Personal Story – “Heather” Part VIII – The Ending

On Saturday November 4th, Shane Ertmoed was brought into a small bland 9 x 6 interview room, a desk, and two chairs the extent of the furnishings. Video and audio recordings were turned on, and Greg began his interview of Shane. A few boxes on the desk gave the impression of waiting insurmountable evidence. Greg, always cordial, always playing to the theme that we were there to understand, to “help”. “You didn’t mean to do it did you Shane?”, “you are not an animal are you Shane?” It being more of a misunderstanding than a killing.

Gradually, Shane began to speak, quietly, some times nodding in agreement. Eventually, he began offering up possible alibis, each was perfunctorily shut down, escape routes closed as quickly as they were proffered.

Three hours in, Shane Ertmoed confessed to the killing of Heather.

As Shane nodded in agreement about the killing, I was sitting with others in a nearby room, staring at the television monitor screen our collective breath seemingly on pause. It was a few seconds before one of the investigators let out the restrained exclamation “yes!

On Sunday, the following day, a 2nd interview was conducted, this time by Bill Fordy, wherein all the evidence was reviewed again with Shane, going over specific details, and he in essence confessed a second time. Shane said his newly appointed defence counsel had told him to say nothing, but then he continued, virtually repeating the story of the day before. Not emotional, seemingly resigned to some future destiny he could only guess at.

The confession along with what our investigation had revealed seemed to run in parallel, there were no large discrepancies, and it was consistent with the limited forensic information.  How he killed her and how she was found partially clothed gave us the “holdback evidence”, the evidence that only the killer would know in detail.

This was the chronology of the events as confirmed by Shane in his words, with a few new pieces we were unaware of:

  • Shane lured Heather into his apartment to look at books that contained pictures of “birds”.  (This was new to us and gave us the impression that Shane may have previously spoken to Heather)
  • Shane coaxed her to the floor of the townhouse and was spooning her on the floor stripping off her pants and underwear. It was then that she began to struggle, and he put his hand over her mouth to keep her quiet. (He would not admit to how long that would take but she was likely dead before Dad had even called her in as being missing.)
  • After he killed her, he dumped out his hockey/football bag, and put her in the bag along with her clothes.
  • He carried her out through the fence in his townhouse to his nearby car. (In doing so, some plant material got in the corners of the bag we were able to later match some “cultivated juniper”, unique to that area, to the landscaping in front of his residence).
  • And he placed her in the back seat, and drove out of the complex. Upon driving out and looking east he saw the police doing radar traffic enforcement, and so he circled behind, using the secondary roads, to eventually get over to 200th St in Langley.  (Later a witness came forward, who also happened to be an artist, who sketched what he saw that day on hearing the news of Heather; he showed us his pencil sketch done on a single piece of paper–it was a vehicle pulled over, and a male was standing near the back of the vehicle, adjusting something in the back seat; the male in the sketch looked remarkably like Shane)
  • He needed gas and stopped at the Happy Face gas station on 200th St. He then drove further up the road, when the idea came to him to buy a theatre ticket as he rapidly concocted his cover story. (He never went to the theatre to actually see the show, as we believed and could now prove)
  • He thought of going to Maple Ridge because of the distance away, and he had earlier heard about Golden Ears park through a co-worker (we were able to find the co-worker who he had earlier asked about Golden Ears Park)
  • As he drove into the park, he got a few miles in on the roadway, pulled over, and then put the bag containing Heather into the thick woods, just out of sight of the roadway.
  • He returned home; but was not content with where he put her, thinking that she could be easily discovered. So at 5:30 in the morning he left, was checked by the officer on his leaving and he went back to the Park. (it was here when he was followed by the Park Rangers, driving slowly, trying to find where he left her)
  • He eventually found her, and parked roadside, and put his hood up as if he was broken down. (This was observed by the Park worker #2). But by this time he was running out of time and needed to get to work. He marked the spot, by putting a skid brake mark on the roadway, and he headed to work in Maple Ridge, leaving quickly. (Seen by Park worker #2)
  • He feigned having a headache at work around 10 in the morning, and left. But he went to a Canadian store and bought an inflatable raft and a single paddle. (We figured out the store where he bought the raft later, and were able to get a copy of the receipt).
  • He returned to the Park, retrieved the bag containing Heather, and then headed down to the boat ramp, where he got in and paddled out of sight of those who maybe on the boat launch. (Observed by Park Worker #3)
  • He put Heather in the water, weighed down with rocks (Shane in his statement totally denied putting rocks in the bag – a strange disclaimer considering everything he had admitted to)
  • He came back in and drove quickly out of the park, stopped at a dumpster and got rid of the raft. (we were never able to locate the raft, no doubt it had been emptied by that time)
  • Shane gave no insight, nor any denial of why he called in the break and enter case. (It was our guess that he was worried that if for some reason we were able to go after him, and we found something of Heather in his apartment, fingerprints or hair as an example, he would have a cover story that kids had broken into his condo)

By late Sunday afternoon, the weekend over, Shane was placed back into his cell and I like everyone else headed home, in rush hour for the first time in six weeks; content, feeling  lighter, not fully absorbing all the nuances of the last 48 hours, but aware that something good had just happened.

This was the dramatic end of the operational element of this case. The looming courts and their processes, would be the 2nd marathon.  The forty investigators would dissipate, all  returning to their regular duties.  The excitement of the pursuit would soon be replaced by drudgery, the arguing over minuscule points of law, and those bone weary hours of sitting in a quiet courtroom, the drone of lawyers providing the white noise of the court.

The many involved would become the few left to take the case to the next level. It is the unsung hero portion of the story, it is the under-appreciated, it is paper intensive, and it would be wrapped in all the myriad legal issues that always surface. Preparations would begin for a preliminary hearing, and a possible bail hearing. Both would need to be supported in terms of getting all the gathered evidence into the Crown. The Crown would become our constant companions and our usually friendly thorns in our side, always needing more, or a further explanation, or another copy. Officers notes, exhibits and exhibit records would begin moving constantly back and forth, in the rhythm of the  court dance.

The media would go home for the time being,  only to return rejuvenated for the eventual trial coverage.

The secondary reports, the officers notes, and the loose pieces of information continued to trickle in, so we continued the work of sorting, evaluating and follow-up continued at a manageable pace, but with far fewer resources. Some of the information was valuable background, while other pieces were of little value but still needed to be filed. Some of what came forward:

  • We learned that Shane Ertmoed had only arrived in the Lower Mainland in September 1999, a mere 13 months before committing the homicide on October 1. He had been kicked out of his house in Vernon, and recently fired from working at the Dairy Queen in Vernon.
  • Shane’s aunt confirmed that Shane had a hockey bag (unfortunately those DNA tests that were trying to filter out for a good sample of DNA, did eliminate too much of the core DNA and are results were therefore negative.) ( The Aunt told us that she had “jokingly” asked Shane if he was involved in Heather’ disappearance.)
  • Shane was described by his fellow workers as someone who liked to talk to “kids” and they gave an example of him hanging around a kids lemonade stand at their work site.
  • Eight years earlier, in March 1992, while living in Vernon Shane had been forced to see a counsellor for lifting the skirts of two girls on the school bus, and trying to touch them.
  • Shane had written sexually explicit letters to his teacher/counsellor, and eventually left the school, and he was often described as a “scary character”
  • He also had sexually explicit correspondence with this then girlfriend
  • At his work site, he had offered to babysit for one of his co-workers. (those same co-workers would often tease him about him being involved in Heather’s disappearance.)
  • Heather had apparently been on Paxcil and another prescription drug at the time of her death. (not by itself noteworthy, but one when examined by a court trying to determine cause of death would surface as a complicating issue)

When all the information began to settle, having been sifted through the needed or discarded filters, what we were left with what is commonly referred to as a “circumstantial” case albeit with one what we believed was an “voluntary” confession.

We would never find a magic bullet, such as DNA, fingerprints, or matched blood samples. Cause of death was listed as “undetermined.” Every Crown counsel wants these dream pieces before going to Court. This was not going to be that case. We were pushing  Crown’s charge approval boundaries of every case needing to have a “substantial likelihood of conviction”. As the years have gone by, the pursuit of a circumstantial cases seem to becoming rare events. Crown and the police are more reluctant to let the courtroom decide, and as Wally Oppal once opined it seems that the Crown and the police are trying the cases in the reports now, not having a taste for a courtroom, reluctant to face possible failure. One wonders where this case would have stood in this climate.

However in those years  we enjoyed a strong and positive relationship with Crown Counsel both in Surrey and at the Regional level. All of the Crown lawyers, that we dealt with on this case; through charge approval, bail hearing, the preliminary inquiry and the eventual Supreme Court trial were exemplary. They deserve special mention for the hours that they expended and the roles they played; Terry Schultes who provided almost daily legal advice to me on this case and many others; Winston Sayson who handled the preliminary inquiry along with Lana Del Santo; and finally, Ron Caryer who handled the Supreme Court murder trial along with Roger Dietrich. Their lives were put on hold and this case became all consuming, with the added pressure of a constant media spotlight.

On November 22nd, 2000 Shane Ertmoed appeared in Court in Surrey and pled not guilty to the charge of 1st degree murder.

The Preliminary inquiry in Surrey began a couple of months later on February 19, 2001. As in all preliminary inquiries, Crown does not pull out all the stops in terms of showing all the evidence, and for this case they primarily relied on the confession. All they needed to prove was that there was sufficient evidence to warrant a trial. And the confession by itself when admitted would accomplish this purpose.

All was moving along in quick order, and then came the final trial in Vancouver Supreme court. The defence, oddly had applied and been granted a “change of venue” from New Westminster Supreme Court, successfully arguing that they would not get a fair jury trial in the Surrey area. (This seemed illogical at this time, as this case had been getting extensive coverage throughout the Lower Mainland, but it was not argued  by Crown.) So it was decided that the court would instead be held in Vancouver Supreme Court.

As mentioned previously Ron Caryer was leading for the Crown, an experienced trial prosecutor and one of the few who for the most part conducted only murder trials for the Crown. His second on the case, or partner, was Roger Dietrich, a young prosecutor prone to wearing suspenders to cover his large bulk which he had previously used to his advantage as a player in the Canadian Football League. The two were Ying and Yang. Opposites but ideally suited.

The defence counsel was the rather infamous Sheldon Goldberg.  Mr Goldberg had been a criminal defence lawyer in and around Vancouver for a number of years. He  invariably found the police to be involved in some form of conspiracy or another, and this inevitably would form any part of his defences on almost every case. He had a jail-house reputation as one of the best because of the dirt he would throw at the police. He  was a classic example of  “tossing (expletive deleted)” at the police blue wall, and then standing back and see what stuck. He was also “thorough”, although some may say deliberately obtuse, bordering on obstruction. I have met many a defence criminal lawyer, some I liked some I didn’t. Mr Goldberg was in the latter category.

This was also not my first time dealing with Mr. Goldberg either.  Previously in the 1990’s I had been involved in the case of David Snow, a multiple killer and rapist, who was eventually declared a dangerous offender in North Vancouver, and later convicted in Toronto, Ontario of killing an elderly couple. I testified at both of these trials, and was up against Mr Goldberg’s version of cross-examination which is often derogatory and personal. I don’t know if he even remembered me by the time we got to the Ertmoed trial, nor do I know if his demeanour was more a matter of style rather than personal belief. Needless to say I was anticipating lots of defence motions, and a slow moving trial.

Judge Wally Oppal, also of some fame by this time as a prominent Judge was assigned to sit on the Supreme Court case.

As the jury was selected, and the first days of the trial began, it was quite clear that this was going to be a painful, slow moving process. It was decided that I needed to be at the courthouse for at least the morning portion of the case, helping to find documents, answering questions which had arisen the previous day, assisting with witness preparations and notifications, and being a general handy-man. I was given an office at the courthouse, and I moved in with the file, consisting by now of 17 legal 10″ x 12″ x 17″ sized boxes of paper; charts, photos, statement copies, all pulled and eventually returned. The small room a makeshift file library sitting amongst the usual detritus of coffee cups, plastic wrappers, and styrofoam lunches hurriedly eaten.

Monday thru Friday after lunch, I would then go back to Surrey Detachment, and begin my normal usual shift in the Serious Crime group. Other murder files began to come in, which sometimes would blur my memory on the “Heather file”, but only until the next morning at 800 Smythe Street.

The trial was set for 3 months beginning in March but by the time it wound down, seven months had passed and we were now at the end of August 2002. Final submissions were prepared and presented to the jury.

Crown’s submission was a moving testament to Heather’s life, and at one time, Caryer stopped mid way through, and pointedly asked the jury to consider in silence how long it would have taken to kill Heather. Ninety seconds then went by in excruciating quiet, interrupted by the occasional uncomfortable cough or nervous sniffle which seemed to reverberate around the old ornate courtroom. You could feel the forced thoughts, the ugly sequence of events as they would have un-folded being forced into the minds of all those there. Almost all absently bowed their heads.

The jury was then excused to consider the case and render their verdict.

Five hours later, in the evening of August 29, 2002 in one of the quickest decisions ever seen in a murder trial, the jury reached their verdict finding Shane Ertmoed “guilty” of 1st degree murder,

One can not adequately express what I was feeling that night as the news sprayed across all the television news, people interviewed expressing relief that a nightmare was over.

Shane went down swinging telling Judge Oppal at sentencing when asked if he had anything to say,  “….all that happened today was a fundamental miscarriage of justice”.

Oppal seemed surprised, and said rather unusually, “I happen to agree with the jury….you have been found guilty of the most horrific crime in law….you murdered a 10 year old simply to satisfy your sexual desires…” and then he confirmed and levied the heaviest sentence possible in the criminal courts of Canada. An automatic sentence of life without a chance of parole for 25 years.

The case was over at last.

Congratulations came in;  phone calls, letters, emails, and thank-you cards, over the next days and months, from as far away as Europe and the United States. Gradually I had time to absorb it all, to sort through my thoughts, what went right, what went wrong, the twists and turns, the bad luck and the good luck.

You quickly determine that any investigation of this sort involves multiple people, all doing right by simply doing their job. Policing is not magical when things come together, in fact for the most part it is mundane fact checking, onerous paper work, and incessant interviews, interspersed by heart-breaking disappointments, or adrenaline fuelled giddiness. There is no middle ground and very often there is little sleep.

There are no real heroes, that is the fodder of television as envisaged by those that have never been there. As a lead investigator you are holding the wagon’s reins but you are only holding the reins with little or no power as to how each individual facet is going to perform, or where the next turn will be in the road.  You just have to get on and try not to get thrown. If it all works, and you are thrown a bit of luck, you will succeed.

Epilogue

Chris Drotar my partner for this file has been promoted a couple of times and remains with the RCMP in a different section. He is still a friend.

My boss, Mel Trekofski who provided the confidence I was sometimes needing has since retired and doing well.

Ron Caryer, the Prosecutor was made a Judge and is now also retired. He returned to Golden Ears Park for many years on the anniversary of Heather’s death and erected a small cairn in her memory. We also became friends.

Roger Dietrich, the 2nd Prosecutor is now a senior Crown Counsel in the Toronto area. He wrote a book about the case, as a kind of catharsis, but never submitted it for publication.

Dr. Rolf Mathewes, the Botanist, who matched the “cultivated junipers” to the bag and to Ertmoed’s residence, shortly thereafter opened a Forensic Botany unit at the University of British Columbia. Dr Sweet, the dentist who was able to positively identify Heather also began to also specialize in Forensic dentistry.

Cpl Jean Bouchard the Forensic Identification officer who I had put under the hood of the suspect car went on to be an Instructor at the Canadian Police College in Ottawa, teaching other Forensic Identification officers.

All the other investigators are too numerous to mention, but as much as I have been able to follow them throughout their careers, as expected, they all seem to have done rather well.

We eventually determined there were two “leaks” as to the information which led to the media ultimatum. One was inadvertent and came out of the psychiatrists office, while the other was tracked to an upper level RCMP officer. RCMP HQ, a couple of months later said they were ending their investigation, as it was “unnecessary”, after all “you won the case in the end”. You can read what you want to in that.

Sheldon Goldberg, the defence counsel, in 2009 was forced to resign from the practise of law for 5 years, after being found guilty of professional misconduct and incompetency.

After 15 years Shane Ertmoed applied for early parole under the “faint hope clause” and was denied. He is now scheduled to be up for parole in 2025; he will be 48 years old when he is eligible to walk free.

Jodie Aspin Thomas, Heather’s mother is still a survivor, and still often wears a “Heather” button, with the same picture as you saw in Part I of this story. Her sorrow is always with her just like the picture.

I lost track of Pat Thomas but he was last known to be working as a carpenter in the Whistler area, no doubt, also trying to put his life together.

Heather would have been 28 years old this year. Of course I was never able to meet Heather in a way that humans are expected to meet. My thoughts still often go to her, despite the passage of time, and I feel that we quietly and in our own way travelled some type of dark road together. I think we would be friends now. But, nobody should have to meet someone this way.

 

Photo Courtesy of Flickr via Commons created by x1klima some Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

 

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