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Oct. 19, 2021 | Tuesday
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Missing NOTL woman inspires drone search team Wings of Mercy
Shane Michaels, Wings of Mercy founder, with John Simpson, father of Ashley Simpson, who vanished in 2016. (Supplied)

NOTL’s Ashley Simpson, “the girl with the pink suitcase,” who disappeared in 2016, inspired the creation of a software program to analyze drone images of searches for missing people.

After Ashley vanished, Alberta’s Shane Michaels leapt into action to assist the search for her and others.

That has grown into Wings of Mercy, a volunteer service enlisting the help of drone pilots all over the world to search remote areas for any signs  of missing persons and sending any useful images to the authorities.

“Search and rescue is kind of an exciting thing for a lot of people because it’s right now, you’re trying to go out and save a two-year-old kid, and that’s great,” Michaels said in an interview.

“But there’s not a lot of people interested in search and recovery – where you’re trying to go out and bring some closure to the families,” Michaels said, which is why he volunteers his time to scan remote areas for anything vital.

He said he’s had an interest in missing persons cases since the early 2000s, but Ashley’s disappearance pushed him to create a program to analyze the drone footage being sent to his website, which called attention to missing persons cases. He’s since shut down that site to make way for Wings of Mercy.

Ashley Simpson was born and raised in St. Catharines, and the Simpson family was living in Niagara-on-the-Lake when she went missing.

Ashley’s mother, Cindy Simpson, said her daughter, 32, travelled to B.C. for camp and was coming home when she vanished. Her disappearance was reported in April 2016 and, in May of that year, the case was deemed a homicide.

“She was originally working in B.C., living here. She met a guy and went to see if she’d like to move. Ashley loved the outdoors, so the thought of the mountains (drew her to B.C.). But when she did go missing, she was coming home,” Simpson said.

At this point, she said all the family can hope for is some closure.

Simpson is happy to support Wings of Mercy, which is why she said all the proceeds earned during the annual golf tournament held in Ashley’s name will go toward the drone search service.

“Anyone who has a missing loved one goes through what we go through. It’s not a good feeling and if we can help anyone else out, to bring closure to anyone, ourselves included, that’s one less person that has no answer,” Simpson said.

“If one person gets an answer, their loved one gets found, it’s all worth it.”

Michaels said his website was receiving drone images and “I was looking through them and thought this was a big job – to try to find things in drone images,” he said. With a career background in electronics and robotics programming, he said he created software to make the search easier.

“And Ashley’s case really spurred me in that. She was really the inspiration for the software. We were looking for the girl with the pink suitcase, and we were looking through images and trying to find this pink suitcase, because it would be the most obvious things in the trees,” he said.

As the organization is all volunteer, drone pilots and search teams cover any costs incurred during a search, which could include hotel stays, gas and food bills. The group relies on donations to help cover some of the expenses.

Closure and a sense of peace is what Michaels is trying to provide, he said.

The third annual Ashley Simpson Golf Tournament benefiting the Wings of Mercy Drone Search Group will be held at the Heritage Woods Golf Course on Aug. 17. The tournament runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and tickets are $50 for one or $75 for two. A buffet-style dinner will be served.

For more information, search for Ashley Simpson Golf Tournament on Facebook or go to the event page.