It all began with a pink suitcase. Ashley Simpson’s suitcase.
Michaels was living in Penticton when Robert Pickton was arrested.
“Fifty missing women, nobody knows they’re missing, this guy feeding them to the pigs all the time… It was a big shock to everyone.”
He began looking at missing persons cases, realizing people were never being found.
“Madison Scott, (a 20-year-old woman who disappeared southeast of Vanderhoof in 2011) was the first case where I really latched on and followed it.”
He started a missing persons website, because he wanted to provide online profiles in chronological order.
“But then I didn’t feel like I was doing anything, just posting information… I felt I wasn’t actually helping anyone.”
When 32-year-old Ashley Simpson went missing from Yankee Flats Road in the Shuswap in April 2016 and drone technology was in focus, Michaels began thinking about the pink suitcase she was possibly carrying.
Michaels’ day job is doing industrial automation and robotics programming. Familiar with the monumental task of going through drone video footage, he knew there had to be a better way. With a possible 4,000 to 5,000 images per day, it could take days or weeks to do manually, he says.
“It’s too overwhelming, it’s not something a human’s good at.”
With Ashley’s pink suitcase in mind, he decided to write a program that can define a particular spectrum in a range of colour.
The program goes through images and scans pixels, viewing 20 million pixels a second, he says. The user can define multiple ranges to search.
Michaels notes he is not an expert in desktop software. He wrote the program but there was no user interface, nothing you could click on with a mouse.
“We had to hire someone to do the graphics, to make it user friendly.”
And it works.
“We found a deceased fellow in Wisconsin; we used blue jeans in that case.”
A YouTube video describes how the initial search tried by a Wisconsin group was unsuccessful and, about 15 minutes into the video, how Michaels’ program was able to find the man’s body quickly.
Once he created the program, Michaels formed the Wings of Mercy Facebook group because many drone pilots would be needed to acquire search data. Wings of Mercy now works on searches all over North America, assisting families, law enforcement, and search and rescue groups.
He estimates he and a couple of other administrators spend about four hours each per day on Wings of Mercy. The focus now is training more pilots and acquiring more drones. They’re also looking to recruit four-by-fours, ATV owners, quad clubs.
While Michaels tries not to get too emotionally wrapped up in cases, it happens. He is silent for a moment when he mentions a two-year-old boy who fell into the Mississippi River last year.
“You deal with the families; you feel their pain.”
Asked about his volunteer group’s success rate, he says he’s often asked that question.
“I haven’t done any better than the RCMP. It’s hard, it’s a challenge.”
What the volunteers can say is “we’ve done everything we can with a drone in that area,” he explains. Then families know it has not been left undone.
Regarding the four missing women in the Shuswap – Ashley Simpson, Caitlin Potts, Nicole Bell and Deanna Wertz, Michaels says Wings of Mercy has searched and will search again. But more information is available regarding some women than others.
He calls John and Cindy Simpson, Ashley’s parents, his greatest supporters.
“They believe in searching with the drones, they’ve seen images…”, he says. “I can see something the size of a golf ball or a tennis ball.”
Overall, Michaels’ initial aim remains the same.
“We’re just trying to do what we can to help as many people as we can.”