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The hunters and the haunted

For retired cops, there is always one case that still keeps them up at night.

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They spent much of their lives dealing with some of the worst society has to offer.

Grisly murder scenes, horrific child abuse, violent gang members and dangerous domestic situations were among their daily challenges.

It’s no secret being a police officer means dealing with plenty of emotional baggage that can’t simply be unloaded at the end of a shift.

Or even a career, as it turns out.

The Free Press caught up with four well-known former Winnipeg cops to ask one simple question: "What was the case that stayed on your mind and kept you awake?"

Not surprisingly, turning in your badge doesn’t mean turning off the memories. And it’s clear the sleepless nights have continued well into retirement — especially when it comes to cases that dealt with society’s most vulnerable.

"Sleepless nights are the life of any police officer and maybe even more so when retired and constantly reminded that nothing much has changed in regards to violent crime," says Bill VanderGraaf.

Bob Paquin still remembers the hot sun shining down that Friday afternoon in October 1983. He was working as street supervisor in the traffic division when the call came in for a North End traffic accident.

It was rush hour. Paquin was the only unit available to respond.

A little boy, while sitting on the curb next to his bicycle, had been run over by a vehicle. He was being rushed to hospital in grave condition. And the motorist had fled the scene.

Paquin began canvassing the neighbourhood, desperate for a licence plate or description of the driver.

"Nobody had seen or heard anything," he recalls.

Paquin then went to the Health Sciences Centre, where he was led into the emergency room by a masked and gowned nurse. What he saw next remains forever burned into his memory.

"There, lying face up was the lifeless body of a young innocent child," says Paquin.

Bradley Bluecoat was only eight years old.

Paquin went home that night, furious that the cowardly killer had gotten away.

"I crept into my seven-year-old son’s bedroom and looked down upon my sleeping son. He was the spitting image of Bradley," Paquin recalls. "With tears in my eyes I said a prayer thanking God that my son was safe and warm in his bed surrounded by his teddy bears and the family who loved him."

It’s been 30 years since the boy was run down. Paquin says he’s still haunted by the fact nobody has ever been arrested.

"I often think about this young boy and try to imagine what he would have grown up to become," he says. "Will this case ever be solved? I doubt it very much, but I do know that the suspect will someday have to answer to a higher authority and explain his cowardice."

It was Christmas morning, 1987. Bill VanderGraaf was enjoying quality time with his giddy two young children when the phone rang.

Agnes Kirk-Kirton, her five-year-old daughter Sarah and 18-month-old son Evan had been gunned down inside their townhouse hours earlier. An execution of three innocents.

VanderGraaf called in to offer help with the manhunt for the two killers, believed to be collecting a drug debt from Kirk-Kirton’s husband — who managed to duck out a window and escape.

Eventually the two accused were caught and VanderGraaf was assigned to interrogate the suspected gunman, Larry Fisher. It proved to be a gruelling 10-hour ordeal, the most challenging of a 29-year career that ended in 2001.

"When you have a man accused repeatedly in various fashions, that he is a woman and baby killer, and he remains completely silent and emotionless for that length of time, you know he is cold blooded," says VanderGraaf.

He spent several days submerging himself in Winnipeg’s shadowy drug sub-culture convincing several witnesses to co-operate with the investigation, which ultimately paved the way for murder convictions against both accused.

"One would think that in the drug underworld, the police would be stymied in conducting interview," says VanderGraaf. "Quite the contrary in this case, such people were equally outraged and more then helpful."

VanderGraaf says it was this case, more than any other, that changed his views on drugs. He now serves as a speaker and director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

"This case and many many others since on our streets, are not the result of illegal drug use but the prohibition of drugs. That should be changed to proper social health policies, with control and regulation to stop this kind of slaughter," says VanderGraaf.

James Jewell says it was the toughest call he ever had to make.

It was November 1998 and an angry Daniel Younger had just kidnapped his girlfriend’s two-year-old son, Randy Grisdale.

Younger was in custody. But the smug, defiant young man was refusing to tell Jewell where he’d hidden the boy.

"It was a gun-wrenching paradox. Do I beat (Younger) to get information that could potentially save a child’s life or go by the book to ensure (Younger) is held accountable for his crime?" Jewell recalls.

"In the end I know I did the right thing and can live with the decision, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t occasionally struggled with varying degrees of doubt."

Jewell played it straight. And by the time other officers eventually found Randy sitting in a parked van wearing only a diaper and shirt, he had succumbed to the frigid temperatures. Younger was eventually convicted of murder and given a life sentence.

"This was the remorseless killing of an innocent child," says Jewell, who spent 26 years with Winnipeg police before retiring in 2012. Eight of those years were spent in homicide, where Jewell worked over 200 cases. This one continues to stand out, although he now finds himself in retirement often going through every facet of many investigations.

"To be successful in homicide investigation you have to be prepared to commit an extraordinary amount of time and energy to the job. That means sacrificing what most people would call a normal life," says Jewell.

"When you are ‘in the game,’ family time is the first casualty. Retirement for me meant putting things back in perspective and re-focusing that energy on my wife and children."

Like many ex-cops, Bob Marshall can’t stop thinking about the one that got away. In this case, the heartless killer of a young boy and the toll the case has taken on so many people.

Marshall says he has "second-guessed himself" more times than he cares to remember about his handling of the Jason McQuaker homicide.

Jason had just celebrated his 12th birthday in June 1988 when he vanished from Thunder Bay. Much of the suspicion fell on the boy’s father, Barry, who was well-known to police for several petty offences and was in the middle of a separation with his wife.

But there was no evidence — and no body — and the trail grew cold.

Marshall got involved in the case in 1991 when he arrested Barry in Winnipeg following a crime spree which included bank robberies in B.C., Alberta and Manitoba. In an interview, Barry made a stunning confession.

"I buried him. My son, he’s not missing. I buried him. I didn’t kill him. I found him dead. I didn’t know what to do. I took him and buried him out of town."

Marshall, his partner and Barry McQuaker jumped on a plane to Thunder Bay, where he led them to a remote location in the bush where the boy’s remains were unearthed.

Barry would ultimately be charged with obstructing justice and interfering with a dead body, but was never charged with the homicide. He swore up and down he only found the boy, already dead and sexually assaulted, and buried him so his wife wouldn’t find out what happened.

No arrest has ever been made. The cold case remains unsolved.

"The term closure is often over-used and may be inappropriate, but a full and proper conclusion would at least bring some small measure of justice for an innocent boy who was taken forever a quarter century ago this month," says Marshall, who ended his 27 year policing career in 2004.

"I think about the case a lot, weekly, and how nobody’s been held to account for the death of a young boy and the tremendous toll the death has taken on so many other innocent people, especially his mother and family members who were so close to him."

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