The Disappearance of the O’Brien Brothers

For more than two decades, Diana Saunders has been living out the worst nightmare of every parent.

In November of 1996 her three sons – Adam, Mitchell, and Trevor – were abducted and never seen or heard from again. The case remains open and Interpol (which you may know from Bond movies, though is apparently a real organization) lists the boys’ father, Gary O’Brien, as wanted for their disappearance. To this day, there is a $50,000 reward for information leading to the location of the boys, and while tips (we’ll get into those in a moment) have come in from all over North America in the twenty-one years since they first went missing, no hard evidence has ever turned up.

Diana Saunders, then Diana O’Brien, got a phone call from her ex-husband on November 9, 1996, during which Gary told her that she would not be seeing her boys again. He explained that he had rigged their former family home in Torbay to explode if someone attempted to enter it, and when she asked to speak to the boys all Gary would say is later.

 Image borrowed from  Pinterest

Image borrowed from Pinterest

The bomb threat turned out to be very real. Police went to the residence and ascertained that if anyone so much as rang the doorbell, two 400-pound tanks of propane would have ignited, destroying the home and surely damaging other homes in the area.

Gary, who did not have custody of the kids, abducted them during a scheduled visitation. Their father had a history of violence, psychiatric problems, and suicidal behaviour according to Saunders, who was apparently reluctant to allow the visitation on the night of the disappearance.

While no trace of the boys or their father has ever been found, there are some indications as to what might have happened. In 1997, roughly one year after the disappearance, the engine of a 1989 Ford Tempo was discovered about ten kilometers off the coast of Flatrock. It turned out to match the serial number from Gary’s vehicle, but Saunders is adamant that this, along with the explosive device rigged in the home, was all part of a diversion set up by Gary to distract investigators.

For what it’s worth, police still treat this abduction case as open and have not closed the case. Interpol, the International Criminal Police Organization, has active warrants for Gary’s arrest. These include abduction and setting traps likely to cause bodily harm, though the case is cold at this point.

Over the twenty years since the crime, there has been a variety of tips with varying levels of veracity. One of the creepiest tips came from Thunder Bay, Ontario where one anonymous source claimed that she recognized the boys and had actually babysat for Gary. In 1999, Thunder Bay police went public with information from a woman who claimed she had looked after the boys as their babysitter. Detective Constable Don Hurd said that they believe the tip to be legitimate, as the tipster knew several intimate family details not known to the public including nicknames for the boys. The woman never was located, though investigators feel that this is the last known location for Gary and the boys.

 Image borrowed from  Global News

Image borrowed from Global News

Some question how Gary, who Saunders has described as a resourceful introvert, could have lived in Thunder Bay without being noticed – surely someone would have caught on, right? Not according to one former Thunder Bay resident, who said “Actually at that time it would have been real easy to hide in Thunder Bay. I moved up there prior to that, and while moving lost my two kids ID including their health cards. I had no trouble registering them in school without any ID. Thunder Bay back then was a bit behind times, so it would have been quite easy to be living openly in Thunder Bay and not be noticed whatsoever.”

So, is it possible that Gary successfully hid from capture for all this time? Gary would be 61 now, and the boys would be 35, 32 and 26. At their ages, it would be unlikely that they had not left their father by this point, but perhaps Gary has successfully brainwashed them. Diana Saunders certainly believes that to be the case, as she has said in multiple interviews.

And it certainly makes you wonder, the circumstances of the disappearance that is. No bodies were found to indicate that Gary or the boys were dead, and why rig his entire neighbourhood to blow as a distraction if he was simply going to kill them later? Why ditch the engine of his car off the coast of Flatrock unless he was trying to evade capture? None of that makes any sense. Gary might be emotionally disturbed, but there is nothing to suggest he is irrational or delusional. Taking the boys was definitely a terrible thing to do, but for him, it was the only way he could see keeping them in his life.

There is another bit of troubling information about some of Gary’s close friends. In the years after his disappearance, three of his friends committed suicide. Some might say that this is just coincidence, or that Gary – who had his own psychiatric problems – hung around people with similar issues. Yet others have speculated that these friends were perhaps feeling a level of guilt, maybe for harbouring information about the O’Brien’s whereabouts.

I found some speculation, on an NTV News broadcast from November of 2017, that some believe the boys were taken into the United States by Gary. Presumably, they would have left Thunder Bay sometime in 1999 or 2000 and crossed the border. Remember, much of what has made our world so small – things like social media and constant access to the internet – were in their infancy twenty years ago and border security was not what it is now, so it is entirely possible that they could have slipped through the fingers of police.

Diana, for what it’s worth, has remained steadfast in her belief that her boys are still alive. She believes that her ex-husband may have brainwashed the boys, or otherwise coerced them into not trying to contact her. Her belief is that Gary may have brought the boys to a cult-like environment, where they would have been cut off from society and would have had no means to communicate with the outside world. The theory makes sense; they would be far from the first people to be indoctrinated by a cult.


 Image borrowed from  Global News

Image borrowed from Global News

In 2011, Diana met with then Prime Minister Stephen Harper in an effort to raise awareness for the missing children across Canada, as well as to launch a website dedicated to finding those children. If you have any information on this case, or any other case involving a missing child, you can visit that website or contact Crime Stoppers.