Six months after Katherine McNeil’s mysterious disappearance from a hospital in Amherst, Nova Scotia, her friends in Merritt are beginning to fear the worst.

“My feeling is that Katherine has become a victim of foul play,” said Carmen Fairley who last heard from McNeil late September 2010.

Several days later, on Oct. 4, 2010 McNeil left the Cumberland Regional Health Care Centre in Amherst and, besides being sighted purchasing shoes at a nearby store, disappeared without a trace.

Nova Scotia RCMP conducted an extensive search of the area sending search and rescue teams to scour the woods near the hospital and a police dog to search areas McNeil had stayed, but RCMP Cst. Dal Hutchinson said there have been no leads whatsoever.

“On Feb. 23 we issued another media release to try and stimulate any information that may be out there,” said Hutchinson. “We’ve been following up on such things as banking accounts and emails – you name it, we’ve done it.

“Any potential contact, any potential sighting, we have followed up on it with no luck.”

Since her disappearance, there has been no bank account activity and her email account has been dormant until recently when a number of people began receiving spam emails from her account, said Hutchinson.

“It’s a really hollow feeling knowing that she’s gone,” said Kathi Dahlquist-Gray explaining that until McNeil’s disappearance she hadn’t seen her for a while, but had frequent contact with her. “You never think it will happen to someone you know and then it happens to someone you’re really close with.”

McNeil spent about 16 years in British Columbia after leaving her home province of Nova Scotia to escape an abusive husband. She spent some time in Lillooet then moved to the Merritt area for several years before returning to Nova Scotia in 2008.

Fairley first became acquainted with her when McNeil was hitchhiking from Merritt to Lower Nicola. After picking McNeil up a second time and driving her all the way to her campsite in the bush on the banks of Spius Creek, the two struck up a friendship and remained in close contact after McNeil returned to Nova Scotia.

She and others became worried when the emails and phone calls from McNeil ceased. In October Fairley tried contacting people on McNeil’s mass email lists and in November she had the idea to Google her name.

“That is when I made the chilling discovery that Katherine was missing,” Fairley recalls.

Though McNeil has been known to pick up and leave, friends say it is not like her to cut off communication. But more unsettling is the fact that she left behind her animals – a horse, two dogs and several cats.

“Katherine’s friends that know her well, know that Katherine would never abandon her animals – she lived for them,” said Fairley, explaining how McNeil had taken the animals with her from B.C. and recently nursed her horse back to health. “They were her source of happiness and she was totally attached and devoted to them in the same way that parents are towards their children.”

Because she had so many animals and was living on a fixed income, friends say McNeil often had trouble finding suitable housing.

“Sometimes for the sake of obtaining low cost housing with a bit of adjacent pasture land, she would rent a place that had much to be desired in terms of safety and creature comfort,” said Fairley. “She experienced more than her fair share of slumlords.”

In June 2010 McNeil had a conflict with the landlord of the farmhouse she was renting that resulted in her eviction.

While waiting for another place she planned to rent-to-own to be vacated, McNeil camped on the property with her animals.

McNeil who suffered from brain damage and a brain tumour was transported to hospital on Oct. 3 for unknown medical reasons. When she left the hospital the next day, she left her animals and all her possessions.

At this point, Fairley admits that she speaks of McNeil in the past tense because she doesn’t think McNeil is alive.

“If she is alive, perhaps she is being held against her will, or maybe there is a remote possibility that the health concern that brought her to the hospital for an overnight stay had an even more deleterious impact on her well being than we can imagine.”

Hutchinson said the RCMP are equally concerned.

“At this stage we’re following up on any leads that come in, if any. It will be an ongoing case until she is found.”

Anyone with information is asked to contact Crime Stoppers at 1-800-222-TIPS(8477).