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True Crime: Fall 2019
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True Crime: Fall 2019

By 49thShelf
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New and recent true crime picks.
Murdered Midas

Murdered Midas

A Millionaire, His Gold Mine, and a Strange Death on an Island Paradise
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A gold mine. A millionaire. An island paradise. An unsolved murder. A missing fortune. The story of the infamous Sir Harry Oakes as only Charlotte Gray can tell it
On an island paradise in 1943, Sir Harry Oakes, gold mining tycoon, philanthropist and "richest man in the Empire," was murdered. The news of his death surged across the English-speaking world, from London, the Imperial centre, to the remote Canadian mining town of Kirkland Lake, in the Northern Ontario bush. The murder became celeb …

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The Missing Millionaire

The Missing Millionaire

The True Story of Ambrose Small and the City Obsessed With Finding Him
also available: Paperback

In December 1919, Ambrose Small, the mercurial owner of the Grand Opera House in Toronto, closed a deal to sell his network of Ontario theatres, deposited a million-dollar cheque in his bank account, and was never seen again. As weeks turned to years, the disappearance became the most "extraordinary unsolved mystery" of its time. Everything about the sensational case would be called into question in the decades to come, including the motivations of his inner circle, his enemies, and the police …

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Ambrose Small’s city is still here in pieces. You can find his mansion on a leafy Rosedale street or walk by the trio of skyscrapers he knew so well at King and Yonge. In his day, they were a source of civic pride, among the tallest buildings in the British Empire, and they housed banks and railway offices. A century later, one is a hotel, while the other two are office towers filled with financiers and lawyers, with a mattress shop and pharmacy at street level. His theatre on Adelaide Street was torn down before the Depression, and now there is a glass banking tower in its place, a building so tall that no matter where you are, there it is, pointing to the spot where the story begins. The Grand Opera House.

Ambrose Small knew everyone had secrets. People might say they liked highbrow theatre, but he knew they’d be happy enough to sit in a dark room with a thousand strangers watch­ing a pair of likeable goofs singing ditties of the old country. As the ringmaster of one of Canada’s most powerful theatre networks—headquartered at the Grand Opera House—Small made his millions by catering to humanity’s desire for cheap escape. In 1919, when he was fifty-three years old, he sold it all for $1.75 million. The next day, he vanished from the theatre, never to be seen again.

The people who knew what that Toronto felt like, what it sounded and smelled like, are nearly all gone. The horse manure, coal dust, and factories have disappeared too, but the lilacs and chestnut trees bloom every spring, and the sewer pipes still snake below the ground, so ancient that they sometimes rupture, the past bubbling to the surface. But never Ambrose. Never the solu­tion to the mystery.

If he had been nicer, a theatre critic once said, maybe they would have looked harder for him. A hundred years have hardened the image of Ambrose Small into a vengeful, petty businessman—and he was that, certainly—but there are details buried in newspaper stories that make him seem more of a human being and less of a caricature. He had trouble sleeping. He had a hangnail problem.
Ambrose didn’t crave the spotlight like the actors on his stage. He built hidden rooms at his theatres, paid for indiscre­tions with secret accounts, refused to open his books when he was sued, and grew richer on backroom bets that left no trace.

Like any good theatre man, he knew that audiences love a mystery. When I imagine Ambrose Small, he is laughing at me for thinking I could know him, for thinking I can know how this ends, for thinking this ever ends.

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The Billionaire Murders

The Billionaire Murders

The Mysterious Deaths of Barry and Honey Sherman

A top journalist crosses the yellow tape to investigate a shocking high-society crime.

Billionaires, philanthropists, socialites . . . victims. Barry and Honey Sherman appeared to lead charmed lives. But the world was shocked in late 2017 when their bodies were found in a bizarre tableau in their elegant Toronto home. First described as murder-suicide — belts looped around their necks, they were found seated beside their basement swimming pool — police later ruled it a st …

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Wrong Turn

On the morning of Friday, December 15, 2017, family, friends, and colleagues of Barry and Honey Sherman woke, shook off sleep, and set about their normal routines. But for some, a nagging thought persisted. Something was amiss. An email not returned, an empty desk in the executive office, a vacant seat at a charity boardroom table. At 50 Old Colony Road, in Toronto’s suburban North York, snow was softly dust­ing the ground, melting quickly on the heated driveway and obscuring any footprints that may have been made on the front lawn or unheated steps over the previous two days.

It had been cold, ten degrees below freezing, and as the sun rose behind clouds, it promised to be another grey, wintry day in Canada’s biggest city. Many of the people who owned homes on the street had already flown south to escape the cold weather, so it was not unusual at this time of year for a house in the neigh­bourhood to be quiet. At the rear of the house was an outdoor pool, long closed for the season, a tennis court surrounded by a fence, and two patios. In a basement underneath the tennis court, stretching north on the property, was a lap pool rarely used by the homeowners. In front of the house, one vehicle was parked on the circular driveway, a light gold Lexus SUV that was ten years old. Judging by the snow lining its fenders and windows, it had been there at least overnight. Beside it, on the left, was a long bed of snowball hydrangeas, their withered brown flower heads perked up by little hats of fresh snow. A ramp to the right of the Lexus led down to a closed garage door that opened into a six-car underground garage nestled in the basement of the house with utility and recreation rooms on the ends closest to the road, and the lap pool at the far north end.

At 8:30 a.m., two people arrived on a clockwork schedule: a cleaning lady on her regular Friday visit, and a woman who came twice a week to water the plants in the home. The cleaning lady parked in the centre of the circular drive. The woman who came to water the plants trudged along the street, passing the large For Sale sign at the curb. The house had been on the market three weeks with an asking price of $6.9 million. Just the day before, a Toronto magazine had revealed publicly for the first time that the property was for sale: “Pharma Titan Barry Sherman is selling his modern North York mansion.”

Inside 50 Old Colony, the woman watering the orchids and other plants filled her can and went from room to room. The cleaning lady got busy as well. Hanukkah had begun the previ­ous Tuesday evening and included in her assigned duties today was helping Honey prepare potato latkes, which she would cook later that day at the home of one of the Sherman children. The main floor was 3,600 square feet, anchored by a grand entrance topped with a chandelier and a curved staircase heading up to the second floor. The six-bedroom house, including the expan­sive lower level, was well over 12,000 square feet in total.
Both women began their chores on the main floor. While they were working, a phone rang. The cleaning lady followed the sound into a powder room, where she found an iPhone lying on the tiled floor. By the time she picked up the phone it had stopped ringing. When she moved upstairs, she noticed that the bed in the master bedroom had not been slept in and that the room was unusually tidy. Normally, on cleaning day, the bed was unmade and clothes from the night before were casu­ally strewn on the bed or a chair. The cleaning lady busied her­self dusting surfaces and picture frames.
Around 10 a.m., Elise Stern arrived. Dark-haired, with a thin, angular face, Stern was a twenty-year veteran real estate agent who shared the listing for the house with Judi Gottlieb, who was the senior realtor on the file. Just the other day, Gottlieb had shown the house to two men who struck her as odd ducks. But in her business you met all kinds.

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The Man with the Black Valise

The Man with the Black Valise

Tracking the Killer of Jessie Keith
also available: eBook

The story of one of the vilest murders in Canadian history.

One glorious autumn day in 1894, a drifter attacked thirteen-year-old Jessie Keith so violently that people thought Jack the Ripper must be loose in rural Ontario. To solve the crime, the government called in Detective John Wilson Murray, the true-life model for Detective William Murdoch of the popular TV series Murdoch Mysteries. His prime clue was a black valise.

The Man with the Black Valise traces the killer’s trajectory through thr …

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Chapter 1: Isabella McLeod’s Black Valise

Farmers parked their wagons outside the exhibition hall to deliver their oversized squashes and pumpkins. Rain fell intermittently. The grassy Ausable River flats glistened under low, luminous clouds. Wives carried in homemade butter, canned peaches, and stuffed birds. The next day was Opening Day of the North Middlesex Agricultural Fair, a harvest celebration that marked one of the year’s highlights for the village of Ailsa Craig, a rich farming and cattle centre outside London, Ontario. Only Christmas created more excitement. For the animal competitions, ranchers were preparing their best bulls and heifers. For the poetry recitals, children were rehearsing verses that began, “The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold.” The only concern was for the racetrack. Rainwater was pooling at the lower turn, creating an expanse of mud that threatened to postpone the horse races, one of the fair’s top attractions.

Amédée Chattelle arrived at the fair by chance. He hadn’t known about it. He had been heading to northern Michigan to look for logging work but on hearing that prospects were poor had turned around at Sarnia, at the Ontario-U.S. border. From there, he had begun following mthe Grand Trunk Railway line east toward Toronto, or Ottawa, or maybe Saint-Hyacinthe, Quebec.

Chattelle was a wanderer, a tramp. He had not shaved for several weeks and his greying hair sprouted wildly from his head. His face bore the weathered, dissipated look of homelessness. A low forehead and thick, unexpressive lips lent an impression of dullness, contradicted by a cagey flicker to the eyes. Estimates of his age ranged from thirty-five to fifty. Although of average height, he looked particularly strong and muscular, even among farmers, with a broad back, deep chest, forward-curving shoulders, and thick, meaty hands — hands suggesting “great strength,” the newspapers later said. He appeared formidable but exuded an engaging manner. Some quality in him caused people to stop to talk to him and sometimes offer help.

In Ailsa Craig, one such person was Gordon McEwan, a boy of thirteen or fourteen, the son of a moulder at the local Alexander Brothers foundry. “A bright young boy,” the newspapers later called him. “An unusually bright lad.”

“On October second I met a man near the fairground,” McEwan would confidently testify. “I had with me a walking stick which I had made out of the limb of a tree. I had some talk with the man and finally he asked me for the stick and I gave it to him.”

The exact date was Tuesday, October 2, 1894. That evening, the rain resumed and Chattelle crossed the fairground to the train station and marshalling yards. He slept overnight in a boxcar, and in the morning another man woke him by climbing noisily into the same carriage. The man didn’t look like a tramp, Chattelle said later. He had money and was carrying a bottle of whisky. He gave Chattelle enough change to buy a second bottle, and the two of them started drinking.

“That is where I got drunk,” Chattelle said. “While I was drunk I got out of the car and lost the bundle of clothes somewhere. I had a pair of pants that belonged to my suit, and a pair of new suspenders, and undershirt and trousers; I don’t know where I hid it; I was tight.”

Chattelle never found the extra clothes and never saw the other man again. About noon, he went looking for something to eat. The rain had stopped and the sun was coming out, perfect weather for the fair. He walked through a neighbourhood of large residential lots, many supporting both a house and a small barn for keeping horses and chickens, and perhaps a cow. At a quarter past one, Angus McLean, an engineer at the local Gunn & Co. flax mill, saw the tramp lying on the wet grass next to a walking stick.

“He asked me for a dime,” McLean testified. “I told him I thought he was drunk and did not deserve it.” McLean told Chattelle to move on and he rose unsteadily to his feet. Not long afterward, four blocks away, McLean passed him again, standing with the walking stick in front of Donald and Isabella McLeod’s house. The engineer continued on his way and the drifter crept unseen around the back.

The McLeods, it turned out, had left home a few minutes earlier to attend the fair. Chattelle broke a window, climbed in, and once he had found something to eat started rifling through a chest of drawers containing Mrs. McLeod’s clothes and toiletries. He needed to replace his lost trousers and undershirt, but was drawn instead to the female articles. He was still drunk. He tried on a white petticoat, or woman’s underskirt, along with a navy-blue skirt and a black cashmere waistcoat, or vest, trimmed with flowered satin brocade. On his head, he placed a black bonnet and veil, decorated with small black ostrich-feather tips and a row of jet around the rim. In addition, he picked out a brush and comb, several bars of soap, a white apron, an old pair of girl’s shoes, a second white petticoat that matched the first one, and a man’s black cloth Glengarry cap, or tam-o’-shanter, with a red tassel. He also commandeered a small black suitcase, or valise. Into the bag he put everything he wasn’t wearing. On his way out of the house, he left the walking stick next to the cellar door and picked up a green, or possibly blue, umbrella. He later spoke of the break-in this way:

I went from one house to another and when I came to this house, there was no one in, so I walked in. The woman can’t have been long gone. There I dressed myself up in full uniform, right in the house; in the woman’s uniform, right out and out, the whole business; took it from the bureau and walked right out with it, and put my own clothes in the satchel. I had the green umbrella over my head, and my whiskers were longer than they are now. I passed right through the crowd at the Fair.

Young Gordon McEwan spotted him and recognized him from the day before. “I saw him coming from the bush not very far from Mrs. McLeod’s house,” the boy said. “He was then dressed in women’s clothes. He had on a woman’s bonnet and veil and a black [navy-blue] skirt. I don’t think he had on the waist. He was carrying a valise and a blue umbrella. I had no difficulty in telling who he was, for although he had on women’s clothes anybody could see that he was a man. Mr. Fraser also saw him and so did two little girls who were very much frightened by his appearance.”

Chattelle climbed a fence onto the railway tracks. He tore the white apron into strips and threw them away, along with the umbrella. Still dressed in Mrs. McLeod’s clothes and bonnet, he continued east along the tracks toward Lucan, the next village.

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Starlight Tour

Starlight Tour

The Last, Lonely Night of Neil Stonechild
also available: Paperback

A teen’s suspicious death, a shocking police cover-up and a mother’s search for the truth.

In 1990, on a November night that hit –28 degrees Celsius, seventeen-year-old Neil Stonechild disappeared only blocks from his mother’s home. His frozen body was found three days later, eight kilometres from where he was last seen in downtown Saskatoon. The police investigation was cursory — no one seemed to wonder about the abrasions on his wrists or the scrapes on his face, or the fact that he w …

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Early on the frigid morning of January 9, 1964, a curious four-year-old wandered about his new house, scouting his surroundings. The plain one-storey stucco bungalow at 922 Avenue J North, Saskatoon, consisted of just two bedrooms, a bathroom, front room, kitchen and basement, but after the cramped rental suite where the boy and his family used to stay, it seemed enormous.

Four people lived with the boy, whose name was Donald, although people usually called him Donny. His mother, Margaret Worme, was thirty-eight years old. Donny loved everything about her. He liked the way she dressed, neatly and carefully, even though her life had been tough. Born and raised on the Kawacatoose reserve, an hour’s drive southeast of the city, she’d had four children before Donny’s father had abandoned her. Donny didn’t remember him. Nor did he remember his brother Darren, born almost three years earlier and put up for adoption at nine months old. Margaret knew the people who had happily taken Darren in – a German couple named Winegarden – but the families soon lost touch, even though they lived only a few kilometres apart. Donny’s mother had made an excruciating choice: she’d decided that the best thing for the rest of her children, and for Darren too, was to give her son up, because the money she got from social assistance and the odd cleaning job would never stretch to feed, clothe and house them all.

Donny still had one older brother, Dale, a rambunctious seven-year-old who, as dawn approached, was busy getting ready for school. Also, their Uncle Hilliard was visiting from the Quinton reserve. And Donny’s seventeen-year-old sister, Pat, and her eighteen-month-old toddler, Kim, had moved in.

Donny, an observant little boy with cropped raven hair and intense dark eyes, knew that his sister was sad right now, though she was doing her best to hide it. She’d had a baby girl just four weeks earlier, but she had reluctantly decided to give her daughter up, thinking that surrendering her child might make it easier for her to flee from her husband, Francis Littlechief, who beat her in his frequent drunken rages. When Pat brought Kim to the new house, she left her husband behind, hoping it would be for good.

Dale, for one, was glad Francis hadn’t come; he didn’t like his sister’s husband. Donny had no opinion about Francis one way or the other – Francis had never paid that much attention to him – but he did know that his mother was happy Francis was gone. Even though he had trained as a welder and mechanic’s helper, Francis was often unemployed. But in mid-November he’d left his pregnant wife and their son behind to take on a short-term mill job in Thompson, Manitoba. Margaret had hoped her son-in-law wouldn’t come back. But he’d returned to Saskatoon on Christmas Eve, showing up at the old place and berating Pat about giving up their daughter in his absence.

Francis had made a strange appearance at the new bungalow just a couple of nights ago. As his wife and her family were sitting down to supper, he had barged through the back door and stood by the table for the rest of their meal.

“I want to talk to Pat about the children,” he had said more than once, staring fixedly at Margaret even though Pat was right there. Donny had sat quietly watching. His sister was having none of it. “I don’t want anything to do with you,” she said. Francis didn’t move. When she finally retreated to the bedroom, he followed her. They stayed in there talking for well over an hour, but there was no yelling, and Margaret decided to leave them be. When Francis had come out, he’d sat quietly with Hilliard in the front room watching television for a bit. Then, as abruptly as he’d arrived, he said, “I have to go,” and took off.

– – –

Margaret and Pat were bustling around now, getting ready to face the cold dawn and a day of cleaning houses. Even when she was dressing for menial work, Margaret wore something nice, and that morning she put on the dark brown blouse she liked to wear with her tan skirt and jacket.

In the past twenty-four hours the temperature had sunk to minus twenty-five degrees Celsius. A thick crust of ice had formed around the frame of the back door, sealing it shut. Not even Uncle Hilliard had been able to budge it. Forty years later, Donny would still vividly remember the way the cold forced its way into that little house like something alive.

At about seven-thirty there was a knock at the front door. Margaret’s niece, Marleen, who lived a few blocks away with her husband, John Goosenose, had arrived to babysit Don and Kim while Margaret and Pat went to work. Nineteen years old and nine months pregnant, Marleen headed straight for a chair at the kitchen table; the slightest exertion exhausted her. Once her aunt and cousin were out the door, Marleen packed Dale off to his grade one class at Westmount Community School. Hilliard woke up a little later and, after picking up a few groceries for the house, headed out for the day, leaving Marleen alone with the two little boys.

Much to her relief, the children were content to amuse themselves. Pat returned in the early afternoon. Having given birth so recently, she hadn’t been able to make it through a whole day of house-cleaning. Around four o’clock, Dale came tearing through the front door with the pent-up energy of a seven-year-old who had been cooped up all day in school. Despite the very cold weather, Dale and the little boys pleaded to work on the snowman they had been building in the front yard. Marleen bundled them up well. They lasted twenty minutes outside before they paraded back into the house, trailing snow, wet mitts and icy boots.

Marleen started supper early, frying up slices of bologna and heating some canned tomatoes to go with bread and butter. The vinegary, sweet scent of the tomatoes drifted through the house. Margaret was expected home around six.

– – –

About the same time as Marleen was laying bologna slices in the frying pan, Hilliard was heading to the Ritz Beer Parlour, near the railway station. The winter darkness had already descended. At first he sat by himself, with two glasses of beer in front of him for company, but then he saw Francis Littlechief at a nearby table. Littlechief waved him over to join him and a taxi driver named Fred Peigan. William Popowich, a bartender and a friend of Hilliard, sat down a little later. Each of the four took turns buying rounds for the next hour or so, except for Littlechief, who claimed he was broke.

Littlechief pulled a photo out of his shirt pocket and showed it around the table. “Look at her.” He pointed to Pat, who cradled the newborn baby and had one arm around Kim. “See how pretty she is,” he said, slurring his words and draining his glass. “You know, I just want her back. That’s all. I just want my family back.” Hilliard thought he sounded more concerned than angry. Littlechief had been drinking since eleven in the morning – quite a feat for a guy with no cash. Eventually, not wanting to stand him another round, Hilliard and Popowich made excuses to leave. Littlechief tried to follow his uncle-in-law out, but Hilliard had ducked into the café next door and ditched him. Peeking out into the street, he watched Littlechief look around, puzzled, until he gave up and staggered away.

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Blamed and Broken

Blamed and Broken

The Mounties and the Death of Robert Dziekanski
also available: Paperback

A few fleeting seconds, captured on video, led to a frustrating search for justice tainted by ego, bias, and a desire for vengeance.

Images of Robert Dziekanski convulsing after being shocked by a Mountie’s Taser went viral in 2007. International outrage and domestic shame followed the release of that painful video. It had taken just twenty-six seconds for four Mounties to surround and stun the Polish would-be immigrant at Vancouver International Airport.

A decade later, after millions of doll …

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Chapter 1 | Why Are The Police Not Here?

At first, no one notices him. He’s dressed in tan pants and a windbreaker that’s nearly white. His clothes are loose-fitting and flap as he walks, as if he were covered with a sheet like a Halloween ghost. He could be a ghost, if not for the luggage cart he’s pushing toward the meeting area of Vancouver International Airport. There aren’t many people here to notice him, anyway. It’s nearly one on a Sunday morning. Flights have all but ceased. The normally crowded greeting hall is now populated by perhaps a dozen tired-looking figures dressed for the city’s mid-October chill. Bleary-eyed, most are patiently focused on the swinging glass doors that automatically open as each newly arrived passenger emerges from the International Reception Lobby, known as the IRL. The IRL is a semi-secure part of the airport, just outside the cavernous high-security hall that houses baggage carousels, Customs, and Immigration. Beyond the one-way glass doors on the public side, there are repeated scenes of welcome: parents hugging children, reunited partners kissing, and friends shaking hands. The touching sentiments are brief in these wee hours and most head quickly toward the exit and home, arm-in-arm or holding hands.

No one is waiting for the invisible man as he approaches the automatic doors with three suitcases piled neatly on his cart. As he crosses the threshold, the doors close behind him. He follows the long walkway marked by a wood and steel railing, which ends in the public greeting hall. He pauses briefly. His head moves from side to side as if he’s scanning for something or someone. Instead of heading for the exit he turns his cart sharply and almost trips as he steers his luggage back toward the glass wall from behind which he had just appeared. A few minutes later, the man hoists his bags from his cart up and over the railing, piling them on the floor by the automatic doors, like a barricade. Once over the railing himself, he begins hitting the glass doors with his hands. He is no longer invisible. People turn and stare.

The banging reverberates to a section of the hall where a young man is stretched out on a row of bench chairs. Paul Pritchard is trying to get some sleep after several seemingly interminable flights from Shenzhen, China. A rootless traveller at twenty-five, Pritchard has been on the road for years, having left his home in Victoria, B.C., at eighteen. Pritchard was teaching English in China when his father called him to say the lung cancer he was battling was terminal, and could Paul come home? Hours earlier he had made it to San Francisco to catch a connecting flight to Vancouver.

Pritchard has never been one to embrace convention or authority — as a teen he had encounters with the police. He used a fake university degree and bogus teaching certificate to land the job in China. Pritchard routinely refuses to stand in line while planes are boarding. As fate would have it, as he sat waiting for the Vancouver flight lineup to shorten, he fell asleep in a chair right beside the gate. He awoke half an hour later. The plane was gone. The only other flight he could get put him in Vancouver long past the deadline to catch the last ferry to Vancouver Island, where his father waited in Victoria.

Pritchard has no money for a hotel room, so he crashes on the benches in the airport terminal with his big blue backpack. In countless ways, Pritchard’s long-standing suspicion of authority and penchant for shortcuts has carved the path that has brought him to this moment. Unable to sleep, Pritchard stands up to get a better look at the spectacle unfolding by the glass doors.

In 2007, cellphones are not nearly as ubiquitous as they are today. Those that have built-in cameras can manage to record only notoriously bad, pixilated images. The first iPhone, which has a slightly better resolution, isn’t on the market in Canada yet. Pritchard is not using his phone to record the scene, however; he is making use of the digital camera he bought for his travels. He instinctively grabs it, but doesn’t turn it on.

As Pritchard looks on, he strikes up a conversation with a traveller from Texas, who is just as curious about why the hell that guy is banging on the glass. They are trading thoughts and speculation, when a man in a suit with his hands in his pockets strides up to the peculiar scene. Lorne Meltzer wants to get through the doors that are now blocked by suitcases and their increasingly irrational owner. Meltzer is a limo driver here to pick up a client coming in on a flight from New York City. Meltzer has an access card that allows him to open the swinging glass doors so he can wait in the IRL for his fare. He approaches just as the wild-eyed man smashes a chair against the glass.

“Hold on!” Meltzer yells, as he reaches inside his coat for his access card. The man clenches his fist as if anticipating Meltzer’s hand will emerge from his jacket gripping a weapon. Meltzer thinks that on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the point at which the man is ready to attack, this guy is at nine. Meltzer swipes his card on the reader. The doors open.

When the man doesn’t budge, Meltzer loses it. “Look you fuckin’ asshole, I need to get through here,” Meltzer yells, just inches from the man’s face, which is now glistening with perspiration. The man’s black hair is matted with sweat. His eyes are glassy. He slowly backs down and starts hauling his bags through the open doors. He begins to build a makeshift barricade on the threshold using his luggage and some stools from a dark and deserted information counter beside the doorway.

Why am I not filming this? Pritchard suddenly thinks. Years of travel have taught him to point a camera at anything that might be worth a look later on.

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Murder by Milkshake

Murder by Milkshake

An Astonishing True Story of Adultery, Arsenic, and a Charismatic Killer

Finalist for Bill Duthie Booksellers' Choice Prize (BC Book Prizes); Crime Writers of Canada Arthur Ellis Award; City of Vancouver Book Award

When forty-year-old Esther Castellani died a slow and agonizing death in Vancouver in 1965, the official cause was at first undetermined. The day after Esther's funeral, her husband, Rene, packed up his girlfriend, Lolly; his daughter, Jeannine; and Lolly's son, Don, in the company car and took off for Disneyland. If not for the doggedness of the doctor who …

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First Degree

First Degree

From Med School to Murder: The Story Behind the Shocking Will Sandeson Trial
also available: eBook
tagged : courts

A murder, a missing body, and a sensational trial that shocked the community. Will Sandeson seemed like a model son. A member of the Dalhousie University track and field team, he was about to start classes at Dalhousie's medical school. He had attended a medical school in the Caribbean; he worked at a group home for adults with disabilities. "There's times for whatever reason that things don't go quite as planned," a Halifax police officer told Sandeson shortly after he was arrested for the firs …

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Bad Cop

Then there's a knock on the door. Allison leaves and another officer enters. This is different. He's not patient, like Corporal Allison, but firm, almost angry, from the outset. He's physically bigger too, tall, with a commanding presence.

"Will, remember me—Detective Constable [Roger] Sayer? I spoke to you last night. Remember that?"


"I told you last night that I was one of the lead investigators on this file, and I've been here all day, all night, all week, okay. I've been watching you all day, and you've done nothing since I first saw you yesterday but lie. I told you that evidence would show that, and it has been doing it all day, and we haven't stopped collecting evidence. Do you understand that, Will?"


"Have not stopped. And you sit in here and you keep going on and lying and lying and lying, and you don't need to. You need to get past that. That needs to stop." He points to the growing pile of photos and documents on the floor and explains that so far the evidence disproves everything Sandeson has told police.

"Blood evidence. People come in and take twenty pounds of weed and $40,000 and they leave you what-—a damage deposit? Not to mention the stack of twenties that's found in your bathroom underneath the garbage bag in your garbage can. Will, you need to start to get your head right, 'cause you think all this bullshit you're laying down, you think you're smarter than everybody that's working on this, you're making a very drastic mistake. Drastic."

Sandeson is quiet, listening intently.

"Jody believes in you. I tried to tell him 'cause I was in here last night and I saw what was what, but he believes that what you're trying to say is true. I don't."

It's clear Sayer is playing the "bad cop" in the "good cop/bad cop" scenario.

Sayer picks up a photo. "There's blood on this table that somebody cleaned up and, like they always do because they all think they're smarter than they are, you wiped the top but don't think of the side. What's that going to be tested for?"

"dna," Sandeson barely squeaks out.

"dna," Sayer confirms.

"More blood," announces Sayer. "Blood on the chair. There's blood in your bathroom, on the floorboards, on the curtain. Your own words were that it happened in your kitchen area. How'd all that blood get in your bathroom?"

Sandeson keeps his eyes to the floor.

"Will, look at me. You're in here crying and going on, and you know what happened. There is nothing that I have seen in here today that suggests anybody showed up at that place. Nothing. That video runs for over an hour. No one comes, no one leaves. Then your system is turned off. If you think that people are that stupid, you're fooling yourself."

Sandeson is still silent.

"Listen, buddy, you don't have to be Colombo to figure out that between 11:33 and 1 a.m., when that system was turned off, is when he left—however he left."

Sayer tells Sandeson they've also seized his car. "How much of that do you think we need to find to get dna," he asks, smacking a photograph of blood.

"Less than a drop," Sandeson replies meekly.

"Yup," Sayer responds. "And when we check your car, what if his dna's in there? What's your story then? These mystery people made you drive him away?"

And then the interrogation takes another turn. "You're a liar, cold, calculating, and lying." He jabs at a photograph again, this one of Taylor Samson. "Where is this man? Where is he, Will? What happened in your apartment?"

Sandeson sniffles and bows his head.

"Don't put your head down, man. Where is he?" He thrusts the photo of Samson under Sandeson's eyes. "What did you do to this man?"

He runs down the evidence police already have against him.

"You're lying, man. You've been lying all day." It's now coming up on six o'clock in the evening.

"When you're in this room with people who are innocent, they kick and scream, bud."

Sandeson hangs his head.

"I heard him ask you a hundred times, 'Who's the name?' You crying and blowing in the Kleenex," he mocks, "like you're some kind of victim. You're a predator, bud."

Sayer's voice is aggressive, but slow and deliberate.

"I want to bring that man home to his family. Where is he?"

There is no crying now.  

"You're done, bud. Done. There's no going past that, but you can do something right."

Sandeson still says nothing.            

There's a knock on the door. Sayer gathers up the photos he's spread over the floor of the interrogation room. He places the one of Taylor and his brother on the chair and sets it in front of William Sandeson. "I'm going to leave and watch you push that away." He walks out.

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