Between the years 2010 and 2019, approximately two-to-three missing person reports were made every day in T&T, with a total of 8,383 reports in that period.
At the end of 2019, 408 missing person cases were listed as outstanding by the TTPS. While the TTPS’s figures are subject to people returning or failing to update police, that means that as many as four people, on average, disappear without being found every month.
In the first two weeks of October 2020 alone, at least nine people were reported missing.
TTPS investigations into missing person reports are supposed to begin immediately, according to a policy change that came into effect years ago. However, relatives interviewed claimed their cases took days to begin.
For friends and relatives, left in the wake of their loved one’s disappearance are hundreds of questions. But they all believe an answer lies somewhere out there, with someone.
In the space of one day, Annette Philbert, the mother of Shanice Cooper, withered from an excited grandmother-to-be to a shell of her self, has been left grieving the disappearance of her only daughter and, what would have been, her first grandson.
Perhaps life would be more tolerable if she knew what happened to them, but no matter how much she has prayed, searched and hoped, she just doesn’t know.
For everyone who got close to Cooper–an honest, ambitious woman, who played just as hard as she worked–life has stood still, in some way, since she left her Belmont home on August 28, 2019.
Far away from Belmont, but with her niece’s well-being close to her heart, Pauline Cooper is now the voice of (Shanice) Cooper's relatives.
"Annette can no longer bear any of this. She’s just left with a void that no amount of words, no amount of counselling could assist her," she said at her Mayaro home.
The living room is simple and dominated by a rustic bookcase, filled with spiritual books. To the rear of the house, the sound of cartoons penetrates the wooden walls.
"That’s just my grandchildren," said Pauline, who was wearing a green top and denim jeans, her hair kept naturally.
It’s clear, even with few words exchanged, that she is a strong, composed woman, exuding assertiveness. But as we begin discussing Shanice, every ounce of it is put to the test.
While Pauline only saw her niece a few times a year, every time would be a good time. Their last time together was in Mayaro in February 2019. They attended a Carnival fete, Soca by the Sea, Pauline recalled with a smile.
Cooper, Mayaro-born, moved to Belmont to live with her mother at 14-years-old.
The move up North came after Cooper’s father, Pauline’s brother, died.
"I lost my brother when he had 35 years, and I thought that was painful until his daughter disappeared. The pain I felt for that child who had her whole life in front of her...She didn’t deserve that," Pauline said.
That Wednesday morning, Cooper went into her mother’s room to say goodbye, like she always did, before heading to work at the Port of Port-of-Spain.
She was looking really beautiful, Cooper's mother had said. But, her outfit exposed a little too much skin for her mother’s liking.
"She told her she cannot go to work like that because she had on this kind of peach colour, arm-holed dress. Her mother told her to make sure to grab a cardigan on her way out. That was the last thing she said to her daughter," Pauline said.
Before heading to work, Cooper planned to collect some cash from the bank. She had also planned to collect her US visa later that day. A female relative was supposed to take her from work to the embassy to collect it, but the pick-up call from the 31-year-old never came.
"Her mother said that she instantly knew. When she (Shanice’s mother) came home from work, she looked where Shanice normally would leave her shoes, and the shoes weren’t there,” Pauline said.
Annette’s worst fears were confirmed when she didn’t see her daughter sitting on the couch, looking at television.
So she called an individual whom she felt would know about her daughter's whereabouts and asked, "Where is my daughter? Did you speak to her for the morning?" The person indicated they were not aware where she was and had not spoken to her, but had sent an inspirational post to her earlier that day.
At the time of Cooper’s disappearance, she was seven months pregnant.
While always pleasant, the news of her pregnancy warmed her personality even more.
"Her New Year’s Resolution was becoming pregnant. That’s all she wanted for the year," her aunt remembered.
An already unbreakable bond between Cooper and Annette strengthened.
Buying a home together, they planned to move in after Cooper gave birth to her baby boy, Jahsean.
"They were in the height of planning the baby shower. They even came up with a colour scheme for the baby shower. And that same colour scheme would have been the colour of the clothes they were buying for the baby," Pauline said, as her attempts to hold back tears fell short.
While Cooper was excited about the pregnancy, a close relative was not and she was advised to have an abortion, according to family members. That relative cut her off because she refused to get rid of the baby and only showed up a week before her disappearance.
The morning Cooper left her Belmont home, as customary, she walked down 50 steps to get to the bottom of the hill.
Not a single person in the neighbourhood claimed to have seen her that day.
"One of the neighbours said he heard her on the phone with someone. He said Shanice told the person she would meet them at the gas station...I believe it was the person responsible," Pauline said without hesitation.
On the day of Cooper’s disappearance, her mother made a missing person report at the Belmont Police. It would take a week for police officers to begin their investigations into her disappearance, according to relatives.
During that time, Annette, Pauline and Cooper’s cousins looked all over for her–walking the neighbourhood asking questions, and even driving to random locations in the hope of seeing something, anything.
"We are very, very disappointed because when Annette went to make the report, we got the normal, give it the 24 hours story, to give it time, or she must be gone by her boyfriend...They didn’t act at all within the first week," Pauline said.
"I have police friends. They were supposed to go immediately and comb that area and get clippings from different CCTV cameras. They did not do that."
A male suspect held by police concerning Cooper’s disappearance attempted to self-harm while in custody. Subsequently transferred to St Ann’s Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation, he was later released.
No one has since been held or questioned in connection with Cooper's disappearance. And no investigations have taken place in the last 11 months, police sources said.
And while they don’t know what happened, Cooper’s family said they have no doubt who was responsible.
"I mean like every day I thank God that we are peaceful people because I know there are families who would not have sat down on this. Who would have not chosen to let the law handle it, or let God handle it,” Pauline said, as her legs shook.
"The system failed her."
She was in a certain area according to her phone records, "and the person we suspect lives there," Pauline added.
With Cooper weighing close to 300 pounds and five feet, eight inches in height, relatives believe the person responsible had help.
She would have fought back, they believed.
"At least once, twice or three times a month, I post her story with the hope that somebody, who knows something, will be moved, will be touched. That they would find it in their heart to come out and confess to whatever they know," Pauline said.
"If you have to write a letter anonymously, or if you have to make an anonymous phone call, please do something. It’s not for Shanice per se. It’s for Annette, her mother, to get closure," she pleaded.
Cooper’s mother is not just grieving, she is suffering.
Since her daughter left home that day, she’s not gotten a full night’s rest.
"Sometimes hearing her vent is so very painful because you hear her crying her heart out. Sometimes bawling for her child; her one and only daughter. Sometimes, I would just allow her to cry. I cry with her sometimes, but other times, I have no words," a sobbing Pauline said of Annette.
Recalling her own struggles, Pauline said, "I used to cry night and day for my niece. It didn’t have where sometimes one person and I alone went searching all about in Maracas, in Las Cuevas."
As I’ve learned in my interviews with relatives of missing people, there is a firm belief that their loved one’s disappearance was not treated as a serious matter by police. And, this reluctance to act immediately, they all believe, could have made the difference between knowing and not knowing.
"My prayer is that one officer–like the ones you see in CSI–would never lose interest in this case. I pray that they will continue to investigate it until all the lies are unearthed. Until justice is served," Pauline said.
She had this message for her beloved niece, "Shanice, please show us where you are, my love, and we will come and get you."
To this date, not a single person has provided a police statement about Cooper’s disappearance.
According to the TTPS, all outstanding missing person reports remain open and under investigation.