Featured Stories

Did an innocent man spend 34 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit?

Ben Nelms/ The Globe and Mail

In the first year after he was charged with the rape and murder of a child, Phillip James Tallio wrote his teenaged girlfriend 116 letters, every one of them repeating the same thing. He said it before his trial and after his conviction, and when he was sentenced to life in prison. For more than 34 years he said it, over and over, and he would not stop. He said it to family members and to correctional staff, in prison programs and to the parole board, even though he knew saying it meant he would not be released. When people told him to stop saying it, so at least he could get out of prison and have some kind of a life, he told them he would never admit to something he didn’t do. And then he’d repeat the same thing he’d been saying for 34 years: I didn’t do this.

Now, a lifetime later, people are listening.

Read more in The Globe and Mail

The Radical Grief of Cliff and Wilma Derksen

Photo by David Lipnowski/ The Globe and Mail

It was late on Jan. 17, 1985, one of the longest days of their lives. There had been people around them for hours but he came to the door the moment they were alone, as though he’d been waiting outside for the others to leave. He was dressed in black and they recognized him from news coverage, though they couldn’t quite place it at the time. He stood outside their house in the dark, in the cold.

“I’m the parent of a murdered child, too,” he said. “I’ve come to tell you what to expect.”

Cliff and Wilma Derksen had identified their daughter’s body at the hospital just hours earlier. They were in shock, reeling, but still they invited the man into the warmth of their kitchen and offered him the fresh cherry pie one of their friends had made. Then he started to speak.

For two hours, the man recounted the things he had lost to murder. Not only his daughter but his relationships and his work, his belief in justice, his trust, the goodness of his life before. Even his daughter’s memory. He showed them notebooks from the trials, lined up the bottles of pills he was taking. He told them, “It will destroy you.”

As he spoke, the Derksens saw for the first time what faced them. They would come to know it as the darkness, an abyss of sadness and anger that could swallow a person and take away everything they loved, that would spread until it destroyed all that was beautiful. Alone in their bedroom after he left, they made a decision: They had lost Candace, they wouldn’t lose everything else, too. They couldn’t.

“We kind of looked at each other and said, ‘We have to stop this,’” Cliff says. “We have to forgive.”

But what does it mean to forgive the person who killed your daughter? The person who bound her hands and feet in a way so dehumanizing it is called “hog-tying,” then left her alone and helpless to die in the cold? How do you forgive a person you have never met? Who has never asked your forgiveness? How do you forgive a person who may not even be sorry?

It took more than 22 years for a man to be charged, and four more for him to stand trial for murder. Now, after a second trial, the violent sex offender Cliff and Wilma believe killed their daughter may go free. A verdict could come within weeks.

He has never admitted he did it. He has never said he’s sorry. And the Derksens are still discovering what it means to forgive him.

Read more in The Globe and Mail

‘Nothing short of catastrophic’ : Shawn Beaver was once considered one of Alberta’s top legal minds. Then money started to go missing from clients’ accounts.

Photo by Amber Bracken/ The Globe and Mail

On the day it all came crashing down, Shawn Beaver got up early and dressed with extra care. He wore polished shoes and a carefully chosen tie, taking care with the little things as though he were dressing for a wedding or a funeral, an added formality to steel himself for what was to come. From the outside, it seemed like he had it all. He was an elite criminal defence lawyer with his own successful firm, a respected legal mind who taught at the university and argued cases before the Supreme Court. His wife had been discharged from the hospital and was at home with their newborn baby. They’d been married one month. Their baby daughter, Aguilera, was one week old.

That morning had been coming for a long time. But although Mr. Beaver had been expecting it – knew it was inevitable even, and that he could not put it off any longer – its arrival was no less grim. He made a phone call from his office, then he left, walking east, toward the courthouse, alone. It was the same route he walked nearly every day to court, a walk he could do almost without looking. But this time he turned off and went into an office building instead, up 17 floors to see a long-time friend and mentor who would now become his lawyer. There, Mr. Beaver opened the door, and got ready for everything to fall apart.

Read more in The Globe and Mail

The news scarf mystery: A true story of fashion and coincidence

Photo by Jason Franson/ The Globe and Mail

The scarf is filmy and soft, with a blurred newspaper pattern and a wispy fringe on all sides. I have it in two colours, one blobbed blue like watered ink, the other smeared coral like an old lady’s blush. It is 65 per cent polyester and 35 per cent viscose, according to its tag, and it is made in China. Machine wash cold, don’t bleach.

I came across it in Edmonton at TRENDS, “the biggest and best apparel show in the country,” where my friend Lisa was looking at things for her store. I wouldn’t have been at a fashion trade show except that I was procrastinating, and I wouldn’t have looked at the scarf except that I was bored. It was the very end of the day and my eyes were so bleary I could barely focus. But as I flicked at the scarf, something within its folds caught my eye.

“Holy [expletive]!” I said. In retrospect, I wish I’d said something much wittier, or at least more printable, but unfortunately that’s not how it happened. So, “Holy [expletive]!” I said. “That’s my byline! One of my stories is on this scarf!”

Trade shows don’t usually sell items on the spot, but when I asked the woman at the booth if I could buy the scarf, she shrugged, as if helpless in the face of such a strange coincidence.

“It has your name on it,” she said. “I think I have to sell it to you.”

Read more in The Globe and Mail

Finding light in the dark: Merico Tesolin was born deaf. Now, he’s losing his vision. A story in 12 snapshots

Photo by Jana Pruden/The Globe and Mail

There is darkness, and there is light. In daytime, the darkness is mostly around the edges, but at night, it is everywhere. Like being blindfolded, with only shapes and tone in the shadows. It’s December in Edmonton and the days are short. It is dark far more than it is light. Merico Tesolin’s apartment glows even from outside, the brightest spot on an evening street. There are overhead lights switched on and a green lamp glowing on the desk, a standing lamp casting light in the corner, beside his great-grandmother’s chair. A series of bulbs pushing the darkness out.

Read more in The Globe and Mail

Who is Travis Vader? The man at the centre of one of Alberta’s highest-profile homicides says a lot, but answers little

Travis Vader. Photo by Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

In an Edmonton courtroom on a frigid Monday morning, members of a grieving family attempted to express the many ways their lives have been torn apart by the killings of Lyle and Marie McCann.

There were the familiar scars that homicide leaves on survivors: Deep anxiety, nightmares, a fear of ringing phones and of people not answering. There were the unanswerable questions: How could someone do this? Why?

And, in this case, there was the question that has hung over the province for nearly 6½ years, since the McCanns headed out on a road trip to British Columbia one July morning and met deadly violence along a highway in western Alberta. Reading aloud from his victim impact statement, the couple’s son, Bret McCann, put that question directly to the man convicted of killing them.

“Travis Vader, where are the bodies of my parents?” he asked.

Mr. Vader did not answer.

Read more in The Globe and Mail

The elephant nobody forgets: The fight for Edmonton’s last elephant

Lucy the elephant. Photo by Amber Bracken, The Globe and Mail

Lucy the elephant. Photo by Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

The elephant house is squat and made of concrete, with windows of bullet-proof glass and gates of heavy steel. Its design reflects the reality of securing animals so strong they can break through bars and fences, so smart and deft they can use their trunks to open latches and doors. The house is linked to three outdoor pens – a large enclosure for the Edmonton Valley Zoo, though some would argue still far too small for an elephant.

Read more in The Globe and Mail

 ‘Four triangles of nothing’: On the birth of the bikini

Micheline Bernardini in the first bikini.

Micheline Bernardini in the first bikini.

On July 5, 1946, along the edges of the crowded Piscine Molitor in Paris, a French automotive engineer named Louis Réard unveiled his newest creation to the world. It was so risqué only a nude dancer would show it. So earth-shaking, it was named after the atomic bomb. So guaranteed to make headlines, it was printed like newspaper. And so, 70 years ago, the bikini was born.

The story starts in the spring of 1946, when French furrier and fashion designer Jacques Heim released his new two-piece bathing suit the “Atome,” which he named after the smallest known particle at the time. Considering some designers were pushing a return to the full swimming dress that season (complete with sailor collar and, in at least one case, a white tailored blazer), a glimpse of midriff was indeed a revolution. But if the Atome was the “world’s smallest bathing suit,” as advertised, it didn’t hold the record for long. Within weeks, Louis Réard responded with his “Bikini.” 

Read more in The Globe and Mail

Little Girl Lost: What happened to Tamra Keepness?

Tamra Keepness - missing girl - Police file photo - 2004

Tamra Keepness in 2004/ Regina Police Service

Few children in Canada just vanish. Fewer still stay gone for longer than a couple of days. Some are found alive, others are hurt or killed, but rarely does a child simply disappear. The rcmp’s National Centre for Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains database lists 147 missing children, in a country of more than 35 million people. Of the sixty children under the age of twelve, a quarter are thought to have been abducted by their parents. A large portion of the others were lost to apparent accidents or misadventure, falling through ice or swept away in the pull of wild rivers, their bodies never recovered. The database shows twenty-four children in the past sixty years who have inexplicably disappeared. Because there are so few, we know them. In Edmonton, there is Tania Murrell, six when she vanished while walking home from school for lunch in January 1983. In Toronto, Nicole Morin, eight when she disappeared from a condominium building in July 1985. Michael Dunahee was four years old when he went missing from a playground in Victoria in 1991. In Regina, there is only Tamra Keepness.

Read more in The Walrus

A week in Hell: How Fort McMurray burned

The wildfire MWF-009 was first spotted by an Alberta Agriculture and Forestry crew on Sunday afternoon, and was logged just after 4 p.m. Its technical name signified it was the ninth wildfire of the season in the Fort McMurray area, the only one burning that day. Nothing was especially remarkable about it at first: 500 hectares burning in the trees southwest of the city. But the fire was already out of control, and wildfire officials knew they were on the edge of an exceedingly dangerous fire season. All the conditions for a catastrophic wildfire were present: Hot dry weather, high winds and low humidity, set within a dense boreal forest primed to burn. MWF-009 was also unsettling because of its proximity to the city, and it was already proving itself to be a difficult fight. When MWF-010 flared up, it was extinguished quickly, but MWF-009 persisted.

By Monday, 80 firefighters were working on the fire, with tankers and helicopters attacking it from the air. Yet by 5 p.m., the fire had more than doubled in size to 1,285 hectares. Three hours later, it had doubled again.

Read more in The Globe and Mail

‘A habit, a nostalgia’: On reading, and re-reading, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row

IMG_3559“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream.” I loved Cannery Row from the moment I read that line, and it is still one of the best first lines I’ve ever read. The whole paragraph is beautiful, actually, but if I keep quoting it I might not be able to stop.

Published in 1945, Cannery Row is John Steinbeck’s portrait of life around a sardine cannery in California. There is a loose plot about a party but mostly it is the story of a place and its days, its people and its animals, their many stories and moments intertwined.

Cannery Row was inspired by Steinbeck’s own experiences in California and especially his friendship with Ed Ricketts, a marine biologist who is the basis for the main character, Doc, and the man to whom the book is dedicated. (A 2005 news story about Ricketts’s enduring fan base described him as “probably the only scientist in history to have 15 animal species and a nightclub named after him.”)

Read more in The Globe and Mail

My Life as a Crime Reporter

IMG_1668I meet a lot of people on the worst days of their lives. Sometimes, at their very worst moments. These are very intense meetings. After 17 years as a crime reporter, the images remain vivid in my mind: a man watching his wife’s body being pulled from a wreck on the highway. Another walking toward a line of police tape strung around his family’s house, looking as scared and lost as an orphan.

“What happened?” he asked me.

I told him, “You need to speak to that man over there,” and pointed him toward a homicide detective.

Those are the moments that divide lives permanently into before and after. You can see an entire life changing in the muscles of the face.

Read more in Sharp Magazine 

Fear on the Family Farm: The true story of a man who killed his father

The Crichton farm.

The Crichton farm. Photo by Jana G. Pruden/Edmonton Journal

Mat ran across the field with his bad leg dragging through the grass, the tractor rumbling behind him, his father Sandy’s angry screams ringing in his ears.

Mat had lived his whole life in fear, but he was different now. He was a husband and would soon be a father. Something fundamental had changed inside him.

So when his father cornered him on the road that warm September morning, eyes blazing and furious, Mat headed across the field toward the shop where he kept his guns, walking at first, then running, knowing this time it had to be different.

Read more in the Edmonton Journal