girls. One of them, just 12 years old, was lying down in the middle of the road. He stopped and offered them a ride, and the girls hopped into his van. He dropped one of them off at a nearby park, and she made it home. The other one, the 12-year-old, didn’t. Her family called the police.

At around 2 a.m., in Courtice, about a 50-minute drive southwest of Peterborough, a resident heard screams coming from the woods near a high school. A young girl was yelling, “Please, no!” The resident called the police. When a Durham police officer arrived on the scene, he saw a man come out of the woods and jump into a red van. The officer pursued the vehicle, swerving through residential streets at high speeds, but the chase was called off when dispatch decided it was too dangerous. Police found the girl at the school, stumbling from the woods, crying and incoherent. Her shirt was torn and she was naked from the waist down. The officer would later identify Tippett as the driver of the van.

Smith was about to put out an Amber Alert for the missing girl when Peterborough police got a call about the incident in Courtice. Based on descriptions from the Durham officer and the victim’s friend, Smith was certain they were looking for Tippett. Then his phone rang. He couldn’t believe the voice on the line: it was Tippett. He told Smith that after he’d dropped off the first girl, he’d been held at gunpoint and his van had been stolen. Smith knew he was lying. “I wanted to get to him before he could discard evidence or change clothes.” Within half an hour, they had him under arrest.

The evidence piles up, 2008: In August, Tippett sexually assaulted a 12-year-old girl in the woods near Courtice. He was convicted and sent to prison on an indefinite sentence. Walter Passarella

At his trial in December 2009, Tippett maintained his innocence. He admitted picking up the girls, but repeated what he’d told Smith, that he’d been carjacked by two men, thrown out of his vehicle and dumped at the side of the road. Those were the men, he said, who attacked the girl. Tippett was also a victim, he insisted.

Justice Bruce Glass was not convinced: “I do not believe the testimony of Mr. Tippett,” he told the court. Tippett was convicted of sexual assault. He was again behind bars, likely for a long time.

In Canada, a life sentence isn’t really for life. Offenders are eligible to apply for parole after 25 years. But in 1977, Canada introduced the “dangerous offender” designation, reserved for the most violent criminals and sexual predators, designed to keep them in prison indefinitely. There have been 921 dangerous offender designations since then. Nearly 70 per cent have at least one conviction for a sexual offence.

After Tippett’s sexual assault conviction, the Crown applied for him to be declared a dangerous offender. The threshold for the designation is high: the Crown has to prove that the offender is likely to offend again, by showing a pattern of persistent and violent behaviour. In his 49-page submission, Crown attorney James Hughes argued that “Mr. Tippett is a stranger to the truth. As part of his pattern of repetitive, aggressive and sexual behaviour, he lies to the targets, his wife, doctors, CAS officials and police officers, school officials, probation officers, his assessing psychiatrist and to the court.”

To prove their case, the Crown went far beyond Tippett’s three adult convictions, all the way back to 1991, when he lit his teacher’s desk on fire. They described how a year later, when Tippett was still a minor, he followed a teenage girl off a bus, told her to lie down and held a pellet gun to her head. The girl believed she was going to be raped. Witnesses for the Crown also included a cashier at a grocery store in Oshawa, who had to get a no-trespass order against Tippett when he wouldn’t leave her alone. Rosemary Hincks, a principal from the Peterborough elementary school that Tippett’s children attended, described him as controlling and aggressive. She obtained a no-trespass order for him when she became concerned about the safety of students and teachers. “He was manipulative, deceptive and cunning,” Hincks told me, saying she would sometimes discover him in the school or at the fence, watching the students.

Tippett’s lawyers argued that his risk could be managed in the community with intensive counselling and the use of anti-androgen medication—a form of chemical castration—to control his sexual behaviour. There were also two psychiatric assessments, one presented at the request of the court and another on Tippett’s behalf. Tippett only agreed to meet with the defence’s psychiatrist; the Crown’s doctor had to rely on documents. Both doctors agreed that he showed a sexual preference for prepubescent males and females and pubescent females, and that he could not be relied on to tell the truth.

Justice Glass sided with the Crown and in October 2011 designated Tippett a dangerous offender with an indefinite sentence. He is now eligible to apply for parole every two years, but parole for dangerous offenders is rarely granted. In 2018, his application was denied. “Although you say that you take responsibility for your actions,” the Parole Board ruled, “you constantly attempted to present your offending in a positive light as you claim that you try to help people but it gets you in trouble. Your parole officer commented that you have delusions in that regard and the board agrees.”

Dangerous offender, 2009: Tippett was declared a dangerous offender, an extreme designation reserved for violent criminals that will keep him behind bars indefinitely. Dangerous offenders can apply for parole every two years, but it’s rarely granted. Lance Anderson

Twenty years ago, Sharmini’s father gave me a picture of her. I’ve had it pinned up at my desk ever since. It shows Sharmini, resplendent in a gold sari, looking over her shoulder into a mirror. She seems both confident and shy in a way only teenagers can. Shortly after I left the Star in July 2018, I decided to reinvestigate her murder. I teamed up with Kathleen Goldhar, a long-time friend and veteran radio producer, to produce a podcast series for the CBC about the case. Our first step was to see if Tippett would speak to me.

To my surprise, he agreed right away. Before going to see him, our team interviewed as many people involved in the case as we could track down and studied Tippett’s psychiatric profile. We tried to devise a strategy to get at the truths that no one else had. Matt Crone had told me Tippett often just walked out when questioned by police. At other times, he would remove his hearing aids, turn his back on the interviewer and sit mute.

Our first interview was in February at Warkworth, a medium-security prison northwest of Belleville. I was uncharacteristically nervous. We were still setting up when, to our surprise, Tippett just sauntered in. No shackles or handcuffs. A guard had let him into the secure area, but didn’t stay. I had forgotten how harmless Tippett seems: he’s diminutive, soft-spoken, slow-moving. I asked if he remembered me. “Yes, Michelle,” he said. Tippett told me he was happy to talk, but only about what he calls his wrongful conviction for the sexual assault of the 12-year-old girl—not “the Don Mills incident.” It bothered me that he wouldn’t use Sharmini’s name.

We started at the beginning. “I had a difficult childhood, mostly because of my facial deformities and my disability,” he told me. “I was ridiculed because of the way I look, because I was different…I believe that, yes, I do have faults. I’ve made some mistakes, but I don’t believe that that makes me a bad person. I’ve done some stupid things in my life and I’m not proud of it.”

When I asked him about his mistakes, each one came with an excuse, or an elaborate answer. He always had an angle, something that cast him as a victim. Regarding the Peterborough case, where he posed as Jason Armstrong and offered the woman a bogus job, he admitted he did it but said it was only because he wanted the job at Walmart and didn’t want her to get it. When I brought up the paraphernalia found in his van—what Detective Smith called an “abduction kit 101”—Tippett shook his head and chuckled. “They took it out of proportion. I had items in my vehicle that I cleaned it with. The police were looking at those items that I had in my vehicle as suspicious, as something that you use for kidnapping.” His tone was incredulous.

“Stanley,” I responded, “I have a car and I don’t have any of those things in my car. You’re a smart guy. You can understand how that would seem suspicious.”

I oscillated between fascination—his answers were immediate and detailed, even if they defied logic—and frustration that he was lying to me. The interview remained cordial until I started comparing details of the 2005 Peterborough case to Sharmini’s unsolved homicide. His body language changed: he leaned back, crossed his arms. “I can only say I wasn’t involved in the Don Mills case. I didn’t have any contact with Sharmini at the time when she disappeared.”

I repeated Sharmini’s name as much as I could, and reluctantly, he did start to answer questions about her. His story had changed from 20 years ago. In 1999, he had told me he used to take some of the kids in the building swimming, including Sharmini. When I brought this up, Tippett denied it. “I wouldn’t give them a ride in my vehicle. No, no, no, no.” He also denied telling me that he gave Sharmini an application for a job at the pool.

As we reached the end of our interview, I was deflated. Tippett didn’t provide answers, just more questions. Before we left, he told me there was DNA evidence that would exonerate him of the sexual assault offence against the 12-year-old girl. We promised to look into it, and for the next few weeks, we investigated his claim. Tippett argued that the victim’s tank top contained traces of sperm cells from two men, which supported his carjacking claim. What Tippett hadn’t mentioned to us was the fact that the samples were just a minuscule number of cells, millions fewer than you would see if there had been sexual activity. Apparently, that type of trace sample can be transferred to clothing in the laundry. And there’s no way to identify where it came from. The DNA certainly didn’t confirm Tippett’s guilt but neither did it exonerate him. His lawyers had already argued this at the appeal court, and the appeal was denied.

Two months later, Tippett agreed to a second interview. He had been transferred from Warkworth to Beaver Creek, a minimum- and medium-security facility in Gravenhurst. It was like going from a Days Inn to a Four Seasons. It’s still a prison, but inmates live communally and there are more recreational and rehabilitation opportunities. Yoga classes are held in the prison chapel. Once again, we sat down with Tippett, and once again, it seemed like we were going in circles. At one point I got frustrated and begged him to tell me the truth. “I believe good people can do bad things,” I said. “They pay their price and then they have another chance. You’re going to die in jail if you keep denying that you did certain crimes. You know that, right?”

“I know that I believe in my heart that the truth will come out,” he said, “and I believe that when the evidence comes out, I will be exonerated…”

I interrupted him: “For both this crime and Sharmini?”

“I wasn’t charged. I have nothing to do with Sharmini.”

“In the court of law, but in the court of public opinion, you’re still convicted.”

“People can have an opinion. I’m living with it every day. They constantly believe that I’m a rapist, a child molester, a pedophile, and I can’t change that. I’m only responsible for my own actions.”

I don’t know why Tippett didn’t walk out. It was obvious that he wasn’t going to tell me anything he hadn’t already said. Before packing up, I asked why he had changed his story from 20 years ago, about taking kids swimming, or that he gave Sharmini an application to the pool. He kept repeating, “I don’t recall.”

When I first met the Anandavels, I still pictured crimes in three acts, like a TV drama. There’s the incident, there’s an investigation, and then there’s justice. Two decades of covering crime and terrorism has taught me a lot about victims. There is never closure for them. Especially when they lose a child. Especially when a child is taken in a horrific way. For those who loved Sharmini, their lives exist in two acts. There’s before and there’s after.

Following Sharmini’s murder, the Anandavels moved to Ottawa. They wanted to flee the physical reminders: the Don River, her school across the street; the sites of vigils. This was pre–social media, before there were any catalogues of grief that could follow them 450 kilometres northeast. This was act two.

In Ottawa, they bought a home. Eloornayagam worked as an assembler at a technology company. Dinesh and Kathees grew up to be successful and fell in love with two sisters, whom they married. Dinesh, who’s now 37, is a web consultant. Kathees, 33, works for Health Canada and is a father of two young children. His daughter’s middle name is Sharmini.

The family followed the news reports about Tippett’s subsequent crimes, but they did not attend any of the trials. Eloornayagam has good things to say about the detectives and people from Toronto’s Tamil community, who rallied around his family. That’s often the bittersweet reality of crime: the kindness amid the horror.

A murder takes more than the life of a victim; it can rob children of their innocence, or a community of their sense of safety. I had no idea that Sharmini’s death had affected so many people until we began our investigation last year. Many of the people who knew Sharmini want to see Tippett on trial for her murder; they hope our reporting will prompt the Crown to re-examine the case.

But the Anandavels have found their peace. They’re just happy that the man they believe killed Sharmini is behind bars, unable to hurt others, although they’re sorry he wasn’t caught earlier. Sharmini’s brothers both say they hope Tippett is getting the help he needs—especially if there’s a chance he’ll one day be released. For this family, justice isn’t about punishing a crime. It’s about stopping another one from happening.

This story originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.