Two times in as many years, Ontario Provincial Police behavioural science experts have been lauded for helping solve the province’s most bizarre and sensational homicide cases – the abduction and bludgeoning of eight-year-old Tori Stafford and the sex slayings of two women by Russell Williams, then the commander of the country's largest air base.
Now, that same unit has sat down with outside agents, including two from the FBI's storied group of criminal profilers, to crack an even more difficult case of small-town murder, the brutal killing of Sonia Varaschin, a nurse in Orangeville near Toronto.
The “unprecedented” meeting of the minds began the same day another local woman was attacked. While police have not officially linked the two, the similarities – both average, middle-aged women attacked in their homes – have put the community of 27,000 on edge.
Ms. Varaschin was murdered one night in late August in her townhouse, her body put in her car and taken to a wooded area off a side road outside town. The vehicle itself was found spattered with blood and abandoned in a downtown laneway.
Early in the investigation, police appealed for information, but have since largely stayed mum.
In hopes of advancing the case, the OPP brought together some 25 investigators and behavioural science experts from several forces, including the FBI and the RCMP, for three days last week. First, they visited the crime scenes and reviewed evidence, then hunkered down in a hotel near Pearson International Airport to develop a sketch of the killer.
“He killed somebody who we'd consider a very low-risk victim and engaged in some very high-risk behaviour,” OPP Detective Inspector Mark Pritchard said at a public briefing on Thursday. “Removing her body in the close confines of a townhouse complex. … Driving down the highway in her car, with blood clearly visible on the outside.”
The killer is likely very familiar with Orangeville and knows the spot where the body was discovered, whether from work or recreation, but may have moved out of the area since the killing, he said. He may also have turned to alcohol or drugs to combat agitation and anxiety, and missed routine activities since the homicide.
The FBI’s Behavioural Analysis Unit, known for working on serial killer cases, is famous from U.S. TV police dramas and movies. The OPP’s Behavioural Science Analysis Services, meanwhile, was credited earlier this year with effecting the arrest of Mr. Williams nine days after he killed Jessica Lloyd in the Eastern Ontario community of Tweed.
The unit also gathered evidence in the Tori Stafford investigation and one of its officers located her remains.
As academic research into psychological patterns among criminals improves, the work of such profilers has become more useful in investigations.
“The ones where it’s thought to be most effective are any type of serial crime or where it’s thought to be unusual or there’s some psychopathology,” said Michael Woodworth, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia.
Police so far have not revealed all the details of either the homicide or the second attack, which took place last Tuesday. A 44-year-old woman was assaulted in a barn converted to a studio next to her home in a rural area north of Orangeville. Identified by neighbours as Shelley Loder, a family photographer with two school-aged children, she remains unconscious in hospital.
Despite the parallels, police point to differences between her case and that of Ms. Varaschin, who lived alone and was attacked at night, while Ms. Loder was assaulted during the day. But this was cold comfort to townsfolk at the briefing.
“There was nothing concrete,” said one middle-aged woman, a neighbour of Ms. Loder’s who declined to give her name. “In this community, we were just starting to feel secure again and moving on.”
For its part, Ms. Varaschin’s family offered the most public glimpse into its private pain since the start of the investigation.
“This Christmas, there will be an empty setting at our table where Sonia used to sit, with her bright smile, talking and joking,” her mother, Michele Varaschin, said in a steady voice. “I wish this empty feeling on no one.”