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'There was pressure to solve this:' International attention affected how police investigated Fontaine murder, court told

Tina Fontaine's photographs sit on top of her casket at her funeral in 2014. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

Tina Fontaine's photographs sit on top of her casket at her funeral in 2014. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/1/2018 (927 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

The international attention Tina Fontaine’s death received may have played into the way the Winnipeg Police Service handled its homicide investigation that led to the arrest of her accused killer, court heard Wednesday. 

"This was a high-profile case and the lab was aware of that," said WPS forensic identification unit Const. Susan Roy-Haegeman testified Wednesday, speaking about the "significant resources" police devoted to the investigation and requests the service made to speed up and increase DNA testing in the case.

"There was pressure to solve this anyway — this was a young girl who was pulled from the river. We wanted to solve it," Roy-Haegeman said on the third day of the second-degree murder trial for 55-year-old Raymond Cormier. 

Fifteen-year-old Tina was found dead in the Red River on Aug. 17, 2014, wrapped in a beige duvet cover that was tied and weighed down with rocks. Despite exhaustive forensic investigative techniques and a careful two-day autopsy, the jury heard Wednesday, investigators weren’t able to determine how she died or find any DNA evidence linking her to Cormier, who was arrested and charged with second-degree murder more than a year later.

Prosecutors have said they believe the duvet cover that concealed Tina’s body was the same Costco brand that Cormier owned. The forensic part of the case revolved around the piece of bedding at first, Roy-Haegeman said, because unlike typical cases, police didn’t know where the crime scene was.

"We didn’t have a starting point. We didn’t have a scene," she said. "All we had was a young girl in a duvet cover pulled from the river.

"All we have is Tina herself."

Roy-Haegeman’s examination of the duvet cover revealed some brightly coloured red and blue fibres, and a subsequent search of Cormier’s belongings yielded some "Mexican-style" blankets woven with heavy fibre. But no examination of the duvet cover, of Tina’s body, or of a stolen pickup truck Cormier was believed to have had in his possession resulted in any forensic link between Tina and Cormier, or between Tina and any other suspect, Roy-Haegeman testified. 

In his cross-examination of the constable, defence lawyer Andrew Synyshyn zeroed in on the public attention the case attracted, suggesting police were under pressure to find a suspect. He brought up a February 2015 request made by a different WPS officer to the RCMP lab. Asking for tests of 28 blood samples collected during a search of Cormier’s residence, the officer mentioned the international attention the case received, and specifically noted a January 2015 Maclean’s magazine article that used Tina as the face of what it dubbed Winnipeg’s "festering race problem."

Roy-Haegeman said she didn’t feel pressured to identify a suspect, since her job was to gather as much evidence as possible to be used in the overall investigation. She said officers routinely have to explain to busy lab analysts why particular test results should be expedited, or why they should test a large number of samples from a particular scene. It’s "highly unusual," she testified, for a lab to agree to test 28 blood samples from the same scene, for example.

Despite the extra resources used in Tina’s case, no DNA results materialized. 

The cause of her death remains unknown, according to the pathologist who conducted an autopsy starting the same day Tina’s body was pulled from the Red River.

Dr. Dennis Rhee testified he couldn’t figure out how Tina died by examining her "moderately" decomposed body, photos of which were displayed to visibly unsettled jurors.

"I don’t know what happened. I don’t know how she came to her death," Rhee said as he was questioned by Crown attorney James Ross.

Dr. Rhee classified Tina’s death as suspicious because of the way she was wrapped in the duvet cover along with rocks and tied up with simple knots. He testified Wednesday suicide was "unlikely."

Rhee ruled out death by stabbing, blunt force trauma, strangulation and drugs or poison. Drowning or smothering were possibilities, because when someone drowns or is smothered to death, there’s often no evidence left behind on the body, he testified. But he clarified under cross-examination from Cormier’s defence lawyer that he’s not saying Tina was smothered.  

She had no broken bones and no severe damage to internal organs, so Dr. Rhee said he ruled out a major assault. But he said he couldn’t tell whether Tina suffered a "minor assault," such as bruises, before she died. He found no evidence of a sexual assault, but he couldn’t definitively say she hadn’t been sexually assaulted. No DNA evidence could be found on her body, and Rhee said the water would have likely washed it away.

She likely died between three to seven days before her body was found, Rhee testified, but she could have died as little as two days before, or as many as nine days before, he said.

Katie May

Katie May
Justice reporter

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

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Updated on Wednesday, January 31, 2018 at 1:12 PM CST: expands on testimony from pathologist

8:03 PM: Writethru

February 1, 2018 at 10:24 AM: Edits headline

February 12, 2018 at 1:25 PM: removes second reference to date Tina Fontaine found

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