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Doug and Trish Queen with their boys: Police call the ‘fourth-hand’ accusation against him ‘completely unfounded.’
Doug and Trish Queen with their boys: Police call the ‘fourth-hand’ accusation against him ‘completely unfounded.’

How rumour, innuendo turned a man’s death into a double tragedy Add to ...

The music teacher had been missing for more than 24 hours when Toronto police issued a scant press release.

“Douglas Queen, 48, was last seen on Monday, March 17.” He stood 6-foot-5, had closely cropped, grey hair and was wearing a brown golf sweater, beige pants and a blue jacket at the time.

His car was located at Humber Bay Park the following day, but there was still no trace of him.

When the media picked up the story, anonymous sources came forward with more information. It looked as though Mr. Queen, a happily married father of two young boys, had gone to work at Brock Public School in Toronto’s west end, then left abruptly following an “incident.” On the evening news, a CityNews reporter questioned whether that meant a student had made an allegation.

Heinz Kuck, the police superintendent for the area, tweeted a personal plea: “Doug, if you see this, if you read this, pls call ur home, or pls call me direct … We all care.”

Then on Day 3, the grim conclusion. Mr. Queen’s body was found in Lake Ontario not far from his car. Neither the school board nor the police offered any explanation.

The news story went away, but speculation continued on social media and in the community. Some drew inferences from the police service’s silence, which can sometimes be code for suicide. People pieced together a narrative using the slim details available to them, then filled in the gaps with ugly mistruths. A male teacher, an accusation, a sudden death. It was a story people felt they’d heard before. They would turn out to be very wrong.

Trish Queen had been a widow about a month when she realized what people were whispering.

“I’d always found it strange that some people didn’t ask what happened. Then someone said something to [sister in-law] Karen about suicide,” the 46-year-old recalled. “That’s when I realized, those people aren’t asking because they think Doug killed himself because of what happened at the school.”

But that is not what happened – despite the gossip.

Russell Frank, a communications professor at Penn State University, has written a book on Internet folklore, and says it’s human nature to gravitate toward a scandalous rumour – and then tell people about it. Hundreds of years ago, stories spread slowly, person to person. The phone allowed gossip to cross the country with a single call, but it was still contained within a single conversation. The Internet changed everything.

“It’s hyper speed,” he says. “Instantly people all around the world can see the same rumour, the same true bit of news and the same false bit of news.” At the same time, they are more likely to believe that mainstream media suppress certain types of news. It’s a perfect storm for malicious gossip to fester.

“Doug would have been horrified that that’s what people thought,” Mrs. Queen says.

Correcting the record has been difficult – it’s hard to compete with the Internet – so she and her family decided to speak out.

On that Monday morning, Mr. Queen said “I love you” to his wife of 11 years before heading off to work. She then headed upstairs to wake up the boys, 9 and 7, and get them ready for school. About the time the trio headed out the door, Mr. Queen was summoned to the principal’s office. According to police, a “fourth-hand” accusation had been made. A student had told their parents that he had seen Mr. Queen push another student. The board’s non-negotiable protocol meant that Mr. Queen – the much-beloved, longest-serving teacher at the school – had to go home. It was a scenario that male teachers dread – Children’s Aid and the police were called.

Citing privacy concerns, the school board still won’t discuss the incident. Principal Victor Tran, who told Mr. Queen of the allegation, says: “I still remember my first day at the school five years ago. When I came in, I met Doug. He made me feel welcome. He was so warm.”

At Brock, Mr. Queen was the one who put together elaborate concerts, created a school song, and did enough work that it required Mr. Tran to hire two teachers to replace him. But on that snowy March morning, he was the subject of a serious investigation.

He drove away from the school around 10:30 a.m. and made his way to Humber Bay Park on the waterfront. His family would later suspect he didn’t want to go home and worry his wife. Phone records show Mr. Queen made three calls to his union at 11:40 a.m., 11:49 a.m. and 11:58 a.m. At some point, he walked to the lake and climbed up the rocks, perhaps to wait for news.

What happened next is not known for certain, but the coroner’s report suggests Mr. Queen slipped on the ice and hit the right side of his forehead on a rock. Presumably unconscious, he tumbled into the lake, and drowned in a few feet of water. The coroner states conclusively that his death was not a suicide.

Around noon, Trish sent her husband a text message to remind him of his dentist appointment after work. He never replied. Back at Brock, police tracked down the student who had supposedly been assaulted. “We went in and spoke to the student and found it was completely unfounded,” says Constable Victor Kwong, emphasizing that the allegation had nothing to do with sexual impropriety. He also confirms that both the police and the school board were aware of the rumours circulating online.

When Mr. Queen didn’t come home, his wife phoned police. She was then joined by Mr. Queen’s identical twin and confidant, Andrew. Officers set up a command post at the park, but after a two-day search they left.

On the Thursday, friends and family looked for clues on their own. Andrew’s wife, Karen, walked to the shore, climbed the rocks and spotted Doug’s blue coat. “I just started screaming,” she recalls. “The police had been through. How could I be the one who found him?”

Trish Queen spent the next few weeks in a haze. Her world had been smashed apart. Then when she heard the rumours, it was like losing her husband all over again – his legacy had been killed. She is still angry that he had been cleared but the Toronto District School Board did nothing to correct the record.

“I understand the school board’s position. They need to protect the kids and their privacy. But who’s protecting my family? Who’s protecting Doug? Teachers? They shouldn’t be allowed to just leave this misinformation out there. It’s wrong.”

Mr. Queen came from a big family. He had nine siblings, but he and Andrew were the closest. Inseparable in high school, they lived together in university and until their wives came along. As adults, they played in the same folk band, Jughead.

“I’m not sure who I am any more,” Andrew now says. “Am I still a twin? I hear something and I want to call Doug. … I’m just seething. Not at anyone or anything. Just angry.”

Mrs. Queen, meanwhile, says that, even though months have passed, she hasn’t begun to deal with losing the love of her life, her co-parent, the man who took her on a picnic for their first date.

“You’re trying to grieve, but there’s this cloud in the way, knowing what people think,” she says. “Getting what really happened out there is my last gift to Doug. I want to clear his name. That’s the last thing before the next part starts.”

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