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missing and murdered
Cindy Gladue (left-centre) with her three daughters. (Facebook)
The death and life of Cindy Gladue
We know about her tragic death in a motel bathroom, but she was more than a headline. Kathryn Blaze Carlson reports

Searching for the lost
This story is part of an ongoing Globe and Mail investigation into the hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada.

South of the Alberta town where she was born, a teenaged Cindy Gladue and two friends found themselves stranded one summer night when the Edmonton transit train they were riding unexpectedly went out of service several kilometres from home.

Ms. Gladue had lived in the prairie capital since she was young and knew they were in a precarious situation: It was dark, they had no taxi fare and they were at the eastern edge of the so-called stroll, a stretch of an avenue north of downtown where johns seek out prostitutes. She feared she and her indigenous girlfriends would either be mistaken for sex workers, assaulted, or picked up by police and returned to angry, worried parents. The trio ultimately made it home safely, crossing the Yellowhead Highway, a popular trucking route, along the way.

This was the late 1980s, when Ms. Gladue had big hair and big dreams. She wanted to beat the odds in her family and go to university. She didn’t know what she wanted to study, but she knew she wanted the school to be somewhere beautiful. She wanted to become a mother, and she knew, even then, what she hoped to call her children, having jotted down a list of her favourite names while nestled with a friend under a tree along the North Saskatchewan River.

Cindy Gladue in grade nine. (Facebook)

Ms. Gladue did become a mother, and she did put one of those scribbled names to use – Cheyanne. But the Métis woman’s other dreams were never realized. On June 22, 2011, Ms. Gladue, a 36-year-old sex worker who abused drugs and alcohol, was found lifeless in a bathtub at a motel on the Yellowhead Highway. She had bled out from an 11-centimetre-long wound to her vaginal wall. Two days later, a trucker named Bradley Barton was arrested in connection with the death – a stunning development for Ms. Gladue’s mother, Donna McLeod, who said police initially left her with the impression her daughter may have died from natural causes.

The next four years proved hellish for Ms. McLeod, who recently sat down with The Globe and Mail for an exclusive interview. She lost her eldest child, who had three daughters, all teenagers. She sat through the murder trial earlier this year and, although she did everything she could to avoid seeing graphic images in court, a photo was accidentally flashed on a screen during the proceedings. The image of her daughter’s naked, blood-soaked body was forever burned into her brain.

Cindy Gladue's mother Donna McLeod remembers her daughter. (Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail)

In an unprecedented move regarded by many as an affront to Ms. Gladue’s dignity, the judge allowed her vaginal tissue to be brought into court as evidence. The case had turned on what caused the wound, with the Crown arguing Mr. Barton either inserted a sharp object or recklessly fisted her vagina, and the defence asserting the wound was the result of consensual, manual stimulation.

Then, on March 18, an 11-person jury – nine men and two women, none of them native – acquitted Mr. Barton of first-degree murder and chose not to convict him of the lesser offence of manslaughter. The Crown has filed an appeal and will present its case to a panel of judges, likely next year. “The Crown appealed the acquittal, after careful review of the case, on the basis of legal errors in the charge to the jury,” an Alberta Justice spokeswoman said in an e-mail, referring to the judge’s instructions to the jury before deliberations.

Mr. Barton did not respond to an interview request made through his lawyer, Dino Bottos, who said he has advised his client not to speak publicly about the case. Other attempts to reach Mr. Barton were unsuccessful.

This spring, rallies were held from coast to coast by protesters crying foul, saying Ms. Gladue has been the victim, in her death, of racism and injustice. The case has raised questions about the jury system, about consent (Ms. Gladue had a blood-alcohol level roughly four times the legal driving limit around the time she died) and about the treatment of indigenous women by the criminal justice system. “It almost seemed like she didn’t matter,” said Vanessa Day, one of Ms. Gladue’s best friends as a teen. “That spoke volumes to us as aboriginal women.”

Protestors march against the acquittal of Bradley Barton in the death of Cindy Gladue in Edmonton on April 2, 2015. (Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail)

Those close to her believe that had it been a white woman in the tub – sex worker or not – and a native man on trial, the accused would have been found guilty and the victim’s vagina would never have been displayed on a courtroom overhead projector.

Her family and friends want Canadians to know Cindy Gladue was more than a statistic, more than an addict and more than a piece of tissue. “She’s still human,” Ms. McLeod said. “She still has a name, not just ‘prostitute.’”

Ms. Gladue was a mother to Cheyanne Kelly, Brandy Sierra and Brianne Nicole, who recently had her first child. She loved cooking shows and was known for her hearty breakfasts, ribs and apple crisp. She loved to draw. She celebrated Christmas and made summer pilgrimages to Lac Ste. Anne, west of Edmonton, with her family as part of a native Catholic tradition. She listened to Mötley Crüe. Although she was close with her two stepfathers, calling them both “dad,” she longed for a relationship with her biological father and started getting to know him shortly before she died. The eldest of four children, Ms. Gladue leaves behind siblings Jeffrey, Kevin and Marilyn, who said her sister was a loving aunt to her children.

Cindy Gladue, back-centre, with her three daughters. (Facebook)

Those who knew Ms. Gladue concede she also had her struggles. She was an alcoholic, used crack cocaine, sold her body to support her habit, and, for at least a time, it seems, lived on the streets with her boyfriend of roughly two years, Steven Reid. He testified during the preliminary inquiry that he was the one who connected Ms. Gladue with Mr. Barton after the trucker said he wanted to “be with a woman.” His brother, Jordan Reid, who was a friend of Ms. Gladue, said she used to work the stroll. She tried to care for her girls, but they were mostly raised by Ms. McLeod and Cheyanne’s father, a Ukrainian-Canadian construction worker who, by several accounts, treats all three girls as his own even though Brianne and Brandy are not.

Brandy said she prays to her mother sometimes, looks up and tells her how life is going. She misses her mom’s voice singing Sarah McLachlan’s In The Arms of An Angel as a bedtime lullaby; she dreams she is still alive.

“She would come to me and I’d be like, ‘Mom, I thought you were gone,’” Brandy, a soft-spoken, petite 15-year-old, said through tears. “And she’d say, ‘No, no, I’m right here.’”

A four-plex where Cindy Gladue lived with her daughters in Edmonton. (Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail)

From Athabasca to the streets of Edmonton

Cindy Ivy Gladue was born July 23, 1974, at a small, since-shuttered hospital in Athabasca, a northern Alberta town set along the river of the same name. Her parents had a one-night stand, and her father was absent from her life until a couple years before her death, Ms. McLeod said.

Cindy was a good and healthy baby – an only child until the age of about five, when her mother, then married to a man named Henry Houle and living in Calling Lake, Alta., had the first of three more children. Mr. Houle, who drowned in 2012, treated Cindy as his own, but his alcoholism and temper, Ms. McLeod said, eventually forced her and the children out the door to Edmonton, 150 kilometres to the south.

“I never really liked the city, but I had to get away from Calling Lake,” said Ms. McLeod, a bingo-loving 58-year-old who wears her brown hair in a ponytail. “My husband drank a lot and there was a lot of abuse [toward me], so I decided to go.”

Ms. Gladue was nine years old when she started life anew in Edmonton, home to the country’s second-largest Métis population and the second-largest urban aboriginal population. It is also a place where 20 per cent of the sex trade takes place on the streets, primarily on the stroll along 118th Avenue, said Staff Sergeant James Clover, head of the Edmonton Police Service vice unit; of those workers, the majority are native, he said.

A 2014 RCMP report found 1,181 indigenous women were killed or went missing in Canada between 1980 and 2012; of the 1,017 homicide victims, 206 were in Alberta. The report determined that aboriginal women are several times more likely to die a violent death or disappear than non-aboriginal women. Last month, remains discovered south of Edmonton – near where Ms. Gladue had her first job, as a hotel cleaning staff – were linked to an indigenous sex worker who had gone missing a decade ago.

Ms. Gladue spent much of her youth in northeast Edmonton, going on bike rides with her siblings, drawing and playing Nintendo and volleyball. “She seemed more happy and less worried about when I was going to get the next licking,” Ms. McLeod said. Ms. Gladue attended St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School and lived in a nearby home described by those who knew her then as spacious and well-kept.

Growing up, it seems, Ms. Gladue never had much but always enough. She had her own bedroom, food on the table and a hard-working mother to raise her. For years, while the children were sleeping and under the overnight care of a relative, Ms. McLeod and her second husband, Lawrence McLeod, drove vans delivering a local newspaper on a route that took them hours north of the city. “They tried to give them the best life they could,” said Kathy Krywohyza, a family friend who sometimes babysat Ms. Gladue and her siblings while Ms. McLeod was at bingo.

Witty and strong-headed, Ms. Gladue had a small but tight-knit group of friends who looked up to her and were convinced that she, of all of them, would make the most of her life. After her Grade 9 prom, where she wore a light-blue gown she picked out at the mall with her mother, Ms. Gladue made a pact with Ms. Day and another close friend, Tania Scott: They would stick together at W.P. Wagner High School, earn their diplomas and stay friends until they were grey.

Ms. Scott remembers Ms. Gladue helping her with her homework, especially math. “I always thought she would make more thoughtful decisions than me or Vanessa,” she said. “I understood already that being a young native girl, away from home in a big city like that, it meant either I have to get my act together or it’s going to consume me.”

Cindy Gladue. (Handout)

For Ms. Gladue, graduation day never came. A few months into Grade 10, she started drinking and hanging out with the “wrong crowd,” in her mother’s words. She did not finish the school year. In her late teens, Ms. Gladue worked the hotel cleaning gig, but she is not known to have held down a job otherwise, Ms. McLeod said; instead, she relied on social assistance and help from family and friends.

Her most important job – motherhood – came with the birth of Brianne in 1996 at the Royal Alexandra Hospital in inner-city Edmonton. She was scared but excited to become a mother, getting her own place and furnishing it with the help of Ms. McLeod. One of the first of her friends to come over to congratulate her was an indigenous woman named Ginger Bellerose. About five years later, Ms. Bellerose was found beaten to death on the grounds of a derelict Edmonton hotel; the death deeply affected Ms. Gladue, Ms. McLeod said.

In 1999, after a short time back up in Calling Lake, Ms. Gladue gave birth to Brandy. She fell into heavy drinking and briefly lost her children to the province, but her mother helped her regain custody and together they cared for Brianne and Brandy and, later, Cheyanne, born in 2001.

Several years later, Ms. Gladue ended her relationship with Cheyanne’s father, Kelly Yakubowski, said his brother, Clinton. By 2010 or so, she had been kicked out of her mother’s home because she was drinking too much and smoking marijuana. “She could’ve done a lot better for herself,” Clinton Yakubowski said. “If she got clean, she’d be working, doing more for herself. She’d probably be with Kelly.”

A couple of years before her death, Ms. Gladue started dating Steven Reid. In a Facebook post dated March 30, 2012, he described a relationship with a woman who had been killed, writing that she had loved him even when he was broke. He said they lived on the streets of “ETown” and that “things were looking up” before she died.

According to Steven Reid’s brother, Ms. Gladue had been on the streets “a long time” and at one point worked the stroll. In an online exchange with The Globe from jail, Jordan Reid described her as having a “big heart” – a generous woman who sometimes bought him clothes.

Steven Reid, who testified during the preliminary inquiry that he was once charged with assaulting Ms. Gladue, told the court the two of them had lived for a time at the Patricia Motel and then at his cousin’s house, about 10 blocks from the Yellowhead Inn, where she died. They drank Black Label beer and did crack together, he testified. While they were dating, Ms. Gladue had a “sugar daddy” named Joe, he said. He also testified they fed their addiction by scrounging through garbage cans and dumpsters for bottles and containers they could return to provincial recycling depots for a fee. “We were alcoholics, hey,” he said matter-of-factly.

When the Crown asked him if he had anything to do with Ms. Gladue’s death, he said, “yes” – that he had introduced her to Mr. Barton. “He wanted to be with a woman,” Mr. Reid had earlier told the court, “and I suggested I knew someone.”

Room 139 in the Yellowhead Inn in Edmonton where Cindy Gladue was found dead. (Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail)

Bradley Barton and Room 139

In the days before Ms. Gladue encountered Mr. Barton outside the Yellowhead Inn, the Ontario trucker was more than 1,500 kilometres south of Edmonton, in Soda Springs, Idaho. He and two other men had been assigned to pack and load a house and then drive the shipment to Edmonton.

But the trip did not go as planned, and the delivery was waylaid by a pair of mishaps that changed the course of his journey, and Ms. Gladue’s life.

According to preliminary-inquiry testimony, the movers neared Edmonton around 5 p.m. on June 19, 2011, and stayed at a hotel south of the city. When the shipment failed to clear Canadian customs for delivery the next morning, the job was put on hold and the men rented rooms at the Yellowhead Inn – an establishment with a lounge, which at the time was called Lady Luck.

Mr. Reid testified at the preliminary inquiry that it was outside the bar on June 20 that he first met Mr. Barton and learned of his desire to “be with a woman.” Mr. Reid said he went home and told Ms. Gladue about the trucker. Back at the inn a short time later, he waited outside for about an hour while Ms. Gladue earned $60. She and Mr. Barton emerged and hugged goodbye. Mr. Reid, who was not called as a witness at trial, told the court he and Ms. Gladue then bought a six-pack of beer, a half-gram of crack cocaine and went home.

“Looks to me like things went well for night number one,” Mr. Bottos, Mr. Barton’s lawyer, said in his closing arguments at trial. “And by the way, she’s a prostitute. She’s there for a good time, not a long time, and proof positive is she’s there on night number one for less than an hour.”

Mr. Barton’s delivery was stymied again on June 21 because the moving truck was too large to reach its residential destination. A smaller shuttle was arranged for the next day. Mr. Barton, who at the time had been in a common-law relationship for several years, was back at the Yellowhead Inn for a second night and made arrangements to see Ms. Gladue again.

This time, though, Mr. Reid was apprehensive about the transaction. After his girlfriend, who had been drinking that day, jumped in a taxi bound for the inn, he followed her on his bike, he told the court. He said he saw Ms. Gladue with Mr. Barton and another man, and “tried to take her from them.”

“I was going to fight them,” he said, according to the preliminary inquiry transcript. “I wanted her to come home. Like, let’s just go. To hell this with this … But, [Mr. Barton said] ‘Oh, I promise you, she’ll come home. She’ll be safe,’ you know?” He said he took $5 from Mr. Barton to buy a beer, went inside, kissed Ms. Gladue and told her to come home. “That was the last time I seen her,” he said.

The hallway outside room 139 in the Yellowhead Inn. (Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail)

Ms. Gladue and Mr. Barton had some drinks in the lounge – Smirnoff Ice for her, Molson Canadian for him, to the best of the bartender’s recollection, as stated at the inquiry. They were drinking with a few other people, including one of Mr. Barton’s co-workers, Kevin Atkins, who told the court Mr. Barton was showing affection for Ms. Gladue. Surveillance footage shows Mr. Barton, Ms. Gladue and Mr. Atkins walking toward their rooms at 12:42 a.m. “He asked me if I would like to have a piece of this young lady,” Mr. Atkins said during the preliminary inquiry. “And I said, ‘No, I’m going to eat my food and go to bed.’” He said Mr. Barton then told him something along the lines of, “What happens on the road stays on the road.”

What happened in Room 139 was for the jury to decide.

The room, near the end of a dimly lit hallway and next to an exit door, has a view of the parking lot and smells of stale cigarettes. The carpet, bedspread and one of the walls are burgundy red. There is a small closet to the left of the entrance, a queen-sized bed, a little fridge, a coffee maker, a television, a lamp, an ashtray on a small table with two chairs, a bathroom with a tub and shower curtain.

When investigators arrived at the scene on June 22, they found Ms. Gladue on her back in the tub, the shower curtain red with blood. There was blood on the walls, the tile floor, the sides of the toilet and smeared on the faucets. One officer testified during the preliminary inquiry that blood had “pooled over the side of the tub.” Ms. Gladue’s clothing and purse were found underneath the bathroom counter. The duvet was on the floor beside bed. There was an empty beer box and a couple of beer cans in the room.

The bathtub in room 139 in the Yellowhead Inn, where Cindy Gladue was found dead. (Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail)

The Crown argued Mr. Barton had intended to kill Ms. Gladue by inserting a sharp object into her vagina, carried her from the bed to the bathroom and left her in the bathtub to die. The Crown also presented an alternate theory that said Mr. Barton intentionally harmed an intoxicated Ms. Gladue by forcefully thrusting his hand inside her vagina.

Then there was Mr. Barton’s account. Over the course of two days of testimony, he told the court Ms. Gladue had been performing oral sex while he manually stimulated her. When he pulled out his hand to have sex, he saw blood, he said. He asked if she was having her period, refused to pay her, washed up and went to bed as she then went to use the washroom. He said he did not discover her body until later that morning, when he apparently panicked, cleaned up the bathroom a little, prepared for work, checked out and got into a van with a co-worker.

“I said, ‘We’re gonna have a good day today,’” said the co-worker, John Sullivan, according to the inquiry transcript. “Then he said, ‘Well, not until the police show up.’ So I looked at him and I says, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said to me, ‘Well, there’s a girl in my room bleeding.’” It was at Mr. Sullivan’s urging that Mr. Barton called police, whom he then lied to about the nature of his relationship with Ms. Gladue (his cover story was described by his lawyer as “half-baked” and “pathetically inept”). He told police in the 8:03 a.m. call something to the effect that “I’m still friggin’ shook up here, I don’t know what to do,” the Crown said during closing arguments. When officers arrived at the inn at 8:08 a.m., the court heard, the smell of a corpse was evident before they even got to Room 139. Ms. Gladue’s body was cold.

Mr. Barton was interviewed but released; the cause of death had not yet been determined. He made his way to Calgary on a job, but was arrested there on June 24. During his transport back to Edmonton, he lied to an undercover officer, blaming the death on fictitious movers for whom he said he had rented a room at the inn.

“What’s the truth?” Crown prosecutor Carrie-Ann Downey said in her closing arguments. “The truth is he knew a lot about Ms. Gladue. She was a prostitute. Her name was Cindy. She had children.”

Mr. Barton was released on $15,000 bail and ordered to abide by a curfew at his Mississauga home when not in Edmonton for court proceedings. He was ordered to avoid contact with sex workers. The preliminary inquiry took place during the spring of 2012 and the trial lasted from Feb. 17 to March 18 of this year. The proceedings shook up some of the court staff, including one woman who recalled having nightmares of people with missing body parts and another who pretended the transcript was fictional in order to distance herself from it.

No weapon was ever found. No motive was presented, Mr. Bottos pointed out to the jury. A laptop belonging to Mr. Barton that contained a search history of what the judge described as pornography depicting “gaping vaginas and extreme penetration and torture” was not admitted as evidence because both sides agreed it was unlawfully obtained by police, Mr. Bottos told The Globe.

It is unclear what time Ms. Gladue died because it is not known when she started bleeding or how long it took for her to die. The forensic pathologist who performed her autopsy determined the cause of death to be a perforating, sharp injury to the vagina; the Crown’s expert agreed, but the defence’s expert testified that blunt-force trauma caused the 11-cm wound. They were in a medical “no-man’s land,” Mr. Bottos said during his closing arguments.

Mr. Bottos said in an interview he was relieved at the verdict but “dismayed” at how the case has been portrayed since, saying onlookers would have a different view if they had heard the testimony. He asked jurors not to let the graphic nature of the case – or the presence of human tissue in court – “poison” them against his client.

“I want to make something very clear: Cindy Gladue lost her life, and nothing I’m going to say should take away from the dignity of her life,” he told the court. “We understand that she was loved and would have loved and that her death was tragic. It would have been an awful final hour of her life … All I’m asking you is not to let that poison you against Mr. Barton. You have got a job to do. We all do … Ms. Gladue was a human being, and there is inherent value in every human being’s life.”

Cindy Gladue's mother, Donna McLeod, and daughter, Brandy Sierra Gladue, 15, in Edmonton. (Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail)

‘Some day we’ll find peace … but not now’

Ms. Gladue’s ashes are kept in an urn in her mother’s bedroom, where Ms. McLeod often lies awake at night, praying to her daughter and trying desperately to block out the image she saw of her in the bathtub. “It’s hard to let go,” Ms. McLeod said, breaking down into a quiet cry. “The other day, I went to bed and told her, ‘Cindy, there’s so much going on here right now. I don’t know what to do any more.’”

She remembers the last conversation she had with her daughter, two days before her death. Ms. Gladue had stayed overnight and said she could not make breakfast this time because she had to rush to a doctor’s appointment. “I said to her, ‘Cindy, when you’re gone, who’s going to cook for me?’ I didn’t know those would be my last words to her.”

They will never celebrate another New Year’s Eve together. Ms. Gladue will never meet her first grandchild, Angel Ameliano, born in January to Brianne, who cried at her mother’s absence right after labour.

Cindy Gladue, centre, with family. (Facebook)

She will not celebrate any more Christmases around the tree, any more birthdays with her girls. Brandy has the leather jacket her mother gave her for her birthday a week before she died, but she lost the card. It bothers her still. She has stopped going to school because she was being bullied for reasons she does not know, but hopes to graduate to make her mother proud. She now sees herself as a mother-figure to Cheyanne, who lives with her father and wakes up with nightmares.

“How can I kill myself when I’m already dead,” Cheyanne wrote on Facebook on April 2, the day supporters rallied in Edmonton and across the country in honour of her mother. She explained the comment to concerned friends online, saying, “It’s a quote and I do feel broken and I don’t know what to do about it half the time I wanna talk to someone but every time I try it’s like the words wont [sic] come out or I don’t know what to say thanks for standin by my side today.”

Cindy Gladue's mother Donna  McLeod, second left, comforts Gladue's daughters Brandy, 15, and Cheyanne, now 14, right as protestors demonstrate against the acquittal of Bradley Barton. (Amber Bracken for The Globe and Mail)

Last Sunday, she wrote: “Happy Mother’s Day mum rest in paradise.”

This summer, Ms. McLeod plans to spill Ms. Gladue’s ashes over a family grave site in Athabasca, the town where her daughter’s life began four decades ago. Her heart is closed to forgiveness, at least for now. She harbours too much anger, feels too much pain, has too many questions. “I’m a forgiving person, but I really need to know what went on in that room,” Ms. McLeod said.

Mr. Barton, meantime, lives across the country, in Ontario, with his common-law spouse of about a decade, Mr. Bottos said. He said his client lost his long-distance trucking job but then managed to find other work. According to Industry Canada records, Mr. Barton, 46, filed for bankruptcy in March of 2012, was responsible for monthly child-support payments and recently worked at a plywood company. A manager there said he is no longer an employee. He also no longer resides at the Mississauga address listed in his 2011 bail conditions, having moved from the rental unit a couple years ago, the property manager said.

Ms. McLeod thought the verdict would be the end of the public saga – that she would go home and it would all be over. Instead, strangers turned out in droves to denounce the acquittal and call for an appeal. Instead, she anxiously awaits the next round of legal proceedings and tries to quiet the fear that, no matter what happens, her family will never be free from the weight of their grief.

“I guess some day we’ll find peace,” she said. “But not now.”

Kathryn Blaze Carlson is a national reporter with The Globe and Mail.

With a report from Stephanie Chambers