There is, of course, a desperation about 69-year-old Denise Horvath-Allan, the mother of Charles Horvath-Allan, a name synonymous with the roll call of Britain’s most notorious unsolved mysteries. It’s as much about her age and the finite nature of our time on the mortal plane as anything else. Or as she puts it, she’s “running out of life” to find her son. In this way, she knows her part of the story is coming to a close, despite the ending likely remaining unwritten.
Three decades of dead ends have followed Charles’ disappearance. In the meantime, there have been seemingly endless truncated leads and rabbit holes. Rumors plague Denise’s dreams. And the financial cost for answers — truncated, labriynth and/or rumored as they may be — required her to sell her beloved beauty salon long ago to plug the money drain. Still, she says, “I’ll never stop looking for answers. How could I? How could I ever give up on my son?”
Charles, a Canadian-born British national, first went missing in May 1989, during a gap-year pilgrimage to explore his roots, hiking across Canada and visiting his father in Ontario. At a slender six-feet tall with dark brown eyes and short hair, a prominent scar on the left side of his head, a piercing in his left ear and a tattoo on his left arm of a skull with a mohawk, Charles had the look of a young man who was just growing out of punk, yet couldn’t give it all the way up. “He was always smiling,” says Denise. “My beautiful, naive boy.”
It was Denise who had bought him the plane ticket to Canada — an early present to commemorate the 21st birthday he was set to celebrate on August 21st. She last spoke to him on April 17, 1989. “He called home. He reversed the charges! He didn’t know where he was calling from, though I suspect he just didn’t look at the address that was probably in front of him in the booth. I was in the middle of doing a facial on a client and it wasn’t the best time, but we talked for about 20 minutes. I remember that the call cost 31 pounds. He told me he’d gotten a job. Somewhere to live. He was just waiting on his pay check.”
“We talked about his upcoming birthday and if he’d like to meet up in Hong Kong to celebrate his birthday and my 40th,” Denise continues. “I’d spent my early childhood years at school there, and I wanted to share my memories with him. He said yes. I told him to check the cost of flights from Vancouver to Hong Kong. He asked about his Nana. And our cats. He adored our cats. He told me that he’d call again soon.”
The next time she heard from him, though, was via fax. It was sent from Roche Stationers, Bernard Ave., Kelowna, Canada. “He sent me the cost of the flights,” Denise remembers. “He asked for our new home fax telephone number, and he gave me his mailing address in Kelowna.”
Charles’ last confirmed sighting came three weeks after he arrived in Kelowna, British Columbia, on May 26, 1989. To get there and finance his travels across Canada more generally, he worked a bunch of odd jobs — some shifts in kitchens, a bit of toiling at a ski resort, a modeling assignment in Montreal. He was last seen while cashing his check from the the now shuttered Flintstones Bedrock City Amusement Park at a local bank. He apparently liked Kelowna and the job enough that he was planning to stick around a little longer than he had on his other stops.
Within British Columbia, Kelowna is the third largest metropolitan area, behind only Vancouver and Victoria. It takes its name from the Okanagan term — the language of the region’s indigenous people — for “grizzly bear.” Within its vast lake is said to live the Ogopogo, a sea monster with sightings that span back to the First Nations. The most frequent Ogopogo sighting, however, is on the crest of the junior hockey team there, The Rockets. Kelowna is also known for its fruit, farming and wine industries. It used to have a thriving tobacco industry as well — at its peak, the city produced 800,000 cigars per year. Increasingly, though, it’s tech that’s driving the city’s progress. For example, Bardel Entertainment, the animation studio behind Rick and Morty, is based there; the same for the Disney studio that makes the MMO kids’ game Club Penguin.
A city on the up then, but one not without its secrets. “The Hell’s Angels have been around as long as I’ve lived here,” a resident who is unwilling to be named tells me. “They own some major properties. They’d roll in every long weekend in May, and you could hear them revving their bikes everywhere. Kelowna is sleepy — it used to be much sleepier — but it definitely has a sinister side. A couple of guys I went to high school died. A couple vanished under very suspicious circumstances…”
Denise has made 15 transatlantic flights there in all. She was even there when the Unsolved Mysteries TV show came to recreate Charles’ final movements. The actor Roger Shank — he has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it part in 2016’s Suicide Squad — played Charles. He also helped with a number of searches for him. But what Denise remembers most about her visits there was meeting the stationers’ clerk who helped Charles send his fax to Denise. “She said she couldn’t forget him because he was so polite,” says Denise.
Denise says she wasn’t “overly concerned” at first when Charles didn’t call. “He said he would on the fax, but sons don’t always phone when they say.” But that changed as the days turned to weeks. “I told myself I was being silly, but I just wanted the phone to ring. I finally called the Kelowna Police myself at the end of May. I explained what had happened and asked if they could look out for him. Their response was to say that 20-year-olds aren’t obliged to phone their mothers. That was it. They wouldn’t help.” As such, it wasn’t until August 10, 1989 that the police took a missing person’s report. Denise felt that the insinuation was that Charles had run away.
As far as anyone could tell, Charles had spent his time in Kelowna bouncing between local hostels and the homes of friends, but when he went missing, he’d been staying at the Tiny Tent Town campsite, now named the Willow Creek campground. At the campsite, a man named Gordy Happ helped Charles put his tent up. Other Tiny Tent Town residents such as Eugene “Gino” Rourdin, Graham Ledingham and Chad Duncan frequented the same student employment agencies as Charles. Gino has said that Charles often stopped by his campsite to talk to him and his family. “He was a nice guy,” Gino told Unsolved Mysteries. “He was a good friend. He used to always come over to our camp and have coffee in the morning and play Frisbee and catch with my son and just sit and chat with us. He was a really friendly guy, probably too friendly. He seemed, I don’t know, naïve. He’d talk to anyone, make friends with anybody.”
Upon Denise’s first visit to Kelowna, she visited the Tiny Tent Town. She describes it as having a “stench of evil” and that you could “feel the fear” there. The manager at the time told her that Charles had “gone out one day and never came back.” The campsite management waited a while, but eventually threw out Charles’ belongings. They kept just three things: his bible, his rosary and a leather strap. Denise recalls looking at them and saying, “This is all that’s left of my son?” She went back to her motel and vomited. (Although the campground is just a five-minute drive from Kelowna’s Royal Mounted Police Office station, Denise went there before they did.)
Denise believes that the campsite holds the secret to what happened to Charles. “Several years ago, I was contacted by a person who was engaged to a former resident of Tiny Tent Town,” she says. “They told me that this former resident had overheard in the showers what had happened to Charles. That he’d been killed and dumped in the Tiny Town septic tank. I got to meet the father of this person a few years ago, but he wouldn’t tell me anything. He said it was more than his life was worth.” Ever since, Denise has been lobbying the local police to take a DNA sample from the septic tank, but to no avail.
In April 1992, the second time Denise visited Kelowna, she received two letters, delivered by taxi, to the motel where she was staying. The first said Charles had died at a party at Tiny Tent Town. He’d gotten into a fight with locals, and his body had been disposed of in Okanagan Lake. It read, “I seen your ad in the paper looking for your son. I seen him May 26. We were partying and two people knocked him out. But he died. His body is in the lake by the bridge.”
Volunteer divers and a submersible camera team from Vancouver were already searching the lake when Denise received a subsequent letter. It claimed, “They are searching on the wrong size of the bridge.”
The divers and submersible camera team, however, did discover a body. But it wasn’t Charles. It was that of a 64-year-old man who was estimated to have killed himself seven years earlier.
* * * * *
“Charles was a hyper-active child,” Denise says wistfully when I ask her what her son was like. “He hardly slept. He was a happy boy. He had a beautiful smile. He was a dreamer. He was loving and caring and gentle. He adored animals.” She pauses, as if remembering a dream or some other dormant memory. “He could not abide cruelty to animals,” she says, proudly.
“When he was little,” she continues, unprompted, “Charles wanted to be a pilot. He liked gardening, swimming, skiing, dancing, horseback riding, even knitting. When he got older he liked bands like The Police or The Grateful Dead. He would watch The A-Team. He liked cricket and football, but he didn’t do very well in sports. His coordination was out of sync.”
She pauses again. Much longer this time. Then, slowly: “My son was the most wanted baby on earth. I lived for him. I’d die for him.”
Denise had emigrated to Vancouver on August 20, 1967 to work as a nanny for a Canadian family. She’d always traveled, the result of a childhood spent following her father in the navy. She’d spent time in Malta. There was the stint in Hong Kong. She always wanted to be a nanny. Her father, however, didn’t approve. “Not fitting,” she says he told her. But when her mother and father divorced, she felt free to pursue her dream. She took the job in Canada, after a couple of years working a similar job in Southport, near Liverpool.
Not long after arriving in Canada, she met a man — Max A Karoly Horvath. Max was Hungarian. He’d left his homeland during the 1957 Soviet takeover, whereupon the Red Cross settled his family in Montreal. Three days after meeting Denise, Max proposed. By late December, they were married. The following August, they had a child. They called him Kaloly John Horvath. He wouldn’t become Charles until he moved to England when he was five weeks old. “I was homesick,” says Denise. “I wanted to be closer to my mum.”
Once her young son started school, his teacher wouldn’t stop calling him Carol. It was embarrassing. And so, they agreed he could be called Charles.
Charles’ father returned to Canada when Charles was 10 months. The immigration service had issued him an incorrect visa. “It would be fair to say that I was swept off my feet,” says Denise. “But things changed when we were married. Different language, different upbringing — it made things difficult.”
Still, they tried again, Denise, Max and young Charles moving back to Canada in 1972 to try to live together as a family in Montreal. Not surprisingly, it didn’t work. “I never wanted to move back to Canada,” says Denise. “It was so cold. I missed my family. It was making me ill.”
“It was a very acrimonious divorce for 27 years,” Denise explains. “Max got remarried when Charles was five and had another son, Maxwell. Eventually we made peace in 1999, and Max traveled to Kelowna to speak to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. But it was too late. He was just too angry. Angry at me for leaving him. Angry at me for what happened to Charles. He died in 2005 at age 55. In 1999, he’d told me he didn’t think he’d live a long life. I speak to Maxwell sometimes. He lives in Thunder Bay.”
Other relatives, however, continue to hold some of Max’s earlier bitterness toward her. Three, in fact, have claimed over the years that Charles had thought about “disappearing off the face of the earth” so that his mother would never be able to find him. “The people who said this,” says Denise, “are my ex-sister-in-law, Georgette, and her daughter and son. I can only think their claims come from ignorance, jealousy and lack of knowledge — or a mix of all three. Because I think I’ve met Georgette three times in all my life.”
Denise believes the friction stems from another trip Charles made to Canada when he was 15. A mix-up about when Charles’ flight was due back in England and a broken-down car meant Charles ended up spending the night at Heathrow. Georgette saw this as neglect and held it against Denise.
“At one point, Charles was a little low when we spoke on the telephone whilst he was still in Montreal,” Denise says. “I suggested that he come home. He declined. I couldn’t understand why. It was at this point that he shared with me that he couldn’t come home as his aunt had persuaded him to tear up his return ticket. My fears that she was trying to keep my son were becoming a reality. I don’t know why just being his aunt wasn’t enough for her. He had a mum.”
That’s why she remains resolute that Charles wouldn’t put her through “this” out of choice. Instead, she points to Kelowna’s more nefarious elements. “British Columbia is renowned for its beauty,” says Denise, “but it has a huge problem with the drug trade. It used to take around seven hours to drive from Vancouver to Kelowna. When the Coquihalla Highway was built, the journey time was reduced to about four hours, which made it easier for criminals to make the commute. You can’t walk down by the lake anymore without seeing needles. Unfortunately, it’s also the sort of place that attracts naive youngsters to find work in the orchards, and to enjoy the beach and lake.”
Last month, Denise once again traveled to Kelowna to hold a memorial in her sons’ memory at the Seventh-day Adventist Church. She says it’ll be her last visit to the Canadian city, the place that’s become an unwanted home-away-from-home in the decades since Charles went missing. In the days prior, she legally obtained a Presumption-of-Death certificate so she can deal with her son’s financial affairs. The High Court in London will decide whether to validate it early next year.
Back in London, when August arrived this year, Denise had planned to celebrate Charles’ 50th birthday by raising a toast to him — across oceans and time zones to wherever he might be. But she couldn’t face it. “I’d planned to go to a friend’s house and have some sandwiches. Maybe some champagne. I just couldn’t bare it, though.”
She simply couldn’t imagine what her son would be like at 50. After all, he’ll always be 20 to her. Her baby, frozen in time.