Amber Bracken/Amber Bracken
Amber Bracken/Amber Bracken
Police stay silent on murder-suicides
Grieving families want relatives' slayings made public. Critics say hiding the incidents only reinforces the shame and stigma of domestic violence, Jana G. Pruden writes
Early on a Monday morning last September, thick plumes of smoke began billowing from a house in downtown Vulcan, Alta., south of Calgary. It was the home of Karen Currie, 56, a lawyer and beloved figure in the community, and her partner, Robert Farrow, 47, a local handyman who planned to start an Internet radio business.
Smoke and flames had consumed the house by the time firefighters arrived. Ms. Currie and Mr. Farrow were found dead inside. RCMP later announced the fire was intentionally set, and "the person responsible for the arson has perished in the fire." But RCMP never said who set the fire or that a homicide also took place.
"I think pretty well the whole community knows he did it," said Ms. Currie's mother, Helen Currie.
But RCMP never publicly confirmed it, and nearly a year later, still will not say a homicide was involved.
Inspector Gibson Glavin, an RCMP spokesman, said the force's "general default position" is that the public has the right to know about murders. But decisions are made on a case-by-case basis by local officers who "hold open the latitude to be able to look at the individual circumstances of the victim and what that might be."
Critics say hiding a murder-suicide from the public reinforces the shame and stigma of domestic violence, which is behind most of these crimes. It also makes it impossible to examine openly what may have contributed to the violence.
And family members of some victims say they want their loved one's murder known, to acknowledge what happened, and, maybe, help others.
In an effort to understand when and why RCMP decide not to confirm a murder-suicide, The Globe and Mail searched archives of multiple news sources, news releases from the RCMP and municipal forces, and domestic violence databases, and spoke to police agencies about their practices.
Ms. Currie's death is among 17 cases in RCMP jurisdictions since January, 2015, that The Globe and Mail identified as having the hallmarks of a possible murder-suicide: Two people found dead in sudden or suspicious circumstances, often with police saying they were not looking for a suspect and the public was not at risk.
RCMP have confirmed murder-suicide in eight of the cases, and ruled it out in three others. In the remaining six, RCMP have not said whether a homicide occurred, but the victims' families in two of those cases told The Globe and Mail they were murder-suicides.
"It's bothered me all along," said Pat Kucik, whose father, Mike Kucik, was killed in a murder-suicide in Saskatchewan in July. "We're the victims in this thing. Not the other guy, who chose to do this."
Of 21 potential murder-suicide cases in other police jurisdictions since Jan. 1, 2015, The Globe found only one – in Ontario – that remains unconfirmed by police. (In that instance, Ontario Provincial Police would not confirm what caused the deaths of an Ontario couple found in their burning home in November, 2015, and said autopsy results would be withheld.) Murder-suicides were confirmed in 14 cases and ruled out in five. A fire marshall's report is pending in one.
Acting Sergeant Brian Montague of the Vancouver Police Department said sometimes information about a homicide may not be immediately released for investigative reasons, but that all homicides in Vancouver are made public, including those committed in the context of murder-suicides.
"Our belief is that you shouldn't be allowed to be murdered in anonymity," he said.
The interests of all'
Karen Currie's brother, Michael Currie, said he expected RCMP to confirm his sister's murder after the medical examiner's report was completed in May, 2016. The report clearly concluded Ms. Currie's death was a homicide, and an autopsy showed no smoke in her lungs – indicating she was dead before the fire started. Mr. Farrow had served time in jail for assaulting Ms. Currie, and friends said he was supposed to move out that weekend. Instead, he killed Ms. Currie and then himself.
But the RCMP did not make the report public, and Mr. Currie was hesitant to release the information himself in case he was not aware of some aspect of the investigation. Medical examiners' reports are not released to the media in Alberta, even through Freedom of Information requests, and so the fact that Ms. Currie was a homicide victim was never made public. A recent news story about what would happened to the house said only that the couple died in the fire.
"That one bothered Mom an awful lot because there was no mention in there of the fact that Karen had been murdered," Mr. Currie said. "I think Mom just wants that public declaration that Karen was, in fact, murdered by this person. And she hasn't seen that yet."
Inspector Glavin would not speak about specific cases, but said the "core of the decision-making" rests on whether the deaths are criminal, and whether there is a public interest in knowing what occurred. He said officers also look at the impact on the victim's family, and are "always, always weighing the interest of the victim and the public.
"And they're not mutually exclusive," he said. "We're looking at the interests of all."
He said one scenario in which a murder-suicide may not be publicly confirmed is if RCMP deemed the killer not culpable because of their mental capacity. He would not give other examples, but said the decisions "all come down to the mandate of the police, which is to prevent and investigate crime."
Asked if there was a way to follow up on any of his statements, he said, "Not with the RCMP."
National RCMP spokesman Sergeant Harold Pfleiderer declined to clarify further, saying only that murder-suicides are looked at case by case.
"There's really nothing else to add," he said.
But for those living with the after-effects of a murder-suicide, that is far from the end of the story.
'Call it what it is'
Shirley Parkinson was killed on her Saskatchewan farm in September, 2014, by her husband, Donald, who then killed himself. The RCMP initially described what happened only as "the sudden deaths of two adults," prompting a CBC story that called Ms. Parkinson's death a "secret murder." In that case, an RCMP spokeswoman cited privacy legislation, and said there was no reason to release more information without a suspect or a criminal trial.
Ms. Parkinson's sister, Mariann Rich, said it was horrible to have a devastating family trauma become public, and that she would not have wanted RCMP to rush to declare what happened before they were certain. But she also said it was important her sister's death was ultimately acknowledged as a homicide.
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"If I was murdered by my spouse, I would want my name out there and call it a murder. Call it what it is," Ms. Rich said. "I know my sister well enough to know that if she knew she would be murdered, she would have wanted it known."
Ms. Rich said it is not only important to acknowledge the victim's experience, but for a community to face the reality of domestic violence and look at ways to prevent similar deaths through resources, mental-health treatment and other interventions. She said she believes an inquiry should be held for every domestic homicide, especially when the killer dies as well and there is no trial.
She said the last time she spoke to her sister, Ms. Parkinson said: "He's very mentally ill."
"There's so much to be learned about these cases," said Ms. Rich, who is a nurse, as her sister was. "We need to really seriously look at it, and then what we can do with that for intervention."
A 2013 Statistics Canada report shows the country had 344 murder-suicides from 2001-2011, a total of 763 people – 419 victims and 344 perpetrators. Nearly 80 per cent of murder-suicides in that period involved family members, most often men killing a current or estranged female romantic partner.
Orla Hegarty, a statistician who in 2015 began compiling a list of women killed by men for a database called Counting Dead Women, said she immediately noticed gaps in the reporting of domestic murder-suicides across the country.
Ms. Hegarty said this not only erases the reality of violence, but makes it difficult to gather data and study trends in domestic murder-suicide – including issues related to mental health, dementia and illness in an aging population.
"We can't create public policy without being informed and without the correct information," Ms. Hegarty said.
She said she believes reporting standards should be consistent across the country to facilitate a national discussion of the homicides, "with no hiding."
"In our society, we hold murderers accountable," she said. "Even if they commit suicide."
'Very private things'
On July 7, 2016, well-known boxing coach Mike Kucik was found dead at the dump where he worked, outside the town of Ponteix, Sask. Beside him was the body of another man, identified as Laurent St. Cyr. While local residents told media it was a murder-suicide, the RCMP never confirmed it, nor did police say which of the men was the killer and which was the victim. (RCMP identified the victim in only three of the eight confirmed murder-suicide cases since 2015.)
Mr. Kucik was prominent in the boxing community around the country, and while those within the small town may have known what happened, many others did not. His son, Pat, said in an interview it was difficult hearing rumours about his father's death, and seeing speculation on social media. At least one story he heard had his father killing the other man after a confrontation, rather than being gunned down in a premeditated murder.
"I wish they would say what happened," Pat Kucik said. "My father was shot in the freaking back with a 12-gauge shotgun and the guy shot himself immediately after. Say those things. Say the truth."
Pat Kucik said Mr. St. Cyr took some chocolates to his father, then shot him when he turned to put them in his truck. He said Mr. St. Cyr was known to have mental issues, and that his father had been one of the man's few friends. Mr. St. Cyr left a will on his kitchen table.
"We still have no clue why he did it," Pat Kucik said. 'There was no note."
Mr. Kucik has other problems with the way RCMP handled the situation – including that officers sent a neighbour to tell the family about the murder, and that they learned the identity of the killer from another local resident. He also has questions about Mr. St. Cyr's stockpile of firearms and ammunition, and whether something could have been done to prevent the violence that took his father, and could just as easily have been turned on others.
"The man literally owned enough arsenal to take out an army," he said. "There's no way this guy should have had this stuff with his mental issues."
Ontario Provincial Police spokesman Sergeant Peter Leon said officers work with families to decide what will be released to the public. He said that in some situations it is not in their best interest to confirm a murder-suicide, such as when children are left behind, or "very private things" are involved, such as issues around elder care, illness or mental health.
He said some murder-suicide cases in OPP jurisdictions were never confirmed to the public.
"Not everybody wants to have their private life under the microscope. It's up to us, I think, as police officers to respect that and protect them," he said. "And that's the whole principlebetween preventing any kind of revictimization."
He said any issues of public interest or accountability that arise from a murder-suicide could be dealt with if the coroner calls an inquest.
In Vancouver, Acting Sgt. Montague said underlying his police department's approach is the belief that public safety includes alleviating unnecessary fear in the community, and that "if someone is murdered in Vancouver, we think that the public has a right to know some basic details about that murder."
"I'll be honest with you, if the public found out that we didn't provide them information that a homicide occurred – unless we had very good reason not to tell them, or at least delay providing that information publicly – I think we'd be crucified," he said. "We'd be chastised. We'd have a lot of explaining to do."
Peter Jaffe, a domestic violence expert and director of the Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children, said there is a balancing act between respecting the need for privacy and ensuring important information is made public to help address the causes of violence. He compared the situation to a plane crash.
"You can't bring the victims back," he said, "but you still want people looking for the black box."
Last Saturday afternoon, RCMP converged on a mobile home in the town of Delisle, southwest of Saskatoon, where a young man and woman lay dead inside. Media said the bodies were found by relatives bringing the couple's children home after a sleepover. One neighbour reported hearing a gunshot.
RCMP say there is no risk to public safety, and they are not seeking any suspects.