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A bittersweet birthday

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I will never forget the day Candace Derksen’s frozen, bound body was found in an industrial shed in Elmwood, following weeks of desperate searching that included hundreds of local volunteers.

It was January 17, 1985 - my 10th birthday.

I didn’t know Candace, but like a lot of Winnipeggers, I felt like I did. As a naturally curious child, growing up in a neighbourhood not very far from where Candace lived, the story of the 13-year-old girl who mysteriously disappeared while walking home from school had captivated me.

And frightened me.

Looking back, the case was probably one of the first times I realized that the world we live in isn’t always a happy or safe place. Sadly, I know a lot of kids learn this lesson in a much more direct and tragic way, but I credit my parents for raising me in an environment where I always felt protected.

As the years passed, I often though about Candace – especially as each birthday would come and go. I wondered whether her death would ever be solved, whether her family and friends and loved ones would ever get the answers they so desperately wanted and needed.

Those feelings grew stronger as my journalism career began in 1995 and I got to know members of the Derksen family, specifically Candace’s parents Wilma and Cliff. They are two of the strongest, most courageous people I know and my heart always ached for their loss.

And so I naturally felt a sense of relief for them when news broke in 2007 that police had finally made an arrest based on advances in DNA testing, bringing an apparent end to one of the city’s most gripping murder mysteries.

It has now been exactly 26 years since the search for Candace ended, and the man accused of killing her is about to stand trial.

Mark Grant, 44, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder. He appeared in a Winnipeg courtroom Monday morning to begin his trial, which is expected to last six weeks. Jurors are expected to begin hearing evidence on Thursday. None of the allegations have been proven and he is presumed innocent.

I know a lot of Winnipeggers will be following the case closely, and it is with great pride that I now find myself covering a story which I always felt such a strong connection to. I am also be proud to be working on a book related to the case, which is set to be published later this year.

It’s a connection I was once again reminded of early Monday morning, when the following email arrived in my inbox from Wilma Derksen.

"Dear Mike. If I remember correctly this is a special day for you. Hope you are surrounded by love. Wilma."

It was a touching gesture from a grieving mother who was just hours away from facing her daughter’s alleged killer in court - on a day that many believed would never come.

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