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A police officer keeps watch at a home where seven people, including two children, were found dead in Edmonton, Alberta on Tuesday, December 30, 2014.

AMBER BRACKEN/The Globe and Mail

Edmonton police detectives who investigate domestic violence say they can do little in cases when victims retract their complaints.

The deaths during the last weekend of 2014 of eight people, six of whom were related by marriage to their killer, are putting a spotlight on Alberta's domestic violence policing strategy. The chair of the provincial panel that investigates family deaths says a review is needed and the justice system could use more powers to follow up cases when allegations are withdrawn.

Two years before Phu Lam killed his wife and five members of her family, he had threatened to do so. Thuy Tien Truong called police in November, 2012, and her husband was arrested. One month later, she recanted her testimony and charges were dropped.

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Recanting is frustrating for Staff Sergeant Sean Armstrong, who heads the Domestic Offender Crimes Section of the Edmonton police. More than 2,500 domestic violence calls in Edmonton turned into criminal investigations in 2014.

Staff Sgt. Armstrong's detectives try to guide victims through the court system, but many recant and end proceedings. "When that happens, we're out of the picture," he said. "When you look at what we are dealing with, we do have victims of domestic violence who want our services and we need to turn our resources to them."

Because the Criminal Code does not differentiate domestic abuse from other threats and assaults, the Alberta court system has no statistics on it. However, experts say about half of domestic violence allegations are recanted.

Court documents show that Mr. Phu and Ms. Thuy had been together for a decade. During that time, Mr. Phu had been possessive, monitoring his wife's phone calls, deciding what she could wear and demanding she go home directly after work. He also had a long criminal record, trouble at work and was depressed.

The two had an argument after midnight on Nov. 3, 2012, at their north Edmonton residence. Neighbours said they often heard the couple argue, and every few months their disputes spilled out onto the street. However, this was different. Some time earlier, Mr. Phu learned that the boy he had been raising as his son was not biologically his. That night, he punched Ms. Thuy and attempted to strangle her several times, the court records show. He told her he would kill her family. He then sexually assaulted her.

The next day, Mr. Phu repeated the threat to each member of his wife's family. Later that day, he was arrested at a Canadian Tire.

Over a month later, on Dec. 17, in sworn statements given to a Vietnamese interpreter, Ms. Thuy recanted every allegation.

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"The Crown could no longer be satisfied that there was a reasonable likelihood of the conviction of Lam," Michelle Doyle of Alberta's Crown Prosecution Service, told The Globe and Mail. Mr. Phu was released on Dec. 21.

Two years later, Mr. Phu killed his wife and the members of her family he had threatened in 2012. He also killed a man at his wife's home who friends say was in a relationship with Ms. Thuy, and an eighth person in south Edmonton the next day.

Edmonton police Chief Rod Knecht called the murders an "extreme case of domestic violence gone awry."

While Edmonton police use victim support units and work with community groups to reduce domestic incidents, more could be done, says the chair of Alberta's Family Violence Death Review Committee.

"When you look at a situation like that in Edmonton, there should be a way to order a follow-up," said Allen Benson. "We have to review all our legislation and policies to determine whether there should be more power to the police or courts."

Mr. Phu's past put him at an extreme risk of re-offending, said Peter Jaffe, an expert on domestic violence at the University of Western Ontario.

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"When these tragedies happen, people feel there is nothing they could have done differently. In 75 per cent of cases, these were predictable, preventable deaths if appropriate strategies were there," Mr. Jaffe said.

With increasing knowledge about domestic violence, police forces are changing the way they handle incidents, and many can continue a case even if the complainant recants, according to Sergeant Shelley Tarnowski, the Ontario Provincial Police's co-ordinator for abuse issues.

"If we have reasonable grounds to believe an offence occurred, we need to lay that charge. We've taken that decision out of the hands of victims," Sgt. Tarnowski said.

Mr. Benson said Alberta's panel takes many cues from Ontario, which is seen as a leader in violence prevention.

"There are barriers to victims being forthright. Someone who's arrested might then get a criminal record and it could limit their ability to live in the community or get work," Sgt. Tarnowski said.

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