Why a Canadian's death in the jungle is likely to remain a mystery
Dave Walker's decomposed body was discovered at Angor Wat more than a year ago, but his government doesn't seem to care. Leah McLaren examines why some deaths abroad are treated more seriously than others – and why Canadians may be particularly vulnerable
On the morning of Feb. 14, 2014, a 58-year-old Canadian named Dave Walker rose late and left his room at the Green Village Angkor guest house in this city of 175,000 in northwestern Cambodia. After eating at his usual spot, the Five Sons noodle bar on Sok San Road, he walked back to the hotel, stopping to pick up his clothes from a laundromat, before returning to his room around 1 p.m. When one of the housekeepers knocked on Mr. Walker's door to clean the room, he grabbed his wallet, a bottle of water and his cellphone, and left to give her space, leaving his laptop, passport and other belongings behind. He then returned almost immediately, plugged his phone into a charger, and walked out for good.
Downstairs in the spartan guest house, a few of the staff were having lunch outdoors near the murky, sun-warmed plunge pool. One of them later told investigators that she saw Mr. Walker exit down the garden path, past the pool, and out through the tall metal gates into the street beyond. The time was approximately 2 p.m. Despite the sweltering dry-season heat, Mr. Walker – a man with an eclectic résumé, from soldier and police officer to movie-set driver and nascent documentary filmmaker – was wearing his typical attire: a black T-shirt, baggy jeans and a pair of New Balance trainers.
He would not come back.
The Canadian Press
Dave Walker went missing for 11 weeks, until May 1, when a group of children scavenging in the jungle inside Angkor Wat found his severely decomposed body. The famous temple complex is roughly a 15-minute drive from Mr. Walker's guest house. The corpse was discovered on the forest floor, just off a narrow footpath, not far from the temple's notorious Death Gate, which many locals refuse to use for fear of bad luck. Ancient Hindu armies once marched prisoners through it before executing them.
Mr. Walker was found wearing the same clothes he had on when he disappeared. Judging by the crime-scene photos, as well as accounts from sources who were at the site, the skin on his face was blackened with rot, his eye sockets hauntingly empty. He was found supine, limbs splayed, his head tilted back in a position that some witnesses claim looked as if his neck had been broken.
Two autopsies were conducted. The first was done by the Cambodian police; the second was commissioned privately by Mr. Walker's closest relative – his cousin Tammy Madon, a bank teller in Edmonton – and was overseen by the Canadian embassy in Bangkok, where the body was shipped several weeks after being found.
Canada has no embassy in Cambodia. Since the Harper government closed it in 2009, diplomatic relations have been handled through the embassy in Thailand. In response to interview requests, officials there redirected this reporter's e-mail to the Ottawa media-relations department of Foreign Affairs, which said that, due to privacy concerns, "an interview will not be possible."
More than a year after Mr. Walker's disappearance and death, there are still more questions than answers. But one thing seems obvious: Neither Cambodian authorities nor the Canadian government will do much more – if anything – to determine whether Mr. Walker was murdered, and, if so, who killed him.
Officially, the Cambodian constabulary considered Mr. Walker just a missing person. When his body was discovered, the file was effectively closed. In an interview with local media at the time, provincial police chief Sort Nady said of Mr. Walker's body turning up in the jungle: "There is not enough fresh air in that forest and it is easy for people to fall unconscious."
A year later, various police sources in Siem Reap told conflicting stories to The Globe and Mail. One officer said that the autopsy verdict was "heart attack." Another, Chao Mao Vireak, who is the head of the local immigration police force (which handles all matters pertaining to foreigners), said the investigation was so sensitive that it had been referred up the chain of command to the military police in Phnom Penh because "both the Prime Minister Hun Sen and the King took an interest." There appeared to be no ongoing investigation on the ground in Siem Reap.
What does the Canadian government owe Dave Walker? Legally speaking, almost nothing. Most Canadians don't realize that the government is absolved of any real legal responsibility to defend the rights of Canadian citizens the moment they enter another sovereign nation. This is not true of fellow G8 nations such as Germany and the United States, which long ago passed legislation binding them to help their citizens abroad.
Canada, however, has an archaic principle handed down from the Commonwealth known as "Crown prerogative." In practice, it means the government can choose when to intervene. The Supreme Court controversially upheld the principle in a 2010 ruling in the case of Omar Khadr.
According to Gar Pardy, a former diplomat and retired head of the Canadian government's consular services, Crown prerogative effectively allows the government to fail its own citizens in cases where it might be politically expedient to do so. "Everyone should be treated exactly the same, regardless of your situation or what country you're in," he says. "And in my experience, in the absence of someone at a high level pushing politically for the government to get involved, there is not a hell of a lot that can be done to get them to act if they don't want to."
Mr. Walker's story is about the troubling death of a Canadian citizen abroad, but it's also about the sort of corpses both authorities and the media pay great attention to, and those they ignore – or at least give up on quickly. In many ways, Dave Walker was as enigmatic in life as he is in death. An eccentric loner who kept his many friends carefully compartmentalized, he was a man who often baffled those who knew him best. We may never fill in all the gaps in his story or understand the reasons behind his troubling demise. But this murkiness does not alter the principle of justice. If Dave Walker was murdered, his killer is out there.
Why do some deaths and disappearances resonate for years while others fall to the wayside?
It has been nearly a decade since Woodbridge, Ont., residents Nancy and Domenic Ianiero were found murdered in their hotel room on Mexico's Mayan Riviera. At the time, the RCMP joined forces with the Mexican authorities in the case, which made front-page news for months. In England, an entire unit of the London Metropolitan Police is devoted to solving the 2007 abduction of three-year-old Madeleine McCann in Portugal.
As for Dave Walker, friends and family around the world tried to keep the case alive, and a Toronto-based criminal historian and blogger named Peter Vronsky – a close friend of Mr. Walker since the early 1990s – continues to compile an exhaustive account of his death and the subsequent investigation. But in Cambodia, the Walker story is just another enigma in a society that's full of them. As one Canadian official put it, "Westerners always want answers, empirical truth. But you have to remember, this is Cambodia. Some things here just need to remain a mystery."
Richard S. Ehrlich
A brush with CSIS
Dave Walker was born in Edmonton – or "Deadmonton," as he called it – in 1955 and lived much of his adult life in Toronto, a city he also disliked. His distaste for bourgeois social convention was matched only by his loathing of Canadian winters and his love of exotic travel, and in his 20s he developed a lifelong passion for Southeast Asia.
He was a mass of contradictions: a former Toronto cop, albeit for only three months, with a degree in filmmaking from York University; a folk-music obsessive and regular pot smoker who didn't touch alcohol or cigarettes; a Teamster who worked as a driver on film sets, and who'd seriously considered joining the Hells Angels in his 50s. He'd served as a British soldier in Northern Ireland during the troubles of the early 1980s, taking a bullet to his thigh that left him with a limp.
According to a report in Journal de Montréal last December, Mr. Walker did some intelligence work for CSIS in Cambodia in the 1980s and 1990s, a time when there was an influx of Cambodian refugees to Canada in the wake of the Khmer Rouge genocide. His heavily redacted e-mail correspondence with the agency was released after the newspaper filed a Freedom of Information request last year. CSIS has the right to censor documents that reveal, among other things, "intelligence efforts undertaken to detect, prevent or stop hostile or subversive activities in Canada." It is not clear from the documents whether Mr. Walker had any recent association with CSIS before his death, and he does not appear to have been a contracted employee. But at minimum, the Journal de Montréal report revealed that he was part of the agency's human-source program – in other words, a casual informant. (He confided in Mr. Vronsky about his intelligence work, and the latter says he followed up, meeting with a CSIS agent who asked him not to reveal Mr. Walker's history with the agency to anyone, including Foreign Affairs and the RCMP.)
Mr. Walker also wrote. In 2008, he co-authored Hello, My Big Big Honey! – a book about Thai bar girls and their correspondence with Vietnam war vets in the U.S. His marriage – to Praiwan Jhaket, a sweet-faced, mild-mannered Thai woman – failed but the two remained close. Now Praiwan Sevenpifer, she lives in Stoney Creek, Ont., with her new husband and a cross-eyed pug, and in an interview, recalled him fondly, saying they were "like sister and brother."
In the last few years of his life, Mr. Walker didn't date, his friends say. The one constant was his obsession with Southeast Asia, where he'd lived and travelled extensively. Several years before his disappearance, he'd come into a small inheritance from his mother and settled permanently in Siem Reap, the bustling capital of one of Cambodia's poorer provinces.
There, he set up a small film-production company, Animist Farm Films, with a friend named Sonny Chhoun, and was pursuing his dream of becoming a screenwriter and filmmaker. The two, Mr. Walker had told friends, were planning to make a film from a script Mr. Walker had written called The Poorest Man – based on the true story of "Cambodia's Oskar Schindler," a man who co-operated with the Khmer Rouge to save his village during the genocide of the late 1970s.
They intended to finance it by becoming farmers – in the year before his disappearance, Mr. Walker spoke excitedly to friends in Canada about the idea of an emerging market in Siem Reap for organic free-range chicken. According to Mr. Chhoun, the pair leased land with Mr. Walker's inheritance money, but the plan didn't pan out: In the end, no chickens were raised and the farm went bust.
"I gave up," Mr. Chhoun, a local fixer and tour guide, recalled in an interview. "It didn't work. I don't go out there any more. When I go there, I just feel sad."
On the day of his disappearance, Mr. Walker was due to meet Mr. Chhoun, who says they planned to go out to the temple complex at Angkor Wat and attend an annual festival that features singing, dancing and plays. Just two hours after Mr. Walker left his hotel, witnesses at the guest house say, Mr. Chhoun showed up in an "agitated state" and began asking after his friend's whereabouts. Mr. Walker had apparently not returned his calls and texts, and Mr. Chhoun was so worried that he demanded that hotel staff let him into Mr. Walker's room to make certain he wasn't there.
It was Mr. Chhoun who alerted the Cambodian authorities to Mr. Walker's disappearance – although not until Feb. 18, four days after he had raised the alarm at the guest house. By this point, Foreign Affairs in Ottawa already knew: Peter Vronsky had contacted the Canadian government the day before, after hearing the news through friends on Facebook. In the hours that followed, he also filed reports with the RCMP and CSIS, and contacted Tammy Madon, who had not yet heard of her cousin's disappearance. Back in Siem Reap, missing-person posters were plastered around town, carrying Mr. Chhoun's cellphone number.
Back in Canada, after Mr. Walker's death, Mrs. Sevenpifer went through the small storage bin of possessions he'd kept in her basement. Among the photos, movie stubs and pieces of abandoned winter clothing was a note in Mr. Walker's loopy scrawl. "I want a Tibetan Sky funeral with flagellants beating themselves to song," was all it said.
Dave Walker's body was turned over to Mrs. Sevenpifer's family and, on Sept. 15, 2014, cremated in Bangkok. His ashes were interred in Surin, her home village 450 kilometres east of the capital and a place he had visited many times and loved.
George Nickels for The Globe and Mail
A reverance for secrets
Even just after sunrise, on an April morning the heat at Angkor Wat is enervating. Like most of the lesser-known corners of the temple complex, the Death Gate is half eaten up by the jungle. Over its entrance looms the crumbling face of Naga, a fierce ancient serpent god.
A few metres past the gate runs a footpath through the jungle to a road where the forensic team and police set up camp shortly after Mr. Walker was discovered. The rainforest floor is made up of dead leaves and rot, jungle ferns sprouting everywhere under a tangle of banana and durian trees. In the soupy heat, the persistent chorus of cicadas becomes an ear-ringing roar.
Just beyond the path, on the road, is a canteen selling cold drinks and souvenirs. A group of teenagers hangs about and a policeman in military uniform lounges under an umbrella. A confident, smiling teen says she remembers the day the body was found: "The police were here for a long time. Just over there. I can show you the exact spot."
Just as she is about to strike off, the police officer says something sharp and short to her in Khmer. When she turns back, her demeanour has changed. Her shoulders droop and she looks at the ground. "Don't go there," she says quietly and quickly. "You can't go. It's a very big problem. And dangerous." She walks away. The police officer sits, tipped back on his red plastic chair, pressing a beaded can of Coke against his throat.
Dave Walker is not the only Westerner to die in mysterious circumstances in Cambodia in recent times. Last year, 82 deaths of foreign nationals were reported in the Cambodian media, though the actual number is suspected to be much higher. According to a recent report from the Ministry of the Interior, deaths of foreigners rose 50 per cent in 2013 from the year before. The most common cause reported was "heart attack," followed by "unknown" and "suicide."
According to a recent story in the English-language Khmer Times, poor record-keeping, as well as a lack of toxicology reports and proper forensic techniques make police investigations in Cambodia notoriously untrustworthy. Because of the importance of tourism, local media complain there is a general tendency to sweep the suspicious deaths of foreigners under the carpet.
"On balance, the Cambodian authorities are more incompetent than they are corrupt," says a former British consular official in Siem Reap, on condition of anonymity. "But in any case, they don't want any sort of light being shone on their process, and try to shut down anything sinister involving foreigners as soon as they possibly can."
Even clear-cut cases of murder often seem to go virtually uninvestigated, even (perhaps especially) when they involve foreigners. In September, 2013, Katherine Grgich, a 55-year-old American, left her guest house on the Cambodian tourist island of Koh Rong for a hike; her body was found a week later near a jungle path. At first, police reported the death as an accident, but when the U.S. embassy intervened, they revised their assessment to aggravated robbery and murder. A suspect was identified and an arrest warrant issued, but the subject fled to Thailand; the murder remains unsolved.
In 2012, the bodies of Laurent Vallier, a French widower living in Cambodia, and his four young children were found in a car on the bottom of a pond near their home in Kampong Speu province, in the country's interior. Local police declared the case a murder-suicide, but when French forensic authorities arrived on the scene, they revised it to a murder. (Mr. Vallier's skull and bones were found in a suitcase in the back of the car.) Still, no suspects were named.
Last July, William Glenn, an American teacher in his early 40s, was found strangled in a garbage dump outside Phnom Penh. His murder remains unsolved, and his estranged wife, who lives in Thailand, has complained to the media that the Cambodian authorities have done little to solve the case.
Whatever the realities behind them, these cases cannot be divorced from historical context. Like much of Southeast Asia, Cambodia has many beaches, lush vegetation and citizens who tend to be achingly polite and socially conflict-adverse. And yet it stands out from its neighbours – Thailand, Laos, even Vietnam – because not so long ago the worst autogenocide in human history happened here. Pol Pot's violent regime of forced "agrarian socialism" reigned from 1975 to 1979, when the Khmer Rouge army, trained and radicalized in the jungle with the aid of the Viet Cong in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, killed roughly a quarter of the population – some estimates peg the number as high as three million people.
That horrific background makes Cambodia a country with startlingly few old people. It is also a culture racked with collective trauma, individual loss and pain. At least in part because of this, it is a nation that has a particular reverence for secrets – a deep cultural understanding of the need, under certain extreme circumstances, to simply let things lie.
Dave Walker was fascinated by Cambodia's dark history. He dabbled in journalism and once interviewed a former Khmer Rouge baby-killer while the man dandled his own toddler on his knee. Before he died, Mr. Walker was trying to raise $3.2-million (U.S.) to make his film about Cambodia's Oskar Schindler. Was this controversial project somehow connected to his death? Some have suggested that it was, although it's hard to see precisely how.
George Nickels for The Globe and Mail
Accusations of a cover-up
Peter Vronsky is an amiable yet slightly gruff fellow with a close-clipped grey beard who until recently lectured at Ryerson University and writes books about serial killers. (His latest, Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka: The True Story of the Ken and Barbie Killers, came out in May.)
For several months, while others who pressed authorities for a murder investigation have gone silent, he has devoted himself with terrier-like tenacity to a blog called DaveWalkerCase.com. The raw reportage is impressive, yet dizzying to read: It veers off on personal tangents, and spends an inordinate amount of time detailing the intense personality conflicts and power struggles that ensued in the weeks after Mr. Walker disappeared.
This is one of those cold cases that attract a kind of cult-like Internet following, and Mr. Vronsky admits he's obsessed, perhaps unhealthily so. "People keep telling me to just drop it and walk away," he said over lunch in Toronto this past spring. "Everyone says I should just move on and get a life. But for Dave's sake, I just can't give up. I won't."
Mr. Walker's family has also been tenacious, at times, in the quest to get answers. Part of the explanation for why Foreign Affairs dropped the case so quickly may have been internal reaction to a press release dated May 8, 2014, and signed by Mr. Walker's cousin, Tammy Madon.
The lengthy statement claimed that the Canadian government had engaged in a cover-up. It also stated that, in the days after his body was found, Mr. Walker's family had arranged for an eight-member specialist forensic team from the Ministry of Justice of the Royal Thai Government to take control of the medical investigation – and that "their official formal, written preliminary report included the conclusion that Walker 'did not die of natural causes.'"
The Canadian government, it continued, "is in possession of the documents which unambiguously show that all the evidence of the preliminary medical professional determination suggests that Walker was murdered."
Privately, a senior government official familiar with the case dismissed the allegations – adding that, while the Canadian embassy in Thailand sent over several people in the wake of Mr. Walker's death, including an RCMP officer, Cambodian authorities did not welcome their assistance. "We did everything we could," said the official, "but in the end, Cambodia is its own country with its own laws."
Dr. Porntip Rojanasunan, Thailand's leading forensic-science and crime-scene investigator, confirmed through a translator that the Canadian government dispatched a forensic team to Siem Reap on May 1, 2014. According to a source close to the Walker family who claimed to have seen the report, the team concluded that Mr. Walker's neck had been broken and there was "clear evidence of foul play."
Ms. Madon's press release accusing the government of a cover-up was forwarded to all major Canadian media on May 8. But a few weeks later, Ms. Madon recused herself from the ad hoc investigation team, saying in an e-mail to Mr. Vronsky that she just wanted to "turn the page." She also refused to be interviewed for this story, citing privacy concerns. (Sources close to her say she is simply fed up and wishes to have closure.)
There are troubling cold cases involving Canadian citizens the world over, but in Mr. Walker's case the relevant authorities – both Cambodian and Canadian – seem to have taken only the most basic steps to solve the mystery. You don't need to be a seasoned homicide detective to see that there were procedural failures in the way the case was handled.
Local police took days to seal off Mr. Walker's room as a potential crime scene. They also allowed his business partner, Mr. Chhoun, to remain in possession of his cellphone and call log for days after his disappearance. Canadian authorities appeared at the beginning, but failed to follow up on leads pointed out to them by Mr. Walker's friends and family. The formal investigation was more or less abandoned shortly after Mr. Walker's body turned up – precisely when it should have heated up.
As a potential murder victim, Mr. Walker had a lot going against him: He was a middle-aged bachelor with no immediate family, living in a far-flung corner of Southeast Asia. No relatives came over to collect his body or belongings – a fact that Cambodian police mention repeatedly. As one Canadian living in Bangkok put it, "Old broke white guys wash up over here and die all the time, and basically nobody cares."
But in this case, people did care. Many still do. Although his parents are gone and he had no children, he did leave a network of old friends and acquaintances who have banded together.
He has Mrs. Sevenpifer, his ex-wife, who filed the first police report and packaged his meagre Canadian belongings into separate Ziploc evidence bags. And he has Mr. Vronsky, the obsessive criminal historian, staying up, night after night, writing his blog, which he hopes will some day become a book.
One day not long ago, the two sat in Mrs. Sevenpifer's Stoney Creek living room, and watched a home video shot in the outdoor Buddhist temple of a remote Thai village. It showed people lining up patiently to make offerings to the altar – fruit, gifts and incense – in honour of a foreshortened life.
Meanwhile, saffron-robed monks beat their drums and chanted Dave Walker's funeral song to the sky.
Leah McLaren is a freelance writer and Globe and Mail columnist currently based in London.