With a week of midterm exams behind her, the Winnipeg teen left her high-school dorm for what was supposed to be a relaxing long weekend with her parents. Instead, Rinelle Harper landed in the hospital after an assault so brutal that homicide investigators were given responsibility for the case.
The 16-year-old was beaten under a bridge near the Assiniboine River and somehow ended up in the frigid waters. Wet, battered and barely clothed, she managed to crawl out of the river only to be attacked again by the same men – who, in another twist, left the aboriginal girl for dead before allegedly going on to sexually assault a second woman.
The story is both singularly disturbing and familiar.
In August, Tina Fontaine's beaten body was pulled from the city's Red River. The teen became one of this country's more than 1,180 murdered and missing aboriginal women. But the Harper case is also different. This time, police took the extremely rare step of identifying the victim of a sexual assault – a minor, no less. And this time, with the help of surveillance footage and assistance from a galvanized community, police swiftly made a pair of arrests in connection with not one but two violent crimes.
The Winnipeg Police Service announced Wednesday that two men are now in custody – a development that brought relief to Ms. Harper's parents, who are at their daughter's hospital bedside and focusing on her recovery. Justin James Hudson, 20, and a 17-year-old male have been charged with attempted murder, aggravated sexual assault and sexual assault with a weapon.
"The crimes, and the viciousness of them, speak for themselves," Superintendent Danny Smyth told reporters. "I can't even pretend to describe what I think they were thinking."
The Harper and Fontaine cases are enough alike – attacks on native girls left for dead in or near the city's rivers – that police will probe whether there are links. "We will certainly take a closer look at [the co-accused] now," Supt. Smyth said.
Mr. Hudson is facing charges of possessing stolen property related to an alleged offence in August. Mr. Hudson, who was in court Monday on the property charge, is slated to appear in court Thursday to advise whether he'll seek bail. Information about the 17-year-old can't be released because he's a minor.
Police believe Ms. Harper, originally from Garden Hill First Nations in northern Manitoba, was out with friends Friday night but somehow got separated from them. Just past midnight Saturday, two men struck up a conversation with the girl and the three walked to a path along the river. "Once down there, the two males turned on Rinelle and violently assaulted her," Supt. Smyth said.
Ms. Harper ended up in the river but managed to crawl out after being swept east a short distance. The men found the girl and attacked her again, this time using a weapon, police said. The co-accused left the scene and allegedly targeted a second woman, age 23. Ms. Harper's unconscious body was discovered by a passerby around 7 a.m. Saturday. She was rushed to hospital in critical condition and is expected to recover from the ordeal.
Grand Chief David Harper, a relative who represents 30-some northern Manitoba communities, said the teen's parents are "very happy" about the arrests and hope justice will be served.
Ms. Harper, who is described by family as a daddy's girl with a shy smile and a strong work ethic, is a relative of the late Manitoba politician Elijah Harper. Elijah Harper's brother, Fred Harper, said he would make a statement on Thursday morning thanking the police and the community on behalf of the girl's parents, Ceasar and Julie, who will be at his side.