Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

When time doesn't heal

Sherry Winterburn was 13 when her great-aunt was murdered in 1973. She is still pleading for the killer to own up

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Sherry Winterburn still cherishes the wristwatch her great-aunt Edith Smallpiece wore before the woman was slain in her Winnipeg apartment almost 40 years ago.

"I remember when I got it they had to repair it. And I'd always worried that she'd been wearing it when the murder happened," Winterburn said while choking back tears recently. "But I treasured it."

Smallpiece, 65, was beaten to death in her apartment at 227 Vaughan St. in February 1973. Her body lay in the hallway of her suite for days before being discovered on March 1 by the building's caretaker. Smallpiece had never married and lived alone.

Winterburn was only 13 when her great-aunt was killed. She said no teenager should have to deal with that level of tragedy.

"I wasn't old enough to be a part of the adult conversation, but was old enough to know what they were talking about," said Winterburn. "I thought, 'This does not happen to people,' and being 13, I had no idea how to handle it."

Though decades have passed, dealing with the tragedy never gets easier.

"Regardless, you still feel that loss because there is always that thought of why," said Winterburn. "That part of it never disappears. You're always thinking of her, and every event that happens in Winnipeg that could have similarities you always think about, 'How old is (the suspect)? Could that person could have been around? Is that the same person?' "

Winterburn and her parents, Ina and Bill, continue to deal with the sadness of losing their loved one, and also with the frustration that the case has never been solved.

"It just seemed to be shushed up," said Bill Winterburn. "Neither one of us were questioned. At least if we would have been questioned we would have felt like they were doing everything they could."

Ina Winterburn believes it was a different culture back in 1973, and they were expected to just get on with their lives.

"We didn't have the confidence to go and make waves," said Ina. "Now we would, but we were busy with the family and making a living. You kind of accept that people were doing their job and whatever the police told you, you accepted."

The family doesn't accept one police theory that Smallpiece might have been attacked after she heard a noise in the hallway and opened her door to a stranger.

"If you went over there, you had to call on the pay phone first or she would not let you in the house," said Sherry. "We had to announce who it was and she would come to the door, and if she wasn't expecting someone she would not open the door."

Sherry wanted to make a statement to anyone with information about her great-aunt's death.

"The words 'man up' come to mind," she said. "If you did it, admit it. If you're too old to be prosecuted, so be it, but at least we can maybe find out why and get some answers.

"If someone is caught, I think I can find closure, but I could never forgive. There is frustration and anger because I want that person to pay for what they did."

Police would not comment on the case, as it is being investigated by the Winnipeg Police Service's cold-case homicide unit.

Retired Winnipeg police officer James Jewell said although he never worked on the Smallpiece case, he believes the family should still hold on to hope it can be solved.

"These cases are never officially closed and there is always hope that they might be solved," said Jewell. "All it takes is someone who is in the know to get a conscience and do the right thing. For the family's sake, I hope that happens."

david.baxter@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 10, 2012 B1

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