Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bible Belt's bogeyman still haunts town

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It took just over an hour to drive back in time; from Winnipeg back to the pastoral, peaceful and prosperous Mennonite community of Altona.

Back to the scene of the horrific crime. Not to the actual white wood-frame house that, in 1990, a 17-year-old town-bully named Earl Giesbrecht doused with gasoline and set aflame in an attempt to destroy any trace of his bloody hand slashing the throats of two younger boys, sexually assaulting one of them and leaving both for dead.

In the process, Giesbrecht became the Bible Belt's real bogeyman.

A year later at trial, Giesbrecht was quoted as calling himself a "monster." He lay the blame for his monstrous acts on someone who allegedly molested him at age five.

The defence also tried to characterize Giesbecht as insane. It didn't work.

His lawyer at the time, Sheldon Pinx, went on to reference another of his client's claims and rationalizations: He was the one who had been verbally bullied for being gay, both by his victims and by the community at large.

"He was at war and... his enemy was the community," Pinx argued.

Now, nearly 23 years after Giesbrecht was sentenced to life in prison, a tribunal of the national parole board is in the midst of a process that already has him walking among us again.

The bogeyman is said to have been spotted in the Bible Belt, if not Altona proper. One of his victims, the one who survived, has already made a return appearance himself. Tyler Pelke was 14-years-old when he staggered out of the burning house, bound, bleeding from a 12-centimetre gash to his throat and on fire. He still managed to scrawl the name of the person who did it.

Two years ago, the now 36-year-old Pelke went back to Altona. He needed to warn the town Earl was getting out. Unless the parole board could be convinced otherwise, come November 2015 -- 25 years after his conviction for murdering Tyler's 15-year-old high school goaltending partner, Curtis Klassen -- Earl Giesbrecht would be eligible for release from prison.

He need to warn the town, even if Giesbrecht will forever be on parole. And even if, despite Giesbrecht's family living in Altona, the parole board would never permit his return to the town.

Tyler tried to encourage the town folk to speak up, to tell the parole board about the impact Giesbrecht had on individuals prior to the premeditated attack, how the community of 3,700 as a whole was Giesbrecht's third victim, even before that night.

But as Tyler told me on the weekend, no one has spoken up, at least not officially to the parole board. Which is why -- after someone from Altona emailed me in anticipation of this week's parole board hearing where Giesbrecht could be granted unescorted day passes -- I accepted an invitation to join a group of mostly senior-aged men who gather each morning for coffee at the town's Chicken Chef. But only after I assured them they wouldn't be quoted by name.

Nearly a quarter century later, they still fear the bogeyman that much.

"Most people are too afraid to talk," one of them explained.

Even when they related several specific stories as examples of Giesbrecht's threatening and intimidating behaviour before the murder, they asked me not to share them for fear Giesbrecht might link the source of the stories to them individually.

What irked the Chicken Chef regulars was, in their view, Giesbrecht is still playing his manipulative games, still playing victim by accusing the town of bullying him -- blaming the real victims for what he did.

"He was a bully who tormented smaller kids and parents," said one of the men. "No one ever bullied Earl. I get so pissed when I read Earl's sob story about being a victim. Not true. He is a psychopath-sociopath who I'm afraid can't be cured."

Actually, the Crown's psychiatrists and psychologists described him as "sadistic," with an anti-social personality disorder.

Not psychotic.

In other words, he's no Vince Li.

The truer comparison is Paul Bernardo. Giesbrecht knew what he was doing and planned it precisely. Prior to the attack, he told a schoolmate he wanted to kill someone before he was 18 and to feel what it was like to do it with a knife.

The only reason he was caught, the only reason he didn't have an opportunity to do it again, was because of Tyler Pelke's bravery and resolve to live.

Or so a retired Mountie told me years later. He didn't want to be quoted by name, either.

Apparently the only person who isn't afraid of the Bible Belt bogeyman is Tyler Pelke.

Oh, yes, and the parole board members who seem determined to let him serve the rest of his life among us.

They'd never let Paul Bernardo out.

They shouldn't let Earl Giesbrecht out, either.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 18, 2013 B1

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