True crime. Yes, it fascinates. We want and sometimes need to know what happened at the end of the mystery. Those stories can also be horrifying and heartbreaking. The loss in these stories is ever present.
In this On a Theme post, I’ll be focusing on Canadian true crime stories only. Why? Because I wanted to provide some Canadian content and because Canada has its fair share of sadness, horror, and violence. The victims of which, should not be forgotten.
Title: The Billionaire Murders: The Mysterious Deaths of Barry and Honey Sherman
Written by: Kevin Donovan
What It’s About: Billionaires, philanthropists, socialites . . . victims. Barry and Honey Sherman appeared to lead charmed lives. But the world was shocked in late 2017 when their bodies were found in a bizarre tableau in their elegant Toronto home. First described as murder-suicide — belts looped around their necks, they were found seated beside their basement swimming pool — police later ruled it a staged, targeted double murder. Nothing about the case made sense to friends of the founder of one of the world’s largest generic pharmaceutical firms and his wife, a powerhouse in Canada’s charity world. Together, their wealth has been estimated at well over $4.7 billion.
There was another side to the story. A strategic genius who built a large generic drug company — Apotex Inc. — Barry Sherman was a self-described workaholic, renowned risk-taker, and disruptor during his fifty-year career. Regarded as a generous friend by many, Sherman was also feared by others. He was criticized for stifling academic freedom and using the courts to win at all costs. Upset with building issues at his mansion, he sued and recouped millions from tradespeople. At the time of his death, Sherman had just won a decades-old legal case involving four cousins who wanted 20 percent of his fortune.
Toronto Star investigative journalist Kevin Donovan chronicles the unsettling story from the beginning, interviewing family members, friends, and colleagues, and sheds new light on the Shermans’ lives and the disturbing double murder. Deeply researched and authoritative, The Billionaire Murders is a compulsively readable tale of a strange and perplexing crime.
Title: Red River Girl: The Life and Death of Tina Fontaine
Written by: Joanna Jolly
What It’s About: On August 17, 2014, the body of fifteen-year old runaway Tina Fontaine was found in Winnipeg’s Red River. It was wrapped in material and weighted down with rocks. Red River Girl is a gripping account of that murder investigation and the unusual police detective who pursued the killer with every legal means at his disposal. The book, like the movie Spotlight, will chronicle the behind-the-scenes stages of a lengthy and meticulously planned investigation. It reveals characters and social tensions that bring vivid life to a story that made national headlines.
Award-winning BBC reporter and documentary maker Joanna Jolly delves into the troubled life of Tina Fontaine, the half-Ojibway, half-Cree murder victim, starting with her childhood on the Sagkeeng First Nation Reserve. Tina”s journey to the capital city is a harrowing one, culminating in drug abuse, sexual exploitation, and death.
Aware of the reality of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, Jolly has chronicled Tina Fontaine’s life as a reminder that she was more than a statistic. Raised by her father, and then by her great-aunt, Tina was a good student. But the violent death of her father hit Tina hard. She ran away, was found and put into the care of Child and Family Services, which she also sought to escape from. That choice left her in danger.
Red River Girl focuses not on the grisly event itself, but on the efforts to seek justice. In December 2015, the police charged Raymond Cormier, a drifter, with second-degree murder. Jolly’s book will cover the trial, which resulted in an acquittal. The verdict caused dismay across the country.
The book is not only a true crime story, but a portrait of a community where Indigenous women are disproportionately more likely to be hurt or killed. Jolly asks questions about how Indigenous women, sex workers, community leaders, and activists are fighting back to protect themselves and change perceptions. Most importantly, the book will chronicle whether Tina’s family will find justice.
Title: That Lonely Section of Hell: The Botched Investigation of a Serial Killer Who Almost Got Away
Written by: Lori Shenher
What It’s About: In this searing personal account, ex-police detective Lori Shenher (who transitioned to male in 2015, and is now known as Lorimer) describes his role in Vancouver’s infamous Missing Women Investigation and unflinchingly reveals his years-long struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of working on the case. From his first assignment, in 1998, to investigate an increase in the number of missing women to the harrowing 2002 interrogation of convicted serial killer Robert Pickton, Shenher tells a story of massive police failure-failure of the police to use the information about Pickton available to them, failure to understand the dark world of drug addiction and sex work, and failure to save more women from their killer.
That Lonely Section of Hell passionately pursues the deeper truths behind the causes of this tragedy and the myriad ways the system failed to protect vulnerable people.
Title: The Missing Millionaire: The True Story of Ambrose Small and the City Obsessed With Finding Him
Written by: Katie Daubs
What It’s About: In December 1919, Ambrose Small, the mercurial owner of the Grand Opera House in Toronto, closed a deal to sell his network of Ontario theatres, deposited a million-dollar cheque in his bank account, and was never seen again. As weeks turned to years, the disappearance became the most “extraordinary unsolved mystery” of its time. Everything about the sensational case would be called into question in the decades to come, including the motivations of his inner circle, his enemies, and the police who followed the trail across the continent, looking for answers in asylums, theatres, and the Pacific Northwest.
In The Missing Millionaire, Katie Daubs tells the story of the Small mystery, weaving together a gripping narrative with the social and cultural history of a city undergoing immense change. Daubs examines the characters who were connected to the case as the century carried on: Ambrose”s religious wife, Theresa; his long-time secretary, Jack Doughty; his two unmarried sisters, Florence and Gertrude; Patrick Sullivan, a lawless ex-policeman; and Austin Mitchell, an overwhelmed detective. A series of trials exposed Small’s tumultuous business and personal relationships, while allegations and confessions swirled. But as the main players in the Small mystery died, they took their secrets to the grave, and Ambrose Small would be forever missing.
Drawing on extensive research, newly discovered archival material, and her own interviews with the descendants of key figures, Katie Daubs offers a rich portrait of life in an evolving city in the early twentieth century. Delving into a crime story about the power of the elite, she vividly recounts the page-turning tale of a cold case that is truly stranger than fiction.
Title: Missing from the Village: The Story of Serial Killer Bruce McArthur, the Search for Justice, and the System That Failed Toronto’s Queer Community
Written by: Justin Ling
What It’s About: In 2013, the Toronto Police Service announced that the disappearances of three men–Skandaraj Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi, and Majeed Kayhan–from Toronto”s gay village were, perhaps, linked. When the leads ran dry, the investigation was shut down, on paper classified as “open but suspended.” By 2015, investigative journalist Justin Ling had begun to retrace investigators” steps, convinced there was evidence of a serial killer. Meanwhile, more men would go missing, and police would continue to deny that there was a threat to the community. On January 18, 2018, Bruce McArthur, a landscaper, would be arrested on suspicion of first-degree murder. In February 2019, he was sentenced to life in prison for the murders of eight men.
This extraordinary book tells the complete story of the McArthur murders. Based on more than five years of in-depth reporting, this is also a story of police failure, of how the queer community responded, and the story of the eight men who went missing and the lives they left behind. In telling that story, Justin Ling uncovers the latent homophobia and racism that kept this case unsolved and unseen. This gripping book reveals how police agencies across the country fail to treat missing persons cases seriously, and how policies and laws, written at every level of government, pushed McArthur”s victims out of the light and into the shadows.
Title: The Massey Murder: A Maid, Her Master and the Trial that Shocked a Nation
Written by: Charlotte Gray
What It’s About: In February 1915, a member of one of Canada’s wealthiest families was shot and killed on the front porch of his home in Toronto as he was returning from work. Carrie Davies, an 18-year-old domestic servant, quickly confessed. But who was the victim here? Charles “Bert” Massey, a scion of a famous family, or the frightened, perhaps mentally unstable Carrie, a penniless British immigrant? When the brilliant lawyer Hartley Dewart, QC, took on her case, his grudge against the powerful Masseys would fuel a dramatic trial that pitted the old order against the new, wealth and privilege against virtue and honest hard work. Set against a backdrop of the Great War in Europe and the changing faceof a nation, this sensational crime is brought to vivid life for the first time.
As in her previous bestselling book, Gold Diggers—adapted into the Discovery Television miniseries Klondike—multi-award-winning historian and biographer Charlotte Gray has created a captivating narrative rich in detail and brimming with larger-than-life personalities, as she shines alight on a central moment in our past.
Title: Murdered Midas: A Millionaire, His Gold Mine, and a Strange Death on an Island Paradise
Written by: Charlotte Gray
What It’s About: On an island paradise in 1943, Sir Harry Oakes, gold-mining tycoon, philanthropist and one of the richest men in the British Empire, is murdered. The news of his death surges across the English-speaking world, from London, the Imperial centre, to the remote Canadian mining town of Kirkland Lake in the Northern Ontario bush. The murder becomes celebrated as the crime of the century.
The layers of mystery deepen as the involvement of Count Alfred de Marigny, Oakes’s son-in-law, comes into question. Also suspicious are the odd machinations of the governor of the Bahamas, the former King Edward VIII. But despite a sensational trial, no murderer is convicted. Rumours about Oakes’s missing fortune are unrelenting, and fascination with the story has persisted for decades.
Award-winning biographer and popular historian Charlotte Gray explores the life of the man behind the scandal—from his early, hardscrabble days during the massive mineral rush in Northern Ontario, to the fabulous fortune he reaped from his own gold mine, to his grandiose gestures of philanthropy. And Gray brings fresh eyes to the bungled investigation and shocking trial on the remote colonial island, proposing an overlooked suspect in this long cold case. Murdered Midas is the story of the man behind the newspaper headlines, a man both admired and reviled who, despite great wealth and public standing, never experienced justice.
Title: Highway of Tears: A True Story of Racism, Indifference and the Pursuit of Justice for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls
Written by: Jessica McDiarmid
What It’s About: For decades, Indigenous women and girls have gone missing or been found murdered along an isolated stretch of highway in northwestern British Columbia. The highway is known as the Highway of Tears, and it has come to symbolize a national crisis.
Journalist Jessica McDiarmid investigates the devastating effect these tragedies have had on the families of the victims and their communities, and how systemic racism and indifference have created a climate where Indigenous women and girls are over-policed, yet under-protected. Through interviews with those closest to the victims—mothers and fathers, siblings and friends—McDiarmid offers an intimate, first-hand account of their loss and relentless fight for justice. Examining the historically fraught social and cultural tensions between settlers and Indigenous peoples in the region, McDiarmid links these cases to others across Canada—now estimated to number up to 4,000—contextualizing them within a broader examination of the undervaluing of Indigenous lives in this country.
Highway of Tears is a powerful story about our ongoing failure to provide justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, and a testament to their families and communities” unwavering determination to find it.
Title: The Forest City Killer: A Serial Murderer, a Cold-Case Sleuth, and a Search for Justice
Written by: Vanessa Brown
What It’s About: Dig deep into the unsolved murder of Jackie English and join the hunt for a serial killer.
Fifty years ago, a serial killer prowled the quiet city of London, Ontario, marking it as his hunting grounds. As young women and boys were abducted, raped, and murdered, residents of the area held their loved ones closer and closer, terrified of the monster – or monsters – stalking the streets. Homicide detective Dennis Alsop began hunting the killer in the 1960s, and he didn”t stop searching until his death 40 years later. For decades, detectives, actual and armchair, and the victims” families and friends continued to ask questions: Who was the Forest City Killer? Was there more than one person, or did a depraved individual commit all of these crimes on his own?
Combing through the files Detective Alsop left behind, researcher Vanessa Brown reopens the cases, revealing previously unpublished witness statements, details of evidence, and astonishing revelations. And through her investigation, Vanessa posits the unthinkable: is it possible that the Forest City Killer is still alive and, like the notorious Golden State Killer, a simple DNA test could bring him to justice?
Title: Blood in the Water: A True Story of Revenge in the Maritimes
Written by: Silver Donald Cameron
What It’s About: In June 2013, three upstanding citizens of a small Cape Breton town cold-bloodedly murdered their neighbour, Phillip Boudreau, at sea. While out checking their lobster traps, two Landry cousins and skipper Dwayne Samson saw Boudreau in his boat, the Midnight Slider, about to vandalize their lobster traps. Like so many times before, Boudreau was about to cost them thousands of dollars out of their seasonal livelihood. One man took out a rifle and fired four shots at Boudreau and his boat. To finish the job, they rammed their own larger boat over the top of his speedboat. Boudreau”s body was never found. Then they completed the day”s fishing and went home to Petit de Grat on Isle Madame.
Boudreau was a Cape Breton original–an inventive small-time criminal who had terrorized and entertained Petit de Grat for two decades. He had been in prison for nearly half his adult life. He was funny and frightening, loathed, loved, and feared. One neighbour says he would “steal the beads off Christ”s moccasins”–then give the booty away to someone in need. He would taunt his victims, and threaten them with arson if they reported him. He was accused of one attempted rape. Meanwhile the police and the Fisheries officers were frustrated, cowed, and hobbled by shrinking budgets. Boudreau seemed invincible, a miscreant who would plague the village forever.
Cameron, a resident of the area since 1971, argues that the Boudreau killing was a direct reaction to credible and dire threats that the authorities were powerless to neutralize. As many local people have said, if those fellows hadn”t killed him, someone else would have. Like Say Nothing, The Perfect Storm, The Golden Spruce, and Into Thin Air, this book offers a dramatic narrative set in a unique, lovingly drawn setting, where a story about one small community has universal resonance. This is a story not about lobster, but about the grand themes of power and law, security and self-respect. It raises a disturbing question: Are there times when taking the law into your own hands is not only understandable but the responsible thing to do?
Title: Wish You Were Here: A Murdered Girl, a Brother’s Quest and the Hunt for a Serial Killer
Written by: John Allore & Patricia Pearson
What It’s About: In the fall of 1978 teenager Theresa Allore went missing near Sherbrooke, Quebec. She wasn”t seen again until the spring thaw revealed her body in a creek only a few kilometers away. Shrugging off her death as a result of 1970s drug culture, police didn”t investigate.
Patricia Pearson started dating Theresa’s brother John during the aftermath of Theresa”s death. Though the two teens would go their separate ways, the family”s grief, obsession with justice and desire for the truth never left Patricia. Little did she know, the shockwaves of Theresa”s death would return to her life repeatedly over the next forty years.
In 2001, John had just moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with his wife and young children, when the cops came to the door. They had determined that a young girl had been murdered and buried in the basement. John wondered: If these cops could look for this young girl, why had nobody even tried to find out what happened to Theresa? Unable to rest without closure, he reached out to Patricia, by now an accomplished crime journalist and author, and together they found answers far bigger and more alarming than they could have imagined–and a legacy of violence that refused to end.
Title: Who Killed Tom Thomson?: The Truth about the Murder of One of the 20th Century’s Most Famous Artists
Written by: John Little
What It’s About: Tom Thomson was Canada’s Vincent van Gogh. He painted for a period of five years before meeting his untimely death in a remote wilderness lake in July 1917. He was buried in an unofficial grave close to the lake where his body was found. About eight hours after he was buried, the coroner arrived but never examined the body and ruled his death accidental due to drowning. A day and a half later, Thomson’s family hired an undertaker to exhume the body and move it to the family plot about 100 miles away. This undertaker refused all help, and only worked at night.
In 1956, John Little’s father and three other men, influenced by the story of an old park ranger who never believed Thomson’s body was moved by the undertaker, dug up what was supposed to be the original, empty grave. To their surprise, the grave still contained a body, and the skull revealed a head wound that matched the same location noted by the men who pulled his corpse from the water in 1917. The finding sent shockwaves across the nation and began a mystery that continues to this day.
In Who Killed Tom Thomson? John Little continues the sixty-year relationship his family has had with Tom Thomson and his fate by teaming up with two high-ranking Ontario provincial police homicide detectives. For the first time, they provide a forensic scientific opinion as to how Thomson met his death, and where his body is buried. Little draws upon his father’s research, plus recently released archival material, as well as his own thirty-year investigation. He and his colleagues prove that Thomson was murdered, and set forth two persons of interest who may have killed Tom Thomson.
Title: Dead Reckoning: How I Came to Meet the Man Who Murdered My Father
Written by: Carys Cragg
What It’s About: When Carys Cragg was eleven, her father, a respected doctor, was brutally murdered in his own home by an intruder. Twenty years later, and despite the reservations of her family and friends, she decides to contact his murderer in prison, and the two correspond for a period of two years. She learns of his horrific childhood, and the reasons he lied about the murder; in turn, he learns about the man he killed. She mines his letters for clues about the past before agreeing to meet him in person, when she learns startling new information about the crime.
With gripping suspense and raw honesty, Dead Reckoning follows one woman’s determination to confront the man who murdered her father, revealing her need for understanding and the murderer’s reluctance to tell–an uneasy negotiation between two people from different worlds both undone by tragedy. This is a powerful and emotional memoir about how reconciling with the past doesn”t necessarily provide comfort, but it can reveal the truth.
Title: Under the Bridge: The True Story of the Murder of Reena Virk
Written by: Rebecca Godfrey
What It’s About: It has been a long road to justice for Reena Virk, beaten and murdered at the hands of her teenage peers. The murder of this girl is one of the most notorious and heartbreaking cases in Canadian history. Here, for the first time, acclaimed author Rebecca Godfrey reveals the stunning truth about a Canadian tragedy that captured international headlines.
Who were the seemingly ordinary suburban teenagers who found themselves under the bridge in Victoria, BC, on the night of November 14, 1997? Why would a girl who longed to be their friend be beaten and killed? And how did so many teenagers keep terrible secrets from parents, teachers and police for eight days? These are the questions all of us have been asking, and in Under the Bridge the answers are revealed in a stunning narrative. Godfrey spent six years researching the case, conducting exclusive interviews with parents, classmates, police, prosecutors and, perhaps most importantly, several of the youths, including Warren Glowatski, one of the two teenagers convicted of murdering Virk. Godfrey also witnessed firsthand the many trials of Kelly Ellard, also found guilty of killing a girl who just wanted to fit in.
Title: Cold Case North: The Search for James Brady and Absolom Halkett
Written by: Michael Nest, Deanna Reder & Eric Bell
What It’s About: Métis leader James Brady was one of the most famous Indigenous activists in Canada. A communist, strategist, and bibliophile, he led Métis and First Nations to rebel against government and church oppression. Brady”s success made politicians and clergy fear him, and he had enemies everywhere.
In 1967, while prospecting in Saskatchewan with Cree Band Councillor and fellow activist Absolom Halkett, both men vanished without a trace from their remote lakeside camp. For 50 years rumours swirled of secret mining interests, political intrigue, assassination, and murder. Cold Case North is the story of how a small team, with the help of a local Indigenous community, exposed police failure in the original investigation, discovered new clues and testimony, and gathered the pieces of the North”s most enduring missing persons puzzle.
Title: Murder in the Family: How the Search for My Mother’s Killer Led to My Father
Written by: Jeff Blackstock
What It’s About: “I think that my father murdered my mother.”
That terrible belief spurs author Jeff Blackstock to investigate the circumstances of his mother Carol”s death when he was a child. Carol Blackstock died at age 24 in 1959–poisoned by arsenic–but the cause of her death remained shrouded in mystery for decades. Jeff’s father George Blackstock was a career diplomat in Canada’s foreign service, posted to glamorous Buenos Aires with his wife Carol and their three children. A little more than a year after the family’s arrival, the vivacious young mother, now emaciated and in terrible pain, was transferred to Montreal for treatment of a mysterious illness that proved fatal. In the following year, George Blackstock remarried, and a young woman named Ingrid became the feared stepmother to Jeff and his two siblings.
Carol’s parents soon had suspicions about their son-in-law George but were unable to get justice for their daughter. Class privilege–George was the scion of a Toronto establishment family and Carol was from modest beginnings–and an aversion to scandal all figured in an apparent cover-up. But secrets have a way of eventually disrupting all families. A damning autopsy report about arsenic poisoning, found among their grandmother”s effects, leads Jeff Blackstock and his sister to horrifying revelations about their father. Eventually, they confront him and accuse him of their mother’s murder. But George offers only vague explanations that don”t add up. George died a broken man, mostly abandoned by his adult children.
A compelling story of a high-society murder, a heartbreaking tale of emotionally neglected children, and an inquiry into the power and privilege of the Anglo upper classes of the time, Murder in the Family chronicles the shocking legacy of deeply buried secrets and betrayal in one’s own family.
Title: Starlight Tour: The Last, Lonely Night of Neil Stonechild
Written by: Susanne Reber & Robert Renaud
What It’s About: In 1990, on a brutally cold night, 17-year-old Neil Stonechild disappeared from downtown Saskatoon, last seen in police custody. His frozen body was found three days later in a field outside town. Though his mother pressed for answers, a cursory investigation pinned the blame on the teen himself, dead by alcohol and misadventure. Only in 2000, when two more men were found frozen to death, and a third survived his “starlight tour” at the hands of police, did the truth about Stonechild’s fate begin to emerge. Soon one of the country’s most prominent Indigenous lawyers was on the case, and an open secret was secret no more.
With exclusive co-operation from the Stonechild family, lawyer Donald Worme, and others, Starlight Tour is an engrossing portrait of rogue cops, racism, obstruction of justice and justice denied, not only to a boy and his family but to an entire nation.