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Dark Ambition

Dark Ambition

The Twisted Pact of Serial Killers Dellen Millard & Mark Smich
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Some Kind of Hero

Love, Death and Trauma in a Nova Scotia Town
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Cold Case North

Cold Case North

The Search for James Brady and Absolom Halkett
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Drop Dead

Drop Dead

A Horrible History of Hanging in Canada
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Celebrating Confederation: Three Hangings in the First Year
Modiste Villebrun and Sophie Boisclair were desperately in love. The burly lumberjack and his paramour yearned to spend the rest of their lives together. There was just one problem. They were both married — to other people. What were they to do? They lived in the small, conservative French Catholic community of St-Zéphirin, Quebec. In 1867, divorce would have been inconceivable. The church saw to that. They just had to come up with another strategy.
They chose murder.
The first results seemed quite promising. Granted, there were some whispers in the community when Villebrun’s wife, who had reportedly been in excellent health just a few days earlier, died suddenly. The gossip came to nothing, and the lovers were emboldened to press on. Things changed radically, however, when Boisclair’s husband, François-Xavier Jutras, died soon after. To the plotters’ great misfortune, Jutras had fallen acutely ill on a few occasions prior to his death. Suffering from convulsions and abdominal and neck pains, he consulted a doctor. The physician became very, very suspicious when his patient died. An autopsy showed that Jutras’s demise had been caused by strychnine poisoning.
The lovers were accused of murdering Jutras. They were tried separately, each of them by judge and twelve-man jury, in the nearby town of Sorel. By this time, people were paying a lot more attention to Villebrun and Boisclair’s goings-on. As the Crown attorney said in his opening address at Villebrun’s trial: “There is no doubt that the two accused committed the crime of adultery. It does not necessarily follow that a person who forgets God’s commandment ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ will forget the one that says ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but when you are on the downward slope of vice, you do not know where you will end up.”
The trial took ten days, but the jury needed only five minutes to find Villebrun guilty of murder. And the only possible sentence was death by hanging.
Then it was Boisclair’s turn. She, too, was found guilty, but before the judge could pronounce her penalty, she dropped a bombshell.
“Sir,” she told the clerk of the court, “I do not want the sentence of death to be delivered at the present time, because I am pregnant.” Sure enough, as was customary, a specially convened jury of married women and a court-appointed doctor examined her and confirmed her pregnancy.
As Jeffrey Pfeifer and Kenneth Leyton-Brown point out in Death by Rope: An Anthology of Canadian Executions, the two murderers should have been executed together, which might have led to a reprieve for both of them until after the child was born. In the end, Villebrun’s execution went ahead as planned, and on May 3, 1867, he was led to the scaffold alone. Ten thousand people turned up at his public execution. In a weird twist, Boisclair also witnessed the event, albeit reluctantly. The window of her cell overlooked the square where the gallows had been set up.
The British parliament passed the British North America Act creating the Dominion of Canada in March 1867. Even though this execution took place two months before actual Confederation, it is, somewhat confusingly, officially listed as the first hanging in the new nation.
Boisclair escaped the noose. When her baby was born several months later, her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment on the recommendation of the minister of justice. She was locked away for twenty years in the Kingston Penitentiary in Ontario.
Sophie Boisclair was described by a surgeon as “of unsound mind” when she was finally released into the care of her son in 1887. Time has fogged so many details of these early cases, but how tempting it is to speculate that this was the same child whose birth had rescued her from the gallows in 1867.

Ethan “Saxey” Allen was an ex-convict originally from Detroit, Michigan. The Detroit Post described him as “a hard character … always found with bad associates” and “rather notorious as a rough and a gambler.” He became the leader of a four-man gang that robbed banks and plundered businesses along the Canadian shore of Lake Ontario, always one step ahead of the frustrated police.
The Allen Gang’s luck ran out in the early hours of September 22, 1867; so did that of Cornelius Driscoll. Driscoll, employed for twenty-four years at the Morton Brewery and Distillery in Kingston, Ontario, had started working as their night watchman just two weeks previously.
The gang broke into Morton’s with sledgehammers and crowbars in search of $2,500, which they knew was locked away in the safe. When Driscoll came to investigate the noise, Allen killed him with a sledgehammer. Early the following morning, a local resident found the dead man lying in the distillery yard, and the hunt was on. The gang members fled with their loot, but they were tracked down and arrested in a hotel in Watertown, New York.
The criminals were brought back to Kingston and tried at the Frontenac County Court House. Allen was convicted of murder, although the jury added a recommendation for mercy. The judge did not share the jurors’ merciful sentiments, informing Allen that he held out no hope for pardon. Two of Allen’s accomplices got nine- and ten-year sentences in the Kingston Penitentiary for manslaughter.
The Detroit Post said at the time that the murder “was one of the most cold blooded and brutal affairs of the kind on record,” but it does look as though Allen had a change of heart before he went to the gallows at the Frontenac County Gaol behind the courthouse on December 11. Asked by the sheriff if he had anything to say, he replied: “No, nothing at all. Only I hope that my fate will be a warning to others.” He refused to have the customary black hood (called a “cap”) pulled over his head and, as the hangman pulled the bolt, he said “Lord, have mercy on me,” before dropping to his death.
Legend tells of a ghost that stalked the Morton Brewery and Distillery for many years thereafter. The spirit of Cornelius Driscoll, the watchman who was bludgeoned to death on that September night in 1867, continued to patrol the hallways, checking all the locks.

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Missing from the Village

Missing from the Village

The Story of Serial Killer Bruce McArthur, the Search for Justice, and the System That Failed Toronto's Queer Community
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Ottawa is quiet in the summer. Though it is normally a vibrat­ing hive of journalists, politicians, and staffers, the city settles in the doldrums of summer. Legislators empty the nation’s capital around June, migrating back to their home ridings, to see and be seen with constituents at barbecues and block parties. Staffers take long-awaited vacations or hole up in air-conditioned offices to prepare war plans. Reporters, who usually scramble about to chase down government ministers through the ornate stone hall­ways of Parliament, relish the tranquillity and spend the summer trying to catch up on forgotten work and passion projects.

But this year—2015—there’s an election underway, which many expect would set Ottawa alight. Not so. Unlike American races, Canadian elections don’t generally last for more than a month and a half. Election day, now, is still five months away, meaning the pacing is absolutely glacial. There’s also some conventional wisdom: the best place in the country to be if you want to avoid poli­tics during an election is Ottawa. My title says I’m Parliamentary Reporter for VICE News, but there’s not much politics to be reporting on.

So on a languid, humid Thursday in July, I swivel in my chair. I stare out at the grey cubicles that line my office space, on the third floor of the capital’s Parliament buildings. My desk is the one closest to the window, on the aisle second from the left. The sur­rounding desks look more or less as mine does—piled high with papers, books, newspapers. The room is tucked off a long marble hallway. A few doors down, to the left, is the well-adorned Senate chamber. To the right, farther down the hall, is the House of Commons. The well-placed office space is set aside for reporters in the Parliamentary Press Gallery. It’s commonly referred to as the Hot Room, a name inherited from a time when the building was so replete with journalists that you’d have to loosen your tie and dab the sweat off your brow. It was so packed that tables had to be set up in the hallway to accommodate the reporters.

On this summer day, it is anything but packed. Hot, though, it is. I’m practically hugging the air conditioner next to my desk. I zone out, my gaze focusing somewhere beyond the yellowing framed photos of political journalists who worked here decades before, out through the tall windows, overlooking the waterfall that feeds into the Ottawa River.

With the political world hibernating, I’m racking my brain for a new project.

And then, a thought jumps into my head. It’s a sudden shock, like being jolted awake at night with the sudden realization you’ve left the oven on. I can picture the headline, one I saw years prior. A story about men who had been disappeared from the Gay Village in Toronto.

On this quiet afternoon, I grope around in the dark, trying to recall details. All three were brown-skinned, right? They were in the closet—or, maybe not all of them. Were they last seen at the Black Eagle?

I can see the outlines of three portraits of the men. Brown-skinned. Bearded. Middle-aged. But the portraits are a little too far away, and it’s a little too dark, to really make out their faces. But I can tell just how similar all three looked. I remember a gut feeling, from when I read that story: serial killer.

I snap back to reality and open up the best memory aid for our collective psyche: Google. I try some vague search terms—missing men Toronto. Too broad. Missing gay men. Still too broad. Missing men Toronto Gay Village.

The second hit is the story I’m thinking of. “Piecing together the story of three missing men from Toronto’s gay village,” the head­line reads. June 8, 2013. It’s on Xtra, Canada’s main gay news outlet. Underneath the main photo is the smiling face of Andrea Houston. Her bright pink hair matches the brilliant rose hue of the website’s banner. I wrote for Xtra for years and got to know Andrea very well.

More details are emerging about three missing men who vanished from the Church-Wellesley Village.

Toronto Police Service investigators say the three missing-persons cases are connected through “similar ethnicities.” Detective Deb Harris, who is leading the investigation, says the three men were not all openly gay. “They frequented the Church and Wellesley area and lived similar lifestyles.”

That word, lifestyle, always makes me cringe when it’s applied to queer folk. As though it were describing a love for crochet or Caribbean cruises. It strikes me that collapsing such a core part of some­one’s identity into a signifier as fleeting as a lifestyle also robs police and the public of a vital piece of the picture. A detail that could help tie cases together and expose trends.

But here were the personal details of all three men. Skandaraj “Skanda” Navaratnam: Last seen, September 6, 2010. Abdulbasir  “Basir” Faizi: Last seen, December 29, 2010. Majeed “Hamid” Kayhan: Last seen, October 14, 2012.

Skanda “left a new puppy,” a police spokesperson said. Basir had called his wife to say “I’m coming home late tonight,” his sister reported. Hamid “just disappeared off the face of the Earth,” recalled a drinking buddy.

I hit Back and scroll through the search results again, reading through a dozen other news stories.

Navaratnam was last seen leaving a bar on Church Street. . . .

Faizi’s car was found in the Leaside neighbourhood. . . .

Kayhan was last seen at a family wedding. . . .

Those stories are all from 2013.

I start poring over the stories: had police made an arrest?

In the two years since, there has been almost nothing. No tri­umphant police press conference, announcing they had caught a serial killer. Alternatively, no quiet announcement that any of the three men had been found.

A local newspaper in Mississauga, near where Basir lived, fol­lowed up on his story in 2015 reiterating his family’s plea to see Basir come home. The South Bayview Bulldog, a community paper serving the Leaside neighbourhood, published a story some months later, wondering why Basir’s car had wound up where it did. No other media—not one of Canada’s major newspapers or television stations—had revisited the incredibly troubling story of the missing men. Nor would they, until years later.

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Wish You Were Here

Wish You Were Here

A Murdered Girl, a Brother's Quest and the Hunt for a Serial Killer
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For the many Catholic residents of Quebec, it is Good Friday, a day to ritually lament the death of the Messiah. Sorrow then yields to joy: Easter is coming, and so is the hesitant spring. Water trickles through lacy matrixes of ice. Mud squelches beneath boots. Plump red robins alight in the branches of maple and oak trees. In the southern reaches of the province, above the Vermont border, a thirty-year-old man named Robert Ride goes about his annual spring routine of setting and baiting muskrat traps before joining his family for lunch.
The furry rodents are abundant in marshy areas, fond of still or slow-moving water. Ride has been at it all morning, tucking small wire traps into the banks of the gentle Massawippi and Coaticook Rivers as winter softens its grip on their soils. In his pickup truck, he travels south from the town of Waterville to the village of Compton Station, which consists of little more than a grain elevator. From there, he heads east on chemin de la Station to the floor of the Coaticook Valley and pulls over near the entrance to a farm. In the summer and fall, the muskrats here nibble on the cornstalks adjacent to the shores of the Coaticook River, then burrow into its silted banks. Ride sets more traps and continues another fifty metres down the road, slowing his truck just before a small service bridge. Another good spot. There is a pond formed by the spring runoff draining from the fields. The rains have fallen hard this April.
Ride climbs over the guardrail and slide-walks down the steep embankment. He doesn’t carry supplies. He has trapped here before, and leaves a stash of materials in the underbrush next to the pond. He walks a short distance from the road toward a large oak tree. To his left is the cornfield, with the farmhouse off in the distance. To his right are the edges of the pond, with the village of Compton thataway eastward a kilometre or so. Ride retrieves the cord of wire he uses for trapping from the base of the oak tree. He can see tiny paw prints in the mud. He begins to set traps. About thirty metres back from the road, Ride stops. A tree branch has broken off during a winter storm and collapsed down the bank. Trying to figure out a way around the large limb, Ride glances to the right and sees something in the water, tangled amongst the fallen branches. It is a mannequin, lying face down. The skin is grey. The hair is matted. It is clothed only in a bra and underwear. He is confounded. Right some Jesus queer! Who would toss a department-store mannequin into a cornfield in the middle of nowhere? Some pranking kids?
Leaning closer, he grapples with a more astonishing discovery. He is looking at a person. A dead woman. A woman died here and wasn’t buried. She lies here in perfect stillness, without warm clothes on, accompanied by frost and muskrats and rain.
For thirty years, Robert Ride would be so disturbed by this wrongness, this sense of defilement against all that is sacred, that he believed the police would blame him, that by merely witnessing her here, it was—or should be—somehow his fault.
By noon, the pond had become a crime scene. Detectives Roch Gaudreault and Guy Lessard of the Sûreté du Québec, Eastern Townships division, stumped through the mud and cornstalks accompanied by Coroner Michel Durand and a mobile forensics unit. SQ Agent Normand Grégoire took photographs and drew a map: the bridge was precisely 17.8 metres long and 8.6 metres wide. Halfway between the bridge and the farm entrance, he sketched a tractor entrance that allowed access to the cornfield. The body lay exactly 34 metres back from the bridge, and 38 metres from the tractor entrance, on a straight trajectory. She had walked or been dragged from the road. Detectives broke into teams to search the field. They came across a green garbage bag, in which they found women’s clothing, including a pink sweater. In the cornfield, they found two torn pieces of a knee-length green scarf. One piece lay 15.3 metres from the tractor entrance. The other lay 16.4 metres farther away, and 25.3 metres from the body.
A tractor entrance, a dropped scarf, a second scattered piece of scarf, and all of it along the same curving trajectory towards a body lying face-down in ten inches of spring runoff. There was a watch on her left wrist and a ring on her left forefinger. She wore earrings. There were, Coroner Durand observed and wrote down, what appeared to be marks of strangulation around her neck.
The coroner noted additional bruise marks under both armpits, suggesting that she had still been alive, if unconscious or dying, when she was dragged through the field. It was, he estimated, the body of a girl between seventeen and eighteen, about five foot five and weighing around 120 pounds. These details roughly corresponded with the age, height and weight of Theresa Allore, who had gone missing from her college residence in Compton on November 3, 1978. That would need to be confirmed.
As the body was whisked to the morgue in the nearby city of Sherbrooke, investigators tried to track down Theresa’s brother Andre, who also attended Champlain College. But he was away for Easter, as were her close friends, so the Sûreté du Québec corralled three nervous students who barely knew her to gaze wincingly at the remains. Abruptly confronted with a water-soaked, decomposed corpse, the teenagers couldn’t say—they didn’t know. Finally, toward the supper hour, Corporal Gaudreault located Theresa’s father, who was visiting family in the small Ontario town in which his daughter had been born nineteen years earlier: Trenton, a two-hour drive east of Toronto along the shore of Lake Ontario.
The detective told Bob Allore they’d found a body and thought it was his daughter. Gaudreault described the watch and the ring, the earrings. He didn’t mention the strangulation marks. He never would, nor would any police officer. He asked Mr. Allore to travel immediately to Montreal, where an autopsy would be performed once he had identified his only daughter.
So began one loving, thoughtful family’s descent into hell. There would be no resurrection this Easter, only a story that would take forty years to unravel and tell.

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