February 3, 2019

The text message came to Shelby Hnatuk’s cellphone at 10:12 a.m. CST on April 12, 2016. It was from Mekayla Bali, a classmate at Sacred Heart High School in Yorkton, Sask.

Bali, who was 16 at the time, had sent the message from somewhere else in Yorkton, a quiet prairie town.

Hnatuk wasn’t there to read it. She’d left her phone behind when she went to school that day. She only saw it once when she was back at home and the school called to ask if she had seen Bali.

When she checked her phone she found two messages.

The first was “Hey, I need help.” The second, sent about 20 minutes later, said, “Nevermind I figured it out.”

Reading those messages, Hnatuk had no idea Bali would soon be gone without a trace.

“By ‘I need help’ I would have thought ‘I need a ride somewhere.’ I don’t know, ‘I need help with an assignment’? I never would have thought ‘I need help,’ like, I’m running away and not coming back,” Hnatuk said.

“It’s a hard feeling, not knowing if she’s alive or not.”

"I wish I would have paid more attention."

- Shelby Hnatuk

Bali’s texts to Hnatuk are among a series of cryptic communications Bali made on April 12, 2016, the day she vanished. Those messages, along with surveillance footage taken at several locations around Yorkton, have baffled the investigators tasked with finding her.

Telus has records of some of the messages Bali sent that day, but there are no records of numerous phone calls she appears to be making in the surveillance footage.

Nobody seems to know who Bali was calling that day. Friends say she sometimes used apps — some anonymous — to communicate. In the past she had struck up friendships with people online, including some outside Yorkton and at least one in the U.S.

RCMP investigators have used the surveillance footage to piece together Bali’s last day in Yorkton. Her movements seem erratic. She walked to various businesses around town, at times appearing to be looking for someone and trying to get money. At one point she talked to some friends about going on vacation to Regina. She asked a stranger for help booking a hotel room.

Their investigation led them to people Bali met online, old friends, a box of flowers delivered to her school and a person who claimed to be her father.

Using newly-released surveillance footage and exclusive new details from the RCMP, CBC has created a detailed timeline of Bali’s movements the day she disappeared: who she was talking to, where she went, how she was behaving and what she said.

Police also opened up about some of the leads they followed and the challenges of finding a teenager whose last known communications appear to have been made using social media apps protected by U.S. privacy laws.

A quiet type

The Sacred Heart High School is a tan and muted-green brick building with a sweeping, curved entrance. The building is smaller than the public high school just a couple of blocks down the road. It backs onto a section of woodland surrounding Hopkins Lake.

Crosses embedded in the brickwork point to the school’s Catholic teachings, as do the large biblical statue and posters in the school office.

Shelby Hnatuk met Bali on their third day of Grade 9. Right away she said she felt Bali’s kindness.

“Mekayla came up to me and she poked me on the shoulder and was like 'Hey come sit with us.' So we became like a big group like ten of us,” Hnatuk said.

By Grade 11 the group was smaller, but Bali and Hnatuk stayed close. They spent lunch breaks at the “smoke pit doors,” a rear entrance where the smokers hung out, talking about music and gossiping about teachers. Bali’s friends say she didn’t smoke.

Bali would talk about her violin recitals and her siblings, whom she was close with. She told her friends she wanted to be a teacher or a vet because she loved children and animals. She was a big fan of The Hunger Games series, even before everyone else knew about it. She liked fantasy video games like League of Legends. She had a dog, a Puli called Angel, who she liked to train to do new tricks. She photographed wildlife and landscapes and submitted the shots to be featured in TV weather reports.

Her mom told police she loved to play “Mantracker," based on an extreme hide-and-seek reality show, with her little brother Joshua and sister Eliyora.

Hnatuk described Bali as a “quiet type,” but said she was popular because she was a good listener.

“She’d sit in the corner and listen to everyone else's gossip and she'd kind of put it in her two cents here and there,” Hnatuk said.

“She'd talk about some party she went to the night before or something sometimes, who she met.”

Hnatuk remembers talking about boys with Bali. There was an old boyfriend who she dated around 2016 and stayed friends with after they broke up.

She said Bali also connected with a few people online — at least four that Hnatuk knew of — but said Bali’s communications with them were usually short-lived.

“I never liked the idea of her messaging guys online because it's kind of sketchy but she wouldn't listen to me. She did her own thing, but I probably would've done the same too.”

The timeline

A look at what police know about Mekayla Bali's movements on the day she disappeared.

April 11

The day before Bali went missing, she piled into a car with Hnatuk and another friend, Oksana Yakiwchuk, to have lunch at a fast food restaurant.

In their statements to the police, Bali’s friends said they remember her talking during lunch about going somewhere, maybe Moose Jaw and Prince Albert.

Hnatuk and some of Bali’s other classmates recalled her saying she was going to Regina for a vacation with her family. Hnatuk thought maybe she also said Saskatoon.

Hnatuk told police she remembered Bali talking about a boy named Josh, but when she tried to ask Bali about him on April 11 she didn’t respond.

Amy Liang, who wasn’t at the lunch, said Bali had told her a man named Christopher was coming to Saskatchewan to meet her.

In the days before her disappearance, Bali had talked about leaving town and going on vacation. Hnatuk said she thought her friend was just dreaming.

They used to talk about moving to a bigger city like Saskatoon and Regina where there were more things for young people and better places to shop, not like the “old-lady clothes stores” at the local mall.

“She kind of made like little comments but we all did," Hnatuk said. "[I] never took her seriously.”

After the fast food lunch with Yakiwchuk and Hnatuk, Bali went back to school for a Christian ethics class. Her teacher later told police Bali seemed upset during class.

At 4:35 p.m. CST, after school was over, Bali sent a text message to Yakiwchuk asking for a ride to the bank the next day, adding it was really important.

Between 5:30 and around 6 p.m., Bali called TD Bank customer service three times. She checked her account balance and transferred $25.

Between 8:50 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. she sent text messages to an ex-boyfriend, Hnatuk and Liang.

Police can use Telus data from cellphone towers to see who a person sent and received messages from and at what time, but the company does not retain any information from the message. Investigators have to rely on friends and family providing copies of the texts to see what’s inside, which is what they did with Bali’s friends.

She told Liang she needed help, but didn’t respond when Liang asked why. She messaged Hnatuk about a boy, feeling bad for someone and crying. The ex-boyfriend told police that Bali’s message that night said she was unhappy and thinking about going to Regina for a couple of days.

April 12

Oksana Yakiwchuk got the first text message from Bali at 6:41 a.m. CST.

“Can you take me to the bank?”

“I said, ‘the bank doesn’t open ‘til like eight or something and she texts at like seven o’clock,’ so how can I take her to the bank?” Yakiwchuk said.

“I know it was her decision but still I'm kind of kicking myself over it. I feel like I just should have followed her and I should have just taken her to the bank.”

Not long before her disappearance, Bali had told Yakiwchuk she had about $5,000 in the bank. Police said bank statements showed Bali had nowhere near that much money.

Bali’s grandmother, Margaret Niebergall, told RCMP she dropped Bali off at school between about 8:10 and 8:20 a.m. The school Wi-Fi network showed she logged on at about 8:08 a.m.

At 8:21 a.m., Bali put a binder inside her locker. Police said the binder had nothing of significance in it. By 8:26 a.m. she had left the school through a back entrance.

When Bali didn’t turn up in class, her ex-boyfriend texted her to ask why. As Bali wrote her reply, she was already on the other side of town, her every movement being recorded by surveillance cameras.

It’s not clear what path Bali took when she left the school that morning — along the main road or a trail through the bush — but she was soon captured by a surveillance camera at the Super C Convenience store. It recorded her walking along the railroad tracks until she left the frame.

Bali was next seen at the local TD Bank. She arrived before the bank opened.

From 8:51 a.m. surveillance footage shows her talking on her phone while she waited for the doors to open. She ends the call and approaches a teller when a worker slides open the shutters at 8:55 a.m.

The phone call at the bank didn’t register on her Telus account. In fact, not a single call she made throughout the day went through Telus, meaning they likely took place through apps. Police had to wait 10 months to gain access to her social media accounts through U.S. companies and authorities.

Bali withdrew $55 from the bank then headed east toward Terry’s Pawn and Bargain, where she arrived at 9 a.m. She approached owner Terry Heddon as he stood doing his morning chores.

Bali was there to get a silver ring assessed, according to Heddon. He previously told police it might have been two rings.

“Silver value's really low so it just wasn't enough value in the ring to to even bother making an offer on it,” Heddon said. “She was quiet, didn't seem to be in any distress or anything.”

Heddon said Bali didn’t look upset when he turned her down. She simply left the store heading south.

Surveillance footage from the local Home Hardware shows Bali striding purposefully down the sidewalk toward a combined Tim Horton’s/Wendy’s.

There were two cameras in the restaurant. Footage shows Bali using cash to buy a hot drink then sitting in a booth opposite the the glass counter. She is facing away from the main entrance. She appears to be using her phone.

Watch as Mekayla Bali turns intermittently to look at the doors behind her, seemingly takes apart her phone and puts it back together

Bali sits for the next 13 minutes. The stuffed backpack she’d been carrying since she left the school is at the table next to her, stretched with the weight of what was inside. One of her friends later said Bali usually carried a purse to school, not a backpack.

Bali turns intermittently to look at the doors behind her. At one point she appears to take her phone apart, put it back together, then start using it again.

At 9:23 a.m. she grabs her bag and walks out of the restaurant through one exit, then turns and walks back through the restaurant to exit through the other door.

She walks north, past the surveillance camera at Home Hardware, until she is out of view.

Bali re-appears on the Home Hardware camera at 9:42 a.m., emerging from behind a Giant Tiger store and heading back to the Tim Horton’s.

She has her phone up to her ear as she walks inside the restaurant at 9:49 a.m. Again, there’s no record of the call.

Video footage at Sacred Heart High School shows the last confirmed sighting of Mekayla Bali.

This time Bali sits at a different booth, closer to the window and facing the door. Her call ends and for the next ten minutes she appears to be waiting, either sending messages or browsing on her phone and looking out the windows periodically.

She puts her headphones in at 10:03 a.m., then at 10:12 a.m. she sends the text message to Hnatuk.

“Hey I need help.”

Bali is on and off her phone six times over the next half hour or so. It was during this period she sent Hnatuk the text saying, “Nevermind I figured it out.”

At one point, she grabs her bag while talking on the phone and leaves the restaurant. Less than two minutes later, she walks back in and sits back down in the same booth.

During one of the phone calls, at 10:39 a.m., she looks around. At 10:43 a.m. she is off the phone again. She leaves her seat and approaches an older lady sitting at a table near her booth.

The woman that Mekayla Bali approached in this video told RCMP that Bali asked for help renting a hotel room.

Police later spoke to that woman. She told them Bali had asked her for help renting a hotel room. The woman said she was not sure if Bali needed money or just needed someone old enough to book the room. The woman said no. She told police Bali did not specify where she wanted the hotel room.

The footage shows Bali going back to her seat and making another call. Bali leaves the restaurant within a minute. Again, she appeared to be talking on the phone.

At 11:35 a.m., as she walked westbound back towards her school, Bali shot Hnatuk a text.

“I’ll see you at lunch.”

At 11:59 a.m., Bali was back at the Sacred Heart High School. She told two students, Ali Clarkson and Juannic Buckle, that she was going to take a bus for a vacation to Regina. One of them later told police Bali might have had two phones with her at the time.

Three minutes later, a surveillance camera over the front door caught Bali walking back out the school doors.

The footage shows her walking away, stepping out of view as she rounds a corner away from the school entrance. That clip is the last confirmed sighting of Mekayla Bali in more than two years.

Video footage shows Mekayla Bali at Sacred Heart High School.

At 3:40 p.m. Bali’s grandmother Margaret Niebergall was still waiting in the parking lot for her granddaughter to come out.

At 4 p.m. Bali missed her violin rehearsal. Her mother Paula Bali reported her missing just before 8 p.m.

By 7 a.m. the next morning, her cell phone was turned off.

RCMP have kept some of the information — such as Bali approaching the woman about renting the hotel room — under wraps until now.

Sgt. Donna Zawislak from the Historical Case Unit said RCMP are looking for anyone else Bali may have approached that day for help.

“We’re not sure why she approached this person and the person doesn’t know either,” Zawislak said. “If someone did try to help Mekayla, we don’t expect that person to be in any trouble, we just want to know what kind of assistance they provided because again, that could be that little piece of the puzzle we are missing.”

Mekayla Bali's friends speak about the missing teen.

The investigation

RCMP Cpl. Kim Stewart usually started her 6 a.m. shift by checking on calls that came in during the night shift.

There were a few files to catch up on the day of April 13, 2016, but one name stood out to her. Mekayla Bali. She’d never heard that name before.

In Yorkton, a city with a population slightly more than 16,000 people, police often knew the people who went missing or their families.

By the time Stewart started work on the 13th, the night shift officers had already contacted banks and phone companies.

They gave Stewart a list of names, including Bali’s friends and her mom Paula Bali, to follow up with.

“Night shift had done a lot of stuff but it’s not like we had any background information, we really had to like start at point zero and learn everything from there,” Stewart said.

She went about interviewing Bali’s friends, calling them back multiple times to clarify details as new information came in.

A social media campaign brought tips flooding in. Keeping track of information became one of the biggest challenges for investigators. They had to make sure no detail got lost in the mix, no matter how small it seemed.

“I remember one of our members had a great big timeline that he had put down the hallway of the detachment so it went all the way down,” Stewart said.

“Just trying to keep it all straight because we wanted as much information as possible, there was so much coming in.”

Stewart grew increasingly worried about Bali’s safety as days passed. She remembers talking with another officer about it while their kids swam at the local pool. With no known activity on Bali’s phone or in her bank account, the officers agreed it didn’t “feel good.”

There was a false alarm the Friday after Bali vanished. Someone reported a petite blonde running from her boyfriend at the local bus station.

Stewart and the other officers thought it had to be Bali, but it was someone else.

After three weeks, Yorkton RCMP handed the Bali file over to the General Investigations Section (GIS), a dedicated unit that investigates major offences.

GIS officers spent hundreds of hours watching surveillance videos provided by local businesses to piece together Bali’s movements.

Bali was on and off her phone throughout the day she went missing, but phone records didn’t show any calls being made.

Bali’s friends said she communicated with people through social media: Instagram, Snapchat and possibly an anonymous app called Kik.

Police in Canada have warned parents that the Kik is used by predators to groom young women, adding that it has fewer parental controls and allows strangers to contact strangers without any initial approval such as agreeing to be “friends.” The FBI is looking at what role Kik may have played in the kidnapping and killing of a 13-year-old girl from Virginia.

Zawislak said police have to go through U.S. legal processes to get information protected by social media companies under U.S. privacy laws.

“That is something as investigators we are dealing with more and more. People are constantly active on Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, there’s tons of apps out there that people can access and communicate with,” Zawislak said.

In some cases, Zawislak said, the information doesn’t exist because it was never stored by the company or only retained for a short time before it is destroyed.

Liang said using social media to chat with people in other places is not that unusual. She has done it herself, although she stresses she would never have agreed to meet anyone.

Bali's known social media accounts went silent, but they remain live. One Instagram account under her name has hundreds of followers but no photos, indicating there may have been pictures that have since been deleted. The “about me” section simply says “Goodbye.”

Another Instagram account contains mostly selfies, pictures with school friends and her siblings, and snippets of daily life.

In one post from March 1, 2016, she shared a screenshot of her Snapchat profile urging other users to connect with her.

“Looking for Snapchat friends because I have none in real life. Add me … Please don't be a greasy f**k and send me gross ass nudes. Just looking for friend.”

Bali’s friends say she communicated with people in other parts of Canada and the U.S.

“I know she talked to like at least four guys that she told us of,” Hnatuk said.

“They weren’t from here, they were from the States or Manitoba, wherever else.”

GIS officers investigated all of the names flagged by Bali’s friends during the initial interviews.

Boys from elsewhere

Bali messaged with someone from North Carolina named Christopher through Instagram.

His name was flagged to police by both Liang and Bali's ex-boyfriend.

Liang said Bali told her Christopher was coming to Yorkton. The ex-boyfriend told police he heard Christopher was visiting the province to see his mother in Saskatoon.

CBC contacted a man who said he was the Christopher who Bali had been talking to online.

He declined to answer any questions about his communications with the teenager but sent a brief emailed response to CBC’s request for an interview.

“All I can provide for you is that she suffered with self harm a few years back,” he said.

“Back them [sic] I was helping those who struggled and I encouraged her to fight against self harm and to look towards [sic] God.”

Saskatchewan RCMP said they identified and interviewed Christopher, as did police in the United States. His house was also searched by police.

Zawislak said there's no evidence Christopher was in Canada when Bali disappeared. She added there is no evidence to indicate Bali was suicidal when she went missing.

Bali’s friends also flagged another boy to police. Bali had been talking about someone named Josh shortly before her disappearance.

Police did not have a last name for Josh, but interviewed multiple people with that name as they came across them in the investigation.

One of those people was from the town of Churchbridge, about 60 kilometres southeast of Yorkton.

CBC spoke over social media to a Josh from that town who said he knew Bali.

“I only saw/talked to her once a week when she was in Churchbridge at this youth thing,” Josh said.

“Then we were out of touch for a few years, and then she found my number and we talked a bit more but then stopped again."

He said they stopped talking at least three years before Bali went missing.

Josh declined to be interviewed further by CBC. Police said they had interviewed him.

“After speaking with Josh there was no indication to believe that Josh was involved with anything with what happened to Mekayla,” Zawislak said.

Bali’s friends haven’t provided names of any other people they think she might have been communicating with.

A name from the past

Another line of police inquiry involved a man who claims to be Bali’s father.

Bali’s school friends had contradicting recollections of what she had said about her father. One said Bali thought her dad was dead, another said Bali had mentioned wanting to meet him but didn’t know who he was.

Rick Breit said he believes he is Bali's dad, although he can’t be sure. Bali’s mother Paula, who declined to be interviewed for this story, told CBC there is no evidence that Breit is Bali's father.

Breit said he was never contacted by Bali, and he did not believe she ever knew his name.

“When Mekayla went missing, it was about five days later that the RCMP phoned me up and asked me if I knew where she was and I said ‘No’ ” Breit said.

He said that three months later, two RCMP plain clothes guys showed up at his Saskatoon house, searched the whole place and took DNA samples. He said the officers then searched his mother's house the same way.

RCMP said there is no evidence to suggest Breit was involved in Bali's disappearance.

Breit has started his own Facebook page, separate from the one started by Bali's mother, to spread the word in hopes of receiving tips.

A mysterious delivery

The February before Bali's disappearance, she received a delivery during drama class.

“I just remember on that Valentine’s Day she had gotten a bouquet of roses to school, like a guy had sent her roses,” said Hannah Seymour, a classmate and school friend of Bali’s.

“She never said who it was.”

Seymour remembers she thought it was odd that the flowers came in a plain cardboard box.

An employee at a florist in Yorkton told CBC the cardboard box indicated the flowers must have been ordered online because local florists don't deliver that way.

Police said they identified the person who sent them.

“The person who sent those flowers has nothing to do with what happened to Mekayla,” Zawislak said. She would not say who it was.

'In high school there is drugs'

Two of Bali’s classmates told police they remembered her telling them she had the opioid Oxycodone. One of them said Bali showed them the pills when she was at school.

Police said they investigated these claims and concluded the pills she showed her friends were actually Accutane, a medication Bali had to treat acne.

“We are always open and aware that in high school there is drugs," Zawislak said.

“There’s different kinds of drugs and drugs get passed around but in Mekayla’s case we don’t have any evidence to suggest that drugs were a factor in this.”

The bus depot

The last buses lumbered out of Yorkton's now-defunct local depot in 2018, but on April 12, 2016, the orange bucket seats inside the depot were still occupied by people with plans in other places.

An employee of the depot told police she remembered seeing Bali sometime between 10 a.m. and noon. The employee said Bali wanted to know what time the bus was leaving. When the attendant told her 5 p.m., Bali declined to buy a ticket.

Bali was also spotted in the Trail Stop restaurant, a diner-style eatery connected to the depot.

Cheryl McDougall was waitressing that day. She said Bali sat alone at a table and ordered poutine.

“I’m not sure if anyone else came because I was on my break,” McDougall said.

She said Bali looked, "Normal for the kids coming in.” She doesn’t remember if Bali was using her phone.

McDougall spoke about a week later with another customer who said she had seen Bali on April 12.

“She said she was going out with some big guy carrying bags, white bags. That’s all she said,” McDougall said.

McDougall called the RCMP, who interviewed the woman. The customer told police Bali was carrying a small white bag. She also helped them make a sketch of a tattoo on the man’s left arm: a cross with red flames coming off it. The sketch was released to the public.

A man came forward to say he thought he might be the person police were looking for. RCMP questioned him and concluded he was simply holding the door for Bali when she was at the bus depot. His name was never released.

Police don’t believe she ever bought a ticket or got onto a bus in Yorkton.

'A needle in a haystack'

Saskatchewan RCMP say they contacted all the hotels in Yorkton and connecting cities after getting the information about Bali asking for help with a hotel room, but they didn’t receive that information until three months after her disappearance.

Zawislak said nobody remembered seeing Bali and she didn’t appear in any surveillance videos.

“So you go through that process with the hotels in Yorkton then you start thinking about where could Mekayla be and expand that process and start going to every hotel," Zawislak said.

“It’s basically a needle in a haystack.”

She said their canvassing of hotels did not extend to other cities like Regina or Saskatoon.

"Unfortunately, as much as we’d love to do something like that, it's near impossible to cover that off and that again is another challenge for us," Zawislak said.

She noted that Bali wouldn't appear in any hotel guest registers if someone else had booked the room for her.

In August 2017, the RCMP sent its dive team to search Hopkins Lake, which is close to Mekayla’s school. RCMP said the search was not linked to any new tips or specific information but rather the need to “cover off” all possibilities, such as an accidental death.

Divers found only discarded golf balls and beer cans.

Theories and clues

If police have any theories about what happened to Bali, they are not sharing them. They have confirmed there are no individual suspects at this point in the investigation.

Bali’s mother has said she might have been a victim of human trafficking.

“Tips have come in suggesting certain things, whether it was drug related or human trafficking related, we followed up on those tips and it resulted in nothing,” Zawislak said.

Bali’s friends say her disappearance was completely out of the blue, even in hindsight.

“I wish I would have paid more attention. Maybe she did leave clues. I just was .. I just didn't pay attention enough to put two and two together. I wish she would have talked to us, to anyone,” said Hnatuk.

At first some of her classmates thought she had run away. The longer Bali is gone, the more they worry she may be dead. For the girls that hung out with Bali at the “smoke pit doors,” the emotions came flooding back when when it was time to graduate. Bali had talked about wanting to wear a big, poofy, “cupcake dress,” Hnatuk said.

“Graduation was hard. We tried convincing the principal to put out an extra chair for her. There was no room. We had a pretty big class.”

Hnatuk and Liang say that if Bali hadn’t vanished she would be working towards a career with children or animals.

Police say they have investigated more than 600 tips since Bali disappeared, including sightings as far away as Scotland and Colombia. Not one has yielded a confirmed sighting.

It’s clear the public wants to find Bali too. A single social media post shared by police reached more than a million people.

Zawislak said manpower limitations can make it challenging to follow up on the high number of tips as quickly as investigators would like.

Over one week in January they received 10 tips including one suggesting Bali was seen on a cruise ship.

At the time of the interview, they were waiting to receive passenger information from the cruise ship company.

Bali’s mother runs her own active campaign to keep her daughter’s story in the spotlight. There’s currently a $50,000 reward on offer for information that leads to finding her, including $25,000 from an anonymous donor.

Zawislak said there is still nothing to indicate Bali’s disappearance was a homicide and police are still holding on to hope that Bali will be found safe and alive.

“Do we have suspicion that something happened to Mekayla that wasn’t good? After all this time, I would say yes,” she said. “Do I believe that Mekayla is out there alive and doing well — she could be.”

There could have been some sort of accident, she said. Then there are the darker possibilities.

“Could someone have taken her and harmed her and now she’s deceased? That is a possibility.”

Hnatuk sent Bali a message through Snapchat on the day she disappeared. Somebody opened that message about three months later.

“It gives us a little bit of hope,” Hnatuk said.

Hnatuk sent another message from their grad ceremony. Two years later, it hasn’t been opened.