Just A few seconds….

It is that time of year. A time of reflection everyone tells us and maybe it is as good a time as any, that we re-assess. A time to let the moveable feast of life slow down. To be sure, we all get too self absorbed, lapsing into a kind of funnelled vision, when thousands of thoughts pass through the days and months, constantly being sorted and willowed down leaving us with some general sense of well-being. Often, we are overtaken with thoughts of our life maybe lacking something, but what that is, is often hazy and ill-defined. Is there a singular or broad purpose to it all?

This circumspection is commonplace in the world of policing. The endless poverty driven calls for attendance, the needless violence and the shocking evidence of man’s inhumanity to man.

Additionally we find ourselves caught up in the office political micro universe; the “did you hear?’s” who got promoted, who deserves promotion, so and so called in sick again, not enough officers on the road, didn’t even get a lunch break last shift, not feeling well. Thoughts of the other half of your relationship or your children often interrupting your laughing or grousing, as you throw back another coffee or Redbull, thinking, just another eight hours to go– got to finish this report. Tired, so so tired.

The television, the internet, and the movies think they capture those feelings that you as a police officer go through every day. In that imaginary dramatic world, the universe is filled with too beautiful cops, perfect teeth all living a Peloton lifestyle. In that world torrid relationships interrupt constant calls of shootings or near death experiences, shoved into a neat package of 47 or 90 minutes.

It is a job seemingly of endless curiosity to the general public, but you know as do other officers that none of the on-screen portrayals is exact, somehow they miss the essence of it all.

There is no awareness of the moments at 3 or 4 in the morning; your car abutting up against your co-worker, the calm darkened interior of the police car, the constantly idling engine, as you share some quiet thoughts with your friend, an ear turned to the radio. Another styrofoam covered drink, dark humour, stifled yawns, in between moments of a shared intimacy brought on by the job and the darkness. Seconds, minutes, maybe hours, before the next significant work file comes your way. When it does, you naturally and unconsciously shift into a more comfortable sitting position, adjust your holster and push up against the ever strangling seat belt. Put the car in gear and pull on those lights; your senses now also being forced to re-light.

You will never be rich. You will never be wholly accepted as part of the community. You are different, but at social events people want to hear your story. You are not going to discover the genome, your reports will not ever be published and the only people who will appreciate the aches and pains as you get older will be those close to you.

Your upper managers feed you the usual pronouncements about their caring for you and to be aware of the constant dangers, the need for you to “come home at the end of the shift”. But that too is not quite real, no one could withstand that kind of mental pressure on a daily basis. Most shifts can be boring, rudimentary, reporting by constant repetition, and we fall into routines like any other worker.

But there is a difference in your job. It is this one simple thing.

The odds of you facing a life changing incident is not a remote possibility– like it is for everyone else in society.

In fact it will happen.

In some usually untimely, unpredictable moment in your life, a previously unaligned group of circumstances will collide. A set of events, a flurry of action, or in-action, will tilt your world and set your peripheral nervous system on fire. It will be a good thing, and you will never forget it.

That is actually why you do the job.

Let me give you a personal story of just such a moment in time, that even ties into the Xmas time of the season.

I had come into work at the usual 6:00 pm night shift start time, at the normally sleepy North Vancouver RCMP detachment, where I was then posted. It was July 1992, on a fairly warm summer evening. But something was different on this night.

The building was a bit too quiet inside, but you did not spend a lot of time dwelling on it, so in the dreary basement change room you go through the routine; you absent-mindedly clip your tools to your belt, load and holster your gun and head upstairs; as you have hundreds of times before, and then walked up into the small briefing room.

You were right, there is a buzz, and it quickly becomes clear as to why there is an apparent urgency to the next 12 hours. Having slept the afternoon away in preparation of this night, those of us just coming on shift had missed the abduction of a young female from a video store in the Westview area of North Vancouver. Her VW bug had also been taken.

A couple of hours after the reported abduction, two officers, Reg Cardinal and Dave Kwasnika had found the small Volkswagen in a secluded area of Deep Cove, on the road heading up to the top of Seymour mountain ski area.

As the officers got out and began to look around, they ventured a number of yards into the dense, rain-forest like bush that surrounded them on three sides. Not certain as to what they were looking for, they shuffled through the trees when a woman’s scream shattered the still forest. It echoed icily through the woods making it difficult to figure from where it was emanating.

Hearts pumping, they ventured in further, guided by the continuing cry’s for help. In a few seconds they were able to locate the girl from the video store, tied to a tree. As they began to untie her, they were taking repeated glances over their shoulders for anyone who may be lurking about, maybe even watching them from a few feet away.

As they calmed the woman, unimaginably, a second distinct cry for help was heard. They began scrambling deeper into the woods, once again following and encouraging the cries to locate her. They found a second woman.

This woman was also tied to a tree, disheveled, tired eyes staring at them or through them, in a stare that only persons responding to a trauma get to witness. It turns out she had been abducted nine days before in Vancouver from a photographic studio on Hastings St. She had been held at gunpoint, punched, and while tied and bound, had been repeatedly sexually assaulted many times a day.

The officers escorted the two bewildered women out of the woods, shivering under the officers coats and a provided blanket, and waited for backup police officers to arrive.

The manhunt was now on for the man responsible.

One of the officers, Dave Kwasnika while in the woods with the women, thought he had heard footsteps scrambling through the bush. He heard the suspect, but he could not see him. Up the mountain the sound had gone and had tried to follow until his portable radio, his only lifeline, ran out of reception and battery.

Through the next few hours, manpower poured in to the area. Helicopters armed with infrared (FLIR) hovered overhead, police dogs from Vancouver and the RCMP, and an additional forty officers answered the call. Command centers arrived at the scene, and an evacuation of the residences up Seymour Mountain began. Heavily manned and armed road blocks were established on the Mount Seymour Parkway

Then darkness began to fall.

At the time of our briefing back at the detachment, there was now a shortage of cars and of personnel. Almost all had been sent to the Mount Seymour area where the roadblocks would continue throughout the night.

A police presence was still needed to maintain the rest of the city. The shuffled resources only allowed a single car for the city and District west of Lonsdale avenue to Capilano road; an area which normally would have six vehicles covering. We needed to “partner up” that night due to the lack of cars. Young, recruit Constable John Woodlock would be partnered with me for the evening, to patrol the area which was at the the farthest west end of North Vancouver and very far away from the Mt. Seymour area.

A suspect profile had already been quickly developed by the Toronto Metro Police, the Ontario Provincial Police and most recently the Vancouver City Police. We learned that the person in the composite they passed around the briefing table was believed to be that of David Snow, who was also wanted for two murders back in Ontario. The “House Hermit” as he had been dubbed, was 6’3′, gangly, and smelled just like someone would living in the woods. He was armed with handguns and was a survivalist. He had been living in the woods, accustomed to wrapping his feces in newspaper and urinating in bottles to avoid any DNA tracing. He had been on the run from Ontario for three months.

One has to admit that when given the choice, most police officers would have preferred to be where the action was, there is nothing better than an arrest, except for maybe the pursuit. That was not to be for Cst Woodlock and myself, who were destined for a normal, but busy shift, covering the west part of the city.

We began attending call after call, with not much time to pause. Noise complaints, allegations of assault, break-ins, nuisance party calls. As normal a routine as there could be running so short staff. Except on this night there was the radio traffic from the far eastern part of the city always crackling, animated, and we would catch broken conversations from the Emergency Response Teams who would be catching readings from the FLIR devices; seemingly indications of a warm body somewhere up the mountain near them.

Cst. Woodlock and I became somewhat lulled by the constance of the radio calls. One call to another, write a report, and move on. As the night grew heavier and as the natural comfort of street lighting slowed the calls for service, we received a call for an “alarm”. Actually “there are two alarms” said the dispatcher. One coming from the local Starbucks in the Edgemont Village area, and another alarm from further up Capilano Road. This second one was coming from the Bridgehouse Restaurant which was across the road from the Capilano Suspension bridge. A tourist area to be sure, but at night would and should normally be calm.

For a reason known only to one’s imagination, I told dispatch we would take the further alarm at the restaurant, driving by where we could have turned for Edgemont village.

As we approached, the restaurant building itself sits in the back of a large, heavily wooded lot with a gravel parking lot in front, some fifty yards away from the restaurant itself. As we pulled into the empty parking lot, dispatch came on the air again. “3 B 21, you can cancel–alarm company has called back”. Typical, we thought, but still I said to John, “we might as well go take a look”. “You go around to the left, I will go around the other way”.

I started on the south side, dim yellow flashlight leading me along, a beam of light maybe twenty feet in front of me. I dutifully walked past the windows, shining on the undisturbed glass. I then rounded the corner, to a porch area and the back French doors to the restaurant. Two steps up to the wooden porch, a shake of the rear door handles, nothing–everything secure.

Off to my right and a little further in the wooded area was a lattice work shed, where the piles of extra chairs for weddings and such were stacked, the metal legs could be seen glinting back at my beam of light. It would be unalarmed in any event, I thought to myself, but, I decided to walk the forty or fifty feet, and walk around the outbuilding as well.

As I walked around to the far side of the outbuilding, a movement startled me. A dark figure moving into the edge of my beam of light about 20′ away. A male, in dark clothing was kneeling over a female body, who was on her back, naked from the waist down. The male was making a twisting motion at her head area, but the head didn’t seem normal, there was no face, no nose or eyes to be seen. He looked at me.

The rest of the story took about as long as it takes to write this line. There was no thought process, it was trained instinct that pulled my gun, it was instinct that had me running after the male as he bolted like a startled deer. I remember yelling “police”, but it was clear that he wasn’t going to respond, this was clearly a foot chase. I vaguely remember going through a large hedge behind him, the branches brushing my shoulders and legs, hearing something hit the ground, but I was closing on him. I remember us both hitting the gravelled ground, he face first, in what looked like another parking lot, and I was on top of him, struggling. I don’t remember handcuffing him, but I did.

A few seconds of me sitting astride him, breathing harder, his cuffs on behind his back and then me pulling him over to see his face. My mind was starting to clear apparently, as I asked, “Are you the one we are looking for”…”I think so” he said dully. Mr. Snow had two other guns, and a third one was found in the hedge area later.

Cst Woodlock then came running out of the same hedge from where we had just come, having heard the yelling, but having no idea where I had gone or what the hell was happening. He took it all in, but he had not seen the woman on the ground.

I told him to go back, find the woman and he quickly turned and ran back.

He went back and found 58 year old Dalia Gelineux– still on the ground unmoving.

Dalia it turns out, had been closing up the restaurant where she worked, and locking the back french doors when she had a gun placed to the back of her head by David Snow. (Snow had travelled 10 kms through the night over the top of the mountains following the Baden trail and the hydro lines, and then down to the restaurant location) He pushed her inside making her call in and cancel the impending alarm. He then took her outside and was demanding that she give him her car keys.

Dalia now knew that she was in the fight of her life, with Snow telling her that “I’m going to f**k you to death”, at times stomping on her stomach to the point that her rib cage and breast bone separated, and punching her repeatedly. She felt her dress being removed as he was binding her arms and legs.

She had a plastic bag over her head, her slip already stuffed into her mouth as a gag, and was being garrotted by a plant hanger wire. It was all then interrupted and she had been left clinging to life. She testified later that she felt that “she was in heaven” as she began to succumb to the garrotting.

Cst Woodlock, using his newly acquired utility knife, managed to cut the tightened wire from her neck and removed the bag–she was still breathing, as they loaded her into the ambulance.

Back up cars were then everywhere. I turned over Mr. Snow to another officer for transport and I spent the next hour or so time going over the scene with the Forensic Identification squad and making notes before I returned to the office.

Tired, but surely gratified, I arrived back at the office, where congratulations flowed, but when I finally got around to writing my report, the General Duty common area was somewhat abandoned by the change in shifts and quiet had set in. The only sound the usual hum coming from the neighbouring room which contained the radio and dispatch centre. The sun had now risen and the real bone aching fatigue was beginning.

As I began to see the end of the report, a call came in for me from the Emergency room at the next door Lions Gate Hospital. The doctor asked if I had been the officer at the scene, I said I was, and then he went on to explain that Dalia was having problems. In and out of comprehension, at times believing she was dying or dead, she wasn’t able to make out doctors from nurses, or distinguish the good people from the bad. Her imagination was overlapping her reality. Her brain had gone through something in that survival mode which wasn’t allowing her to come back. He thought maybe if I came over and she saw the police uniform it would help her cognition, to help bring the real world back to where it had left her.

I went over to the hospital and was introduced for the first time by the nurse to Dalia. She was laying on the gurney, her eyes flickering, going from side to side, at times clutching the rails as if hanging on to a window ledge. I had not seen her face before, as her head had been covered in plastic, she had been a body before and now she was a person.

Not knowing what to say, I leaned over close to her and said “Hi Dalia, I’m Pete, I was the cop that found you tonight”. A few seconds went by, but she seemed to re-focus, staring at my face. “Your voice, your voice” she said emphatically. “It’s your voice…your voice”. “I thought you were an angel voice”. Over the next few minutes, this new recognition seemed to calm her and she began to settle. After a period of time, she drifted off to sleep. I trudged back to the office wondering what form her dreams would take in the future.

The day was over.

My few seconds had come, but the reverberations would continue for quite some time.

Over the years, as Xmas approached there would come a Xmas card from Dalia addressed “To my angel”.

This somewhat lengthy story about a few seconds is for those of you who are getting a little mired down as the policing world, which sometimes seems out of sync, swirls about you.

This story is an example of when the world tilted for me, and a few of my fellow officers– where for a few seconds several people who up until this time were unaware of each other ended up on a physical and mental collision course, the outcomes fanning out in waves.

I see you and appreciate you– you with your head down and just doing your job.

It doesn’t matter your level of service, your rank, or the type of uniform you are wearing, if you continue, you too will face and enter into those few inexplicable and unpredictable moments in time.

And so it is to you, that I dedicate this particular blog.

And let me take these few seconds– to wish you a Merry Xmas.

Post Script: Dalia Gelineux went on to lecture on her experiences.

The two girls who fought and survived, recovered in stages, and eventually testified. (I chose to keep their names out of this blog for privacy reasons)

David Snow, psychologically assessed as a sexual sadist, was deemed a dangerous offender; was convicted of sexual assaults, forcible confinement, and convicted of the two murders in Ontario. He remains in a Federal Penitentiary.

Two documentaries, a movie and a book have been made on this case. David Snow still remains a suspect in another murder in Ontario, the case of Caroline Case whose body was found in the territory of where Snow used to live, after having been abducted from a Bloor St. gift shop..

Photo courtesy of Rina at Flickr Commons – Some Rights Reserved

Healing Lodges – just a better place to be

Tori Stafford was last seen alive on April 8, 2009, shortly after leaving school, heading home, captured on a video camera going down Fyfe avenue in small town Woodstock Ontario. She was being led by the hand by a woman, feeling be-friended,  no doubt filled with an eight year old’s optimism.

Almost three months later, on July 21, 2009 her body was found in nearby Mount Forest, naked from the waist down, her Hannah Montana t-shirt and a pair of earrings she had borrowed from her mother her last vestiges of her short time on earth. She had suffered broken ribs, a lacerated liver and had died as a result of repeated blows to the head with a claw hammer.

A slow torturous death. Unimaginable to most, perpetrated by two individuals, 28 year old Michael Rafferty and 18 year old Terry-Lynne McClintic. In a trial Rafferty was convicted of sexual assault, kidnapping and first degree murder.

Originally charged with being an accessory to the murder, McClintic eventually pled guilty to a higher charge of first degree murder.

It was a case that in the view of the general public demanded retribution, they needed to pay for their crimes. We have become inured to a lot of public deaths, not this one, it was one of those that went to a level that causes a visceral reaction, you taste the bile in your throat.

She was sent to the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario, a normal conclusion in our Canadian judicial world to a heinous crime. Justice, or some form of justice meted out.

But then she entered our correctional system. And that is where the story re-ignited.

There is a couple of truisms that usually play out by those prisoners doing “Fed time”. First and foremost they quickly develop the need to survive; they need to find the easiest route through the system, the best jobs, the placement of video cameras, where you sit at dinner, who you befriend, who you don’t. A child killer has a path fraught with even greater peril, their heads becomes a swivel, their own deaths anticipated.  If you are capable, you learn the game and then you learn how to play the game.

A second truism is that those that are incarcerated find religion on a regular basis. It would be fair to say that not many murderers or child killers are religious when they enter the institution. But imprisonment, like imminent death, seems to assist in finding that religious part of your soul and lo and behold a child of God is often re-awakened.

Federal institutions are not fun places and one suspects that McClintic somehow learned of a better place to be during her first years in prison. Somehow she became aware of “healing lodges” which had been created primarily for indigenous women prisoners.  Apartment style living, a kitchen, visitors, no guards, versus 8 x 10 cell living, constantly staring at your requisite Orange is the new Black poster. Who could deny the appeal?

One can imagine the semblance of the conversation, where she was told that you had to be Indigenous to get in (which isn’t true), so she asked how do they test for that? They don’t, she was told. You can just say you are.

It is only a short step to then apply, declaring oneself indigenous and probably throwing in for a little positive aggrandizement, that she was very spiritual in nature.

It took eight years, but at last she got her wish, making it to the Okimaw Healing Lodge.  She had just begun enjoying the comforts of something like a home when all hell broke loose; her case came back into the public eye, and finally the Liberals broke down and made sure she got sent back, the public backlash too much for the sensitive Liberals. Sensitive to public outcry, not the plight of the victims family.

One should not resent Ms McClintic, she was just working the system and it almost worked. It may be that her fellow women prisoners are having a good laugh about the whole thing, McClintic now a heroine for gaming “the man”.

But one must hold the “system” accountable. How the decision was made reeks of a bureaucrat not doing a proper job, but should we not be questioning the very existence of the healing lodges themselves.

According to Correctional Services Canada, a healing lodge is a place where “we use aboriginal values, traditions and beliefs to design services and programs for offenders. The approach is “holistic and spiritual”. A religious treatment of the whole being.

Non-indigenous can also live at a healing lodge however they must follow “aboriginal programming and spirituality”. You must be the same religion, in line with indigenous spirituality. One would think that a person fitting this category would be a rare phenomena.

Spirituality is “the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul”. But by no means is indigenous spirituality monolithic, there is no religious uniformity across the country, in fact of the 1.7 million indigenous, two out of three identify as being Christian. So it is sometimes difficult to understand what is being sought or would be practised.

Healing Lodges are funded either by Correctional Services Canada (CSC) and staffed by CSC, or funded by CSC and managed by “community partner organizations”.

There are a total of 9 lodges in Canada, 4 run by CSC and 5 by “community partners.”

How they came about is an example of the Ottawa world and the rarefied air they breathe. A constant whirling mix of academia, politicians intent on re-election, and business leaders trying to get in on the gravy; all feeding off each other, absorbing the latest en vogue thoughts and processes, all circling and feeding. A bureaucracy, acting autonomously, guided by the political flavour of the day, then developed and constructed without scrutiny. Nobody allowed to question or look within, and the process itself hidden behind multiple meetings in multiple layers, conducted in their own governmental language.

This force moves and adapts very slowly, moving in concentric circles, through steering committees, Senate and Parliamentary committees, inquiries, task forces, and fact-finding missions. They are unaware and uncaring of the public looking in, common sense often in short supply. To question is to be tossed out of the circle cut off from the government teat. Costs are not often part of the equation. It is from this process that came the belief that a healing lodge made perfect sense.

In 1990 there were calls and plans being made for five new regional correctional facilities.

A task force, as is often the case, was lurking in the background. The Task Force for Federally Sentenced Women, who in their report “Creating Choices” recommended that one of these facilities be specifically designed and run for indigenous women.

The Native Women’s Association, a Federally funded advocacy group, one of the groups in this Ottawa circle of life, proposed the concept of a healing lodge.

There was also a group at the time of  “former Federal aboriginal offenders who were advising the CSC”.  This would normally make one scratch their collective heads, however it is true. They of course agreed wholeheartedly and supported the Native Womens’ Association in the need for and development of a healing lodge.

So what is the logic behind this clearly subjective policy proposal. According  to the CSC there were two main reasons:

“Mainstream programs don’t work for Aboriginal offenders.”  This seems to have been presented as a statement of fact, but it is difficult finding any verifiable research this pronouncement is based upon.

Secondly, they stated that there is a dramatic “over-representation” of Indigenous people in Federal facilities. (Apparently persons convicted of crimes were now “representatives” and not convicts) They were not wrong.

In 2017 Indigenous individuals made up only 5% of the Canadian population; yet 25% of the males and 36% of the females behind bars were Indigenous. This number is expected to continue to grow, mainly due to the ever expanding birth rates and the continuing problems experienced by the Indigenous.

If one accepts the concept of needing a special place, a place where they would be treated differently from all other inmates, then the obvious next question is do they work?

A review of the digital brochures for each of these facilities talks about a holistic and spiritual approach, training and maintenance skills promoted as in other facilities, but all given the opportunity to “heal”, “grow spiritually”and re-connect with Aboriginal culture”.

Again, little to no evidence of its effectiveness, but they continually issue the statement that  “culturally-appropriate environments can contribute to the healing process of offenders”. That participants develop a “stronger familiarity with Indigenous history and traditional languages”. Not exactly an insurmountable goal, and it would be unfair to expect any kind of reduction of criminal activity, as this is after the fact after all. Heinous crimes have already been committed.

By offering beyond the usual training and teaching found in any correctional facility, does the offering of “weekly sweat lodges”, “pipe ceremonies”, “smudging”,”medicine wheel teaching”, “carving”, “beading” and “sun and rain dances” lead to a lesser recidivism rate among indigenous? Is it any better training than what is offered already to the rest of the prison population. Or is it serving as just an easier place to do your time.

In a 2013 government backgrounder, the government said that the recidivism rate was 6%, when the national average was 11%.

However, in an earlier government analysis in 2002, it measured the recidivism rate as being 19%, compared to 13% for indigenous released from minimum security facilities. A dismal failure.

In 2016 the National Post reported that 18 inmates had escaped from healing lodges over the previous five years. Not unexpectedly, as there are only security guards watching video monitors, instructed only to call the police if someone walks away.

There is even a lack of acceptance by the Indigenous Reserves where the healing lodges have been proposed. In 2012, a Review by the government found that there was a problem with community acceptance as not every aboriginal community wanted or was willing to have the lodges in their communities.

So where does leave us. Everyone knows that the ‘real’ problems for the indigenous: substance abuse, inter-generational abuse, residential schools, low levels of education, low employment and income, sub-standard housing, sub-standard health, isolation, violence, greater inclination to gang violence, and mental health issues are the reasons the Indigenous and their youth incarcerations rates are at stratospheric levels.

In March 2018 the government released a report entitled ‘Updated Costs of Incarceration’. A male offender in a minimum security institution costs $47,370 per person or $130 per day. A female offender in a minimum security institution costs $83, 861 or $230 per day. An inmate at a healing lodge is the most expensive, costing $122,796 or $336.00 per day.

The Salvation Army gives out a bowl of soup and a prayer on the skids of Vancouver each and every day, before providing food and lodging, combining their spiritual beliefs of salvation with a social cause. But they are dealing and providing at the source. There is a measurable impact.

The Federal government has released records indicating that since 2011 over 20 child killers have been sent to healing lodges. The Liberal defence in the McClintic case is that the Conservatives did it too.

These lodges are better for the inmates, providing a nicer place to be, but as a tool in the Corrections toolbox, they have been a costly and failed experiment.

Is it not time to close down this experiment?  Besides, we don’t want McClintic to have a nicer place to stay.

It isn’t fair to Tori.

Photo Courtesy of Carlos Ebert via Flickr Creative Commons – Some Rights Reserved

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

Personal Story – “Heather” Part V

It was just two days since Heather had been found, and I was sitting, head down in a concentrated effort to get through the neatly arranged stack of reports, fighting the late afternoon doldrums, when I was approached by Gary Burke. Gary, was a former troop mate of mine who was currently working for the E Division Major Crime team, and their unit had been brought in to help.

Gary always had a smile on his face, whether delivering good news or bad news,  but as he plunked himself down in front of me, his grin was a little wider, he looked like he might burst. “I think we have something good for you” he said.

He began to tell me his story. Two investigators in his unit, Laura Livingstone, and Randy Hundt had just called from the road. They had some promising information on a lead they were following up on in the Maple Ridge area.

The day before, a Maple Ridge dispatcher had called our desk. She, like everyone else it seemed had been watching the tragic news and the recovery of Heather in the Park.  She had strong recollections of the day Heather had actually disappeared, and in fact had been working in Maple Ridge on that same date, when Surrey announced the search for Heather in Cloverdale on October 1st.

Hearing that Heather had now been found in Maple Ridge, more importantly in her detachment area was numbing.  She began to replay the time and events of those days in early October, the files she may have dispatched at that time. Disconcertingly I suspect,  she thought she remembered having had a call that day, one specifically concerning  Golden Ears park. It stood out in her memory as the Park was usually quiet at that time of year.

She was hazy on the details, remembering it being something about a vehicle. As she sat home that night reflecting on the news it continued to bother her. She needed to find out more and  try and fill in the blanks for her sake even if there was nothing to it. So she drove down to the Maple Ridge detachment to try and find the dispatch ticket.

She found the ticket by scrolling through the daily dispatch tickets, but it was actually on October 2nd, not the 1st, that she had the call that involved Golden Ears park. It quickly came back to her as she re-read the information.  It was in fact a call of a reported “suspicious vehicle” that  had been called in by park staff working there.  The dispatch information was brief, but indicated that an officer had in fact been dispatched, but there was no licence plate, and the eventual patrols closed the file saying that the vehicle was G.O.A. Gone on Arrival.

Nevertheless, even though she was let down somewhat, she called our office saying that we might want to look into it further, if possible.  So a new investigative tip was created, as were many that day, and Laura and Randy had been given the assignment to see if they could do any follow up on it.

Before I go any further I should point out that Laura is an extremely affable person which often belied an intelligent and investigative mind. Randy, a big guy with a flair for practical jokes, was smart, as stubborn as I, and a no holds barred approach to investigations. Paired up as they were on this date, it could be assumed that they would not miss anything, there would be no cutting of corners, or an un-checked investigative path.

They pulled the old dispatch ticket and identified the complainants as the campground workers; Mike Zabaglia, Michelle Mackie, Kyle Johnson and Stuart Paul.

So Randy and Laura set about finding and speaking with the workers, and they learned that: on October 2nd at 0650 in the morning, the employees were driving into the park heading to their office to pick up their respective work vehicles.

As they drove in their car pool, a slow moving “big boat” of a car appeared in front of them, the driver wearing a hoodie.  It was difficult to pass, so they followed it for quite awhile, until about 1 km south of the boat launch. They thought the behaviour was rather strange, but on they went to the office, got their vehicles and headed out, some going south towards the entrance to the park; in other words back from where they had just come.

One employee, began his work assignment, and was driving back towards the entrance to the park, and is somewhat startled to see this same questionable vehicle, this time parked, also facing south. The hood was up but no driver could be seen in or around the vehicle.

So the park employee drives by but calls on his radio into the office, and reports this second sighting. It was agreed that it was too suspicious to ignore, and decided to call the local police to see if they could come and check on the vehicle.

Meanwhile a second employee around 1030 or 1100, also driving towards the entrance to the park, and after hearing the previous report of the vehicle being parked alongside the road, had driven by and noticed that the vehicle was no longer pulled over on the roadside. So he continues on, heading to do some work at the boat launch area.

As he drives into the normally deserted parking area, there is the vehicle again. This time parked on the boat ramp, again with no sign of the driver in the area. He too calls into the office via his radio, and gives them the updated information.

The Maple Ridge RCMP were now sending a police officer to check it out some the employee continues on his work schedule, and eventually leaves the boat ramp area. The vehicle was still parked and vacant on the ramp as he left.

More minutes go by and now this same employee circles back to the boat launch as much out of curiosity as anything else, but as he approaches the general vicinity of the boat launch, he meets the suspicious vehicle, now heading out of the park, this time driving at about 80 kms an hour. He later describes the vehicle as “large”, and “blue or grey” in colour.

Needless to say by the time the RCMP patrol they do not find the vehicle. Too much time had passed prior to their arrival. The officer concludes his file, typing GOA into the electronic dispatch system. A routine call had ended with little or no effort.

Laura and Randy press on with their inquiries, and they learn from one employee that he thought they had written down the plate number, possibly on one of the park log books, but he could not be certain. They decide to go back with the employee, now with their interest slightly peeked, to try and locate the logbook.  Sure enough they find the logbook. And there in a corner of the book, under the date of October 2nd, there is a hand written inscription, written at an angle along the edge of the page simply stating  “DRE -666”. Clearly a licence plate number.

Now hearing the numbers 666, if you don’t know, it is often referred to as the number of the “Beast” in the New Testament; a symbol of the devil, or used to invoke the devil, a symbol of the anti-christ.  So at this stage of the story it gives me a bit of a pause and I look at my story teller with a raised eyebrow.  To say that I was not in the mood for a black humoured prank would have been an understatement. “No, No” Gary says, picking up on my look. And then he goes on with the story.

The vehicle licence plate, now checked, comes back to a 1971 Chevrolet Impala ( a big boat of a car would be a fitting description), green, and the registered owner was one:

Shane Ertmoed, born December 22nd, 1977. making him 23 years old at this time.  The vehicle was associated through registration records to an address in Vernon.

But it got better, as Gary continued. They had learned on October 2nd, one day after the disappearance of Heather, and on the day that the vehicle was spotted in Golden Ears Park, Mr. Ertmoed had renewed his drivers licence, and dutifully provided his new address, which was now:

Unit #8 at 17700 60th Avenue, Cloverdale, British Columbia. The same address as Heather’s complex.

We both exhaled, and I sat back in the chair, Gary just looking at me. A few seconds went by in silence as if by talking we would have broken a magic spell, the news too good to be true. If I was tired before, that was now all gone. A nervous energy began to build in both Chris and I, as we began to realize the enormity of this information. We may have just caught the the break of our lives. Another mistake by the suspect may have just been uncovered, a big mistake.

Coincidence is defined as a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection. I don’t believe in coincidences, never have, and I did not believe for a moment that this was going to turn out to be a coincidence.

Was it possible that an individual named Shane Ertmoed, who lived in the same complex as Heather, just happened to go for a drive in a park some 40 kilometres away, one day after her disappearance, and it was the same remote park where Heather was found half-naked floating face down in the lake?

Although all the neurons were now firing, I still  needed to restrain initial impulses, needed to be alive to it actually being a coincidence and nothing more. I needed to be alive to the fear of all investigators, the dreaded “tunnel vision”.

After briefing the investigative team, we all headed home around ten that night, exhausted but needing a rest from the marathon, but a marathon that now had become a head long sprint.

There was also one thought that overrode the excitement of the day, one idea, one realization that seemed to be intent on beating the investigative break Gods into submission.

There was no evidence.

We had nothing.

We had a young male that we suspected was involved, but nothing tying him to Heather. No evidence to tie him to the killing in any way, other than proximity to two separate and diverse crime scenes. To know of him, to identify a possible child killer and to not be able to prove it may be a worse fate than not knowing at all.

Exhaustion provided a few hours of sleep, but a very early morning was met with the same mangled thoughts, the testing and re-testing of investigative options, most reviewed and discarded in a few seconds.

But from this filtering and deciphering, this constant give and take, clouded with fatigue,  resuscitated by coffee, something emerged.

I now had a plan.

It was a relatively simple plan, a plan reliant on a single elemental investigative tool, but a tool relished by investigators. We still had the element of surprise.

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons via Flickr by John Lambert Pearson entitled “Clue” Some Rights Reserved

 

 

 

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