As I went up the dirt and tree lined driveway, I became aware of people following on foot in the wake of the slow moving police car. It was forty-five minutes after midnight on a relatively warm August 15th, 1979, when I arrived at 282 Brown Road.
The call was to some vaguely described “fight” which had happened according to dispatch, at this rather broken down residence, and that someone had been “hurt badly” As I pulled up, with only my headlights leading the way, an eerie sense came over me, a sense of something not being right, of sides closing in, of my mind involuntarily narrowing its focus. A survival sense in some ways. A sense of being acutely alone even though there were clearly people gathering now, watching my every move, which in itself was rather unexpected.
Parking in front of the small dwelling, I walked up the couple of steps to the front door.
I found out later that this was the well worn, dilapidated residence, of a male named Nick Dugay, but there were many other transients who often sought shelter here for all the usual homeless reasons. As I walked the two steps up to the porch, the battered screen door was slightly ajar, and the inner, once white door, was open slightly, angling and pointing inside. I called out, but there was no answer coming from the darkened rooms. There was no electricity, no lights to turn on.
My shiny yellow plastic RCMP issued flashlight, provided a dim beam, but it was enough to show the first five feet inside. On the floor in front of me, my beam caught what appeared to be a human form, in the middle of the room. Two open imploring eyes stared at me. It took a couple of seconds, as my brain tried to absorb what I was seeing. Focus and process. But the eyes didn’t seem human.
As my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness, and the dank room smell alerted my other senses, the form became more distinct. In fact what I was staring at was not a pair of eyes, but two nostril holes, part of a mostly disappeared nose. I assumed the nostrils were still attached to a head but I could not even be certain of that because of the state of what was before me. I forced myself to look away a bit, and take in the rest of the rummaged room. As my light struggled to light up the rest of the residence, the single bedroom residence had obvious red splatter everywhere. It was as if a child had got out of control finger painting. On the walls, with no design, in some haphazard, helter-skelter styled message. In every corner, and on all the dirty white wall space, literally every square foot, including the ceiling, had what I now realized was blood, in various stages of drying. Coagulated, blackened blood was pooled around and pointed to the ravaged body.
My eyes continually returned to the body as some sort of reflex. It looked like a scarecrow with its stuffing mostly removed, and weirdly disjointed, as if the legs and arms were trying to get away from the torso. There were marks on the floor like incisions. The head was virtually gone except for some brownish curly hair, and one arm looked like it had been dissected from the body.
As my breathing slowed, at least to a more manageable pace, my eyes began to tell my head what to process. I spotted an axe near the door, somewhat propped up against the wall, quite distinguishable from the sparse furniture.
I made an effort to check the rest of the very bare residence, although the house was very small and it was unlikely that anyone else could have been in there. There was no sound other than my now bloodied footsteps as I walked through the spartanly furnished house.
Just as I finished checking the single bedroom, Constable Renaud Bourdages came through the only door, and the one that I had entered, making me jump slightly. He looked at me with an apprehensive and nervous smirk; taking in the scene which I stood in the middle of, and then in his heavy French accent, and resorting to the usual black humour of policing declared, to me, his captive audience, that “this ain’t no suicide!”
His presence and statement was reassuring, and now made me realize that I was there for a reason, everything was indeed real, and not some grotesque dream. I stepped over the body, and I passed the axe, and went outside to my police vehicle to radio for assistance.
So how did I get to this place, looking over this horrific scene?
I arrived in the area in February 1978 fresh from the RCMP Training Center in Regina. Leon Spinks had just gone 15 rounds and defeated Mohammed Ali; Ted Bundy had just been re-captured in Pensacola Florida; and Roman Polanski had just skipped bail and headed for France after pleading to having sex with a 13 year old girl.
I was freshly scrubbed and had been now schooled in the finer points of the RCMP. Of course that wasn’t true, I wasn’t really prepared for anything other than maybe an ability to follow orders and maybe some cursory knowledge of theoretical law.
This is where for me, police theory as it existed back then, and the law would meet reality for the first time.
It was an impoverished area with layers of religion mixing with unemployment, and lives revolving around the expansive Miramichi river and the bridges that went over it. A small society enveloped in poverty, and as is often the case, it had become a petrie dish for violence and crime.
Unemployment rates were broaching 20% throughout the Province of New Brunswick, but this Miramichi region was the poorest of the poor. The religious overtones created a perversive warp, which cannot be easily identified, but was palatable to those policing it.
David Adams Richards, a celebrated novelist and a former resident of the area, writes about an “underlying anger” which infuses the area.
Just outside Newcastle, sits the small village of Chatham Head, where I found myself this particular night. A bailey bridge spanned the Miramichi river and connected Newcastle to Chatham Head. If Newcastle and the nearby town of Chatham seemed to be a simmering melange of the criminal elements, then the small community of Chatham Head which lay in between the two major town sites, would be one of the boiling points. It was termed at the time by the locals as “little Chicago”.
The use of fire to cover ones criminal tracks was common, and knives, and axes were often a weapon of choice. Of course, hunting rifles were prevalent whether in a corner of the house or in a rack at the back of a truck.
Liquor and drugs, the usual fallback panacea for the poor, were often acting as the motivation, or providing the courage to fight, or steal. It was a time when driving while impaired was not a stigma.
Fighting was a rite of passage both for the public and the police. Physical policing, unlike now, was a prerequisite, considered by some to be a necessary characteristic of any self-respecting officer. “Community Policing” had not been heard of or imagined. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms had not yet been passed.
So this was my environment, with its underlying community futility, and a distrust of the police that I faced in emerging from the house.
There was little I could do now with just the two of us, other than protecting the crime scene, stringing the usual yellow “Police” tape, and await for reinforcements. By now quite a few people had surrounded my police car, but they were not wanting to get any closer; almost as if they knew something further was going to happen. No one was saying anything, they just watched in silence. They seemed to be anticipating something, but what that was, certainly wasn’t obvious to me.
While standing there, I did find and spoke briefly with a man named Art Leblanc, who was part of the crowd, and as it turned out was the one who had directed me up the lane to the house. Also there was Jean-Guy Savoie, who I later learned was the person who had called the police.
As I approached Jean-Guy and began speaking, he answered, but in hushed subdued tones, clearly not wanting to have the others hear what he was saying. This was not abnormal, and to be seen to be talking to the police, especially in Chatham Head could bring about some problems for you. So I had to bend down to hear him.
He said that a woman had called him asking for a flashlight.
More significantly, he went on to say that a teenager named “Robbie Cunningham” had told him that “someone” had “attacked him” and that he “hit back” and the guy was bleeding and ‘hurt”.
Now I happened to know Robbie Cunningham, even though I had only been policing the area for about a year. About a week before, Cpl Ben Walsh and I had picked him up for firing off a rifle in a Provincial Park, and we had transported him to the local jail.
Robbie Cunningham, was a petty thief, always in trouble, and had grown up hard as they used to say. He was only 18 years old.
As I scanned the crowd there stood Robbie Cunningham; trying to blend in it seemed, standing by his father Vince. Vince was a well known local character in his own right. Allegedly, Vince would often employ his sons in the passed down tradition of thievery. One of the “godfathers” of Chatham Head so to speak.
“Come her Robbie” I said as I walked over to where he stood, on the other side of the yellow tape.
He stared at me and didn’t respond.
The crowd of people present seemed to fall silent. A group imposed hush, no doubt wanting to also hear what was being said by this young police officer. I could feel all eyes watching and following me as I approached Robbie.
Now, Vince, normally is a very vocal supporter of his kids, and would have no problem under any circumstance telling the the local police to fuck off, and then would quickly transition into a lecture as to his rights. But Vince didn’t say anything.
“Robbie come here” I said a little more emphatically.
Robbie looked straight ahead, seeming to twitch a bit, agitated, but still refusing to look toward me.
“Robbie come here” I said once again.
I got closer to him but this time, I reached out, grabbing his arm, and began to pull him towards me. I was expecting a possible full out fight as I steered him to the car but it never materialized. He feigned resistance as would a small child, but he came under the tape, and once back at the car got in the back seat. Vince maybe tellingly continued to remain quiet.
Once in the back of the car, Robbie seemed to feel free to talk. His speech was somewhat slurred, but not the common fuzziness brought about by alcohol. He launched into a running monologue, of mostly indiscernible mutterings, incomprehensible statements not following any particular thought process. Our conversation, if one could call it that was not helped by the plexiglass shield which separated us. I opened the small window insert, and Robbie continued to go on, clearly only making sense to himself. He was clearly distressed. But I furiously and dutifully wrote down what I could. But then, out of the ramblings, Robbie said something about an “axe”. There was no mistake that he said it, it was clear and concise. And I had never mentioned an axe.
Staff Sargent Dale Swansburg, and Corporal Ben Walsh arrived, just as I was beginning to conclude that a coherent conversation with Robbie was out of the question, and I could no longer keep pace in any event with what he was saying.
Leaving Robbie in the car, I re-visited the scene (somewhat reluctantly I will admit) inside the house with Dale and Ben, pointing out what I could.
Dale was the head of my detachment, smoked a pipe, and reminded me of the stereotypical absent-minded professor. One time he had even set his paper money in his pocket on fire while walking around the office after sticking a too hot pipe into his pants. More importantly I looked up to him, and saw him as a mentor.
Years before, he was the primary investigator along with Greg Kalhoon who had solved the murder of two Moncton city police officers, a sensational and horrific case that had rattled the entire country. The two officers had been killed in front of each other and buried in shallow graves.
He was calm, unshakeable despite the carnage, and puffing on his ever present pipe as he surveyed the scene; like an architect or landscaper, quite unlike the rookie cop who was almost bouncing beside him.
He asked who I had in the back of the police car, and I told him Robbie Cunningham and that I thought he had something to do with it; describing the initial call, and Robbie’s blurting of the word “axe”. Dale asked that Ben Walsh and I take Robbie back to our office, and that we should try and get a statement from him, so at 1:20 in the morning we headed back to the office. This may not seem like much, but to have a senior officer with the reputation of Dale, allow me, a rookie cop, to continue to be involved in this way was a true signal of confidence, which I remember to this day.
Once back at the office, as I predicted, trying to take a statement from Robbie was an exercise in futility; Robbie at times falling out of his chair. The ramblings continued, and I continued my futile attempt to write down anything that I thought could prove significant. Clearly he was high, but he did not smell of alcohol or of marihuana. I booked him into the cells for the homicide of Nick Dugay, but I will admit the grounds to arrest and keep him were thin, based on a a single word, and his presence and mention by others at the house.
But the case continued to grow, as they sometimes do when the Gods are smiling down on you. Cst Bourdages who remembered that Robbie had a sister in the area, went to the house, and recovered Robbie’s bloody clothes which he had gotten rid of, inside their washing machine. The washing machine had not been turned on, and the clothes were in a pile on top of other dirty laundry.
The usual flow of statements obtained by other officers, placed Robbie at the scene, and one theory that had surfaced was that Robbie had stored stolen property at the residence which Dugay had pawned or sold, and an argument over the monies led to the one-sided “fight”. In the parlance of the day, Nick was a “wino” who would often let the various thieves in the area hide their property at his place, in exchange for the odd bottle of booze.
It was estimated that Nick probably lived for 60 seconds of this attack. That is hard to imagine. This was my purest example of the inhumanity of man as he had in fact been struck by the axe a total of 87 times; as those were the number of axe marks that went through his flesh and into the floor boards of the residence. The cuts in the body made it appear that at some point the killer had tried to dissect the body, striking several times were the limbs joined, in an attempt to dismember it. We also found burned out matches on parts of the body.
As the evidence rolled in, over the next few weeks, Dale continued to allow me to be the presenter of the case, prepare the reports, while he discreetly looked over my shoulder. Typed reports with carbon copies, hammering away on the single Smith-Corona available to investigators. All the reports were eventually submitted to Crown Counsel Fred Ferguson.
There were two difficulties with the case. Identifying that the body which was found was in fact Nick Dugay; and putting Robbie at the scene of the homicide. The case was weak in terms of putting Robbie swinging the axe.
We were able to eventually prove it to be Nick Dugay because of an operating room staple that we could see on X-Rays, and then were able to compare it to an operation he had undergone years before.
As to the second more perplexing problem as to how we could put Mr Cunningham at the crime scene we learned of a “new” investigative technique, which was being explored by a Doctor Bastarache in the Toronto Metro Police Crime Lab.
He was experimenting with blood “spatter” and what it could tell you. He was doing this by scientifically measuring the results of throwing blood on walls, and on floors, walls and floors made of differing materials. Dr Bastarache, would become our final witness at our trial, and testified that Robbie Cunningham, judging from his bloody clothes, was either swinging the axe, or was leaning over the body while someone else was swinging the axe.
Robbie was convicted of 1st degree murder, but in 1981 had the case reduced to “manslaughter” due to his level of intoxication. His sentence was reduced to 12 years rather than the 25.
My first directly involved homicide was over with a successful conclusion. The thrill under these circumstances is hard to explain. It is a combination of relief, anxiety and exhilaration which I never have been able to match unless under these same circumstances. It is this adrenaline which is addictive. Although in after thoughts and the usual press scrum, investigators talk about the welfare of the family, and the ability to bring closure to the family, for me, and if others are honest, it was much more, it is visceral.
Like many homicides there are a lot of side-stories, but in the interest of brevity I will not go into a lot of them in great detail at this time.
The most significant one worthy of mention is that Robbie Cunningham, in his defence, and in a later book, blamed the murder on a fellow named Allan Legere. Legere was Cunningham’s criminal mentor, Legere’s runner or go to boy, for menial tasks and criminal assistance.
This was not an insignificant person to point the finger at.
Legere would become infamous. He was convicted of killing a store owner in Black River by beating him to death, along with a Scott Curtis in 1986. However, while serving time for murder, he escaped from Sheriffs during a transfer. He would go on a killing rampage while on the loose, starting 25 days after his escape, with killing Annie Flam of Chatham. Five months later, he would kill Donna and Linda Daughney, and then five weeks after that would kill Father James Smith of the Chatham Head church rectory. He was re-captured after a 201 day manhunt and became known as the “Monster of the Miramichi”. He was one of the first persons convicted of murder through the use of DNA.
So Robbie, by having Legere as a criminal partner gained misplaced stature in the community.
Five years before the Dugay killing, Cunningham and Legere were two of the suspects in the still unsolved murder of Mary Beatrice Redmond, murdered in 1974, after coming home from church.
The 56 year old woman was stabbed over 80 times on her porch, never making it inside. In the same neighbourhood as Dugay.
Could Legere have had something to do with the planning or execution of Dugay? It is quite possible that he may have orchestrated the event, but there is no evidence that he was at the scene of the crime during the murder.
The defence counsel for Cunningham trial for the killing of Dugay, also well known for his tenacious and sometimes impolite cross-examination, was Frank McKenna. McKenna would go on to be the Premier of the Province, and is now head of a committee seeking to determine the best candidate for the job of RCMP Commissioner.
Dale Swansburg, retired, is alive and well in New Brunswick, and in the last few months I had a chance to speak with him once again, and remind him of his impression upon me. He is diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, but maintains a good spirit and is still as humble as he was some 40 years ago.
Ben Walsh, also retired, is still going strong in Regina, but sadly lost his son to friendly fire while with the Canadian Forces. He will never be the same as the man who helped me on this case, but he too remains strong.
Cst Bourdages is still living in New Brunswick, having just recently retired, and having been a long serving member of the RCMP dive team; and he still speaks with the heavy warm French accent that I grew to truly appreciate.
I, on the other hand, after this case, had been instilled with a desire to do homicide investigations. This was my first where I could point to playing a meaningful role, and now I had the bug.
They had instilled in me confidence, made me believe that I could do the job. To see beyond the obvious, to look beneath the surface of the human condition. They showed me that there was a need to speak for the victim, as sometimes there was no one else who put any value on their life. It was a job that would take you to dark places, places where most people will never go.
They had shown me a team of people who wordlessly without direction came together; often with humour, a pride in their job, and with unbridled loyalty to their fellow officers. It was an environment of overwork, with each pulling its share without a negative word or comment, and then often helping the others without a need for applause. You needed to win at trial, there was no other option.
So, I did pursue this goal and would eventually be involved directly in over a couple of hundred homicides during my career. But, there is nothing like the first, and I always tried to mimic that unheralded crew who showed me the way.
Photo courtesy of the Author on a recent return to the area….the “new” bridge to Chatham Head from Newcastle over the Miramichi river..