Personal Story – “Heather” Part VI

So at 6 in the morning of October 25, 2000 I found myself in front of a chalk board in a large darkened briefing room, with Chris as my sounding board and solitary audience, sketching out a rough two week calendar; the range which was now being dictated by one single necessity. We needed time to find evidence, and at the same time we needed to come close to a guarantee that our suspect Mr Ertmoed would not re-offend while we carried on in our quest for the so far elusive evidence.

Earlier, I had asked our surveillance teams, which now consisted of RCMP as well as VPD groups,  as to how long they could keep someone under 24 hour surveillance; with an expectation of never losing the target, while maintaining  three shifts of teams. The consensus was that “maybe two weeks on the outside”. For anyone who knows surveillance with all its ramifications, to request that they never lose the target was a bit preposterous and presumptuous. But it was not the time to be timid with our ask.

We now had an investigational time line, bracketed by our surveillance capabilities.  We had just 14 days and nights to find evidence. And just as importantly, we needed to find that evidence without Shane Ertmoed finding out we were looking. We wanted to poke around in his life, in his residence, around his vehicle, amongst his friends and acquaintances without him finding out. We wanted to know Shane Ertmoed better than he knew himself, and for him to be none the wiser.

The element of surprise was now on our side and if it came down to an interview it could prove invaluable in terms of the balance of power in that 5′ x 8′ room. That sounds hardened, conspiratorial, big government leveraging their power. But in essence, when it comes down to criminal interviews, the accused has all the advantages; any inappropriate comment, a slight promise, a refusal to allow for a chat with a defence counsel, even one asked for and given many times, could in todays courts completely destroy the evidence revealed in an interview.

So armed with a start and an end in our timeline, the end being a possible arrest and interview; I begin to sketch in the remaining days, with the idea that one day would flow into the next, in a continuous seamless operation, where the 2nd day activities were determined by the 1st day, or the 3rd day determined by the events of the 2nd day. Surveillance would run throughout and besides keeping Ertmoed in view, the surveillance could be used to background other elements of the investigation.

We quickly began to divide the forty or so investigators into teams, with a total of seven teams. Each team had an individual responsibility, each team had a leader who would  be given the ability and virtual free rein, to make their own determinations of which investigative tools they would use to pursue and reach their goal.

Our belief was that in all likelihood Heather was killed inside the residence of Ertmoed, and then in all likelihood transported in his car to the Maple Ridge area. We needed to see inside the residence, to examine the most likely crime scene, and we needed to forensically examine both the residence and the vehicle. And that examination needed to be done in secrecy. We needed to commit a legal break and enter, and steal a vehicle, or at least have Shane believe that someone stole his vehicle.

To enter his residence, we needed legal authorizations, “general” warrants under the Criminal Code which which would allow for surreptitious entry and an examination of his vehicle. Team 1 was assigned the thankless, but central task, of writing those warrant applications. They were given a deadline of 24 hours to have them signed and authorized. It was a momentous task, maybe only appreciated by police officers in terms of the short time period, but everything would flow from Team 1 and the seal of approval from the judiciary.

Another group of investigators, Team 2,  was assigned to travel to Vernon, to begin inquiries as to the background of Shane and his family, school, and sport activities. They could not raise suspicions and would have to develop reliable sources inside the various bureaucracies that we may need to access.

A third team, the entry team for the residence was made up of some Forensic Identification personnel, and some investigators who would be disguised as construction workers. They were left to brainstorm on their own, how they would get in, and to co-ordinate with the surveillance group to find the opportune time.

A fourth team was assigned to “steal” Ertmoed’s vehicle. We needed to get the vehicle into a police garage where it could be checked for hair, fibre, blood, fingerprints. Clearly, this had to be done at a time and place which would draw the least amount of attention.

Did I mention that the media had established an outpost at the housing complex. A reporter assigned, with a satellite truck, to be there in case anything developed. With no breaking news, they would often interview neighbours and do a human interest story. For instance they had begun interviewing neighbours in terms of whether they would let out their children for the approaching Halloween festivities, when there could be a “child” killer on the loose. We thought that this could be a problem for sure.

Other teams included an arrest team and an interview team. The final team was the group that had to write the story, the group who had to put all this planning, all this effort and its results in a readable and a formatted Report to Crown Counsel, whilst also keeping Crown Counsel briefed on the matter. The ultimate goal was to get “charge approval” from the Crown, but to get to this pot at the end of the rainbow, all of the teams had to come through, they were all reliant on each other, if one failed they could all fail. All the teams were aware of how it would work, each knew that they were only as good as the sum of their parts.

The briefing broke up and the teams began assembling in smaller groups in the briefing room, the noise level clearly rising as people became acquainted with their new team mates.  We had been somewhat lucky in gathering this particular group of  hard working, canny and astute investigators; which is not always the case in these last minute assembled project groups. They in turn were clearly  now relieved to be specifically  focused, they had a hard target. Not one complaint was ever heard from this group, even the Warrant team who very quickly realized that a 24 hour deadline for their role, meant they were going to be working all night.

I went off to a meeting with C/Supt Smith, Supt. MacIntyre and Inspector Jane to outline and sell them on the plan. After forty minutes and some back and forth, their approval was given.

So we were off and running. Team 1 began the warrants, and Team 2 was off to Vernon.

With this new found buzz, it would be difficult to keep things quiet. If we could keep things quiet for two weeks it would be a bit of a miracle. Cops like to talk, we like to gossip, we like the background story sometimes more than the central story. Even an overheard conversation in a bar or restaurant could jeopardize everything. Any reporters worth their salt had police “sources”. Reporters were just like us.

The surveillance team began to piece together Shane’s daily activities, including his evenings when he liked to walk to the local 7-11 for an over-sized ” Slurpy”. He seemed to be a loner, who would hitch a ride with two or three others to his work site in Maple Ridge where his construction crew was removing asbestos from old buildings. He was in essence proving to be a boring target. That is a good thing if part of your task was never “losing” him.

By Day 2, the warrant team had managed to get their job completed. General warrants had been signed and judicially authorized. Teams 3 and 4 started in motion with the plans to enter the residence and go after Shane’s car.

Chris and I flitted between the various teams answering questions, helping with some of the logistical and some of the more mundane issues. We answered the phones a lot and continued having two daily briefings with the investigators, and a daily briefing with upper management.

During this time the general overall investigation was now armed with the name “Shane Ertmoed” and this forced a review of the entire file to date,  to see if his name, or his vehicle, had surfaced earlier. There was a high probability that we may have run across our suspect in some form or manifestation.  This proved to be more than a little accurate.

We quickly learned:

  • Our neighbourhood inquiry group had spoken with him briefly, and filled out the form we had designed for this investigation. Mr Ertmoed had been spoken with, and basically told the officer that he didn’t know much about it, that he had been “out”… he had “gone to the movies”
  • One of our officers who had been stationed at the entrance of the complex, watching those coming and going in the first three days of the investigation, had gone to the extra effort of writing down every plate parked in the complex. Mr Ertmoed’s vehicle was noted parked, but more importantly this same officer had checked Mr Ertmoed and his vehicle leaving around 5:20 in the morning on October 2nd.  She had spoken with him, took a quick look into the vehicle, which she remembered as being “clean”, nothing in the back seat. He said he was going to work.
  • Mysteriously, Shane Ertmoed on October 2nd had reported to the Surrey RCMP that he had been the victim of a “break and enter” at his residence, and he wanted the police to attend.
  • An examination of the large “hockey bag” showed some botanical material in the pockets of the bag, the main zipper was broken. The handle was removed from the bag and sent to the Lab in the hope that we could salvage some DNA from the bag.

It was 48 hours after Shane reported the “break-in” that the Forensic Ident officer attended to Shane’s residence, as was routine in most residential break-ins. As is normal, he took notes of what he found. The residence was quite clean, a red upright vacuum cleaner stood in the middle of the living room, not put away. But the investigator also made note of a pile of clothes thrown in a pile, in the middle of the floor, as if someone had emptied a bag. This would not be uncommon as often culprits take a pillow case or a bag to carry the stolen items. So he asked Shane if he was missing a bag of any kind. Unexpectedly, Shane said he was not missing any bag.

Was he trying to distance himself from the bag that was found in the lake? Was the break and enter report some way of covering if at some point Heather’s prints were found in his apartment? Clearly Mr Ertmoed was thinking in anticipation of a possible meeting with the police somewhere down the road? Paranoia or just good planning?

So as the days moved forward, the first major entry was made when the forensic investigators, in the middle of the day, entered Shane’s residence, dressed in coveralls and ball caps, carrying their “tool” boxes.

Shane was working in Maple Ridge being watched by the surveillance team in the event he decided to go home early.

Photographing as they went, examining anything that may have been interesting. Dusting for fingerprints, removing any prints, and then leaving the scene looking untouched.

In the condo, there were no obvious signs of a struggle, no blood, or hair in some irregular place. But then again, this was a few weeks past the time of the killing. Some child sized prints were found on one of the windows, but they did not seem likely to match Heather’s. It seemed like a typical young person’s suite, not overly clean, clothes in random places, a sink of waiting dishes, a desk with young person collectibles. A wrestling logo sweatshirt hung from a hanger.

However, in opening a desk top drawer there were some normal bills,  but there were two receipts set aside, separate from the others in a seemingly organized and deliberate way.  Both were receipts; one for the “Happy Face” gas station, and the 2nd for the “Colossus Movie Theatre” in Langley. If you drove a vehicle up 200th Street in Langley you would come to the Happy Face gas station, and if you continued on up 200th St., you would come to the movie theatre. Both were for the date of October 1st, 2000, the date of Heather’s abduction and believed murder.

The gas station receipt was time stamped for 5:20 p.m on the 1st of October, and the movie receipt was for a 7:00 pm evening show also on the 1st, for the movie “The Exorcist”. It now seemed completely obvious that Shane Ertmoed was setting up his alibi, getting ready to prove that he was not home at the crucial time.

The receipts were photographed and left in place. The surprise element we were trying to keep in place would be instrumental to the interview process. If we knew in advance his cover story, and were prepared to surgically destroy it, there could be nothing more deflating to a suspect convinced he can beat the system.

On October 26th, an autopsy was conducted on Heather by Dr David Charlesworth at Royal Columbian hospital. Charlesworth was known as fastidious, exacting, and thorough, but in this case, he could not make a cause of death determination. The water had taken it away, destroyed the tissue enough to not allow for our hoped for our speculative diagnosis of strangulation.

Also, to add further to this negative report, there was no sign of sexual trauma in the vaginal area. DNA swabs were taken, but it was believed that they too would be of little value due to the water contamination. It now appeared that  the interview team was going to need to find out from Shane himself, as to how she died, and what he did to her. It would be a large hurdle, and it would be a major hurdle in any prosecution.

The team in Vernon began to also uncover some details of particular interest. It turned out that Shane had a local police record, which would not have shown up in our earlier criminal record checks of those in the neighbourhood. It should be kept in mind that we thought it would be unusual if a sex offender went straight to killing someone, there is almost always a history. The team found it.

Shane had a girlfriend in Vernon who was babysitting. Shane was over to keep her company but after the babysitter fell asleep, Shane went in to the child’s bunk bed, pulled her onto the floor and was spooning her in some sort of sexual way.

But he got caught in the act. His girlfriend caught him, and told the parent on their return to the house. Father, incensed, at one point had Shane pinned up against the wall, fist tightened on his shirt collar. In the end  he thought better of it, and instead did the proper thing, and let Shane go. It was reported to the police and an officer was assigned.

Unfortunately, that officer failed to interview Shane, and it was not until 8 months later that they decided to go forward with the victim statement to the local Crown Counsel for charge approval. The officer contacted the father, the guardian, and asked if they were ready to go to court, and the shocked father who could not understand how it had taken this long, reluctantly decided that it was not worth putting his child through the court process. Sloppy and lazy police work meant that Shane was never charged. Justice was not done, and a sex offender walked free.

If Shane had been charged, he would have been likely found out by our neighbourhood inquiry team, in the first week, because they did criminal record checks on everyone they interviewed.

The only plus was that maybe it displayed the method and nature of the assault on Heather? Just maybe, we had been given some hints on how Shane may have approached Heather. The flip side of this was that Shane had also learned a valuable criminal jailhouse lesson: don’t get caught.

After the house had been entered by the team, the next day, our auto thieving cops orchestrated Shane’s vehicle being opened, and then towed from the complex.  There was a hiccup though when they called us to say that the media, sensing something newsworthy about the vehicle being towed, began to follow the tow truck.

The tow truck driver, an uncle of one of the officers, was now driving in circles throughout Cloverdale, trying to shake his tail so to speak, not wanting to head straight to the police office.  A quick co-ordination with our dispatch centre allowed us to orchestrate the media truck to be pulled over for a traffic “offence” by a nearby patrol officer, making them break off their surveillance. They were none the wiser, but they were not happy.

So the tow truck deposited the green 1971 Chevrolet Impala in the bay of the police office, eagerly awaiting by the Forensic Identification group. Knowing the residence had turned up little, we were anticipating a little better luck with his car, with the licence DRE-666. We stood staring at the large trunk, pausing with a deep breath, and then turned the key and opened the trunk.

Staring back at us was a whole trunk filled to the rim with a hydraulic lift kit (favoured by California “low-riders”, thousands of dollars of pumps, and cylinders designed to make the car lift, lower, and “hop”. Impressive,  but unexpected and pretty well eliminating the possibility that the body could have been put in the trunk of that vehicle.

As Cpl Jean Bouchard (the same forensic specialist who had attended Shane’s building for the break and enter) and I scratched our heads, he related a short story about seeing a documentary about the smuggling of illegal aliens under the hood of cars like this one we were staring at. So we opened the hood, and it was cavernous inside, and there was a very noticeable area, about 3 feet long on the driver’s side which looked like someone had removed the dust, or something had been put in that scraped away the dirt.

Was it possible Heather, in the hockey bag, had been placed under the hood of the vehicle. Seemed unlikely, until the good corporal climbed in himself and despite his rotund frame managed to shut the hood over top of him. Jean would spend the next several days trying to match the bag to the scraped area, with minimal results in the end, but extraordinary forensic effort.

Remembering the vehicle being seen with the hood up, in a wooded area by the Park staff, and with the plants and leaves in the pockets of the bag, we now believed that Shane Ertmoed had initially put the bag in the woods, and on the 2nd of October went back, put her under the hood, and drove to the boat launch to put her in the water instead. He was worried about her being found, which was I believe a very remote possibility. Our theory that there would be a second movement of the body turned out to be true, but the 2nd movement turned out to be 40 kms away. The suspect had made another mistake.

So the first week ended, and Sunday was picked as a day of rest, but turned into a day which was spent on report and note writing, a seemingly endless task.

The search for botanical evidence had been given to a professor at UBC, Dr Rolf Mathews; the Lab continued to work on the fibres, hair etc that had been sent to them; and members viewing the video from 22 cameras inside the Colossus movie theatre now allowed us to show Shane buying tickets, but we were able to say categorically that he never went into watch the movie.

A towel found in the hockey bag matched the type and colour of towels found inside Shane’s apartment, a towel sold by the Bay department store.

And on Friday, Shane had shown up at the counter with his aunt, to report his vehicle having been stolen.

He was clearly frustrated and told the front counter staff that a reporter had told him that it was a BCAA vehicle which had towed it out.

And on this hoped for quiet Sunday, the surveillance team observed Shane giving an interview to Vancouver Television news.  Shane seemed to be moving boxes out of his townhouse, and in doing so was approached by the television crew.

That night, on the 6 o’clock news we watched Shane speak about “moving out”  expressed his concern for his safety, and worried about the danger if his young “cousin” came for a visit. The reporter asked if he had spoken to the police, and he said no, and then laughingly as an aside “not that I want them to come to me”.

He also said that he was not home at the time, he had gone out to the movies. The male helping Shane, as it turned out was his brother, and told the interviewer that he too had been over that day, but he had left around 5 or 5:30 that day, a suggestion of Shane, as the both of them debated on camera as to the time. Shane,  is a somewhat lowered voice, almost as an aside, said that he had “gas slip” to prove it.

The square rimmed glasses, the casual sweater, and his amiable boyish disposition with the interviewer would not let the audience believe that they were actually seeing a person who strangled the life of a 10 year old girl. It was almost cocky, over-confident, and he seemed comfortable in his ability to lie.

He had not only made a statement, exposed and confirmed his alibi,  he was also now in the process of moving.

As we ground inexorably and hopefully towards an arrest, the 2nd week looked like it might be noteworthy to say the least.

On Monday morning, the 1st day of the 2nd week,  the 30th of October, as Halloween approached, we found out where Shane had moved.  Shane had moved into a basement apartment across from an elementary school in Langley; and a five year old girl lived in the upstairs apartment.

 

Photo Courtesy of Google….note this is a 1973 Chevrolet with hydraulics in the trunk, not Mr Ertmoed’s vehicle; but you get the idea…

 

 

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