Several major crime stories received national and even international attention – a fact I can personally attest to having been interviewed more than 75 times by radio stations across Canada and even into places like England about things that were happening in our own backyard.
I’ve lost track of how many times I was asked something along the lines of "what’s going on in Manitoba???"
As we wrap up the year – and wonder what 2009 will bring – I wanted to reflect on some of the stories that I won’t soon forget.
I had more than 400 stories published this year in the pages of the Free Press, but the following five have left a lasting impact. Here they are, along with some background and commentary about each:
THE GREYHOUND BUS KILLING – No Canadian crime story captured the public’s attention in 2008 quite like the case of Vincent Li, who is accused of murdering and decapitating a man on board a Greyhound Bus in front of three dozen horrified spectators.
I was actually on a family vacation in Minnesota at the time and couldn’t believe the e-mail I received from an editor that night. I thought it must be a hoax, that there’s no way something so sadistic could happen in "Friendly Manitoba."
But it was true, even worse than we initially thought. I began working the phones from the U.S., trying to help fellow Free Press reporters who were on the story.
We broke the news that Li had ties to Winnipeg and even tracked down a local family that had taken him in through their church and expressed concerns about his mental status. We quickly learned about Li’s past including his spotty work history, relationship with his wife and transfer to Edmonton. We broke the news that Li was a Canadian citizen and couldn’t be deported – at a time when some media pundits were calling for his immediate expulsion. I got the first interview with the mother and stepmother of Tim McLean, and later spoke with them about their call for "Tim’s Law" in Canada which would impact how mental illness could be used as a defence.
I vividly recall the chill I felt covering Li’s court hearing in Portage la Prairie, just days after his arrest, where all the details of his crime emerged. I then boarded a plane to Edmonton the next day to begin retracing Li’s recent history by speaking with co-workers, employers and neighbours.
It was a chaotic couple of weeks, and I’m not sure how many times I paused to ask myself "Is this really happening?" It still seems so surreal, now months later. I will be covering Li’s trial in March 2009, where the only issue to decide is whether he should be found criminally responsible for his actions. No doubt eyes around the world will once again be focused on Manitoba.
THE PHOENIX SINCLAIR MURDER – Without a doubt, the most difficult criminal trial I’ve ever had to sit through. The evidence heard during the month-long jury case was appalling – a five-year-old girl repeatedly abused, neglected, tortured, confined to a cold dark basement, starved, forced to eat her own vomit and shot with a pellet gun "for sport."
There were so many angles to cover, including the role CFS may have played in Phoenix’s death (which will be a central part of a future inquest) and questions about why the little girl’s remains had yet to be buried (after our story appeared, lawyers for both accused announced they wouldn’t stand in the way of releasing Phoenix’s bones to family members).
I was moved to tears on several occasions, especially at the incredible sight of all 10 female jurors returning to court for the sentencing hearing. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Just 48 hours after Phoenix’s mother and stepfather were given life sentences with no chance of parole for 25 years, I was inside a jail cell sitting face-to-face with Samantha Kematch for an exclusive and very controversial interview.
Lots of readers were offended by the fact we gave her a "podium" to speak out. I felt it was important to hear what she had to say, especially since she didn’t testify during the trial and the issues surrounding Phoenix’s murder are still very much alive considering the upcoming inquest.
Not surprisingly, Karl McKay had a strong reaction to the story as well, especially concerning the finger pointing from his co-accused. He agreed to a jailhouse interview days later, which also struck a nerve with many.
We also took readers along for the interview by providing audio and video of them on the Free Press website.
INSIDE A MASS MURDER: TRIPLE SLAYING SHOCKS PARAMEDICS – It was a scene of absolute chaos. Three men shot dead, execution-style, inside a Winnipeg home. Three others seriously wounded.
I came in on the weekend to cover the city’s first-triple murder in more than a decade and began looking for different ways to explore what happened. Thanks to some help from justice sources, I convinced paramedics who were at the scene to speak exclusively about what they’d witnessed and how they’d handled such a stressful situation, especially since a horrific fatal car accident with numerous other injuries had occurred at nearly the exact same moment, putting an incredible strain on the city’s resources.
The story allowed readers into the crime scene, to the front lines of emergency responders and paid tribute to the unsung heroes whose vital work is often overlooked. The story also led to calls by the paramedic’s union for better safety training and equipment, including bullet-proof vests, based on the increasingly violent and unpredictable crime scenes they are being forced to attend.
DRIVE-BY SHOOTING, DRIVE-THRU JUSTICE – For me, this story was personal. I was only months into my journalism career back in the summer of 1995 when I arrived at a disturbing crime scene - a young boy gunned down in the street after being mistaken for a gang member. It was the first time I’d ever seen a homicide victim in my life, the image of the boy’s body laying on the street forever burned into my memory. The murder of Joseph "Beeper" Spence shocked Winnipeg and underscored the city’s emerging street gang problem.
Now 13 years later, I pitched the idea of re-visiting the tragic case by looking at what became of Beeper’s killers. After my requests for parole documents were answered, I was able to paint a troubling picture of their time spent behind bars, the prospects for their future and the "catch-and-release" game that is often played in the justice system. It was a classic "talker", a story that generated plenty of feedback about the justice system and its many flaws.
FAMILY’S TRAGEDY UPON TRAGEDY – This story began with my daily routine of viewing the morning obituaries. I was struck by one in particular, which involved a mother’s touching tribute to her deceased young son. It was obvious he had committed suicide.
I wanted to know more, especially after learning her other young son had been the victim of a violent crime. Through newspaper archives I quickly found background on the initial case, which was a homicide in Alberta. I was then able to make contact with the mother and other family members, who agreed to speak out about their tragic loss.
The result was a poignant look at the long-term impacts of crime and how it drove a troubled young man to end his life in an eerily similar fashion to how his brother was slain. It also included an important message from the mother to other young people and shows how crime can impact families in so many ways, long after a case has been closed and the public has moved on.
It was a difficult story, but an important one that I was proud to be able to tell.
What stories/issue/trends will you remember from 2008? And, most importantly, why?