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Convicted killer Eric Norman Fish was on the loose for six weeks after walking away from an Okanagan halfway house in the summer of 2004.

Despite numerous previous parole violations by Mr. Fish, however, no alert was issued.

Now, the number of alleged victims from Mr. Fish's time on the lam has risen to two.

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In a notorious case that has already led to widespread changes in police and parole procedures and the closing of the halfway house, Mr. Fish is to be charged in court today with the slaying of Jeffrey Drake, 60.

The charge, announced yesterday by Vernon RCMP, follows an earlier first-degree murder charge laid against Mr. Fish in the slaying of Bill Abramenko, a well-liked retired carpenter who was beaten to death during a home invasion.

The body of Mr. Drake was discovered near Okanagan Lake in August, 2004. He had disappeared about a month earlier.

Corporal Henry Procé said Mr. Fish had long been a suspect in Mr. Drake's death, but police were also investigating whether an accomplice might have been involved.

"It's been a two-and-a-half year investigation, and the Crown has now decided to lay a first-degree murder charge against 45-year-old Eric Norman Fish," Cpl. Procé said yesterday.

Mr. Abramenko, 75, and Mr. Drake died while Mr. Fish was missing from Howard House in Vernon, where he had been on day parole from a life sentence for stabbing a 57-year old man to death after breaking into his home.

The arrest of Mr. Fish three days after Mr. Abramenko was killed sparked a nationwide furor over parole regulations and the role of halfway houses.

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Mr. Abramenko's widow, Gladys, who was tied up with her husband during the home invasion, is suing Mr. Fish, the National Parole Board, the Attorney-General of Canada, Corrections Canada, the John Howard Society and the RCMP.

"This man was on the loose, and they didn't even bother looking for him," Mrs. Abramenko charged last year as she launched her lawsuit.

Nowhere did emotions run higher than in Vernon, itself.

Local residents and the city's mayor demanded the immediate closing of Howard House. They noted that, within the past eight years, two other murders were committed by individuals who had been staying at the 32-bed home.

Bowing to community pressure, Corrections Canada shut the facility several months later.

Cpl. Procé said that the RCMP had followed its normal procedures in not issuing an alert when Mr. Fish failed to return to Howard House the night of June 22.

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"At the time, we had little reason to believe that he was going to be a risk to the community," he said.

He had actually walked out the month before and come back within a few days without incident.

"Our crystal ball just wasn't telling us that this man was going to [allegedly]commit two murders within the next six weeks," Cpl. Procé said.

A report by the National Parole Board issued seven weeks after Mr. Fish's arrest in the Abramenko killing said the accused had had trouble, mostly drug-related, from the beginning of his day parole.

His parole was revoked twice over his use of drugs, only to be reinstated each time.

The parole board report also listed other risk factors such as "deceitfulness, criminal thinking, impulsivity, negative peer influences and a lack of marketable skills".

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Corp. Procé said the Vernon detachment has made key changes in its handling of parolees since Mr. Fish's arrest.

A full-time police officer was posted to Vernon just this week to check on each paroled prisoner in the area.

Further, said Corp. Procé, the force has "vastly increased our liaison with the parole office, and we have put a lot of checks and balances in place."

And a crime analyst has been hired to "liaise with" the parole office on a daily basis "as to who's who and what they're doing."

ing, Mr. Fish was committed to face trial on first-degree murder charges in the Abramenko case, beginning next Jan. 8.

Concerning Mr. Fish's alleged second victim, Corp. Procé said that Mr. Drake had been involved in the drug subculture, but there was no direct link to six drug-related murders that took place in Vernon over an 11-month period.

Charges have been laid in only one of those deaths. According to police, those charged in that case belonged to members of a local organized crime group known as "the Greeks."

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