Just north of Courtenay, Michelle Root focused on her vegetable garden this summer.
On her 10-acre property, she found solace in growing her own food. She says her garden was a place that made her feel grateful, and she was able to share the fruit of her labour with friends.
It was also something that kept her going throughout the year.
For so many 2020 was a year unlike any other, but for Root, this rang especially true. In late January 2020, her husband Michael Gazetas, 51, left in his red Ford Ranger pickup (with a BC licence plate HX4109) from their home and has not been seen since.
Despite an exhaustive search by friends, family, and local search and rescue teams, Gazetas nor his truck have been found.
Crews searched via air, ground and boat through more than 16,000 square kilometres of wilderness on northern Vancouver Island, and friends searched through video footage collected from surveillance cameras and photos taken from the air. Based on video footage and witness sightings, it is believed that Gazetas drove north to Campbell River and then headed west to Gold River.
In June, Root put out another plea to the public to keep an eye out for any signs of Gazetas’s vehicle following snowmelt in the backcountry.
Still, there have been no sightings or evidence, nearly nine months after his disappearance.
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The couple met years ago in Vancouver where Gazetas was a location scout in the film industry, and Root was working for the City of Vancouver assisting with films and special events. They lived in the city for years prior to making the decision to move to the Comox Valley.
“He was my first location manager – he was such a good guy. I knew him quite well from talking on the phone and a few months later he came into the office. He asked me if I wanted to come to visit the set for lunch. From the minute I met him, we just clicked; he had such an exuberance for life… he said ‘yes’ to life in a big way,” she says.
The idea of moving to the Comox Valley kept coming up in conversation and in late 2017 they made the decision to move. Initially, it was difficult, as Gazetas had to finish up a film project in the Lower Mainland and kept his apartment while Root moved to the Valley.
While working on a streaming series, Gazetas fell 15 feet and broke his pelvis in half.
He was rushed to Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster where he had multiple pins put in and subsequently spent 11 months on crutches alongside a full year of intensive rehab.
With the accident and their claim with WorkSafeBC, the pair knew they couldn’t afford to keep two places and made the decision to move Gazetas to the Valley.
Following a bit of time to familiarize herself with the community, Root notes she loved the area, and says she connected with friends and contacts rights away, and particularly enjoyed the arts and culture scene along with the area’s natural beauty. When Gazetas moved, Root says he immediately loved it as well.
“Once he got onto his feet, he just started connecting with people. He’s one of those really outgoing people. We used to joke that one day he was going to be the mayor. He was really happy here too and we had a lot of hope for our future.”
While in the Valley, Gazetas was working with a caseworker from WorkSafeBC on a proposal and was looking at other options for his career, including teaching in various film programs.
Due to a conflict of interest, the caseworker had to transfer his case to a co-worker in Vancouver, and Gazetas’s proposal was later denied.
They asked for an internal appeal, which was eventually turned down.
Root says he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from the accident and he was struggling with the decision from the organization that told him he was expected to return to work.
“He was told he had to go back to the job that almost killed him … he didn’t get any (mental health) support or psychological counselling. People aren’t getting the help they need.”
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Gazetas was last seen around 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 31 leaving his residence. He was wearing a red and blue poncho over a black shirt and vest with dark-coloured jeans and a green toque. Root notes he was a good communicator who always kept his cell phone on and was regularly texting or calling.
He had an appointment scheduled for later in the day, and when she didn’t hear from him, she became concerned. By nightfall, she knew something was wrong.
That’s when friends arrived to help.
“People were so genuinely concerned. After I did a press briefing with the RCMP people began reaching out on Facebook and I was really moved. They didn’t know me or (Michael) but it felt good to be in (a community) where people really care - that was something that really caught me in the moment.”
Friends immediately set up a GoFundMe campaign to conduct a private search with a helicopter, and a few days later Comox Valley Search and Rescue assisted with the search.
Root was eventually told Gazetas “either doesn’t want to be found or can’t be found…. There was nothing left to search.”
In the summer following the snowmelt, she says the RCMP did additional aerial searching but didn’t find any new information.
“There are lots of people really looking hard. There’s a sad realization that the chances are it’s not going to happen.”
Root is now in limbo, as she can’t proceed with formal paperwork or access Gazetas’s personal files without a death certificate. In order to obtain one, she has to appear in front of a B.C. Supreme Court judge to receive a Presumption of Death ruling which would then allow her to proceed.
While she has obtained a lawyer and is moving ahead with the case, due to COVID-19 delays in the court system, it most likely would not be until the new year until she is able to have her case heard in front of a judge.
“I think about other missing people, and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and their situation, and I know that I have a lot of privilege. I have so many friends supporting me and I’m so fortunate. I know we didn’t find him, but I take solace in knowing I did everything I could – I think about all the people who are also missing loved ones.”
Friends have put together a second GoFundMe page to assist with living costs and legal bills. For more information or to donate, visit https://bit.ly/34R2ppl.