Winnipeg police say they have charged a man with murder in the deaths of four women, all believed to be Indigenous, who were killed within weeks of each other last spring.
Jeremy Skibicki was initially charged in May with the first-degree murder of Rebecca Contois, a 24-year-old woman from O-Chi-Chak-Ko-Sipi First Nation, also known as Crane River. After six months of investigation, police announced Thursday that they had charged the 35-year-old with the first-degree murder of three more women, in what are now considered alleged serial killings.
The other victims are Morgan Beatrice Harris, Mercedes Myran and a fourth woman who has yet to be identified.
Police allege that Ms. Harris, 39, and Ms. Myran, 26, who were both members of Long Plain First Nation, were killed within days of each other in the first week of May. They said the unidentified woman, who is also believed to be Indigenous, was likely killed earlier, around March 15.
Ms. Contois’s remains were discovered May 16, in a garbage bin outside a Winnipeg apartment building, and then later also at a local landfill. The other women’s bodies haven’t been recovered and police do not know where they are.
“It’s always unsettling when there’s any kind of a serial killing,” Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth said in a news conference. “We are very sensitive to the whole missing and murdered Indigenous women investigation and inquiry, and the recommendations that came out of that.”
He said the additional charges were laid against Mr. Skibicki on Thursday morning at the Milner Ridge Correctional Facility, where he has been held since his arrest.
The Missing and Murdered Women Inquiry’s final report, published in 2019, said Indigenous women are 12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than any other women in Canada and six times more likely to be murdered than non-Indigenous women. The inquiry cited an analysis from The Globe and Mail in 2015 that found Indigenous women are roughly seven times more likely than non-indigenous women to die at the hands of serial killers.
In an e-mail, Mr. Skibicki’s lawyer, Leonard Tailleur, said they “were aware of the possibility of additional counts on this matter.”
“Now that they have been laid and the Crown is proceeding by direct indictment, Mr. Skibicki reiterates his presumption of innocence,” he said. “Hopefully when the evidence is heard there will be an understanding of the totality of the circumstances and an appropriate verdict.”
On Thursday, police provided few details about the investigation, or any relationship between the women and Mr. Skibicki, though he said there were no other suspects. Investigators did not explain what evidence they had to lay murder charges in the absence of the bodies, other than that DNA played a role in the investigation.
Inspector Shawn Pike said the investigation is not over, and that the priority now is to identify the fourth victim.
“We believe she is an Indigenous female, likely in her mid-20s, with an average build,” he said, showing photos of a reversible black Baby Phat jacket, with a striped lining that he believes the woman wore.
Missing-person signs taped up around the city earlier this year by Ms. Myran’s family noted that the 26-year-old had been last seen in March, in the North End of Winnipeg. Ms. Harris, according to a missing person alert by Winnipeg Police, had last been seen May 1 in the city’s downtown.
CTV News reported in May that Mr. Skibicki’s now ex-wife was granted a protection order against him in 2019, for three years, after a justice of the peace ruled his behaviour “constituted threatening conduct under the Domestic Violence and Stalking Act.” Mr. Skibicki was previously charged with assault with a weapon, assault causing bodily harm and uttering threats in January, 2021, according to CTV.
A high-school acquaintance of Mr. Skibicki said she recalls him making disparaging comments about Jewish and Indigenous students. The Globe is not identifying the woman because she feared for her safety.
She said that by the time they entered their 20s, she and other friends distanced themselves from Mr. Skibicki entirely.
The woman said that Mr. Skibicki had Facebook profiles under a pseudonym that featured extremist content.
Helmut-Harry Loewen, an anti-racism researcher and former University of Winnipeg professor, reviewed those social-media accounts and said the overall messaging was to encourage followers to set up separatist communities.
“The assumption is that these parallel communities are required to stem the tide of so-called ‘evils’ associated with multiculturalism,” Mr. Loewen said.
On Twitter, Manitoba MLA Nahanni Fontaine recalled sitting with Ms. Harris’s family Thursday, as the police shared that the missing woman’s case was now that of a homicide.
“The family’s anguish, including that of her two young daughters, was devastating,” Ms. Fontaine wrote. “There is rage, despair, disgust and unspeakable sadness as I think about these women’s families and the ongoing violence towards our women … No one should rest easy today. This alleged killer walked amongst us. He was in our city, our neighbourhoods, our places of work. He was not invisible. But our women, girls and two-spirited are.”
Long Plain Chief Kyra Wilson said the community is devastated by the news: “The loss of three women and one unidentified person is a sadness many are feeling. We must come together as communities to protect and support our Indigenous women and men.”
The Southern Chiefs’ Organization, which represents the communities the women were from, offered its condolences to the family, friends and First Nations of the victims.
“We will be keeping you in our thoughts and prayers as you grapple with the news that your loved ones have been taken from us in such a violent way,” Grand Chief Jerry Daniels said in a statement.
Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham told the news conference that “condolences are not strong enough.”
“Anger and sorrow – that mix is what I’m feeling right now,” he said. “We have more to do to address safety across this community.’”
With reports from The Canadian Press