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Stefanie Rengel was 14 when she was stabbed to death on New Year's Day 2008. (Charla Jones)
Stefanie Rengel was 14 when she was stabbed to death on New Year's Day 2008. (Charla Jones)

Christie Blatchford

Rengel's Mother asks the most painful questions that only killer can answer Add to ...

They assembled at Toronto's main courthouse yet again Wednesday, the poor battered family of Stefanie Rengel. Someone remarked that with the last sentencing hearing now begun - this for Stefanie's actual killer, a 19-year-old man known only as D.B., as opposed to the girlie maestro who ran the murder show, Melissa Todorovic - the ordeal was almost over.

Patricia Hung, Stefanie's mother, shook her head - wearily or warily, it was hard to tell. As a Toronto police officer, she is well aware that the appeals, so automatic that they are a de facto part of almost any murder trial, are still to come - appeal of sentence or conviction, maybe both in Ms. Todorovic's case (she has already filed her inmate notice of intent) although because D.B. pleaded guilty to first-degree murder, he could appeal only his sentence. And Ontario Superior Court Judge Ian Nordheimer could reserve his decision in D.B.'s sentencing, which will conclude this week, meaning another court date.

Of course, at best, this hearing marks only the beginning of the end of the justice piece. The grief, loneliness, pain, doubts, guilt and the whole toxic stew of emotions unleashed on Jan. 1, 2008, in those who loved Stefanie is infinite; her family mourn her deeply, miss her madly, and always will.

These sentencing hearings are mostly about the offender. Psychiatrists testify in mind-numbing language about the court-ordered assessments they completed, about what sort of risk the offender may pose, and what factors argue for a youth sentence (a 10-year term, only six in custody in a youth jail and that up for automatic review every year or more often if requested, no lifting of the publication ban on the offender's name, and the record expunged five years after the sentence expires) and which for an adult sentence (an automatic life term with no parole eligibility for 10 years).

Yesterday, for instance, it was forensic psychiatrist Lisa Ramshaw on the stand.

In questioning from prosecutor Robin Flumerfelt and D.B.'s lawyer, Heather McArthur, Dr. Ramshaw described tests that show D.B., with his long-standing history of school suspensions and persistent low-grade violence such as fighting, is in the "58th percentile for violently re-offending within 10 years of opportunity," but that he was in the 37th percentile on what's called the psychopathy checklist, which suggests only a moderate risk of re-offending.

The ray of hope with D.B. is that - unlike his chilly ex-girlfriend, whom psychiatrists found "strikingly" lacking in empathy - he is quite capable of human connection and remorse.

For instance, where Ms. Todorovic accepted barely any responsibility for her supposed "role" in Stephanie's slaying - that role was full-time quarterback - D.B. once told Dr. Ramshaw, "This is me, regardless of whether I get youth or adult [sentence] I am alive. No use of me really complaining, 'cause then I look like a selfish prick. I took someone's life and didn't get a death sentence."

Now that is succinct and on the money.

But it took Ms. Hung, as ever, to bring the insight, the moral compass, to the whole shooting match.

Consider that just this summer at Ms. Todorovic's sentencing, she and her 13-year-old son Ian read aloud in court their "victim impact statements," a wrenching process that required them to think long and hard about the ways in which they have been harmed by the loss of their daughter and sister, put it down on paper, and then read it in front of a packed courtroom. Both of them made it clear they feel guilt - unwarranted, but real nonetheless - for having failed to protect Stephanie.

Doing it once is hard enough. But Ms. Hung and young Ian did it a second time yesterday. Different trial; different people; different qualities of responsibility and guilt: So they put themselves through it a second time.

"Although the impact felt by us as a family over the loss of Stefanie does not change regardless of who is being sentenced," she told Judge Nordheimer, "there are specific sentiments tied to D.B. alone that I want him to hear.

"It is easier to forgive myself when it comes to Melissa Todorovic. Who could ever imagine that someone so seemingly normal could be so evil? Even with hindsight, it's surreal."

But D.B., well, as the judge has heard, was Stefanie's first crush. When she was just 12 or so, they had become friends; it was in this fleeting connection, ephemeral really, where Ms. Todorovic's macabre obsession with Stefanie began, where her raging jealousy was rooted.

"… D.B. brings with him a familiarity, a name spoken many times in our home," Ms. Hung said, "and not always in a negative light.

"Stefanie was a very kind, idealistic, forgiving girl who looked for the good in everyone. Despite her young age, or perhaps because of it, she believed she could help anyone be a better person just by caring - and at 12 years of age, she did care about D.B., a puppy love crush that prompted her to wish we would reach out to [him] bring him into our family so that he could share in the blessing of a loving, happy home life."

With that did Ms. Hung bring focus to the unique nature of D.B.'s betrayal: Stefanie had liked him, worried about him. She and Ms. Todorovic had never even met, but D.B was a friend; there is a qualitative difference.

Ms. Hung wasn't blind to D.B.'s less-than-privileged background - parents who had a difficult divorce, his mother with a serious heart problem that killed her shortly after the murder - but, as she said, "many people have endured worse in their formative years and not grown up to commit heinous crimes. There is no excuse for cold-blooded murder."

What followed was a devastating précis of D.B.'s motive for stabbing the trusting 14-year-old: "He chose to kill Stefanie to secure his sex life." Too true: Ms. Todorovic long had used sex - the promise of it, the threatened withdrawal of it - as a bludgeon with D.B., and it was his reward that night for finally doing the deed.

Most galling, perhaps, is that it is only D.B. - the actual killer - who has the answers Patricia Hung most needs. "More devastating than guilt, is wanting to know every little detail of Stefanie's last moments, and only D.B. knows the truth," she said. "I lie awake at night wondering if he spoke to her before he plunged in the knife, over and over. Did Stefanie beg him to stop, scream in pain, call my name? Did he just laugh at her and run? Did she know she was going to die?"

Standing in the ruins of her life, she finds the courage to ask the hardest questions, face these most terrible truths. What a woman she is.

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