Personal Story – “Heather” – Part III

It was now 0500 in the morning of the next day. So with the third or fourth coffee in hand, and we were back in the Surrey detachment main office, anticipating what was to come, somehow knowing that this office, this desk, and these walls could be my home for the foreseeable future.

Although it was distant from Cloverdale and the search areas, I also knew that this place, once daybreak arrived would begin to take on an atmosphere of its own. There is an ill-defined energy which any homicide generates in a police office. People coming and going in various stages of fatigue, an air of practised urgency, and every once in awhile it would be interrupted with sporadic shots of adrenalin due to some unexpected turn in the evidence.

This early inherent urgency, or drive, can sometimes be short-lived.  There seems to be a direct correlation between victim type and the length as to how long an investigator can keep a file moving.  In this case, a small girl was a possible homicide victim, and she was still missing, in some senses an investigators nightmare.  Twenty hour days would be the norm. There would be less bitching, more cigarettes, less week-ends off, less time with one’s own family, and pizza would be the culinary favourite.  It is not like the television shows in that it is not as emotional as some would like to portray it; it is more of a machine kicking into a higher gear, but like a marathoner, where one had to control pace, and hold focus.

This first quiet moment between Chris and I was therefore likely to be the last for awhile, just a momentary pause.

This of course was the “old days”. So this investigation done on paper.  Hand written reports, forms and notes, would become the 8″ x 10″ medium through which the investigation would take shape. Paper would be filling cardboard boxes, and those boxes would eventually take up spaces around us, giving a bit of a warehouse feel. Often Librarian skills would be more advantageous than investigative skills.

Each piece of paper being assigned a number, each piece of paper being a separate piece of information. If an officer filled in a report, and it addressed or revealed four pieces of other information, then four separate reports would then be generated, then all wold be put in four different folders pertaining to each item. Laborious? You bet. Efficient? We thought so. But of course the coming digital electronic age would make this all seem comically archaic.

For instance, if we had to  search for a single item. Well we had to remember where we had seen it, and in what folder. So, as an example, if someone mentioned a white Ford pickup, we would have to remember where we read it, and in what folder. It worked well when the file may be only a couple of hundred folders and a couple of hundred pages. It relied on a good memory and a concentrated effort.

However, when the file reached thousands of pages, as this one would, it became an exercise in re-reading, duplicated efforts, and it was often frustrating. Overlaying it all,  like Poe’s Raven, was the inherent fear of missing something key to the investigation.

As the days came and went, in amoebic fashion the paper would grow, taking on a life of its own. Everything found, every person spoken to, every news item mentioned, every tip called in would need to be read, documented and filed. It was a mind numbing process and complacency was the enemy. Any follow up was hand-written and forwarded to the individual investigators. An increase in investigators naturally led to an increase in paper, the Catch-22 of police bureaucracy. In a few short days, the investigative team would grow from two of us to over forty or fifty individual investigators, borrowing from Robbery, Serious Crime, and other sections within the detachment.

Decisions big and small, would need to be made as fast as the questions could be uttered, answered more by instinct than a layered thought process. There would be no time for routine debate, or second-guessing, hoping beyond hope that somehow we had learned something over the years that would not let us down, or cause us to overlook something in our needed haste.

And of course there was numerous calls from the general public, which led to the establishment of a “Tip Line”. My immediate boss, Sgt. Mel Trekofski, wanted to pitch in, and offered to take up the monitoring of the tip line, a thankless task at the best of times. It required “carding” each individual, call-backs to verify the information, and therefore seemingly endless conversations with persons, some good, some ridiculous.

As the file went on, over five thousand tips would eventually be received, with over forty psychic callers alone. The self-described “professional” psychics would all offer up where the body of Heather could be found. So you heard the “Woods”, the “water”, and “buried in a shallow grave”. There were many calls where they went on to say who was responsible,  and in many instances it was “the father”.  But, if not then a “white individual” who “worked with his hands.”  Some even offered to take investigators to the body, something we couldn’t ignore, but of course these did not pan out, but did extend my belief that there were a lot of “crazies” in the world. I never had a paranormal observer, if Im being kind, solve a file for me, and this wasn’t going to be the first.

The logistical jigsaw puzzle continued as we needed to address staffing issues and all the usual secondary administrative issues, at times like a Rubik’s cube, multi-dimensional, spinning on the singular axis of trying to keep the investigation on track.

As the searches ended, the neighbourhood inquiries continued in earnest, as did the forensic examination of objects which had been found. Investigators were assigned to each parent, and other investigators began criminal record checks, as well as local police record checks, on all individuals spoken with or identified as part of the investigation.

Panties, jeans, shirts, jackets, socks, sandals, some of which were in dumpsters were shown to the parents in the event that they had belonged to Heather, and if not, catalogued and maintained in any event.

Neighbourhood personalities, like “Pedophile Darcy”, surfaced through the townhouse inquiries as we began to dredge through the individuals in the Cloverdale complex, and the other people in the neighbourhood. “Darcy”, was typical of the type who surfaced. Darcy, of course, drove a white van, and in his past had been caught masturbating on a child’s  bed, and had a record of sexual assault. So he became a subject of our surveillance team, and in the end we were able to eliminate him from any involvement. There were others similar to Darcy, and each took time, each tip had to be ground out, and it took several days to eliminate Darcy and the other archetypes as they surfaced.

Checks through our VICLAS (An RCMP victim Classification software) system for this area of Cloverdale surfaced a possible fifteen individuals of interest because of their sexual predations. Each of these individuals would be located, interviewed, and reported on. Each would need to provide an alibi.

Checks of all those with criminal records for sexual assault and now free in the broader City of Surrey of which Cloverdale was just a suburb, revealed another five hundred possible “individuals of interest”. It would take years to eliminate that many so we had to narrow the search, at least in the short term, to just those that had violently offended on pre-pubescent children living in the Cloverdale area. This still gave us twenty-seven names. Investigators were assigned to each.  It may surprise some to realize that in most cases these individuals co-operated, and were expecting us. When the investigators arrived some had even already prepared their statements and had their alibis in order.

Others, of course would try an investigators patience, testing their emotional mettle, and you could not help but be pulled you down into the dark reaches of sexual perversion.  In matter of fact voices, they would describe how it couldn’t be them involved, as their method was different in terms of the suffering they would inflict in their need for sexual satisfaction. Some described why she could be alive, to be kept as a sexual play toy.  Any killing of her would have be only to get rid of the evidence, and a “waste”,  and any killing of her would be a signal that things must have gone wrong. This insight would later prove to be accurate.

A crack dealer living in the complex, who had been described by persons in the complex as coming and going in another  “white van”  became an obvious possible suspect. Once identified, he admitted to dealing drugs, and offered up his sales notations, his “crib” sheets as evidence of where he was at the time of Heather’s disappearance. No “normal” criminal he explained likes sex offenders; whether in jail or on the street and the drug dealer wanted to help.

As the investigative team grew, briefings, and de-briefings were our life-blood. Every morning at about 0630 I would brief upper Surrey detachment management, and then at 0730 I would brief the investigative group as to any developments or any change in focus. At 4:30 in the afternoon a de-briefing would be held with these same officers to learn of any highlights. In between of course there was the media to deal with; calls dealing with expenses, computer check results, surveillance assignments, tip line results, and other more sundry items.

By 6:00 pm, as things slowed a little, I would sit in front of a stack of reports, about 2′ high, and begin reading. Chris would then read the same paper after me, just to insure there were a second set of eyes. We would check for any cross references, then the paper would be filed, new follow ups drafted and assigned. Coffee was my particular drug, and stretching for the long walk to the bathroom began to be a highlight which broke up the trance like nature of our task.

Three or four hours fitful sleep a night would be our routine.  Upon returning to work, the process started again. Days drifted into nights. Nights became sunrises.

Suspects surfaced and then drifted away after examination; mounds of dirt reported as shallow graves were examined and dug out; clothes continued to be turned in; suspect vehicles were identified from having been seen in the area; and the psychics from around the world persisted on being heard, each with their own, but similar investigative theories.

Americas Most Wanted called wanting to profile the case. That in turn generated two tips that proved of no value. Europe, and parts of North America were all now paying attention.

We read, often re-read, re-shuffled, and then sometimes re-assigned.

And of course, there was the ever present media, their trucks stationed inside the complex itself,  giving nightly broadcasts and voicing the concerns of the general public. With Halloween getting near, they often regurgitated the growing parents concerns with a killer “on the loose” and asking whether they would let their children go out trick or treating.

As the investigation wore on I kept remembering how I was once told (by who I can not remember) that in every murder there are five mistakes made, its just a matter of finding out those mistakes. Simple really.

Of course every murder is different, every set of circumstances different. In this case we believed that this had been an “opportunity killing” by a stranger, and likely sexually motivated. Statistically, at least, the most difficult of all types of murders as these things go. Many remain unsolved. For instance, in 1996 only 14% of homicides were committed by a stranger. In 1976 it was only 18.4%, and in 1985 17.3%. Consistently low numbers.

If you looked further, and included the age of the victim, in a U.S. study only 3% of homicides were committed by strangers of victims under the age of 12. When a sexual related offence was the motivation, it drops even further down to 1% of the cases.

In checking with the FBI on this case, we learned that there had been only 4 or 5 of these cases in Western North America at the time of Heather’s disappearance in the year 2000.  So although abduction of a child is a parents greatest fear, it is actually an extremely unlikely event. Patterns are harder to detect, as there is insufficient historical data. A serial offence on children was almost unheard of, but of course none of the statistical data, or lack of data was of much consolation for the mother and father of Heather.

Investigative pressure does grow, from the public and from within. Maybe not at the levels of the tv drama series, but it is there. The greatest pressure is put on by the investigators themselves. At some point you begin to realize, rightly or wrongly, whether solved or unsolved, that this investigation will be attached to your name, especially in police circles. You will be perceived in a different light in the future.

A sense of pride takes over, the not wanting to be beaten. The emotions shut down, as the  constant images of the victim is too disarming, too distracting. One could not function coherently if you allowed yourself to become fixated on the depravity of it all, the senselessness of it all, the speculation as to whether Heather was alive or dead. To contemplate her alive and being held was in some ways an outcome that could be worse than death.

As a bit of an escape, a need at the very least to breathe fresh air, both Chris and I took a few hours on a Sunday to step away from the office. It was day twenty-two, and I decided to drive up the Coquihalla highway, a lonely stretch of highway in the middle of British Columbia, surrounded only by trees and rivers, just in an effort to clear the fog which had permeated my nerve endings. I stopped at the only rest stop, perched at a 3000′ elevation, three hours from Surrey. It was cold and gloomy, but I went into the darkened men’s washroom in this remote part of British Columbia. There at the urinal, staring at me was the Missing poster of Heather, eye level. I had always taken pride in my ability to disassociate from files when away from work. But clearly, this file was not going to let me do that. There could be no escape, not now anyways, so I decided to head back.

As I drove down the steep decline through the highway snow-sheds, once again I began to fruitlessly re-trace all that had been done, despite my blaring radio trying to change my obsessed thought process. I kept coming back to the fact that we needed to find one of those proverbial “mistakes”. I was not greedy, not all five, just give me one.

As I approached the Detachment in the darkening hours of the afternoon, just to check in, that I got a phone call. I needed to get back a little faster, because they think they had “found” Heather.

Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons by TrixSigio Some Rights Reserved

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