This story is part of an ongoing Globe and Mail investigation into the hundreds of missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada.
It is estimated that less than 1 per cent of homicides involve serial killers, the FBI says, so it was against all odds that Winnipeg attorney Sheilla Leinburd found herself the prosecutor on two cases involving serial predators. The first was Shawn Lamb, who pleaded guilty in 2013 to two counts of manslaughter in the deaths of Carolyn Sinclair and Lorna Blacksmith. The second was Traigo Andretti, who confessed to the B.C. RCMP that he killed Myrna Letandre in Winnipeg and his wife, Jennifer McPherson, in B.C.; in August, he pleaded guilty to Ms. Letandre's 2006 murder, becoming Canada's latest known serial killer.
All four of the men's victims were indigenous.
Aboriginal women in Canada are being killed and disappearing at an alarming rate. A Globe and Mail analysis has found they are roughly seven times more likely to die at the hands of a serial killer than non-aboriginal women. The investigation also determined that at least 18 indigenous women were slain by convicted serial killers since 1980. The Globe spoke with Ms. Leinburd about her rare experience handling two high-profile cases, both of which spoke to the vulnerabilities of indigenous women in this country.
What are the challenges of prosecuting a case involving serial homicide?
It has various challenges, many of them because they are multi-jurisdictional. For example, the first killing that Mr. Andretti committed occurred in British Columbia [in 2013], in terms of its discovery. The first killing that he actually committed was done in Manitoba [in 2006]. It was only upon his arrest for the second murder – the first one that they discovered – that the second one came to light. We have to be very co-operative about the prosecution, around who is going to prosecute first. Very often, serial killers are transient. They live in different provinces, and because we don't have the kind of integration of police efforts that we would like to have, sometimes it's only by happenstance that we discover that they're serial killers.
What stood out about the Andretti and Lamb cases?
In each of these cases, we were dealing with women who were aboriginal. These people are marginalized, at least in my cases they were. There are inherent societal and institutional biases that speak more to the investigation process before it comes into the prosecutor's hands. These people aren't necessarily rooted in their communities or their families, so that makes it much more difficult for the investigation to occur. Take, for example, the time of death. It can be very difficult to narrow that frame of time of when they were missing and when they were killed. We need to prove that this person died within a time frame, and that's often very difficult to narrow because of the life circumstances. Ultimately, the police will, for example, follow up through medical or social records, and that way we can narrow the time of death.
You mentioned biases. Can you expand on that?
There are biases that exist in society against most vulnerable individuals. Very often, it would come back that this person had this sort of behaviour in the past, or not informed their families where they were and ended up surfacing and being okay. That sort of dynamic, where the person doesn't have a regular routine or a family that's connected with them on an everyday basis, spills over into the investigation. [B.C.'s Robert] Pickton is a great example. [Sex work] was dismissed as a lifestyle. If we learned anything from Pickton, we learned these people had a societal connection – it was different from the norm, perhaps, but they still had a societal connection. When they were missing, they were truly missing. Looking at it through our eyes is not particularly helpful. Every community has its own norms, its own mores.
Mr. Andretti met Ms. Letandre's sister through a free voicemail service intended, for example, to help businesses get in touch with prospective employees who do not have a phone. What do you make of that?
These serial killers are not stupid by any means. They're very manipulative. They're very cunning. He knew enough to use this telephone line. If you're vulnerable, you're easy prey. It comes down to that. And [the killers] know that full well.
What were your impressions of Mr. Andretti and Mr. Lamb?
People think that serial killers will look a certain way. And I can tell you that both Lamb and Andretti were innocuous. You would sit next to them on the bus and think nothing of it. In Mr. Andretti's case, he was very diminutive – tiny – not a big build. Not what you would typically think would be a serial killer. These men were, on the whole, social misfits. They were transient. They were troubled from the time they were very young.
What do you make of the finding that indigenous women are dramatically overrepresented among Canada's female serial homicide victims?
I think it's important that people know that this is occurring; it's very important that the indigenous community realizes this. These women are being targeted, in a sense. They have to be very careful.
How do you think serial homicide fits into the broader tragedy of missing and murdered indigenous women in this country?
In terms of serial killers, their motivation is to kill. What happens is that very often their crimes are not discovered for many years. [Police] priorities shift, and these killers trade on that. Success breeds arrogance in many ways. If they've gotten away with it once or twice, they'll do it a third and fourth time. Just because we don't have a body does not mean that there hasn't been a murder; missing-person cases should take priority. I appreciate there is an economic cost to everything, and I appreciate that we don't have the manpower or the resources, but [missing-person cases] are not treated in the same fashion as a homicide is treated, and that's unfortunate. These [killers] appreciate that. They've been in the system long enough to know how the system operates.
Do you have information that could assist in our investigation into serial killing as it relates to the broader issue of Canada's missing and murdered women? If so, please e-mail The Globe's MMIW team at MMIW@globeandmail.com.