FOR the family of Jason McQuaker, the nightmare is 22 years old. It never ends, and recently, a new chapter was written.
I got involved almost two decades ago and have second-guessed myself ever since.
For his mom, he was perfection. For his aunt, he was the son she never had. On June 4, 1988, Jason McQuaker, the boy who everyone agreed was as pure as he was flawless, celebrated his 12th birthday and, just a week later, without explanation, he disappeared from the face of the Earth.
The setting was Thunder Bay, and the city on the shores of Lake Superior went into overdrive. Huge public search campaigns were undertaken. Police binders bulged with information. Rumours ran rampant -- perverts, gangs, drugs. The story made headlines in national media.
But none of that altered the harsh reality: The 5-foot-2, 100-pound boy with blond hair and blue-green eyes had simply vanished.
The disappearance was the final breaking point in the rocky relationship between Jason's parents, Diane and Barry, and they separated for good.
More than two years after the disappearance, Diane, clinging to hope, told Maclean's magazine that she kept Jason's pyjamas folded neatly on his pillow.
"I can't let go until I know what happened to him," she explained.
Thunder Bay cops knew Barry McQuaker well. He had convictions for a smorgasbord of offences and, for a while, the police spotlight shone on him. There was no evidence to connect him to his son's disappearance, however, and he passed a polygraph, convincing police that he knew nothing.
No investigation could better underscore the unreliability of lie detectors.
And the trail grew cold.
In April 1991, McQuaker travelled to Western Canada and embarked on a crime spree. He targeted and robbed banks in British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba, blowing the booty on booze and gambling.
That month was a bad time for Winnipeg banks and the downtown ones, especially along Portage Avenue, were particularly hard hit.
I was working with Ron Oliver, my partner for eight years. We were with robbery-homicide and, on April 25, we patrolled Portage Avenue hoping to snag ourselves a bank robber.
It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm. At high noon, the Bank of Montreal in Portage Place activated its hold-up alarm. An update told us "suspect last seen running toward the bus depot." The description also told us it wasn't the same guy who had been holding up our other banks. Wrong height, wrong weight, wrong age, wrong race.
We raced to the bus depot where our attention was drawn to a man with a look of supreme confidence -- like a cat that swallowed the canary. That was the day we met Barry McQuaker, bank robber. He had the bank's cash and a change of clothes.
Back at the station our computers told us about McQuaker's other bank jobs. And so we prepped ourselves for the interview, not suspecting where it would ultimately take us.
-- -- --
The interview room was small, about 10 by 10, pale yellow with a steel picnic table. McQuaker told us a little about himself and that his son was missing. He wondered if we knew anything about that, puzzled, even dismayed that we didn't.
In record time, he admitted to multiple bank robberies that stretched from Winnipeg to Vancouver and then, in child-like fashion that belied his official police record, asked if he could say something else.
I nodded. Then, with calmness, and no hesitation, he said:
"I buried him. My son, he's not missing. I buried him."
Tears fell and his body began to shake.
"I didn't kill him. I found him dead. I didn't know what to do. I took him and buried him out of town."
Experience told us to treat this with a heavy dose of skepticism. Common sense told us to continue this potentially informative conversation.
His story reduced him to a shaking, ashen shell. His ramblings left more questions than answers. He rattled off a story about being at a motorcycle rally, returning home and Diane telling him that Jason was missing.
McQuaker said he went out and quickly found his son, in a nearby bush. He had been viciously sexually assaulted and was dead, McQuaker claimed.
The story went at a rapid-fire pace with McQuaker claiming that if Diane ever found out, it would kill her. And because of that, he said, he had no choice. He had to get rid of the body.
As the rapid-fire pace quickened, he told us about wrapping the body in a motorcycle cover, securing it to his bike and driving to a bush area 60 kilometres north of town.
He could find it, he told us. He was the only one who could.
We contacted Thunder Bay police. They confirmed the missing person case, but their advice was to not believe anything McQuaker told us. He was a liar, he'd been investigated, cleared and was not a suspect.
We continued our interview anyway. He insisted that he had not killed his son and that anything he had done had been for his wife. She could survive on hope but not if her son was dead. His mood swings migrated from cool to defeat.
With tears in his eyes, he whimpered, "I can't stand it. I need to talk."
Hardly audible, he continued. "I just found him, man, I had a Goldwing. I wrapped him in the cover for my bike. I cremated him. I poured some gas on some wood and burned him."
Then, in chilling fashion, he stated: "I didn't want the bugs to eat him."
-- -- --
We spent time testing his story. It survived our dissection but, without physical backup, it meant nothing. We needed to find his crematorium in the bush and time was not on our side.
Even if he agreed to show us, with Thunder Bay 800 kilometres to the east, it would be dark by the time we got there and who knows what his thoughts might be by morning.
Despite Thunder Bay's cautions, we boarded a plane and arrived there around midnight. On the plane he asked, "Can I do my time in a psychiatric facility?" My stomach churned.
McQuaker was wanted on a Thunder Bay warrant, and he was lodged in a holding cell. Oliver and I went to a hotel.
As feared, by 8 a.m. McQuaker was reluctant to take this exercise any further. He'd had a tough night with his demons, crying, pacing and yelling in his cell. His emotions were on the brink.
Conversation, coffee and one cigarette after the another gave him the confidence to hold up his end of the deal. He'd take us to his son.
The local authorities provided a car for McQuaker, Oliver and me. Forensic people followed us, just in case. He directed us past the place he once lived with Jason and Diane and pointed out the soccer field where Jason supposedly had been last seen.
Then, on to the Trans-Canada Highway for several kilometres before turning north toward Armstrong. We slowed down while he looked out the window. We stopped while he looked out the window. We drove some more. We listened to his directions, and we heard his confusion. Everything looked the same -- highway, bush, ditch. To make matters worse, small access roads into the bush were scattered everywhere.
Suddenly from the back seat. "Turn here. This is it."
We drove along the narrow road that turned to sand and narrowed to a path. Trees and undergrowth scraped and scratched the car as we drove further into the bush. Soon we could go no further. We got out and surveyed the area.
Spring run-off was everywhere. Snow that accumulates during the long northern Ontario winter melts and significantly changes the landscape annually. There had been three such run-offs since Jason's disappearance. Trees had grown. So had the bush. The ground that could easily be walked on a June day was covered in places with stagnant water.
McQuaker understated the obvious. "This place has really changed," he said.
But he boosted our confidence as he looked toward a small rise and told us of a couple of small wine bottles that should be there, ones he used to carry gasoline for his crude cremation.
Oliver remained with McQuaker while I scrambled up the small hill and, there, amongst the leaves, twigs, dust and dirt of a thousand days lay two small bottles.
The bog had us walking in circles and then into in a small open area. Wondering where we would go next, I looked at McQuaker. He was ready to collapse.
He pointed ahead with both hands. His breathing became rapid and deep, and he backed up with a look of horror reserved for Hollywood movies.
"That's it," he cried.
And with those two words, the case of the disappearance of Jason McQuaker was altered forever.
He begged us to leave the area. He was falling apart.
Five metres from where we stood were the remnants of a fire in a small, dug out area. The forensic experts seized the scene. We gathered our thoughts and within minutes were on our way back to Thunder Bay.
-- -- --
Curiously, the panic and horror that had smothered McQuaker only moments earlier was replaced by a calm as we wriggled back through the bush and out on to the highway.
We drove the 33 kilometres south to Highway 17 and then west into the city. As he inhaled deeply on one of a dozen cigarettes, he stated firmly, "I told you I was telling the truth. It's the best decision I've made in three years."
He wondered if God had sent us.
We turned him over to the local police, but we wanted to stay, to go back to the scene. We needed to talk a lot more with McQuaker. We were not the least bit satisfied that he told us all that needed to be told. Instead, the police handed us airline tickets and told us our plane was leaving shortly. Their jurisdiction.
We took the tickets and left.
Only 26 hours earlier, Oliver and I walked into a Winnipeg bus terminal looking for a bank robber. We now found ourselves waiting for the next plane out of Thunder Bay and, strangely, looking into the eyes of a boy on Child Find poster at the airport. It read: Jason James Dean McQuaker -- Missing since June 11, 1988.
A full archeological dig was done at the scene in that bush. Small pieces of bone were found in the ashes. Those pieces of bone were Jason's. A key was also found. That key fit the door to his home. A cause of death was never established.
The case soon came to a standstill, again. No murder charge was laid. McQuaker stood trial for obstructing justice and interfering with a dead body. The story was told in the sterile setting of a Thunder Bay courtroom where McQuaker was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
-- -- --
My guilt comes from my failure to be more assertive in this important investigation. Oliver and I had a rapport with McQuaker, and we had no business leaving Thunder Bay until we were satisfied we could get nothing more. We allowed ourselves to be pushed away knowing it was wrong.
Whether we could have secured evidence of murder against anyone is unknown. But what's clear is nobody has been held to account for the murder of a young boy.
-- -- --
Years later, on Sept. 10, 1999, I spoke with Barry McQuaker. He was serving his time at the Millhaven Federal Penitentiary in Unit G2, the segregation unit. He said he was there for self-imposed reasons but also conceded that other cons gave him a hard time. He said he'd been charged with an institution stabbing but found not guilty.
I knew a telephone interview with a guy like McQuaker was less than ideal. Still, I asked about further information he may have on the case and if there was a way he could properly conclude it.
He stuck to the story and said his son's killer is still at large. He also told me he was a good provider and a good father.
McQuaker was eligible for parole in 2003, but he never got it.
-- -- --
A couple of weeks ago, Jody Porter of CBC Thunder Bay contacted me and told me Barry McQuaker was out and living there. She had talked to him and he had agreed to talk to me.
I called him, and we talked for about an hour, mostly in circles. He told me about a civil suit he'd launched against the Thunder Bay police after they had indicated he was a suspect in the case. He was suing for $2 million, but later withdrew his "very strong case," deciding against profiting from his son's death.
He talked about the several prisons, coast to coast, where he'd lived. He talked about serving every day of his sentence and never getting parole. He also talked about plea bargaining. He thought three years would have been about right given that the Crown attorney had been on radio saying that his charges were not very serious and there had been a psychiatric explanation for his actions in 1988.
He said he's been diagnosed as schizophrenic, but he said that's not right.
He also said he'd refuse to co-operate with police if they ever chose to conduct further inquiries on the case. He's steadfast he didn't do it.
So, who did? Who killed Jason McQuaker?
People on his ex-wife's side of the family have taken note that McQuaker's back in town.
One of Jason's cousins, a young teen when Jason disappeared, lives in perpetual frustration, believing Jason is forgotten by the city that once showed so much concern.
Until CBC Thunder Bay ran a feature on the case last week, there hadn't been a single word on the case since the trial in 1992, despite the cousin's attempts to get media and law enforcement interested. A Facebook page was started. Adding to the disappointment, there have been pushes on old cases, but nothing on Jason's.
Another family member wasn't sure what to think but believes McQuaker had a tough early life, bouncing among a number of homes.
McQuaker's ex-wife and Jason's mom Diane was more blunt when I spoke with her earlier this week. She left Thunder Bay 15 years ago, but that day in 1988 is etched in her mind.
The three were living together, and it was a Saturday, a day that Jason usually spent with his grandfather. But that near-ritual was cancelled because of a soccer tournament being held at a nearby field. She gave Jason $20 for the day, kissed him on the cheek and went to work.
McQuaker called her later looking for money and she remembers telling him that she didn't have any. When she got home, she sensed something was wrong. Jason wasn't there, but his bike was. He never went anywhere without his bike.
She got her family involved in the search. She sounds bitter as she recalls the difficulty she had getting the police interested in a missing kid. There were no amber alerts in those days, and Thunder Bay had never encountered anything like this. She sensed that the police weren't interested in helping Barry McQuaker. She says she even flew to Toronto and spoke with police there looking for help in solving the case.
Diane also recalls the day Thunder Bay detectives told her Jason and been found. She refused to believe it until they showed her his key, the one found during the archeological dig. She remembers her father being rushed to the hospital.
Looking back she wonders how she survived. She pauses and softly says: "I know his demons. And what he did that day to my son wasn't to protect me."
The pain of not knowing kept her from sleeping for most of the three years between Jason's disappearance and Barry McQuaker's confession.
When Diane talks, jealousy becomes a theme -- McQuaker craved her full attention.
"Jason was my life. Barry couldn't stand it."
Some family members worry for Diane and wonder if she'd be better off putting this ugliness behind her.
But she says, "Jason deserves a voice."
Today, McQuaker lives on a disability pension.
According to the CBC, Thunder Bay police have archived the investigation but remain receptive to new information.
Jason's case remains an unsolved homicide.
Robert Marshall is a security consultant and former Winnipeg police detective.