Searching for the Truth

In December 1991 I was transferred from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Thompson Subdivision Drug Section to the Headquarters Criminal Analysis Section at Winnipeg, Manitoba. Terry and our two daughters were again uprooted in this predictable career process. Terry was relegated to establish a new home, employment, schools and friendships. The girls were pulled from their schools and peer supports. To say that these moves were in any way constructive to Terry’s career aspirations or the girl’s personal development would diminish the challenges that they faced as they went through the process of change. Only in later years did I begin to understand the sacrifices that they endured and the stresses to which they were exposed. From my perspective now in 2017,  that they have all excelled in life is a true testament to their strength and character as strong women and devoted friends to those they have met along the way.

During my final year in Thompson I wrote several letters of concern about the manner by which criminal information was collected and processed within the Manitoba RCMP Division. Indeed, in my position responsible for drug enforcement throughout northern Manitoba, I felt that I had established some best practices that could be employed on a wider scale. Especially with the advent of technology, I felt there was opportunity for improvement. Coincidentally, the new officer in-charge of the Division Criminal Analysis Section (DCAS) had already identified this shortcoming without my unsolicited opinion. Nonetheless, my enthusiasm was noted and I was invited to join the new Headquarters team.

One of my first assignments was to develop a computer program for the collection and analysis of criminal information. This program successfully provided current and relevant information to the division analysts to prepare criminal intelligence reports for investigators and senior management. Building on that initial success, I modified the program as a collection tool for major crime investigations. The following story is an example of the earliest use of that model.

Names and places within this story have been changed to protect investigative protocols and personal privacy. Some of the descriptions are graphic and may be too sensitive for some readers. The information is relevant however, to better understand how information is collected and evidence built to define or refine an accurate account of a criminal incident so that the interests of criminal justice or personal reparation is assured.

Chapter 1

I pulled my Ford Escape to the side of the snow covered two-lane highway, and parked in front of a marked police SUV. The SUV had its four-way flashers and rooftop emergency lights activated. I wanted the advantage of that protection. While the snowstorm of the previous night had subsided, the aftermath and remnants of it had seriously narrowed the travel portion of the asphalt highway running north from the lakeside town of St. Laurent.  As I put the transmission into park I turned, startled in response to a rapid knock at my window from a stern faced RCMP constable with his muskrat hat pulled down around his ears and sharp icicles dangling from his moustache. His name tag read Kozmenko. Feeling his misery at standing guard in the freezing cold, I reluctantly opened my driver’s side window.

“If you’re with the press you can’t park here”, he scolded.

“And good morning to you too! I’m Corporal Bill Adams with DCAS. Your boss called me out a couple of hours ago to come and attend this scene. Go and check with him, I see he’s walking up the laneway now.”

“Oh, OK, sorry Bill. The press got wind of this off their scanners. They’ve been hovering looking for a place to land. Just wait here for Dan.”

I was getting used to the drill of arriving unannounced at crime scenes. The process of crime management was new to the division and the technology supporting it was still in a testing phase. Getting me early to a crime scene was the first logistical necessity and only a few detachment commanders, Dan included, knew of my desire to put the new process to a practical test. Dan had called me at home in response to a suspicious death that his office had discovered some 5 short hours before. My timely attendance was the first step in a process that was created to collect better information and process it with reduced duplication. While I was still going through the new protocols in my mind, the passenger door opened and Dan climbed into the warm cab.

“Hi Bill, glad you could make it out this morning. How were the roads?”

“No problem, the plows were out but it’s early. Rush hour hadn’t started yet in the city and anyway, this unit has four-wheel drive.”

Without acknowledging this piece of weather related information Dan forged ahead,

“We’ve got more information since I called you. Up the driveway here you can see that blue and white garage. That garage belongs to a seasonal cottage owner and it looks like the car went into the garage sometime during the storm. The tire tracks are partially covered and the vehicle swerved a bit. Probably just made it, could have slid into the ditch. Might have been better if it had.”

So, what’s in the garage Dan?”

“Oh yeah, so we got a call from the neighbour at 4:30 AM. He’s a full time resident and was up early, going to plow his road so he could get to work in the city. Anyway, while he’s plowing, he sees the tracks going in his neighbour’s laneway and nothing coming out. So, he called his neighbour to ask if anyone was staying at the place. The neighbour said no, so then he calls us. We responded just after 5:30 this morning.”

As Dan continued his monologue I started making notes. I knew through experience that as I became more involved in this investigation, I would be accountable for my role and actions. Legally, as part of the judicial process, I could only refer to notes made at the time or shortly after receiving relevant information. It would do no good to fall behind. To do so could make more important aspects of my involvement less credible to a jury or inadmissible to a judge. 

As I wrote, Dan continued.

“Our car attended and two members walked in from this main road. The snow was too deep to drive through and they were seasoned enough not to disturb the tracks that had been made by the suspected vehicle. The garage main door was closed. There was a locked side door and a side window. They looked in the window and saw a car, a station wagon, and by the light of their flashlights they noticed a body in the back, partially covered by a blanket. One of them pounded on the window, the other on the door. There was no movement from inside the car, so they broke open the door and went inside. They found two occupants dead from suspected carbon monoxide poisoning. So then of course they backed out and called me.”

Still writing in my notebook, I was now highlighting aspects of this investigation from Dan’s recollection that would need to be verified directly with the investigating members. While a natural and necessary action was to save or protect life, the action of breaking into the garage could be cause for examination at any future trial or inquiry. In criminal investigations, without timely and relevant notes, some of the most innocuous actions with seemingly little impact could be used to undermine more salient actions that validate evidence of culpability.  And while Dan’s description of the scene inside the garage was likely accurate, it was a combination of what he was told and what he had personally observed. We’d need to collect information directly from the officers involved.

When he had finished providing information I asked him,

“Has the Medical Examiner been here?”

“Yes, he left about half hour ago.”

“What about forensics?”

“They are inside now.”

“Ok, good, let’s go see.”

Walking through tracks made by numerous law enforcement, rescue and medical personnel made the trip relatively easy. I barely had need for the hiking boots on my feet to keep the snow at bay. We entered through the side door and met the lead forensic investigator standing by the car. His name tag read McIvor. Although the morning sun had long since risen, the day was still grey and cloudy and light intermittent snow was still falling. The garage interior was dimly lit as the owner had shut off the power at the end of the summer season. Exchanging pleasantries, I asked the forensic leader for permission to examine the scene.

“Yes, sure. We have done a preliminary examination and it looks like most of what we need is inside the car. We were just ready to open the main door. We’re going to load everything on a flatbed and take it back to the office where its warmer and we have better light. So, go ahead, but don’t touch anything and you can’t go inside the car. And you need to sign the log sheet to show you were here.” He moved aside.

The vehicle was an older model Chevrolet station wagon, two-tone blue and faux wood colour. It was dirty from the gravel and salt of Manitoba’s winter roads and rusted in several places along the lower frame. The radio aerial was broken off the front fender. The rest of the car looked in complete disrepair. The forensic section had set up portable battery operated lights, but their beam was focused on the garage floor. This lighting produced dark shadows on the apparatus near the back rear fender. There, a grey plastic tube extended from underneath the car and snaked in behind the rear fender. I knew immediately that the end of the tube had been attached to the car’s tailpipe and I suspected that the other end entered the interior at some other place. Someone had rigged the plastic tube and I knew without looking that that person was likely one of the occupants of the car.

“Was the car running when our guys found it?”

“No, it had run out of gas.”

Approaching the long back window of the wagon, I strained to observe the interior without getting too close. In my experience, it was always wise to obtain an overview of tragedy before being startled by it at close range. But the windows were dark, both because of the dim morning light and the grime from the dirty city streets. I knew that I would need better light and a closer look. I asked for Dan’s flashlight. Moving closer to the glass and bending down to peer into the interior I placed the flashlight against the window glass to the left of my head and activated the switch. Light flooded the interior to reveal the two victims killed by the poisonous carbon monoxide delivered by the crude tube setup.

The female was partially covered by a blanket and I guessed that she was about 22 years of age. Her hair was shoulder length and dark in colour. She had a slim build and was wearing a long sleeve grey top. Her lifeless eyes were open and looking in my direction. A male was beside her, facing toward her, approximately the same age and wearing a T-shirt and jeans. He wore no footwear and neither he nor the female were wearing a coat. This was an indication that they had been warm in the car for some time before the tube was strung from the tailpipe into the interior. Both were handcuffed together and the handcuffs appeared to be secured to the floor.

I turned to Dan, “Handcuffs?”

“I guess that made the decision final,” Dan responded and then added, “we found the handcuff key on the garage floor beside the rear window.”

“Did the Medical Examiner estimate a time of death?” I asked.

“He figures between midnight and 3 AM. That fits with the snowstorm snow accumulation as well.

“Do we know who they are?”

“We have names from their ID and registration from the car. The car belongs to the guy. They’ve got different last names. We haven’t notified next-of-kin yet.”

“Ok, can we head back to your office? I’ll explain the management process as we drive.”

“Yeah sure, I’ll drive with you. Let’s grab a couple of coffee on the way back.”

……… to be continued

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3 thoughts on “Searching for the Truth”

  1. The “why” of it interests me. If mutual suicide, the forensics, less foul play, close the investigation. That level of implied depression, the no-way-out closed circle of youthful perspective is telling. The breakdown of the social contract, family histories, the predispositions need the light of day, as no lives should be in vain. What can you expect from a Sociology major with a psychology minor, the need to know, so we can grow. And all this before the next chapter.

    Like

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