Stranger Than Fiction

April 2020

Canadian Noir

By Dean Jobb

The-Boy-the-on-Bicycle

A billionaire and his wife are found dead and police are slow to realize they are victims of a double murder. Detectives bully a teenager into confessing to a crime he didn’t commit. And above the Arctic Circle, two indigenous men may have been wrongly convicted of murder in the 1920s. Canadians may have a reputation as polite and law-abiding, but true crime writers are revealing the darker side of law and order north of the American border.

The first stop on this cross-border trek is Toronto. When police picked up Ronald Moffatt for questioning in 1956, the teenager thought he was in trouble for skipping school. Hours later, he had confessed to the brutal murder of a seven-year-old boy he had never met – a crime committed, police later discovered, by a young serial killer stalking the children of Toronto. In The Boy on the Bicycle: A Forgotten Case of Wrongful Conviction in Toronto (Five Rivers Publishing), crime writer and journalist Nate Hendley exposes Moffatt’s never-before-told story of injustice.

Why would Moffatt confess? False confessions happen with “alarming frequency,” Hendley notes, usually because the person is young and impressionable (like Moffatt), mentally challenged, or seeking attention. Moffatt, just fourteen, was so scared and intimidated that he readily confirmed the suspicions of the detectives leading his interrogation. “They walked me through the confession,” he told Hendley, “supplying the correct information when I gave them a wrong answer to a question.”

Moffatt was convicted even though a number of witnesses testified he was at the movies when the murder occurred. He would have served years behind bars if the real killer, Peter Woodcock—a young man who molested and killed children he took for rides on his bicycle—had not struck again and been caught. Within a year, Moffatt had won a new trial and was acquitted; in an astonishing twist, Woodcock testified on Moffatt’s behalf and admitted his guilt.

Hendley tells this important and disturbing story with objectivity and restraint, letting the facts speak for themselves as the reader’s sense of outrage builds. Moffatt has never received an apology for his mistreatment, let alone monetary compensation for an ordeal that derailed his life for years. Worst of all, his arrest meant Woodcock remained at large long enough to kill again.

 

The-Court-of-Better-FictionFalse confessions (or dubious ones, at least) are at the heart of another tale of uncertain justice—the trials and executions of two Inuit men in the Canadian Arctic in 1924. Debra Komar, a forensic investigator-turned-writer who has published fresh accounts of several vintage Canadian murder cases, subjects the troubling case to a searching postmortem in The Court of Better Fiction: Three Trials, Two Executions, and Arctic Sovereignty (Dundurn).

The “fiction” of the title refers to the notion that the Canadian government, with only a tenuous hold on its almost-empty northern territories, could cobble together a rudimentary justice system to deal with a spate of murders at a remote settlement, including the shooting of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer and a white fur trader.

In the rush to do justice, Komar found, almost every rule of due process was bent or broken. The judge, prosecutor, defence counsel, and some of the jurors travelled north together despite the appearance of bias and collusion—a retinue that resembled “a travelling circus,” in one of Komar’s many biting turns of phrase. The lawyer appointed to defend Alikomiak and Tatamigana was convinced they were guilty and so was the hangman, who accompanied the northbound party and had a makeshift gallows ready before the trials were even held.

The trials were designed to show the native population that murder—especially the killing of white men—would not be tolerated. The authorities did not understand how the Inuit dealt with homicide, and did not care. As Komar reveals, the killing spree began when Alikomiak and Tatamigana shot a dangerous and unstable member of their hunting group who posed a threat to others, a killing considered justified in their culture.  

Komar puts her forensic skills to work and makes a convincing case that, in the rush to judgment, the real murderer was allowed to escape. An Inuit man who acted as translator during the trial had a motive to murder the Mountie and the trader, and may have tailored the confessions and testimony he rendered into English to cover his tracks and implicate others. The allegation is shocking but, thanks to Komar’s insights and archival sleuthing, all too plausible.

 

Billionaire-MurdersFast-forward almost a century to December 2017. Billionaire drug manufacturer Barry Sherman and his wife, Honey, were found dead in their Toronto mansion, their bodies seated side-by-side and suspended from belts tied to a low railing. Was it a murder-suicide, as Toronto police sources were quick to suggest to the media? A double-suicide? Or was it a double-murder staged to look like a domestic tragedy?

There’s now no doubt the couple had been murdered, perhaps by hired professionals. But more than two years later, a single police officer is working on the file full-time and the probe appears to be stalled. A private investigation funded by the Sherman family, using retired detectives and forensic experts, is also at a standstill. Kevin Donovan, an investigative reporter with the Toronto Star, has added a third investigation to the mix in The Billionaire Murders: The Mysterious Deaths of Barry and Honey Sherman (Viking).

Donovan faced a daunting challenge: How do you tell the story of a crime when the whodunit part remains a mystery, investigators are tight-lipped, and few relatives and people who knew the victims are willing to talk? The answer is by patiently chipping away at the wall of silence surrounding the murders (Donovan code-named one of his informers “Zero,” and that’s an apt description of the level of cooperation he received on many fronts).  

Barry Sherman was the founder of Apotex Inc., a major manufacturer of generic drugs he built almost from scratch, and was worth an estimated $3.5 billion U.S. Along the way he made enemies—he was quick to use the courts to settle disputes as well as scores—but he was also generous to relatives, friends, and numerous charities. Donovan deftly recreates Sherman’s business history and pays close attention to a recent legal dispute with his cousins, who claimed they were entitled to a share of the Apotex fortune. Plenty of dirty family laundry is aired in public.

Honey Sherman was kind, generous, and well liked, and her warmth helped to round off her husband’s rough edges. The idea that he killed her and then himself, Donovan asserts, is ludicrous. “I did not believe,” he confesses, “that the Toronto Police Service could get something so wrong.” But as his book makes clear, it did; detectives failed to interview key witnesses, collect DNA, and pursue other potential evidence until long after the trail had gone cold.

With no suspects in custody, no trial, and a rich trove of police investigative files sealed by the courts, Donovan explores the murders and their aftermath in as much detail as he can. The killer (or killers) knew the couple, or was at least familiar with their routines and the layout of their home, he concludes, and for now this is as close as anyone can get to the truth. It’s as if a fictional detective had assembled the suspects in the drawing room, explored all the theories and possible motives, and then walked out, leaving the case unresolved—which, of course, it is.

 

Forest-City-KillerMore unsolved Canadian murders are investigated in The Forest City Killer: A Serial Murderer, a Cold-Case Sleuth, and a Search for Justice (ECW Press). Author Vanessa Brown assumes the role of amateur sleuth and makes a bold assertion that as many as eight unsolved murders committed between 1968 and 1970 in the Ontario city of London (known as the Forest City) were the work of a serial killer.

Brown draws on extensive local knowledge and community contacts—she owns a bookstore in the city of 400,000, located mid-way between Detroit and Toronto—to tell the stories of these crimes. The key to revisiting these cases with fresh eyes is her access to personal files compiled by Dennis Alsop, an Ontario Provincial Police detective who died in 2012 and always believed at least some of the murders might be linked.

The victims were sexually assaulted (or rape was suspected), and most suffered disfiguring blows to the head. But they do not fit a single profile. Four were teenaged girls or young women. Three were male, ranging in age from nine to sixteen. Another was a thirty-one-year-old divorcée. To add another layer of uncertainty, the book identifies not one possible suspect, but two.

Brown is a gifted storyteller and marshals her evidence with skill and genuine compassion for those who lost loved ones. While she has been obsessed with these crimes for four years, she notes, “for the surviving families of the many victims, and their supporters, these unsolved cases have resonated through their lives for decades.”

The identity of the Forest City Killer or “FCK,” as Brown dubs him—assuming there was only one—remains hidden in a tangle of contradictory and lost evidence, fading memories, family secrets, and a fresh injection of leads and theories posted to online cold-case forums. “You will be given the facts available to me,” she notes at the outset, “and it is up to you to draw your own conclusions.”

These tales of murder span a century of Canadian history, but each one is a reminder that the truth—and ultimately, justice—can be elusive.

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Dean Jobb’s next book (coming in April 2021 from Algonquin Books and HarperCollins Canada) recreates the crimes of Victorian-era serial killer Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who preyed on women in Canada, the U.S. and England and became known as London’s feared Lambeth Poisoner. He teaches nonfiction writing at the University of King’s College in Halifax. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanJobb

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