‘This can happen to you.’ David Milgaard works to help free other innocent people – even though it opens the wounds of his past
David Milgaard’s garden sits on the edge of a sweeping valley. It’s not much, but enough for what he needs. Tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries for the kids. Some parsnips and wild flowers grown from seed.
His yard is small but boundless, a thin patch of grass that turns quickly wild, then dips into a valley and stretches out to the horizon beyond. It’s the expanse that made him want to live there. Vast and open. Endless. You can see the Bow River snaking by, and at intervals, trains clatter and squeal on the tracks alongside. He hasn’t always liked trains, they remind him more of captivity than freedom, bringing to mind for him the dark purposes they’ve served in history, how they carried people away to captivity and worse.
“I try not to think about that,” he says. “I’m getting used to them.”
David Milgaard is 67 years old. His name, like his face, is deeply familiar, a part of our history and our culture. His story is one of Canada’s most egregious wrongful convictions, and it is never out of the news for long, even now. On the day I arrive at his townhouse outside Calgary, it is almost 50 years to the day since he was arrested and charged for a murder he didn’t commit.
“Is it really 50 years?” he says, when I mention the anniversary to him, and he pauses for a moment to do the math. Then his voice grows soft.
It is difficult for him to talk about even now. But he knows he cannot stay silent. Continue reading in The Globe and Mail
After the fire: Murder, lies and a missing deer head
Off Range Road 132 in central Alberta, a broad driveway leads past an edge of trees into a yard, where once there stood a modest white house and a tidy farm.
On the morning of Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013, the house off the highway was quiet and dark. A light snow was falling and it was bitterly cold, sound waves bending and refracting in the air, seeming to amplify every noise. The crunch and pop of truck tires on a frozen road. A dog barking. A gunshot.
You would have been able to see it well before dawn if you lived across those fields, or if you happened to be travelling one of those dark and deserted highways: a spot of fire burning bright on the horizon, hot orange flames licking upward to the sky, a house disintegrating into embers below.
The first firefighters arrived around 7:30, when the family who lived in the house would usually have been up having breakfast, getting ready for work or chores.
In the country, it is friends and relatives who are called to help. On that morning, 16 volunteer firefighters from town and the farms around – local people who knew, as soon as they heard the location, whose house was in flames, whose lives were disappearing into thick plumes of smoke in the winter sky.
Jeff Ensign was the first to call Jason Klaus that morning. He knew Jason. He also knew Jason’s parents, Gordon and Sandi, and Jason’s sister, Monica. Jason was at home in his trailer across the property when the phone rang.
“The house is burned to the ground,” Jeff said when Jason answered the phone. “Where are your mom and dad?”
“They’re there. They’re in the house,” Jason told him. “They didn’t go nowhere. And Monica was there too.” Continue reading in The Globe and Mail
Searching for Answers: The Hunt for Bryer Schemegelsky and Kam McLeod
It’s the wildness of the place that draws people here. An area almost unfathomably vast, some of the emptiest terrain remaining on the continent. In the height of summer traffic, you can easily go half an hour or more without approaching another vehicle. Areas of highway have no centre line, no shoulder. There is no cell service for hundreds of kilometres. Hospitals and police are hours away.
Some people, like American Chynna Deese and her Australian boyfriend, Lucas Fowler, are drawn by the adventure, romance and freedom of these endless highways. Others, like Leonard Dyck, a 64-year-old botany lecturer at the University of British Columbia, may be pulled by a passion for the natural world and the untrespassed wilderness, the richness of the foliage and forest.
When teenaged best friends Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod drove north out from Port Alberni, B.C., around July 13 in a vintage Dodge Ram pick-up truck and Bigfoot camper top, they were heading to Yukon and Northwest Territories in search of work, better jobs than they had working the night shift at their home-town Walmart.
Or, that’s what they told people.
Instead, the two men have been identified as suspects in the killings of Ms. Deese and Mr. Fowler, who were found shot to death along the highway near the Liard River hot springs, and of Mr. Dyck, who was found dead beside the road outside Dease Lake five days later. Continue reading in The Globe and Mail
The Day I Met a Serial Killer
The day I met a serial killer, I was 21 years old, an art student living in Halifax. It was late on the afternoon of Saturday, June 1, 1996. I know that date for certain because he was arrested a few hours after I met him and charged with three counts of first-degree murder.
I have seen him described as both a serial killer and a spree killer, and there are varying definitions for both. You could certainly call him a spree killer, since the murders he committed all happened one after another on a single night. I’ve always thought of him as a serial killer, because of how he targeted certain victims, and because the murders were so intentional and specific. I call him a serial killer because, by the time I met him, 12 days after the murders, he’d acquired a new gun and a knife and several cartridges of ammunition. I call him a serial killer because I’ve always believed that when he walked up to my friend Trina and me on the street in Halifax that day, he was looking for more victims. We, unwittingly, told him exactly where to find them. Continue reading in The Globe and Mail
Staring Back: Are a spiritual leader’s relationships a calling or a dangerous abuse of power?
There was a cup of coffee on her desk, growing cold. There was her wallet and her cell phone, her purse and her winter coat, a framed picture of John. The face she had stared at for countless hours, light hair and clear blue eyes, a gaze that felt as though it could unlock the universe itself.
Anina had moved across the world to be close to John de Ruiter. Four times a week, she and hundreds of others filled the long rows of chairs at The Oasis Centre in west Edmonton, staring silently at him for hours as he sat beatifically under a beam of light, staring back.
He was their guru and teacher, to some even a saviour, a humble messiah they called simply “John.” They left their lives and families to be with him, devoted themselves completely to him and his teachings.
He arranged their marriages and relationships, their jobs and homes, gave them counsel and made their decisions, their lives winding ever more tightly around him while he drew from them their time and their labour, their money and their love.
They were Johnites or Oasis, sometimes The College, or just “the group.”
Anina’s mother and sisters struggled to understand. Like others on the outside, they thought it was a cult or a sect and they wondered about de Ruiter’s motives and his power. They’d seen his followers sitting rapt and silent while he spoke what, to Anina’s family, sounded like gibberish.
They saw how Anina had changed. How when she talked about him, she adopted his mannerisms and tone, her face becoming distant and her voice sleepy and soft, almost like an entirely different person than the one they had known.
They weren’t the only ones with questions. There had been allegations de Ruiter had sex with married female followers, stories about the break-up with his first wife and his relationship with two beautiful blonde sisters, who later filed court documents saying he was nothing more than a manipulator and a fraud.
Some former followers believed they’d been brainwashed or hypnotized while in the group, targeted with disturbing “psychic violence” when they left.
But though Anina’s family worried, John seemed to help her and give her balance, and they didn’t want to lose her altogether. If forced to choose, they knew, she would choose him. Continue reading in The Globe and Mail
The death of Wonder Woman
On the night it was finally over, when even Ruth’s last hopes had fallen through, Larry Kelly told his wife something he’d known for weeks, even months: There’s no more running away from this. It’s time to shut down the business.
We’ll give it the weekend, he told her. Then on Monday we’ll start figuring out what to do next. We’ll declare bankruptcy. You’ll get a job. It will be tough for a year or two, but it will get better. We will get through it.
It was a big step. Ruth was 60 years old. Venture Publishing and its flagship magazine, Alberta Venture, had been her life, her passion, and defined both her working life and her public identity. She was also not one to walk away from a challenge. In speeches to other entrepreneurs and business leaders, she talked often about the struggles of entrepreneurship, of the importance of embracing risk and making your own luck, of the “pathological stubbornness” and “irrational optimism” which had seen her through tough times before.
But by June of 2017, the qualities that were once Ruth’s greatest strengths were only making the situation worse. Venture was deeply in debt, a sinking business that owed huge amounts of money to throngs of companies and individuals, and which was rapidly taking Ruth and Larry down with it. Ruth’s steadfast belief that she could somehow power through it, that the business could still turn around and recover, had become unhealthy; her optimism not an asset but a trap, like a gambler desperately trying to make back money already lost.
It was a tough conversation, but the next morning Ruth seemed almost like her regular self again. She dressed nicely, and came to kiss Larry goodbye while he showered. It was unusual, but not enough to make him worry. He didn’t think anything about it until he saw the police officers in his office later, their faces grim, the female officer telling him, “I’ve got some bad news.” Continue reading in The Globe and Mail
Did an innocent man spend 34 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit?
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. Continue reading in The Globe and Mail
The Radical Grief of Cliff and Wilma Derksen
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. Continue reading 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.
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. Continue reading in The Globe and Mail
The news scarf mystery: A true story of fashion and coincidence
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.” Continue reading in The Globe and Mail
Canadian cowboy: a 23-year-old singer from Saskatchewan brings a new voice to outlaw country
Colter Wall is newly 23 years old, with pale skin and a spray of freckles across his nose and cheeks that make him look younger. His eyes are bright blue, his hair and beard golden-red and shaggy. On a recent evening at the Calgary Stampede, the Saskatchewan-born singer-songwriter wore a wheat-coloured cowboy shirt open to the fourth button and a dusty black hat. In slim Wranglers and beat-up boots, he cut a silhouette so cowboy it looked like he had just stepped out of the rodeo ring.
As he warmed up with his band before an evening performance at The Big Four Roadhouse, a song began to emerge from the sounds of tuning instruments, and Wall’s voice filled the air. It is a smoky baritone, unexpected and arresting, a new voice and yet a deeply familiar one – tinged with memories of the original outlaws of country in their heydays, hints of Waylon and Willie and Johnny and Merle. It is a voice of another time and place, one that can make a bland backstage room feel more like a gathering around a campfire on the prairie. A voice that led one fan on Facebook to surmise, “This boy sold his soul to the devil for that voice.”
Wall strummed his guitar and tapped a worn cowboy boot on the carpet.
“What was that?” asked Blake Berglund, a musician and friend from Saskatchewan, who was hanging out with Wall and his band that night.
“An old cowboy tune,” Wall said. “Waylon does it, though.” Continue reading in The Globe and Mail
The elephant nobody forgets: The fight for Edmonton’s last elephant
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. Continue reading 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
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. Continue reading in The Globe and Mail
‘Four triangles of nothing’: On the birth of the 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.” Continue reading in The Globe and Mail
Little Girl Lost: What happened to Tamra Keepness?
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. Continue reading 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. Continue reading in The Globe and Mail
‘A habit, a nostalgia’: On reading, and re-reading, John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row
“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.”) Continue reading in The Globe and Mail
My Life as a Crime Reporter
I 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. Continue reading in Sharp Magazine