Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Imagination becomes the villain

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We'll soon be at the polls in a province where missing and murdered women have taken on a huge profile. But just how big the issue will be in the coming election (or if it will be an issue) remains to be seen.

Two years ago, after relentless goading, the NDP government, along with the its two biggest policing organizations, the RCMP and Winnipeg Police Service, took to the stage with a promise to investigate and solve these cases.

It was a Herculean pledge.

Homicide investigations come in all shapes and forms. Some of those captured under this umbrella are among the most difficult. Many come with no answers to the most basic investigative questions. With some, there is no body, no proof of foul play. Nothing to indicate where, when, why or how. There is no evidence and the trail is cold. Many times there's no trail.

Herculean indeed.

But not all the cases have that air of hopelessness.

This is the time of year I get an email from Eleanor. Her daughter, Nicolle Hands, was a troubled soul with a long list of problems.

This election will mark the eighth anniversary of her death -- a slaying in which her three pint-size kids slept down the hall as the murder weapon was plunged repeatedly into her. Investigators, current and retired, continue to beat themselves up for not solving the case, which has all the earmarks of solvability.

Prospects were elevated recently when Sgt. Ross Read returned to Winnipeg's homicide squad as one of the unit's bosses. He was one of the original investigators and knows the file inside out. More than anyone else in the police service, he'd like to make the call to Eleanor and relieve some of her pain.

Months after the task force was announced with its pledge to get to the bottom of things, Eleanor remained in the dark. Then more months passed. She didn't even know if her daughter's file was part of the review.

I offered to help because, having for years been a Winnipeg police homicide sergeant, surely I could get her an answer to that simple question.

So I put it to the WPS: "Could you confirm if (Nicolle Hands' case) is currently one of the cases being reviewed by the joint RCMP/WPS effort re missing/murdered women?"

Several back-and-forth emails and 16 days went by before the answer made its way to my inbox: "The Winnipeg Police Service is not providing comments on any cases that may be associated to the Missing and Murdered Women's Task Force."

The tight-lipped response seemed more indicative of non-progress than being on the verge of something positive. Who knows? We do know that there have been no arrests.

But things have happened. For starters, a vocal First Nations critic of police and government handling of the missing-murdered issue was brought onto the NDP payroll as an adviser and we haven't heard much since. Sometimes, with elections looming, silence is golden.

Secondly, Eleanor was finally contacted by an RCMP officer this past May, 20 months after the operation was launched. She was told a big-bang announcement was coming.

And it came, but after eight years of waiting for her daughter's murder to be solved, her excitement was misplaced.

There was no bang. File reviews were complete. There was some follow-up to be done and more people would be brought on board, likely in the fall, to tackle possible new avenues of investigation. Nothing since.

Really just more disappointment for a mother well into her senior years who's just looking for answers as she faces her own mortality and serious health issues.

Hope. It's not much to cling to, but Eleanor clings anyway, praying that this solvable case will soon be closed.

In the meantime, investigators continue to run the challenging course in dozens of cases -- little in forensics, few witnesses and isolated crime scenes that make the task of establishing the five Ws arduous and exhausting.

And with that, promises of solution seem hollow, more unreal than real. Imagination becomes the villain, conjuring last-moment-images of a daughter, sister and mother. Images that can defeat the strongest spirits against a backdrop of raw grief.

In the case of Nicolle Hands, however, one thread, one speck, one call and the killer will face consequences. Like all the other families of the missing and murdered, that's what Eleanor hangs her hat on each night when she lies down and tries to sleep.

I wonder if Eleanor's lack of sleep is on the minds of those out looking for your vote.


Robert Marshall is a former

Winnipeg police detective.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 24, 2011 J11

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