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Cryptic letter has community on edge

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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.

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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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