Murder Under the Microscope

I’m a firm believer in the future of newspapers — or at least the future of the written word — as a way of delivering news to people, and exercises like “Murder Under the Microscope” illustrate why print journalism remains the best source of accurate and contextual news coverage.

There were 30 homicides in Calgary during 2007, one of the worst years on record. While other media outlets focused on that single statistic, the Herald had the desire, the time and the space to give Calgarians the real story behind the numbers.

Focusing on year-to-year spikes isn’t a responsible or accurate way of charting statistical trends, but examining every single homicide between 1992 and 2007 — all 270 of them — gave a true picture of what has been happening in Calgary.

There’s no denying that 30 people dying violently is disturbing, but the data produced by our examination shows that Calgary remains a safe city for the overwhelming majority of citizens — despite what you might see on TV.

Murder under the microscope; Big city crime comes to Calgary

February 1, 2008

Jason van Rassel
Calgary Herald

The year began with the slaying of a teenage immigrant whose body was set ablaze inside a trash bin.

The year ended with the daylight shooting of a notorious gang member as he walked in a downtown alleyway.

In all, 30 Calgarians — from a 79-year-old woman killed in her own home, to a 17-year-old part-time drug dealer pushed into a moving C-Train — died at the hands of others in 2007.

It was one of Calgary’s bloodiest years of crime — and the most violent since 1992, when city police recorded 31 homicides.

While neither year is the city’s deadliest — 1978 was, with 37 homicides — 1992 and 2007 bookend a watershed period when Calgary grew into a metropolis of a million and the notion of “big city crime” with gangs and guns entered the public’s consciousness.

Despite the city’s growth, the violent taking of a life still has the capacity to shock Calgarians and spread unease, regardless of whether the victim is a stranger or a loved one. Already this year, five more homicides have dominated the news.

There were 270 killings from 1992 to the beginning of 2008, and the Herald has examined every case in the most comprehensive study of local homicides in that time.

Using data from the Calgary Police Service and Statistics Canada, along with court testimony, parole documents and our own archives, the Herald created a database that gave a deeper perspective than the headlines and annual murder counts — creating a profile of who died, how they were killed and why, and where it happened.

Among the key findings:

• Men are far more likely to be both victims and perpetrators: 190 victims — 70 per cent — are men. Among cases where the identity of the killer or accused is known, 87 per cent are male.

• Despite the recent rise in gang violence, knives are the most common deadly weapon, used in more than one-third of all homicides. Killers used guns in almost one quarter of the cases, a rate that’s remained steady.

• Gang violence is partly responsible for a recent sharp decline in the rate of homicides cleared by police. (Cases are “cleared” when investigators make an arrest or the homicide is resolved by other circumstances, such as the killer committing suicide.)

• Parents are far more likely to kill their children than strangers. Nine Calgary children have been killed by a parent — or a parent was accused of the crime — compared to one child murdered by a neighbour.

• Alcohol or drug consumption — either by the victim, accused, or both — was documented as a contributing factor in more than four in 10 cases; 19 people have been killed in bar fights.

• Aboriginals make up less than three per cent of the city’s population, but comprise at least 10 per cent of homicide victims.

• Only three killings appear to be unprovoked attacks by strangers while more than a quarter of cases involve Calgarians dying at the hands of a spouse, intimate partner or family member.

While gang slayings and other high-profile cases shock the community, crime experts contend people don’t need to be more fearful now than in 1992.

“We’re as safe as we were 10 years ago, 15 years ago, in terms of becoming a victim of violence — of homicide,” says Doug King, chair of justice studies at Mount Royal College, who reviewed the Herald’s study results.

Calgary is no different than other major centres in terms of who is committing murder and who is victimized by it, says King, who found the city’s statistics mirror national homicide trends.

To truly understand what drives others to killing, he suggests looking beyond the crack dealer on the corner.

People should peer instead behind the closed doors and curtains on their block, King says. Abuse in the home not only creates domestic abusers, but also people who use violence in all kinds of situations.

“If we really want to come to grips with homicide, we have to deal with the dynamics of what happens within families,” he says.

While that may provide a partial answer to what causes someone to kill, calculating the effects of those actions is more elusive.

“It’s amazing what it does to a person. Your life goes on, but it’ll never be the same,” laments Tony Martin, whose daughter, Terrie Ann Dauphinais, was slain inside her northwest Calgary home in 2002.

The case remains unsolved, a source of continued anguish — and anger — for Martin. Those emotions are held in check, he explains, only out of necessity so he can stay focused on his job and his family’s needs.

“I can’t spend a lot of time thinking of ways to get better,” Martin adds.

Every Saturday, without fail, Stu and Marg Garrioch visit their son’s grave in a cemetery east of the city.

They bring flowers, tidy up the simple marker that holds a faded picture of their teenage son, Ryan, hold hands and pray.

Stu will give his wife a kiss — a kiss that’s meant to be from Ryan.

This has been the couple’s weekly ritual since 1992, the year a 15-year-old waited in the schoolyard of Thomas B. Riley middle school in Bowness and stabbed 13-year-old Ryan in the stomach when the younger boy arrived for class.

On a bright January afternoon, walking from his truck to Ryan’s grave, Stu points out a marker belonging to a man killed in 1993.

He recounts the case — one of many murders he remembers from the months and years after Ryan was buried.

The memories of other families suffering aren’t without pain for Stu and Marg: they started a support group and formed lasting bonds with mothers and fathers who also buried their children.

“Maybe we didn’t realize how violent it was at the time, until it happened to us,” Stu says, as the conversation turns to other cases that shook the city in 1992.

Indeed, three months after Ryan’s murder, a five-year-old deaf girl, Shannon Morrissette disappeared while playing outside her Southview home.

A neighbour strangled her and slashed her throat before throwing her body in a trash bin a half-block away.

Before 1992 ended, Calgary also witnessed the killing of a well-respected surgeon, Dr. Geoffrey Cragg, by a burglar in his University Heights home, and the shooting of a police officer, Const. Rob Vanderwiel, during a routine traffic stop on Memorial Drive.

“There were no two the same,” Stu recalls.

As the city begins 2008 with five more homicides, Calgarians should understand that killings as wanton and dangerous have been infrequent since 1992, King says.

“Let’s not let ’92 be a measure of how we’re doing today. There seems to be a larger proportion of stranger-motivated homicides that year — there’s no explanation for it,” says the criminologist.

However, last month’s unprovoked killing of 41-year-old Arcelie Laoagan as she walked home from the LRT station raised fresh questions about how safe Calgarians can expect to be in their city.

Police Chief Rick Hanson acknowledged Laoagan’s death was tragic, but doesn’t prove the city has become more dangerous.

“These types of crimes have always occurred — always. Should people be more concerned than they were a month ago? I don’t think so,” he told reporters.

King and other experts predict ongoing gang violence will inexorably push the annual number of homicides toward the historic levels of 1992 and 1978.

“We won’t see huge increases, we’ll see incremental increases . . . and more of them will be gang-related, criminal enterprise-related,” he says.

And as the recent shootings of two bystanders in Toronto starkly illustrate, Calgarians can’t assume gang violence won’t claim an innocent life here.

“There’s a certain inevitability to it — we’ve seen it in other jurisdictions,” warns Cathy Prowse, a University of Calgary professor and an expert on gangs.

There is one tangible effect the increase in gang killings is having already: it’s driving down the number of homicides solved by police.

Police cleared 80 per cent of the 270 homicides over the past 16 years, but the rate in the first half hit 93 per cent.

It’s fallen to 70 per cent in the past eight years, although homicide detectives haven’t had as much time to investigate the more recent cases.

At least a dozen of 44 unsolved cases from 2000 to 2007 spring from gang or organized crime activity, compared to only one of the eight cold cases from 1992 to 1999.

Witnesses are usually scared to talk, and associates of murdered gang members are more inclined to exact revenge, rather than turn to police for justice.

A lack of witnesses is “the No.1 hurdle we have,” says Staff Sgt, Kevin Forsen of the Calgary police homicide unit.

As a veteran investigator who also saw some of the earlier homicides as a patrol officer, Forsen says fear deters some people from coming forward.

But he’s not convinced today’s citizens are less civic-minded than they were in the early 1990s.

“The spirit of Calgary hasn’t changed. What draws people here still draws the same type of people,” he says.

It’s also worth noting Calgary’s overall crime and homicide rates have declined over the years as the city has grown.

Even if murders are eventually closed, wounds remain for families of the 270 victims.

“That’s thousands and thousands of people,” says Erin Green, whose brother, Jeremy, was slain in 2005.

Just last week, Erin’s sleepless nights returned when the woman convicted in her brother’s death — Davina Miller — violated her parole by running from a Calgary halfway house.

Police found Miller in a few days, but Erin and her family are now steeling themselves for an upcoming parole hearing involving Miller’s accomplice.

“We just feel like we’re getting ripped off, that we’re not getting enough retribution for what happened in our lives,” she says.

“It’s hard to understand that somebody killed somebody and you only get so much time (in jail). I never would have thought about it until it happened to me.”

Knives weapon of choice for city killers

February 1, 2008

Jason van Rassel
Calgary Herald

Homicide victims are killed at the hands of another — and most of the time, those hands are holding a knife.

Between 1992 and 2007, there were 96 homicides in Calgary where the offender used a knife or edged weapon, representing more than a third of all cases examined by the Herald in a comprehensive study of local murder patterns.

Stabbings represent the most common method of killing, while firearms were used in 62 cases, or roughly in one in four deaths.

“It just speaks to the availability of a weapon,” says Doug King, chair of the justice studies program at Mount Royal College.

Statistics Canada has tracked a steady decline in the use of firearms since historic highs in the 1970s — but the agency stops short of linking the decrease to gun control measures implemented over that time.

Knives, on the other hand, require no licence — they’re everyday, household tools within easy reach in a spontaneous situation.

“It would be next to impossible to put a prohibition on knives,” King says.

These figures come as the city grapples with growing gang violence, including drive-by shootings. However, the Herald investigation shows that the percentage of homicides involving firearms has remained steady.

The percentage of gun deaths over four-year intervals has actually decreased between 2004 and 2007 and the first four years of the study, when 26 per cent of local homicides involved firearms.

But while frequency of gun use has remained largely unchanged, there has been a shift in who’s using them and why.

In many of the earlier years, guns were being used to commit crimes of passion when the killer reached for a nearby weapon in the heat of the moment. Between 1992 and 1995, the categories domestic homicides and deadly confrontations — such as bar fights — accounted for almost half of Calgary killings involving firearms.

“Now, we have more people carrying them around as concealed weapons and they’re being used for illegal purposes — it’s not a weapon of opportunity so much as it’s being used for (crime),” said Staff Sgt. Kevin Forsen of the Calgary police homicide unit.

Statistics back him up. In the past four years, guns were used in at least nine gang homicides and that number stands to go up as police discover the motives behind some as-yet unsolved cases.

Among the gun killings where the motive is known, meanwhile, not one in the past four years sprang from a domestic dispute.

On the other hand, none of the 19 gun killings between 1992 and 1995 appear gang-related, though firearms were used in a wide range of circumstances — including three separate shootings that were deemed accidental, but still resulted in manslaughter convictions.

Overall, two-thirds of homicides during the past 16 years were committed with the aid of a weapon of some sort, including 22 documented bludgeoning cases and the 2006 death of Raminder Dhadda, who was killed when Samrat Dhuna drove a van into crowd of people on the street in front of a bar.

Where are Calgary’s deadliest districts?; Beltline the bloodiest with 31 murders

February 2, 2008

Sherri Zickefoose
Calgary Herald

The Beltline. Calgary’s downtown core. Forest Lawn. Bowness. Inglewood. East Village.

The city’s deadliest streets are found within these districts.

Some are residential communities. Others gritty industrial areas.

But individually, they’ve endured more bloodshed from drive-by gang shootings, drunken stabbings, drug deals gone wrong and deadly domestic disputes than other Calgary communities.

A comprehensive Herald examination of 270 murders between 1992 and 2007 — two of the worst years for homicides in the city’s history — paints a dark picture of where violent deaths are most often unfolding.

In the first four weeks of this year, Calgary has seen five killings in the communities of Altadore, Rosscarrock, Prominence Point, Albert Park-Radisson Heights and Mount Pleasant. It is one of the bloodiest beginnings of a new year on record.

In the previous 16 years, the Beltline, a densely packed area of condos and apartments just south of the downtown, saw 31 killings — the highest in Calgary, according to the Herald investigation.

Part of the violence was fuelled along Electric Avenue, an infamous stretch of bars which saw five homicides during the 1990s before it was phased out; another 26 have taken place in the rest of Beltline.

“People are in a more desperate way of life,” said social activist Grant Neufeld, who lives in the neighbourhood. “They’re living in poverty, they’re in a more vulnerable position on many levels.”

The Beltline victims are not just residents living in blocks between 10th and 17th Avenues and 14th Street to the Elbow River.

Many were visitors to inner-city bars and dangerous areas known for drug trafficking.

“We have so many people coming through the downtown core every day, not only for business matters during the day, but at night with the evening attractions,” said Staff Sgt. Kevin Forsen of the homicide unit, speaking of the area’s nightclubs, restaurants and theatres. “It’s an essential place for people to go.”

The murder count runs high in other nearby neighbourhoods. Since 1992, Calgary’s downtown commercial core recorded 22 murders.

Eleven people have died in Forest Lawn.

Bowness has seen 10 dead.

Nine people died in Inglewood.

The drug-addled East Village has had eight killings.

Location isn’t everything — there are other reasons some of Calgary’s communities have become homicide hot spots. High-density housing, low incomes, homelessness and addiction all contribute to Calgary’s homicides, experts contend.

“We know the Beltline and Forest Lawn areas have an extremely high population density,” according to criminologist Doug King, chair of Mount Royal College’s justice studies program.

“It’s not because they are poor, it’s a consequence of living in lower socio-economic conditions where you have to put up with more density,” he said.

“It doesn’t surprise me that crime is higher in the Beltline, because you have a lot of people living in a very highly compacted area.”

According to the city of Calgary’s civic census, 17, 794 people are living in the Beltline.

“When people aren’t having their core needs met, like for housing for basic work access, physical and mental health, we end up with a lot of secondary social problems,” said Neufeld.

“It’s damaging to people’s lives as a whole. When people don’t have enough to get by, they stop caring about the greater social world,” Neufeld said.

Outside the city core are neighbourhoods that have seen their share of homicides.

Since 1992, there have been 41 killings within the confines of Ward 10 in the city’s southeast.

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said the area’s Ald. Andre Chabot.

“This side of the city seems to attract most of the newcomers to the city. Probably the predominant reason is this is still the most affordable part of the city. It becomes transient, they come in and out. It’s probably the first point of entry for most people.”

Chabot adds that the southeast communities have become a target area for the illegal drug industry.

“It has all kind of ties into the drug industry, a lot of the crimes are related to that industry,” he said.

“And the facts of life about this area, it stands to reason we would have a higher level of homicides than any other part of the city.”

Within Forest Lawn’s boundaries — 36th and 52nd streets and 8th and 26th Avenues — there have been 11 killings since 1993.

There are 7,872 residents. Most victims were shot or stabbed to death. Some were victims of domestic violence, but many were connected to drugs.

Adding to Forest Lawn’s reputation as a dangerous place are the shadows cast over it by surrounding communities.

There have been 26 homicides on the streets of the industrial park, Forest Heights, Dover, Albert Park, Radisson Heights, Penbrooke Meadows, Marlborough and Marlborough Park.

“It’s not all in Forest Lawn. The thing that is really important is that a lot of the time it really wasn’t Forest Lawn,” said Art Sheeler, one of the community’s most ardent supporters.

“It’s always been a working-class area. Most of the people were honest, decent people, but their temper would get away from them. It just kept getting worse,” said Sheeler, who has lived in the area for 36 years.

In the city’s northwest, Bowness has seen 10 homicides since 1992.

Norm Perrault found the body of one of the victims, local panhandler named Bradley Edward Aszbach, while he was out walking west of Shouldice Park on Oct. 9, 2007.

“I’m glad that I found the body, instead of some woman walking her dog or some kids. I’d rather not find any more,” said Perrault, a Bowness resident for well over 30 years.

The neighbourhood has a high population of transients, he said.

A pocket of high-density housing near 77th Street and Bowness Road and railroad tracks is known to attract addicts and other transients, he said.

“I feel very safe here. There’s a lot of really good people who live there, but you also have a lot of transients,” Perrault added.

Where visible crime happens is also a function of a community’s political clout, said King.

“Lower-income neighbourhoods have an inability to mobilize the political structure in the city to move the crime somewhere else,” he said.

“If you are having to make your living working in a convenience store or having to work the night shift, your chances of being victimized are greater than if you are a lawyer sitting in an office in downtown Calgary.”

Murder on the home front; 70 Calgarians slain in domestic violence February 3, 2008

Gwendolyn Richards
Calgary Herald

The scenes of the crimes are not dingy bars or back alleys.

They are bedrooms, living rooms — places that, to many, are sanctuaries.

To others, they are rooms of abuse, imprisonment and sometimes murder.

One in four Calgarians killed violently during the past 16 years lost their lives in a place where they were supposed to feel safe and protected.

And they died at the hands of a loved one.

A Herald investigation of all 270 homicides between 1992 and 2007 — two of the bloodiest years in the city’s history — shows 70 Calgarians were killed in incidents of domestic or family violence involving their spouses, partners or relatives.

The Tally reflects Alberta’s dubious distinction of having the highest rate of domestic violence in Canada.

Each case is unique, but a common thread ties the 70 victims together — many were women who were either leaving or had left their spouse, or there was a history of abuse in the relationship.

Kelly Lee Howe fit both profiles.

Howe first met Morley Sangwais when she was 12 years old and he was 22. Despite the age gap, the pair developed a romantic relationship a few years later that was often stormy.

She was known to stay at women’s shelters at times, and Howe once obtained a restraining order against Sangwais.

On Sept. 19, 1995, a neighbour awoke to the piercing screams of the then 19-year-old woman.

“Help me. Help. He is going to kill me,” she repeatedly cried out.

During court testimony, the witness said she could still hear Howe’s screams, and the sound of the young mother’s hands banging on the glass of the closed patio doors as her estranged common-law husband plunged a steak knife into her back.

Sangwais then turned a butcher knife on himself, sticking it into his stomach. Paramedics found him with it that way — alive — as he sat beside Howe’s dead body, on her balcony.

For Bruce Howe, the death of his daughter left him with one haunting question: Why would someone kill a person they loved?

“I didn’t understand the ‘If I can’t have you, no one else can,’ ” he said.

On the night of the murder, when the building manager came out of his apartment below to see what was going on, Sangwais angrily told him to mind his own business.

Anger is often thought to be the motive behind such murders, but one expert questions whether that’s the case. Leslie Tutty, a professor in the University of Calgary’s social work faculty, says domestic homicides are not really crimes of passion.

“Typically, when someone murders their partner, there’s been a history of abuse already in the relationship and often death threats,” she said.

In fact, killers in domestic-related homicides are often suicidal.

“If I’m going to take my own life, no one else is going to have you or access to my kids, so I might as well kill everybody,” Tutty says of what’s likely the thoughts of those who kill the people they love.

That certainly seemed to be the case for Ian Gordon, a math tutor living in the upscale Lake Bonavista community now serving a life sentence for killing his family.

In September 1998, Gordon was found lying in a pool of blood in the master bedroom of his home. He had slashed his wrists after killing his common-law wife Lin Kreis and two young daughters.

Gordon told an emergency operator — whom he called as he lay bleeding from self-inflicted wounds — he killed Kreis because she was leaving him. Police found what appeared to be a suicide note next to his girls, but he never gave them a statement, nor told the 911 operator why he took an axe to their little bodies after picking them up from school.

The triple slaying drove up murder rates that year, with family homicides accounting for five cases, with six victims in 1998.

Domestic-related killings have ebbed and flowed during the past 16 years. In 1992, there were nine; in 2003 and 2004 just one each year. The numbers climbed in 2005 with six, while there were four last year.

A recent Statistics Canada report indicates Alberta has the second-highest figures for domestic homicide. Canada’s Governor General took note of the problem when she visited here last year, calling on the province to do something to deal with domestic violence.

In Calgary, about one-fourth of all homicides are flagged as domestic or family violence. For the purposes of the Herald’s investigation, that figure includes “triangulation” homicides where the victim is not the partner, but a third person.

Darryl Gozzola, 33, was killed in one such case in 1997, stabbed to death with a skinning knife while in bed with a woman, Rae Lee Sand, who was also injured in the attack.

Sand had left her four-year marriage a month prior, before her estranged husband James Michael Dahnke burst into her home and attacked her and Gozzola.

Those who work on the front lines of the issue say lives have likely been spared as a result of early intervention programs. For example, the Calgary family violence program HomeFront, which helps victims navigate the justice system, says it is reducing the number of repeat offences.

But more help is needed, experts say.

Last November, the provincial Crime Reduction and Safe Communities Task Force’s report recommended expanding domestic violence courts, for which the committee heard strong support.

And despite an increased focus on reducing domestic and family violence, men, women and children continue to die at the hands of their loved ones across the city.

Domestic violence — which is seen in many cases leading up to homicides — continues to be the problem that usually remains behind closed doors, despite efforts to pull it out into the public eye.

“It’s always been dealt with as a private matter. It’s hard for people to realize this is a crime, just like a bank robbery is a crime,” says Jan Reimer, executive director of the Alberta Council of Women’s Shelters.

To stop domestic violence and to honour his murdered daughter, Bruce Howe set up a foundation in her name and became the protective father to other women trying to escape the claws of abusive relationships.

Through its 10 years, the Kelly Howe Star of Hope Foundation paid rent for women who needed it, had security systems installed, paid for self-defence courses, moved people and stored their furniture.

Howe said many things have changed since his daughter was killed, but contends there are so many programs and agencies, it’s bewildering for women trying to access help at a time when they are confused after living in fear and isolation.

Howe dismantled his program in 2006 because he was simply too exhausted to keep it going.

But there’s no shortage of people who still need help, he added.

“It’s never going to end,” he said.

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2 responses to “Murder Under the Microscope

  1. Pingback: Homicide in Rosscarrock « Jason van Rassel: crime reporter

  2. Pingback: A moment of anger, a life of hurt « Jason van Rassel: crime reporter

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