When Julie Paskall was attacked outside a Surrey recreation centre on Sunday, news of the assault left people shocked, dismayed and angry.
With her death, that anger is turning to demands for safety among residents of the sprawling city about 30 kilometres east of Vancouver.
“This has really hit a nerve,” resident Doug Elford said on Thursday. “This is like crossing a line for us – a murder in front of the doors of our community arena? That’s supposed to be the safest, most public place of the town centre? And within steps of the RCMP station?”
Ms. Paskall, 53, a mother of three, was attacked Sunday evening when she was picking up her son, who was refereeing a game at the facility. Police say the likely motive is robbery.
For Mr. Elford, Ms. Paskall’s slaying added to a sinking sense that things are going from bad to worse in Newton, one of six neighbourhoods that comprise Surrey, a growing city south of the Fraser River in the Lower Mainland.
For Surrey – and its popular, high-profile mayor, Dianne Watts, who has been touted as a candidate for provincial office but to date has stuck to city hall – Ms. Paskall’s death increases an already worrisome murder tally and underscores the growing pains of a city that aims to turn from punchline to a poster child for urban renewal.
With a population of nearly a half million people, Surrey is the second-largest city in British Columbia, the 12th-largest in the country and growing, with an estimated 800 to 1,000 people moving in each month.
It is rich in parks, cultural diversity – more than 40 per cent of its residents speak a language other than English at home – and is the site of an ambitious urban makeover in the form of Surrey City Centre, a gleaming development that includes a new library and city hall.
But that makeover has left some neighbourhoods, including Newton, feeling overlooked. Surrey struggles with criminal gangs, rundown commercial and residential strips and, in 2013, a record-high murder rate. The death of Ms. Paskall – who was assaulted Sunday and taken off life support on Tuesday – pushed the tally to 25.
That increases pressure on Ms. Watts, other officials and the police to get a grip on the problem. Surrey is policed by its own RCMP detachment. Ms. Paskall’s death is being investigated by B.C.’s Integrated Homicide Investigation Team (IHIT), which includes personnel from the RCMP as well as the New Westminster and Abbotsford police departments. Surrey formed a task force to focus on murders in November.
IHIT has set up a mobile command post in the parking lot of the Newton Recreation Centre. “It’s a visual aid for the community to see that we’re out here, and anyone can walk up, knock on the door and speak with investigators,” said IHIT spokesman Sergeant Adam MacIntosh. Police have received “an abundance of tips” but are looking for more, he said.
“We know that there are people out there right now who are thinking, ‘I might have something to share, but I’m not sure whether or not I should. It might be insignificant.’ We want those people to call us.”
An autopsy was scheduled for Thursday, Sgt. MacIntosh said.
Residents who stopped by the growing memorial to Ms. Paskall spoke of the area’s decline. Newton has become “a bit of a sketchy, scary place” in recent years, said Diane McDermott, who has run a business in the community for more than 26 years.
“I feel bad for our elderly,” she said. “They don’t walk as much as they used to; they don’t walk at night. It used to be a community with baby strollers everywhere and people walking and not having too many worries.”
Residents and municipal officials are calling for increased security in the area, in the form of surveillance cameras and patrols. Surrey City Councillor Barinder Rasode, who was at the arena Thursday morning, said she planned to return in the evening with Harbs Bains, president of the Surrey Minor Hockey Association, and city staff to see what the area is like at night.
“There are some things we can do immediately around lighting and patrols,” she said. “It should not be okay in our community for us to have to put out an advisory that says, ‘Be careful of your surroundings and walk with somebody.’ That’s not okay.”
Ms. Rasode also said the city needs to consider land use, noting that the area is weighted to cheque-cashing places, slot machines, recovery homes and parole offices.
In nearby Abbotsford, dubbed the per-capita murder capital of Canada in 2009 after a string of gang-related murders, a co-ordinated effort involving police, civic officials and educators helped turn the tide, said Abbotsford police spokesman Ian MacDonald. Steps included awareness programs at every school in the city and police developing a “gangster inventory.” Abbotsford recorded two murders last year and three in 2012, compared with 11 in 2009.
“If you’re going to galvanize the community,” Constable MacDonald said, “you have to effect change – because if you don’t, your feet are going to be held to the fire.”