Dead Wrong

From the November 19, 2009 edition of The Coast

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Why is our police department one of the worst in Canada at finding killers? Stephen Kimber investigates.

OK, boys… Pack it up… Back to what you were doing… We’re done here…

Tom Martin had known it was coming. Call it his experience, or—perhaps, more to the point—his boss’s lack of experience. Whatever, Martin had guessed this morning’s outcome even before Bill Hollis, the staff sergeant in charge of major crimes, descended from the department’s executive offices to personally deliver the message from above.

The Halifax Regional Police task force set up to re-examine the August 28, 1999, murder of Jason McCullough was being disbanded.

Pack it up… Back to what you were doing…

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It was the summer of 2005. The re-investigation had begun the year before after an informant had come forward with new information about what happened in the park off Pinecrest Drive the night Jason McCullough was murdered, information the investigators had since “qualified” independently. Was this the break they needed to finally close the five-year-old murder investigation?

They desperately wanted to. Jason McCullough was what cops like to call a “pure victim:” a straight-arrow 19-year-old kid. He shoveled snow for the elderly, volunteered with the local Boys’ and Girls’ Club. He’d just ended up in the wrong park at the wrong, late hour on a hot, wet summer night.

Investigators were convinced they knew who’d murdered Jason. The problem was they hadn’t been able to prove it, at least not to the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt certainty the courts rightly required. Maybe this witness carried the key to unlock a conviction.

Days after the witness came forward, Chief of Police Frank Beazley authorized setting up a task force to take another look at the case.

The group included Martin, other members of the department’s cold case unit, and officers seconded from regular duties. They were a “fantastic team. Everyone had a key role. And everyone did their job.” Operating out of makeshift quarters in a cavernous room in the department’s Gottingen Street headquarters, the group gathered around a shoved-together collection of tables in the middle of the room each morning, and sometimes again in the afternoons. They discussed and dissected what they’d learned that day, then figured out what to do next.

During its re-investigation, the task force had progressed far beyond the thin gruel the informant had had to offer, putting together important new pieces of the puzzle of who killed Jason, independent of what the witness had told them. They were, Martin believed, “close, very close, extremely close” to being able to lay charges.

But then, two days before it was disbanded, investigators caught their informant toying with truth, “remembering big.” The investigators had had no choice but to cut him loose. Liars don’t make good courtroom witnesses.

It was a blow, but not lethal. Martin says every experienced investigator knows informants are notoriously unreliable. They’re usually criminals, with deals to make or axes to grind. So you never depend on an informant alone to make your case. The task force hadn’t. Which was why catching their informant in a lie, Martin believed, was just another “bump in the road” of their ongoing investigation.

But he wasn’t sure their bosses weren’t experienced enough to know that.

Tom Martin looked around the room. There was disbelief, anger. The other cops knew this was bullshit. Still, there was no point in confronting their staff sergeant. He was just the messenger. The message had come from two floors above, from Deputy Chief Chris McNeil, a man who’d never run a murder investigation.

We’re done here…

“You’re making a mistake.” Martin tried, with varying degrees of un-success, to keep his voice neutral. He knew he had a reputation for being one of management’s “biggest pains in the ass.” He preferred to see himself as a guy “who wasn’t afraid to piss off the bosses” in the interests of solving his case. Now, he stood just inside the door of McNeil’s office and tried to explain why the deputy chief shouldn’t do what he’d already done.

McNeil wasn’t listening. He simply stared at his computer screen while Martin made the case for continuing the task force. McNeil didn’t look up. All he said was, “It’s done.”

And it was. The task force was disbanded. Two weeks later, Martin suffered his first heart attack. He was never able to return to work. In 2008, he officially retired from the force.

***

It is a crisp fall morning in 2009. Tom Martin and I are having breakfast in a booth in a corner of the Athens’ restaurant on Quinpool Road. Two years before, while he was still on disability, I’d interviewed Martin for a Coast feature (August 24, 2006) called “The Last Best Hope” about his ongoing obsession—even after his heart attack—with solving the city’s many unsolved murder cases.

But he was still a cop then, which meant there were things he couldn’t say. I’ve come back today to ask about some of those things, including his views on why there seem to be so many unsolved murders in Halifax.

The Halifax Regional Police website currently lists 48 unsolved homicides, dating from the December 9, 1955, execution-style murder of Michael Leo Resk to the May 11, 2009 killing of Tanya Jean Brooks, an aboriginal mother of five.

Forty eight unsolved homicides? What’s that number really mean?

Well, the most recent figures I could find—from the Centre for Justice Statistics—compared homicide clearance rates from 1976 to 2005 for Canadian jurisdictions with populations of 150,000 or more. Halifax ranked 32nd out of 38 police forces with a clearance rate of just 80.3 per cent of 157 homicides. By contrast, the city with the best clearance rate was London, Ontario, a similar-sized city. London’s clearance rate for 139 murders was 97.8 per cent. Even the RCMP, which had 4,713 murders during the same period, solved 91.2 per cent of them.

Although those statistics are dated and include years that were kinder and gentler for violent crime, more recent numbers make Halifax look even worse. According to its own figures, HRP’s clearance rate for the 31 murders committed between 2005 and 2008 is just 64.5 per cent.

Martin pins much of the blame for that on his former department’s senior managers who, he says, lack the training and experience to effectively manage major criminal investigations.

The department’s own website, in fact, touts Frank Beazley’s most significant career accomplishment prior to becoming chief in 2003 as serving for six years as officer in charge of human resources and training. His deputy, McNeil—the man who shut down the McCullough investigation—is a law school graduate with what the website describes as “a broad range of policing experience in operations, communication and automation, and administration.”

“Chris McNeil is a smart man,” Martin says, “but he’s book smart. He’s not investigative smart. There’s a difference.” He pauses, considers, points. “Talking to him that day was like talking to that plant over there.”

***

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Tom Martin isn’t just any disgruntled ex-cop. By the time he retired last year, he was the force’s most experienced criminal investigator with more than 500 major case investigations under his belt, including as lead investigator in 25 murders. In 2001—a year in which he helped make arrests in two murders, an attempted murder and a kidnapping, not to mention nailing serial abuser William Shrubsall for assault and robbery and three sexual assaults, which helped convince a judge to officially label Shrubsall a “dangerous offender”—his fellow cops voted him officer of the year. In 1993, he was investigator of the year.

In 1999, he helped create a four-level criminal investigator’s course, which he then taught not only to fellow officers but also to the RCMP and military police.

In addition to training other cops in the art and craft of criminal investigation, Martin took specialized courses himself, including in death and crime scene analysis, and in cold case investigations—both of which were jointly offered by the Jacksonville, Florida, Medical Examiner’s Office, the U.S. military and the FBI. (Martin is one of only two Halifax officers to have taken the cold case course; both are now retired.)

Experience counts, Martin says, because repetition is how investigators learn “to fine tune, to tweak, to attain that magic point of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ It’s why young cops get partnered up with experienced ones.” And why you need cops with investigative experience making decisions about investigations.

None of that is to suggest it’s easy to solve any crime, let alone murder. Consider the force’s best known 20-years-and-counting missing person’s investigation. Though almost no one expects to find Kimberly McAndrew alive or doubts she met with foul play, her case is, ironically, still officially listed as a missing person. That means it isn’t even counted among Halifax’s 48 unsolved homicides.

McAndrew’s case has involved informants, false leads, fortunetellers, riddle-talking psychic tipsters, dog bones, well bottoms, too many bodies that weren’t hers, weird suspects who turned out to be just weird, eyewitnesses who probably weren’t, turf wars, a task force, missing evidence, egos, twists, turns… and there’s still no end in sight.

The long version could fill a book; this short version should give you the flavour of why experience matters.

***

At 4:20 p.m. on Saturday, August 12, 1989, Kimberly McAndrew, a 19-year-old cashier at the Quinpool Road Canadian Tire store, punched off work, walked into the parking lot and… disappeared.

Tom Martin was a young undercover drug squad officer at the time, but he—like virtually everyone else on the force—pitched in during the investigation’s early stages, in part, because McAndrew—like McCullough—was also a pure victim and, in part, because her father, Cyril, was a Mountie, a fellow cop.

It was an RCMP informant who initially convinced investigators Kimberly had been abducted by pimps. While that tip had to be pursued, Martin says that, with the benefit of hindsight and experience, it’s clear investigators quickly fixed on it to the exclusion of other possibilities. “Investigation 101. Don’t believe your informant too much.”

Or well-meaning, supposed eye witnesses. One woman insisted she’d seen Kim in a Penhorn Mall flower shop the afternoon she disappeared. That tip became so embedded in the investigation it’s still listed on the department’s website as her last known sighting.

Martin says that doesn’t make sense but believing it again kept early investigators from considering other possibilities.

In 2004, when Martin finally officially got the McAndrew cold case file—“I’d been working it anyway; it was the case everyone wanted to solve”—his first step was to sit down with Kim’s family.

“Let’s go back to square one,” he told them.

He wanted to know everything about Kim—from the fact Bryan Adams was her favourite singer to the reality she was still a small-town girl so nervous of the big city she would rather go home to her parents in Parrsboro than stay overnight alone in the Halifax apartment she shared with her sister.

“This was not a girl who was going to go on a safari to Dartmouth,” Martin says. Besides, if she wanted to buy flowers—it was her boyfriend’s birthday—there was a flower shop along the most logical route from work to her apartment.

“My instincts and experience tell me Kim never got of that parking lot,” Martin says today.

But that raises a question. Given Kim’s skittishness, wouldn’t she have screamed if someone had tried to abduct her in a parking lot filled with Saturday afternoon shoppers?

She would have. Unless…

In October 1997, police in Nanaimo, B.C.—following up on complaints that a man driving a Pontiac Gran Am with Nova Scotia licence plates had been posing as a police officer to lure young girls into his car—arrested a former Halifax resident named Andrew Paul Johnson. They found a developmentally-challenged 20-year-old woman locked in the back of his car, along with what police described as a rape kit: pornographic magazines, a Halloween mask, handcuffs, a meat cleaver, lubricating gel and packing tape.

Halifax police had been looking for Johnson too. In 1992, Johnson had pleaded guilty to confining and sexually assaulting his Halifax girlfriend. In 1997, he’d been caught masturbating in his car while watching girls at play in Hammonds Plains. There was a warrant for his arrest for making harassing phone calls to a 12-year-old White’s Lake girl while posing as a teen fashion representative. And, shortly before Johnson turned up in B.C., he had disappeared from a Dartmouth sexual offender treatment program—but not before turning in a chilling assignment. Psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Gabriel asked participants in the program to write an essay about a sexual assault from the point of view of its victim.

Johnson had written his about the rape and murder of Kimberly McAndrew.

Gabriel notified the Halifax police, who quickly set up a task force to investigate. Although Martin—who was busy with several other major investigations himself at the time—wasn’t directly involved with that investigation, he says its members did a “phenomenal job” putting together the puzzle pieces of Johnson’s life.

Intriguingly, at the time of Kimberly’s disappearance, the local telephone directory lists Johnson’s girlfriend as living in an apartment in a complex across from the Canadian Tire parking lot. “If someone had identified himself to Kim as a police officer,” Martin suggests today, “she—being the daughter of a police officer—might have gone with him.”

The task force uncovered other evidence in its investigation too—including some which linked Johnson to other unsolved murders in Halifax.

On January 1, 1992, a 22-year-old Vancouver woman named Andrea King had arrived at the Halifax International Airport with dreams of enrolling at Dalhousie Law School… and disappeared. Her body was found nearly a year later. During their investigation of Johnson, police found Andrea’s eye shadow compact.

Police sent several pieces of evidence for DNA testing, but the science wasn’t yet sophisticated enough to give them what they needed to charge Johnson.

Confronted with what they knew, however, investigators hoped Johnson might confess. By that point, Johnson, who’d pleaded guilty to abduction charges in the Nanaimo case, was facing a dangerous offender hearing that could—and did—put him behind bars indefinitely. Johnson refused to talk to the Halifax investigators.

In May 2001, days after a court in B.C. declared Johnson a dangerous offender, HRP disbanded its task force, without explanation—and without laying any charges. Why?

Three years later, when Martin—now officially a member of the cold case unit—began his back-to-square-one re-examination of the McAndrew file, he went looking for a piece of DNA evidence he knew the task force had collected. Martin hoped advances in testing procedures might produce a breakthrough. But the evidence was missing. He shakes his head. “No one could find it.”

He also asked the RCMP for a copy of the file from the “unusual” parallel investigation it had run at the time into McAndrew’s disappearance. “I asked for it, but I never got it.” Martin doesn’t know why—“I didn’t just ask once”—but he believes there may still be lingering turf wars left over from the integration of the local major crimes units with the Mounties’ squad following municipal amalgamation in 1996.

“Whatever,” he says, “I never did get the file.”

***

“From where I sit, in charge of operational policing,” Chris McNeil begins, “one unsolved murder is too many for me.” We’re sitting in a boardroom near his office in police headquarters. Though he says he isn’t familiar with the clearance rate statistics I’d asked him about, the city’s deputy police chief insists his force’s clearance rate for the past two years—10 of 14 homicides in 2007-08—is a “very respectable” 70 per cent.

“There’s always going to some ex-somebody telling me how I should do my job better,” he says of Tom Martin’s criticisms. “But some of the very cases you’re talking about happened at the heyday of when Tommy and other very experienced investigators were here. They didn’t solve those cases.”

McNeil does concede Martin’s point that the department has lost a lot of experienced investigators in the last several years, but he sees that as a positive. “We’re a younger force today. There’s a whole new energy, and people are getting opportunities that weren’t available to me as a young officer. And now we’ve lived through that period of transition. I have a lot of young but very experienced investigators.

He says he’s “not one to look back with rose-coloured glasses… We will always have unsolved homicides.” Many involve bad guys killing bad guys, cases where investigators smack up against that subculture’s brick wall, an unbreakable code of silence. Or investigators may be hobbled by “procedural protections” built into new Charter of Rights and Freedoms. “Things that were done 20 years couldn’t be done today.” While he doesn’t dispute the legitimacy of some of those new protections, the result is that solving cases has become “10-fold” more complex than before.

McNeil acknowledges financial incentives—the province is offering up to $50,000 for useful information in a number of specific cases, including McCullough and McAndrew—provide investigators with “another tool” but he adds “the reward system has not led us to solve a single serious crime so far.”

Neither, in truth, has the force’s cold case unit.

The unit was unveiled amid much fanfare in 2000. The five-member squad was initially going to focus on 15 homicides and eight missing persons cases, including McAndrew. Today, its murder caseload has more than doubled to 34—now including McCullough—but no one will say how many officers are assigned to it. “We don’t give information on our deployment numbers,” HRP spokesperson Brian Palmeter told me. Neither will the department indicate the unit’s budget.

Tom Martin suspects that may be because there’s no one besides Sgt. Jeff Clark, the officer nominally in charge, minding the store. “You need to go out and pound the pavement,” he says. “Re-interview. Re-think. That’s how you solve cases. And you can’t pick and choose the cases that ‘deserve’ to be investigated. A case where bad guys kill bad guys is no less important and should have the same resources as a case involving an innocent victim, perhaps even more because solving it will often lead to solving more murders… It’s about results. To my knowledge, the cold case unit has not laid one single criminal charge in nine years. To me, that’s unacceptable.”

For his part, McNeil says the public may simple expect too much from cold case units. “I call it the CSI factor. People think you find a piece of forensic evidence and, 40 minutes later, case solved. There’s no panacea like that.”

Even if a cold case investigator finds new evidence worth pursuing, he adds, the department then has to put together a “resource-intense” task force like those in the McCullough and McAndrew cases.

“There’s always a challenge deciding which ones you work on and which ones… there’s no point in pulling off the shelf,” McNeil acknowledges. “It’s not like you’re ever guaranteed results but I have to believe there’s something here that can be pursued and that there’s a likelihood that this is going to produce results.”

Or else?

OK, boys… Pack it up… Back to what you were doing… We’re done here…

***

When I ask Tom Martin about McNeil’s argument that some of what are today’s unsolved murders occurred on his watch, Martin is quick to fire back. “Investigators,” he says, “can only do what their bosses let them do. Investigators didn’t shut down the McCullough investigation. The deputy chief did.”

As for being an ex-somebody, Martin points out, “I’m an ex-somebody with experience.”

He say McNeil is a “micro-manager” who makes critical decisions about cases “even though he has never been involved in a major investigation himself.” To make matters worse, he adds, the other key players in the chain of command making day-to-day decisions on murder investigations—Superintendent Mike Burns and Staff Sergeant Frank Chambers—have “little or no” investigative experience either. He shakes his head. “These are the bosses makings the decisions on these cases.”

One more example. On January 6, 2003, 61-year-old businessman Larry Rhynold died during a mysterious fire in what news accounts at the time described as his “expensive, plantation-style home” in the city’s south end. Rhynold, who had been through a messy divorce, faced a myriad of “financial, legal and personal troubles.” Days before the fire, friends say, he’d been beaten up by two men outside his own home. Within days, fire investigators concluded the blaze had been deliberately set.

After weeks of on-scene investigation, witness interviews and forensic analysis, police investigators, perhaps not surprisingly, ruled the incident a homicide. The brass disagreed. “I argued with Staff Sergeant Frank Chambers for weeks trying to prove to him that this was a homicide,” Martin says. “The department’s policy is that every death is to be treated as a homicide until proven otherwise. I was just trying to convince my boss to follow the department’s own policy. In my career, I don’t recall Chambers ever being the lead investigator in a homicide case or even being assigned a homicide case. But he was my boss.”

Eventually, Martin says, he did win his point and Rhynold’s death was designated as a homicide. Shortly after he left the department, however, the case disappeared from the list of murders.

Not listing it as a murder, of course, makes the department’s clearance numbers look better.

***

Why is Tom Martin saying all this now? He says he has nothing to gain by going public, but “I have spent too many years sitting with the families of murder victims promising them we would do all we could to solve their case, and that’s not happening. The numbers of unsolved just keep getting higher.”

Forty-eight.

Plus Kimberly McAndrew…

Plus Larry Rhynold…

And getting higher.

___

Stephen Kimber, The Coast’s Senior Features Writer, is the author of one novel and eight books of nonfiction.

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  1. i didnt think the police had anything to go on concering the disappearance of kimberley mcandrew. heard about this girl in readers digest a few years back and remembered her.

    and just found about possible suspect,andrew johnson thru this article and the mistakes. man that is a shame. this story has always bugged me it wasnt solved. something should be done to take another look at this andrew johnson whether he was involved or not.

    Reply

  2. […] The Coast, Steve Kimber interviews retired Halifax homicide detective Tom Martin on the reasons behind the dismal record closing […]

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