Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

System failed, woman slain

Man charged in killing let go twice by police

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RCMP admitted yesterday they had two chances to arrest a man who walked away from a St. Norbert treatment centre six weeks before he was charged with killing Sheryl Anne Zechel, his common-law wife. Sgt. Steve Saunders said an internal investigation has been launched into why an arrest warrant wasn't issued for Andre Eugene Lahaie when he left the Behavioural Health Foundation Sept. 20.

A charge of breaching his bail conditions by leaving the drug and alcohol treatment centre without permission appeared for the first time yesterday on a court docket.

A judge had released Lahaie on bail Aug. 4 after he was charged with assaulting and threatening Zechel, according to court documents obtained by the Free Press.

He was ordered not to move from the drug and alcohol treatment facility without permission from the courts, and to have no contact with Zechel.

Lahaie, a Lake Winnipeg commercial fisherman, is innocent of the charges against him until they are proven in court.

A patrolling RCMP officer spot-checked Lahaie, 32, on Sept. 23 as he hitchhiked on Hwy. 11 near Pinawa, Saunders confirmed yesterday. Saunders was responding to inquiries from the Free Press, which obtained the information from justice sources.

Saunders said the Mountie could not find any information on the police computer about Lahaie and that "no street-enforceable conditions" existed against him.

"He was allowed to continue on his way," Saunders said.

Lahaie later walked into the Ontario Provincial Police detachment in Ignace, Ont., on Sept. 24, apparently to give himself up, Saunders said.

Saunders said OPP contacted RCMP in Manitoba and could find no information that Lahaie was supposed to be residing at the Behavioural Health Foundation or that he had left, as there was no warrant issued for his rearrest.

Again, he was allowed to leave without arrest.

The next contact RCMP had with Lahaie was last Sunday when he walked into the Gimli RCMP detachment with three young children.

Shortly after, Mounties in Lac du Bonnet went to a home on Park Avenue in that community, where they found the body of Zechel, 40. An autopsy revealed she had died of asphyxiation.

Saunders said it was not known how long the internal investigation will take or if its findings will be immediately made public.

"We're conducting a formal administrative review, done by a senior ranking member of the RCMP," he said.

Saunders said he couldn't comment in detail on which rural detachment is the focus of the probe or who was responsible for not processing the paperwork needed to issue the arrest warrant.

Jean Doucha, assistant director of the Behavioural Health Foundation, said in an earlier interview she could not speak about Lahaie's case because of privacy restrictions.

However, Doucha said that as soon as it's discovered that someone has left the centre, staff fax a notification to the Crown's office, the courts and the arresting police agency, either Winnipeg police or the specific RCMP detachment.

"We do that without fail," she said.

Police and court sources said the normal process is that the police agency that arrested the suspect would be notified by the courts of any new court-imposed restrictions or conditions against an accused.

Saunders said he couldn't comment on whether that happened with Lahaie -- whether Gimli RCMP knew he was sent to the Behavioural Health Foundation and if they were notified by the foundation that he had walked away.

"That is forming part of our review," Saunders said.

Zechel's father, Harvey, said yesterday he's aware of the RCMP's internal investigation, but added he does not want to point any fingers. His son, Sheryl's sister, is an RCMP officer in another province.

Harvey Zechel said his daughter was partly to blame for the situation she found herself in with Lahaie.

"She was 40 years old," he said. "She made her choices, too. My daughter was not completely innocent."

Zechel said his daughter, a mother of five children and former City of Winnipeg worker, was estranged from the family and had moved to Lac du Bonnet from Gimli at the end of August so her children could start at a new school. Lahaie is the father of two of the children.

No contact

He said Lahaie had been living at the home in Lac du Bonnet for several weeks before his daughter's death.

"If two people want to decide to get together, they are going to get together, no matter how much court papers there are," he said. "There are always ways to get together."

Under Lahaie's bail conditions, he was to have no contact with Zechel. The Crown did not oppose his release to the St. Norbert centre.

Lahaie had been charged Aug. 4 by Gimli RCMP for assault, uttering threats and mischief in an incident involving Zechel, according to court documents.

He was also under a probation order not to have contact with the woman after pleading guilty in March to assaulting her.

Zechel said yesterday the family doesn't blame anyone for the events leading up to his daughter's death. She was buried Thursday in River Hills near Seven Sisters and her children have been placed with family.

"My daughter always wanted to try and get back together with him, no matter what had happened before. She had an illness and she didn't want to be alone. She thought she could make it work. But she was sometimes difficult to be with.

"I guess a lot of things could've been done by a lot of people, including me, to change what happened. But the fact is she struggled in life. It was a hard life for her. She always had her hands full."

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

mike.mcintyre@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 8, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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