Police in the Northwest Territories said on Wednesday their highly publicized search for a missing snowmobiler had been triggered by a hoax call.

In a short statement, RCMP said a call last Tuesday, which sparked a significant police response, was faked.

“The direction of the investigation has revealed that this was not a real complaint but rather a false report,” the statement read.

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“Making a false report to police is a criminal offence, which ties up resources that could be better used responding to where they are truly needed.”

A week earlier, police launched a major search and rescue operation after receiving a call apparently from a lost snowmobiler.

Blaming a poor cell signal, RCMP said last week the man could have been anywhere between Yellowknife, Hay River, Fort Providence, Behchokǫ̀, and Whatì.

Tracing the call to a cell tower near Behchokǫ̀, police launched what they called an “active search and rescue” between Behchokǫ̀ and Whatì.

It now turns out there was no missing snowmobiler.

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“It’s upsetting that somebody would think it was funny, and it’s a huge waste of time and resources,” said Shaun ‘Moose’ Morris, president of the Great Slave Snowmobile Association.

“It burns out volunteers. Crying wolf does happen – people get to the point where if the calls are fake, the next time, are they going to react as fast?

“Hopefully they’re able to identify the person that caused this and there’ll be some kind of recourse for this.”

‘Huge amount of money’

The cost of police efforts to find the supposed snowmobiler is not known, though a Hercules aircraft was reported to be involved, alongside ground search teams and the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association.

In the past, search and rescue teams in the NWT have described spending in excess of $4,000 per day on flights, fuel, and supplies.

“There are a lot of people involved in search-and-rescues around the North, and I believe the dispatched aircraft even comes all the way from Manitoba for searches like that,” said Morris.

“It’s a huge amount of money. Just the cost of that Hercules aircraft flying around is incredible.

“Situations like this, where there is a hoax and people have put time and effort into looking for people in trouble, take away resources that could be used in a real situation.

At the time of the initial search, police said they were looking for a 20-year-old named Shawn Lafferty – though a news release made clear RCMP were unsure at the time who the individual was, as it included a request for anyone who knew a Shawn Lafferty to get in touch.

Investigation into culprit

In a separate incident, a 46-year-old Yellowknife man was killed in a snowmobile accident on Reid Lake on Saturday.

Thought there is no suggestion police response to that incident was in any way compromised by the hoax call, the similarity of the hoax demonstrates how such calls can trouble police forces trying to establish the authenticity and severity of an incident – and cost thousands of dollars and staff hours.

NWT residents had expressed considerable concern for the plight of the missing snowmobiler in the days since the initial report.

“It’s a vast terrain and once you’re a fairly short distance from the city, you lose contact. You’re out in the middle of nowhere and there may not be any resources, so getting lost or having an issue is a very big concern,” said Morris.

RCMP said they are now trying to find the culprit behind the hoax.

“The investigation continues and anyone with any information on the person(s) responsible for making these hoax calls is asked to call 1-867-392-1111,” read Wednesday’s statement.

Information can also be given anonymously through Crimestoppers by calling 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).

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