Mike on Crime
with Mike McIntyre
05/23/2013 2:48 PM
I always knew it was going to be a long day when I'd walk into a Winnipeg courtroom and see Linda Giesbrecht sitting behind the bench.
This is not meant to be taken as a criticism. In fact, far from it. Spend enough time at the downtown Law Courts and you are often left with the same feeling you get in line at the deli counter.
All too often it seems quantity, not quality, is the order of the day. And with massive dockets, it's hard to blame those who work in the system with trying to be as quick as possible. But it can often leave a bad taste in the mouths of victims, family members and yes, even the criminals, when such important, even life changing events feel rushed.
Judge Giesbrecht was different. Thick docket be damned, she was going to take her sweet time. And that meant everyone sitting in her courtroom knew they were going to get a fair shake and have their voices be heard. It also meant getting a refresher on the Criminal Code, as she often read out long passages about the law to justify and explain her decisions.
I'll never forget covering one of Giesbrecht's cases back in 2001. It was a terrible tragedy involving a man suffering from extreme fetal alcohol syndrome who beat his roommate to death in a fit of uncontrolled rage.
Giesbrecht spent MONTHS with this file, remanding it numerous times as she kept asking Crown and defence lawyers for more detailed information and reports from various medial and social experts. She wanted to know as much as she could about the victim, the offender and what needed to be done to ensure he was both punished and treated for a condition that was imposed on him by his alcoholic mother.
When Giesbrecht finally did impose a sentence - two years in jail followed by a unique three-year probation order - she still wasn't done.
In a rare move, Giesbrecht moved beyond her regular sentencing duties and planted herself directly in the middle of the man's rehabilitation. She ordered him to appear before her on a continuing basis to discuss details of his probation to ensure he was on the right track.
There were many ups and downs which followed, but Giesbrecht kept on top of the case in a way I've never seen a judge do.
This was just one example, of course. But it perfectly illustrates how much care she put into her job. And it stuck with me throughout the years.
I was sad to learn in 2010 that Judge Giesbrecht was retiring, as I knew Manitoba was losing one of the true "good ones."
And I was stunned to learn this week that she had passed away suddenly, having been diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of lymphoma just last month.
Linda Giesbrecht was just 61. Her service is being held on Friday May 24 at 2 p.m. at the Winkler Sommerfeld Mennonite Church, 189-2nd Street. In lieu of In lieu of flowers, donations may be made in Judge Giesbrecht's memory to CancerCare Manitoba, firstname.lastname@example.org or to Variety the Children's Charity, email@example.com.
05/14/2013 5:37 PM
On Tuesday, an eight-day missing person mystery came to a tragic end in Ontario when police discovered the remains of Tim Bosma at an undisclosed location in Waterloo.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper joined a chorus of people offering condolences online when he posted the following on his official Twitter account (@PMHarper): "My thoughts and prayers go out to Tim Bosma’s family during this difficult time."
Last Thursday, a seven-year missing person mystery came to a tragic end in Winnipeg when police discovered the remains of Myrna Letandre buried inside a Point Douglas rooming house.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has yet to post any comments or condolences about the case on his official Twitter account.
(Ironically, Harper had an up-close view of the local tragedy: He happened to be in Winnipeg on Friday for an announcement on cyberbullying, which is the same day RCMP held a big news conference confirming Letandre’s death. Winnipeg wasn’t entirely forgotten, however. Harper’s Tweets last week did include wishing a "happy birthday" to Winnipeg South MP Rod Bruinooge).
Look, this isn’t meant to be a political rant. Nor is it meant to be a comparison of two terrible tragedies. But anyone with a set of eyes can’t help but notice the optics on this.
And to be frank, the optics stink.
There is a long, troubling and well-documented history in this country of vulnerable First Nations people like Letandre who have vanished without a trace. Some have eventually turned up dead. Many others remain missing.
And there an equally long, troubling and well-documented perception that these types of cases barely get on the radar of the public, let alone police and politicians. It’s why we just went through an extremely damning public inquiry into the Robert Pickton serial killer case in B.C. It’s why joint-task forces have been set up in Alberta and Manitoba to study cases like Letandre’s.
And it’s why someone with Stephen Harper’s clout should be very, very careful about the message he sends when he offers a personal note of sympathy to the family of a white man in Ontario who meets an awful demise – yet remains silent when a native woman from Manitoba who has been missing for seven years turns up dead in equally tragic circumstances.
10/5/2012 2:19 PM
Phoenix Sinclair was clearly failed on many levels. A public inquiry which began this week in Winnipeg is now tasked with finding out exactly where things went wrong - and what can be done to prevent future tragedies.
But look beyond several levels of bureacuracy and you'll find where the ultimate responsibility lies - with the two parents who were supposed to love and care for her.
Instead, Samantha Kematch and Karl McKay treated the little girl in the most cruel and despicable way imaginable.
Both have refused to participate in the public inquiry as they serve life sentences with no chance of parole for at least 25 years.
But the pair had plenty to say when I sat down seperately with them, behind bars, shortly after their first-degree murder convictions in December 2008.
Their words still ring as hollow today as they did back then.
I failed her," Samantha Kematch says, her eyes cast downward and showing a hint of tears.
"She never deserved any of this to happen to her. She deserved better."
It is the first public show of remorse from Kematch, who displayed no tangible emotion during her month-long trial, and made no apologies in her brief and bitter final remarks before being sentenced on Friday.
Kematch wants the public to know she's not some heartless automaton.
"You guys can sit there and say I have no feelings. Well, everyone shows their emotions in different ways. Not everyone cries. I'm one to hold their tears," Kematch says.
"I'm not the type to freak out. I control my crying. But I hurt inside."
Saying sorry isn't the only reason Kematch is speaking out. She wants to explain her courtroom comments, in which she told the judge that people will likely "never know the truth" and accused her former lover, McKay, of wrongly taking her down with him.
"I didn't kill my daughter, I didn't do these things to her like everyone says I did," Kematch says.
"What did I do to her? I loved her."
Jurors were told during the trial they could find McKay and Kematch guilty of murder based on acts of commission or omission, which likely applied more to Kematch's role in the tragedy.
Admitting she's "not the best parent in the world or anything," Kematch insists she was powerless to stop an abusive McKay from slowly taking Phoenix's life. And she paints herself as a victim as well, claiming McKay would often take out his anger on her.
"I tried to stop it. That's where I failed. I failed her, I failed myself. But I tried to stop (McKay) from doing things to her. I would even take a beating so she wouldn't take it," she says.
In a videotaped interview with police, McKay said Kematch treated Phoenix "like an animal."
"She really disliked the girl from since I met her," he said in the police videotape.
McKay admitted that he would administer "a licking" to Phoenix's bottom occasionally, but denied wrongdoing, saying it was Kematch who abused her the most, refusing to give her food, constantly yelling at her and insisting she remain in the basement.
McKay told police that once they realized Phoenix was dead, they took her body back to the basement. He said that Kematch instructed him to wrap Phoenix's body in a sheet of polyvinyl, taped it tightly and then wrapped an old yellow raincoat around her before driving to the reserve dump and burying Phoenix in a shallow grave.
McKay said that when they returned home, Kematch was obsessed with removing any trace that the child had been there. He said she initially wanted to return to the dump site to chop off the child's head in the belief that would eliminate DNA evidence.
He said Kematch later told him to scrub the basement floor with bleach to remove blood and other stains, and he later painted the entire floor.
On Sunday, Kematch had this to say: "I get so frustrated. He's only trying to make himself look good. I loved Phoenix and I cared for Phoenix. He's just sitting there, denying that he did anything."
She admits to having thoughts about attacking McKay in the witness box they shared during the trial. Those thoughts intensified after Friday's verdict and led to a sheriff's officer having to sit between them.
"I was really angry, I was shaking," she says.
Under questioning Sunday, Kematch admitted she passed up many opportunities when she was alone with Phoenix and could have fled the home, call police, contact a friend or family member or take the injured girl to a hospital.
"If I could go back and change all of this from happening, I'd do it in a second. A lot of people don't understand how these kinds of relationships work. The relationship was abuse, controlling, possessive. When you're in an abusive relationship it's not like you can just get up and leave. It's not easy to walk away," she says.
Jurors heard about McKay's violent past, which includes convictions for beating the mother of his two teenage sons, who went to police in 2006 to report what they'd witnessed happening to Phoenix inside the Fisher River home.
The boys were key witnesses for the Crown and described McKay and Kematch as equal partners in abusing Phoenix, which included frequent beatings, making her sleep naked in the cold basement, confining her to a makeshift pen, shooting her with a pellet gun, refusing to let her use the bathroom and making her eat her own vomit.
On Sunday, Kematch admitted she was strict with Phoenix at times, but claimed McKay did all the physical damage.
One of the most damning pieces of evidence against Kematch was the fact she tried to hide Phoenix's death by pretending another little girl was her daughter during a meeting with child welfare officials.
"I didn't want to go and pass off someone else's kid to hide the fact she was gone. It was (McKay's) idea to start doing s--t like that," Kematch says.
"I wanted to tell them about this but he said no."
She says McKay was also behind her registering for child benefits in Phoenix's name, even after the girl had been killed.
Kematch says Phoenix would still be alive today if McKay, a longtime friend of her mother, hadn't entered their lives. He began asking her out after they met in December 2003.
"I didn't really want to go out with him. I was single and I wanted to enjoy it for a while. Plus he was so much older than me (20 years)," Kematch says.
She eventually agreed, and the pair went on to have two children together prior to their arrest in March 2006.
"(Before McKay), Phoenix and I were good. We laughed, had fun, we'd play. We'd say we loved each other, hug each other. That was life for me and Phoenix before he came into the picture," she says.
Being convicted of her daughter's killing is just the latest in a long line of tragedies for Kematch.
When she was a child, her alcoholic father died after falling down a flight of stairs. Her oldest brother committed suicide in Swan River when she was 12. She and her two other brothers bounced around in foster care because their mother was unfit to care for them. She only finished her Grade 9 and has a spotty employment history. She admits she had problems with drugs and alcohol in the past.
Kematch says the reality of her conviction hasn't hit her yet. Barring a successful appeal, she isn't eligible for parole until 2031, when she will be 50 years old.
"I don't really feel like it's happened yet. I guess I'm feeling mixed emotions about it. I feel better in a way that this case is done so that (Phoenix) can rest," Kematch says.
"But of course I'm going to appeal. This isn't right."
Karl McKay knows his words will likely ring hollow -- but that isn't stopping the convicted killer from speaking out about his role in the death of five-year-old Phoenix Sinclair.
"I know I'm the most hated person in this province and probably the whole country," McKay told the Free Press Thursday in an exclusive print interview at the Winnipeg Remand Centre.
"(Phoenix) didn't deserve this. It was a tragedy. I'm so very sorry. I can't turn back the clock. I just wish it never happened."
McKay said he wanted to set the record straight about his feelings toward Phoenix and allegations made against him by his former lover and co-accused, Samantha Kematch.
Jurors found McKay and Kematch guilty as charged last week, handing them automatic life sentences with no chance of parole for at least 25 years. The pair had been seeking convictions on the reduced charge of manslaughter. They are both expected to file appeals.
It was revealed during the month-long trial how Phoenix was repeatedly abused and neglected for several months, ending with her death in June 2005 inside a home on the Fisher River First Nation. McKay and Kematch then buried her body near the local garbage dump and hid the death months before McKay's two teenage sons went to police in March 2006. Police were eventually led to the burial site by McKay.Phoenix's remains were found there once the ground thawed.
Kematch spoke out first earlier this week, telling the Free Press she loved Phoenix but was powerless to save her from the controlling, abusive McKay. She denied abusing Phoenix and claimed McKay was the real culprit.
"That's BS," said McKay.
"Samantha hated Phoenix. I know this because I was around. She's just trying to clear her name."
McKay, a long-distance trucker by trade, claims Phoenix was always terrified when he'd hit the road and leave her alone with Kematch. McKay said his biggest mistake was staying in a relationship with Kematch, who he claims was responsible for Phoenix's death.
"I should have listened to my heart and not her," he said. "I can't imagine a mother would be that evil."
McKay denied Kematch's claims that he was physically abusive towards her, noting there are no records of police reports. McKay admits he has abused other women in previous relationships but said he was a different person back then, largely because of excessive alcohol use.
"People change, people can change overnight. I was a drinker back then, I had many binge blackouts. But that was then, this is now," he said.
McKay admits his own two teenage sons provided key evidence at trial against him, including claims that he would frequently hit Phoenix with his fists and other objects, force her to sleep naked on a cold basement floor, shoot her with a pellet gun for fun and confine her to a makeshift pen he built. Under his lawyer's advice, McKay declined to talk about the testimony of his sons or why they'd say things he claims are untrue because of the likelihood of an appeal.
He said it was also Kematch's idea to pass off a young relative as Phoenix once child-welfare officials began investigating the case. He said Kematch was "white as a ghost" when she realized the truth was about to emerge and was desperate not to have her other two children by McKay taken from her.
McKay said he is happy a provincial inquest will be held into Phoenix's case.
"People, in general, should love their children. This is a wake-up call to love your child," said McKay."I just don't want this to happen to another child. It's just not right."
11/10/2011 5:41 PM
It reads like something out of a Hollywood horror movie.
A young girl, dressed as a Zombie, found brutally murdered on Halloween night along a darkened roadway. Days later, a cryptic letter shows up in a police station from an anonymous writer claiming to be the killer and threatening more violence to come. Police issue a public warning. And an entire community is put on edge.
This bizarre scenario isn't playing out on some Los Angeles production studio back-lot, but rather the city of Armstrong, British Columbia. Read more about it here.
Police say they are taking the threatening letter seriously as their investigation into the Oct. 31 slaying of 18-year-old Taylor Van Diest continues. One of the big questions is whether the author of this note is truly the one responsible for Van Diest's death or simply the fictional ramblings of some sick, twisted soul.
If the letter is legit, let's hope the writer left enough clues behind that police can quickly track them down and put an end to whatever they might have planned.
But if it turns out to be a hoax, the person responsible will become just the latest in a long line of individuals who try to insert themselves into a high-profile criminal case.
We've seen several such examples in Manitoba.
Erin Chorney, 18, vanished from Brandon in the spring of 2002, leaving behind a trail of questions and rumours about what happened to her. The mystery only increased when, one year later, a half-dozen cryptic letters were distributed at various locations in the western Manitoba city.
The anonymous, handwritten notes claimed to have inside knowledge about Erin's case. They were heavy on intrigue but scant on details. One was left directly at the home of Erin's parents, while others were placed in public locations such as a restaurant washroom.
And while Erin's case would eventually be solved, the source of the letters has never been located.
As I wrote about in my 2006 true crime book, To The Grave: Inside A Spectacular RCMP Sting, police and Erin's family believe the person responsible was likely just trying to gain some attention. In fact, I learned of several other examples where people had come forward -- some likely with good intentions, others not so much -- claiming to have knowledge about the case.
All of it proved to be quite distressing for the victim's family and quite time consuming for police.
We learned earlier this year of a similar apparent "hoax" in the high-profile Candace Derksen case.
Jurors were not allowed to hear testimony from a Winnipeg woman who claimed in 1985 she was kidnapped by a stranger in eerily similar fashion to Candace -- then recanted the story 26 years later. Queen's Bench Justice Glenn Joyal made the pivotal legal ruling one day before Mark Grant's first-degree murder trial began in January.
Defence lawyer Saul Simmonds had filed a motion to put a woman on the witness stand, believing it would prove Grant was innocent of killing Candace. That's because Grant was in custody on other charges at the time the woman, just 12 years old in 1985, was allegedly attacked, meaning he couldn't possibly be responsible for either crime if there was indeed a proven link.
The woman was legitimately discovered by a bystander in the fall of 1985 lying inside an empty railway car on Gateway Road in East Kildonan. She was screaming "mommy, mommy," her wrists and legs were bound and there was a plastic shopping bag put over her head. The then-12-year-old told police an unknown man had abducted her around 4 p.m. on a Friday as she left Valley Gardens Junior High School to walk home.
Police were immediately on high alert, considering 13-year-old Candace had been snatched from her East Kildonan school around 4 p.m. on a Friday in November 1984, only to be found frozen and bound inside an industrial storage shed in January 1985. The distance between the two apparent crime scenes was approximately five kilometres. Investigators went so far as to take the girl to a memorial service for Candace to have her scan the crowd for their potential attacker in case he was soaking in the public grief. She also gave a detailed description of the man and his vehicle, which led to a composite sketch being created.
The investigation went cold and no arrests were ever made. But Simmonds came across the old file when preparing to defend Grant and immediately sought to have jurors hear about it. The Crown was opposed, saying it would "derail" Grant's scheduled trial and had "no probative value."
Prosecutor Brian Bell based his position on the fact police re-interviewed the now-adult woman in early January and learned she was now claiming the alleged attack apparently never happened. Those views were confirmed when she testified days later in a pre-trial motion.
"I would suggest this never really happened," Bell asked her in cross-examination.
"I would agree. Yes," replied the mother of six. She went on to explain through tears she has absolutely no memory of that day or most of her childhood.
"I went through a lot of trauma as a child, had a lot of nightmares. I don't know whether some memories are nightmares or the truth," she said.
Simmonds asked the woman to read through her old police statement and look at photographs and police reports prepared at the time. She refused. Joyal asked her when she first began to realize the story as she originally told it never happened. The woman said it was about 10 years ago.
There is no disputing she was actually found in the rail car as described because the independent witness who overheard her screams for help gave a statement in 1985. However, that woman has since passed away.
The woman gave no further explanation for her drastic change in story or why she would have been found in that state. She didn't say whether it was a cry for attention or something else.
Joyal decided jurors would not hear anything about the "phantom kidnapper."
"I am not able to conclude... the alleged offences even happened," he said.
So what would propel someone to take advantage of a distressed family and a desperate police service by claiming to have some "inside information" pivotal to a case? That's a question better suited for a psychologist or psychiatrist, but it's definitely worth noting that these type of people exist in society.
No doubt similar questions are being asked right now out in Armstrong, B.C., where folks likely won't be sleeping easy until this mystery is solved.
About Mike McIntyre
Journalist, national radio show host, author, pundit and cruise director ... Mike McIntyre loves to keep busy.
Mike is the justice reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, where he has worked since 1997. He produces and hosts the weekly talk radio show Crime and Punishment, which runs on the Corus Radio Network in several Canadian cities.
Born and bred in Winnipeg, Mike graduated from River East Collegiate and completed his journalism studies in the Creative Communications program at Red River College.
He and his wife, Chassity, have two children.
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