The darkness of man's heart is a story as old as the hills, but rarely has there been offered such a stark and intimate viewing of it as yesterday at the main Toronto courthouse.
Michael Joseph Briere, a plump, 36-year-old computer-software developer with a receding hairline and a rabbity twitch to his facial features, was pleading guilty to the first-degree murder of a little girl named Holly Jones.
Shortly after being arrested by Toronto Police homicide detectives and confronted with the fact that his DNA had been found under Holly's fingernails -- it means she fought him and essentially solved her own murder -- Mr. Briere looked up with tears in his eyes and made a detailed confession.
At bottom, he told police in that three-hour, 15-minute videotaped statement, sex with a little girl was his secret lifelong yearning, a fantasy he said had been with him "probably forever" and which he cast in terms that others might use to describe a favourite hobby or sport: "It's always been a part of my life."
Mr. Briere said that one early summer evening in May of last year -- fuelled by viewing child pornography on his home computer and overwhelmed by sexual desire -- he acted at last, walking out of the door of his Bloor Street West flat in search of just such a child. "And I just got excited," he said, "and just went, 'I need to go out and see if I' . . . I just went out. I really wanted to do it."
On Perth Avenue, just steps from his apartment and kitty-corner from the street where Holly lived, he saw the sunny 10-year-old, who had just walked a younger friend to her house and was heading back home.
She was perfect for Mr. Briere. The Globe and Mail has learned that he was a regular, frequent consumer of Internet child porn, both at home and at MDS Inc., the large lab-testing firm where he worked. The hundreds of images recovered from his home computer by forensic experts, and which police were able to show he downloaded as often as twice a day, all featured prepubescent girls between 10 and 12 years old.
Yet as prosecutor Hank Goody told Ontario Court Judge David Watt, Mr. Briere was a man without a criminal record, "a man so seemingly ordinary and nondescript as to have gone essentially unnoticed."
The native Montrealer, who once performed with an improv comedy group and dabbled in bodybuilding, walked past the little girl, checked to make sure the street was empty, then came up behind her, walking fast, and grabbed her by the neck.
"She didn't scream," Mr. Briere told police. "She was in total shock, and I just started with her, holding her by the neck, towards my home." Once behind locked doors, he took her to the bedroom, undressed her and himself, and attempted to have sex with her --unsuccessfully, it turned out, but with sufficient force that he bruised her vagina and tore her anal area.
The plea before Judge Watt, unusual in the criminal courts, resulted in an abbreviated procedure that lasted only an hour and 44 minutes in total. Even so, the formal reading in of the drear facts of the case lasted about three times as long as by Mr. Briere's own estimate the actual abduction, sexual assault and bare-hands strangulation of the little girl had taken him.
By the time police were notified of Holly's disappearance -- her parents, Marie Jones and George Stonehouse, believed she was still at her little friend's house, dawdling, and the friend's mother assumed she was safely home -- and were beginning an exhaustive search, Mr. Briere had already dismembered Holly with a small manual saw, this after putting her body in his fridge for a time, and made two trips to dispose of her clothing and some of her body parts.
It was, Mr. Briere told police, shortly before 6 p.m. on May 12 that he left his flat, consumed with lust, and saw the little girl.
"I would say she was probably gone 25 minutes after," he said, "Say around 6:25 or 6:30."
"Nothing worse can happen," is how senior Toronto Crown attorney Paul Culver flatly described the crime in his opening remarks yesterday -- and it happened with such terrifying speed that Holly was dead for more than an hour before her mom and dad even realized she was missing.
Senior police officials, including Staff Inspector Bruce Smollet, the head of the force's sex crimes unit and Inspector Brian Raybould of the homicide squad, joined Mr. Culver outside court in making the link between watching child pornography and actual sex crimes.
Never before, Staff Insp. Smollet told The Globe, has he seen such a direct A to B connection between pornography and a sex crime, while Mr. Culver said that the next time "someone says that child pornography is a victimless crime and harmless," this case, where Mr. Briere "went literally from viewing images to snatching Holly Jones," will remove any doubt.
The little girl's family lawyer, Tim Danson, said child pornography "is the link between Mr. Briere and Holly's most brutal death," and said that by the fall, her parents will have a package of legislative reforms, named after Holly, ready for Parliament's consideration. Mr. Danson said the package will include changes to child-porn laws, reworking of the DNA laws, and improvements to the national sex registry legislation.
In a statement he read from Ms. Jones, Mr. Danson thanked Canadians for their support, and asked for it again in the fight they pledge against child porn.
The case also afforded police and prosecutors the chance to defend the controversial DNA canvass which was used in the investigation, and which saw all but three men -- one of them Mr. Briere -- along Holly's final route voluntarily submit saliva samples when asked.
"It was a very controversial move," Mr. Culver said, "and I leave you with the result."
The three who refused to provide mouth swabs were put under surveillance, and when police retrieved pop cans and straws discarded by Mr. Briere, DNA retrieved from one of the cans and one straw proved a match for the DNA recovered from under the fingernails of the little girl's right hand.
In twice refusing to give a sample, Mr. Briere first told police, "If I can explain why -- no, I feel that it puts the onus on us to prove we're not guilty -- that Big Brother is watching us," and later he said that while he didn't really understand the science of DNA, "You know, when they compare samples, they can tell if it's the same person or not, which is for me, the scary part -- that's the thing. It's too much information."
But it was while he was explaining his refusal, at his apartment, that two alert plainclothes officers spotted some of the telltale things that Holly's recovered remains had told police to look for, a classic illustration of how the dead may speak.
Green fibres found on her body likely came from cheap carpeting or a bathmat, scientists at the Centre of Forensic Sciences told police, and the two officers spotted two green bath mats in Mr. Briere's bathroom; a five-pound dumbbell had been found in one of the bags containing her body parts, and the officers saw free weights in Mr. Briere's bedroom; the top of a sponge mop was found with Holly's remains, and the police noted an empty mop bucket in the flat.
Even as the net was tightening around him, Mr. Briere continued to go to work -- he never missed a shift in the almost six weeks between Holly's disappearance and his June 20 arrest -- and went about normal activities. The day police seized the straws, for instance, he was having lunch at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet with his girlfriend. And when police executed a search warrant on his flat, after his early-morning arrest, they found an adult pornographic film on his big-screen TV.
He was also still in the process of getting rid of incriminating evidence.
He made five separate trips, two to dump the child's body parts by the Toronto waterfront and three to dispose of the saw and various bloodstained articles, and on the day of his arrest he was still wearing the shoes he had worn during her abduction and was carrying in his laptop case a running shoe and shirt associated with the killing.
On one trip, with Holly's torso wrapped in garbage bags in a black gym bag, Mr. Briere took the subway, and at one point noticed the face of a man sitting across from him "really change." The bag was leaking blood, so he slid a foot over a drop of it on the floor of the car.
But despite these disposal efforts and his cleanup of the apartment, scientists found Holly's blood in five locations at the flat -- the wall between the kitchen and living room, a sofa, the fridge, his mattress and floor tiles in the kitchen, where he dismembered the little girl -- and on one of the shoes Mr. Briere was wearing when arrested.
It is partly because of the enormous amount of evidence against him that Mr. Briere's tearful and abject apology yesterday fell on police and prosecutorial hearts that were as cold as stone.
"I have no doubt that Mr. Briere is remorseful," Mr. Culver told Judge Watt, but added sharply, "I point out that it is remorse in the face of the overwhelming case against him." Staff Insp. Smollet snapped, outside court, "I don't buy it for a minute."
Neither of Holly's parents were in the courtroom when Mr. Briere stood and, his voice breaking, told Judge Watt that his crime was "the act of a coward" and that "No one has ever stood in front of you who has been more deserving of such a sentence . . . I have not pleaded guilty today simply because I am resigned to my fate or because I want to cut my losses . . . I take no pride in what I have done. The truth is that I am ashamed beyond belief. I regret everything. I am so sorry. I really wish I could undo everything.
"I have failed as a human being."
Ms. Jones had fled the courtroom with homicide Detective Ken Taylor and her children at her side minutes before Mr. Briere began to speak, and Mr. Stonehouse was not at the courthouse yesterday, unable, Mr. Danson and other friends said, to trust himself not to lose control when faced with the sight of the man who killed the only child he and Ms. Jones had together.
Ms. Jones, surrounded by a large group of friends and relatives, including Holly's grandparents and godparents, never once looked toward the prisoner's box where Mr. Briere sat in a greenish suit that very nearly matched the colour of his complexion.
Sitting with her children beside her, Ms. Jones cried aloud once in agony when Mr. Briere, asked how he pleaded, said "Guilty" in a strong clear voice, and sobbed quietly throughout the proceedings.
The details of the crime came as no surprise to Ms. Jones. On Tuesday, prosecutors Culver and Goody and homicide detectives went to her home and read aloud the same statement that was read in open court yesterday. Ms. Jones was also offered a chance to tour the sixth-floor courtroom in advance, but declined.
Wearing a little crocheted cap that was Holly's favourite, she rocked back and forth, and was bent so low in her seat that sometimes the upper half of her body was parallel to the courtroom floor.
Curiously, Mr. Briere's posture almost mirrored Ms. Jones's. He sat slumped, his head often bent low, frequently puffing out his cheeks and sighing as the details of the case were read out, and several times openly wept and wiped his eyes.
Even the judge, who has presided over some of the city's most gruesome trials, appeared defeated by the glimpse into Mr. Briere's dark secret.
His crime shocked and angered a community "that is no longer easily shocked by crimes of violence, by revelations of senseless killings and other forms of inhumanity," Judge Watt told him.
"A random abduction on a quiet city street. A sexual assault. A murder. Dismemberment. A young active life, like others full of promise, snuffed out, and for a reason no more significant than, as you yourself have said, your selfish sexual desires fuelled by pornographic images displayed on a computer screen.
"There seems," the judge said wearily, "no bottom in the depravity pool, nor any limit to the vulnerability of our children."
Mr. Briere was driven by homicide detectives yesterday afternoon directly to Kingston Penitentiary, where he will spend at minimum the next 15 years of his life -- at which point he could ask to be allowed to apply for early parole under the so-called "faint hope" clause -- but almost certainly at least 25 years on the same range where serial killer Paul Bernardo is housed.
This direct route to Kingston saw him bypass being returned to the Toronto Don Jail and then to Millhaven Penitentiary for the usual processing. It was the sole concession prosecutors granted him in exchange for his guilty plea.
The statement of facts read into the record yesterday was edited to strike a balance between providing the National Parole Board with sufficient detail to grasp the full nature of Mr. Briere's crime and sparing Holly's parents where possible.
One of the remarks that was edited out, The Globe has learned, was what Mr. Briere told detectives when, at the end of his confession, they asked if he had anything else to say.
"Tell parents," he said, "to tell the children to scream."
A family's grief
The following is the victim-impact statement by Marie Jones, Holly Jones's mother, read out in court yesterday after Michael Briere pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the girl's sex slaying:
May 12th 2003 at approximately 6:30 p.m., our daughter was unwillingly taken away from us and murdered. Since this day, our lives have changed forever. It would be impossible for me, as Holly's mother, to express in a short period of time, how this has so impacted our family. It is also very difficult to express the pain that now lives inside of us, the torture of having to wake up every morning, the torture of the emptiness that we now live with in our home. You can only try to imagine the nightmare. The agony of having to see her bedroom door, reminding us that her bed will always stay empty. The family pictures that hang throughout our home is just another painful reminder of knowing that there will never be another family picture to add to our collection, a reminder of where she is and how she got there. Never to hear her say the words "Mommy" or "I Love You" ever again.
This person that appears in court today has affected all of our family's hearts in a way no one can imagine. I live with a fear that surrounds me day after day.
It is complete agony to know that Holly's brother and sister will also have to live with this nightmare for the rest of their lives. My children now have different parents. I am unable to be the mother they once knew. It is a daily struggle and fight to continue as a mother. But my children are the reason why I felt I must keep on going.
I have many beautiful memories of Holly and clearly remember her most beautiful smile. However my memory is now distorted. Our last memory of Holly is of her lying in her coffin knowing that her body parts were there, however her legs were missing.
I know that I will never attend another funeral, a christening or a child's birthday party. Some of my very good friends have children that were Holly's close friends. It is very difficult to see them now knowing that we will never get together as a family any more. You could only imagine that agony of our own family functions and to see and hear Holly's cousins. It especially breaks my heart to see my 10-year-old niece, her distraught face when looking at me, both painfully so aware of the absence that surrounds us.
Mother and Father's Day will never be the same. There is a sickness that now lives inside my stomach, pain that lives in my heart, horror in my mind and a hell that surrounds my body. We know that we will never get that complete feeling of happiness again. This person has made us suffer for the rest of our lives. Sadness will now live with us forever.
There can be no closure for us here today. We will always continue to think of Holly every waking moment. Our hope is that Holly's tragic death will be not an end, but a beginning. Our demand is that Holly's life and legacy will live on long past this day.
Michael Briere's statement
Your Honour, I want to state that I fully recognize and acknowledge that the crime which I am guilty of is simply the worst kind of crime a person can commit.
What I did was absolutely wrong. It was cruel. It cannot be justified. It was meaningless and senseless. It was done out of selfishness. It was the act of a coward.
I take full responsibility for my actions. It was
I also want to say that I bear no ill will to anyone here today. I have no anger towards the police, the Crowns or yourself, Your Honour.
I accept the sentence which you are about to
give me. No one has ever stood in front of you
who has been more deserving of such a sentence.
I accept this sentence because I fully realize the pain which I have caused. I realize that I must be punished for this terrible wrong that I have done.
I also realize that society wants to be protected from me and my behaviour.
I have not pleaded guilty today simply because I am resigned to my fate or because I want to cut
I stand by my words when I told the police: "A man who commits this type of crime, you put him away; you put him away for good."
I take no pride in what I have done; the truth is I am ashamed beyond belief. I regret everything. I am so sorry. I really wish I could undo everything.
I have failed as a human being.
Lastly, Your Honour, I want to state that for my actions which were cruel, inhuman and nightmarish, I do apologize.
Thank you Your Honour, that is all I have to say.