Justice

The Demeter Affair: a crime for its time

Barbara Amiel April 18 1977
Justice

The Demeter Affair: a crime for its time

Barbara Amiel April 18 1977

The Demeter Affair: a crime for its time

Justice

Barbara Amiel

Easter came and went with still no word from the Supreme Court of Canada on whether Ontario real estate developer Peter Demeter would be granted a new trial for the bizarre murder of his beautiful wife, Christine. Predictions of a decision by April were quickly revised to expectations of a judgment before the court’s summer recess. What still surprised was the grip the case had on the public imagination, considering Demeter was serving a life sentence in Millhaven Penitentiary and it was 3'/2 years since the murder itself. Even the dry technical arguments of Demeter’s Supreme Court appeal in February made news across the country. “What is it about this case that fascinates people?” asked weary defense lawyer Edward L. Greenspan at the end of the appeal. “I just don’t understand it.” Though the allure of the case might elude Greenspan, understandably jaded after years of legal argument, there was no doubt that the case touched a central nerve in the Canada of the 1970s.

Decades are defined not only by pop music, fashions or great events, but also by crimes that characterize the fears, conflicts and ambitions of the period. The late Victorian repression of the 1890s gave us Lizzie Borden and her axe. The developing fascism of the 1920s produced Leopold, Loeb and their failed “perfect crime” intended to confirm the right of “supermen” to set themselves above society’s rules. The cult-crazy 1960s brought the slaughter of movie starlet Sharon Tate and her friends by the followers of Charles Manson—a chilling demonstration of how grotesquely social rebellion can be perverted. The 1970s, a decade that elevated selfish behavior into the syndrome journalist Tom Wolfe has tagged the “Me generation,” inevitably yielded the Demeter murder.

The Demeters seemed to have everything: a house in Mississauga appraised at $140,000 on the very day Christine was killed, swimming pool, down-stuffed furniture, a Mercedes, a Cadillac. Christine had a live-in maid; a gardener kept their sloping lawns neat. There were frequent holidays in Europe and Acapulco. Both had chased the North American dream, caught it and never shied away from displaying its booty to less affluent friends. Demeter, who escaped from Hungary several years before the 1956 revolution, arrived in Canada with the clear under-

standing that the streets were paved with gold. They weren’t, but what did that matter to a man with eight dollars in his pocket who was ready to take anyjob? By the time of Christine’s death, less than two decades later. Demeter had amassed property worth more than $400,000 and was just getting into his stride as a developer.

Christine, born in Innsbruck, was endowed with a stunning five-foot-nine figure. She left a marriage and a child in Austria, met her second husband, Demeter, in Vienna and came to Canada eager to enjoy a life of charge accounts and weekly hairdresser appointments. In between, to stave off boredom, there was her part-time modeling career. More important, she knew that the hard times she had faced when trying to make it as a model and actress in Europe were a thing of the past, thanks to her ambitious and successful husband. But the “Me” society of the 1970s told the Demeters they should have more. They should be richer, more beautiful, more sexually fulfilled, more “free to be themselves”—whatever that meant. They were entitled, according to the mythology of the permissive society, to have more of everything without paying a price in effort or inconvenience. So Christine, while endlessly fretting about the process of aging, in between oiling her skin and sunbathing by the pool, schemed about how to get more money from her husband and complained to friends about the limits he placed on her charge accounts—even though she was contributing little to the family income. Divorces were easy enough to get, but a divorce would mean a reduction in her standard of living. Instead, she comforted herself with extramarital activity.

Peter Demeter seemed no more prepared than Christine to pay a price to extricate himself from an unhappy relationship. On the contrary, according to evidence presented at his trial. Demeter had little interest in making sacrifices—either emotional or financial. If he wished to trade in his wife for a better model, there were methods less costly and bothersome than a divorce. Both husband and wife were insured for more than a million dollars in each other’s favor. Moreover, Demeter had a younger Viennese covergirl— the exquisite Marina Hundt—ready, willing and oh so terribly able to take Christine’s place. The scene was set for that great 1970s solution—having your cake and eating it, too.

It was humid that July, 1973, night when Demeter drew his wife Christine’s pale beige Mercedes to a stop in front of their double garage. As the automatically operated garage door rose, the headlights picked up the crimson blood still draining from Christine’s crumpled body. She was 33. Her long tawny hair was clotted with brain matter. Her skull had been hit at least seven times with a blunt object. In the darkened living room of the house, their daughter, Andrea, age 3, sat quietly watching television—unaware. Stunned, the

four houseguests Demeter had just driven back from a two-hour shopping trip, stared at the still warm body. Typically, Christine was clad in a backless halter gown and silver slippers.

After a month-long investigation, on August 17, 1973, Demeter, 40, was charged with murder. His eleven-week trial, one of the longest murder trials in Canadian history, was marked by dramatics previously unknown in Ontario courts. Small-time police informer Gyula (Julius) Virag was brought in with a paper bag over his head to mask his identity. He was referred to in court only as “Mr. X” presumably to play up the importance of his evidence (which after the trial proved to be mainly lies, anyway). Big-time mobsters such as Hamilton’s John “Johnny Pops” Papalia were subpoenaed for no reason other than to establish some sort of vague guilt-by-association. Daily the line of spectators for the trial grew longer as the parade of witnesses continued. Among them: sometime boxer Gabor Magosztovics (alias Joe Dinardo), who gave the court an informative lesson on the economics of enforcement. Assistant Crown Attorney Leo MeGuigan: What is the going rate for breaking someone’s hands or legs? Dinardo: Sometimes I gel $500;

sometimes 1 get $1,000.

McGuigan: How much did you get paid for setting fire to a garage?

Dinardo: How much 1 get paid? One thousand.

Shortly after the trial Imre “The Duck” Olejnyik, the prime suspect for hit man in the bludgeoning of Christine, died in Hungary of what the authorities there insisted were natural causes. He was 39 and in perfect health before he suffered an untimely massive cerebral hemorrhage in a provincial Hungarian prison, where he was being interrogated about the murder without benefit of lawyers or visitors. Perhaps most bizarre of all was evidence that indicated Christine’s death might have been the result of her own plot against her husband.

It was. in short, a sensational trial and when it was over Demeter was convicted. Although he had been shopping with four witnesses 20 miles away from the scene, the jury was convinced that he had hired “persons unknown” to kill her. Whether the persons were really unknown or simply not charged for lack of evidence (or whether a deal was made with them in return for evidence against Demeter) was a matter of conjecture. Said Deputy-Chief William Teggart of the Peel Regional Police recently: “There’s no statute of limitations on murder. The investigation still continues.”

In a sense, the trial, held in the plush new courthouse of London, Ontario, had become something of a Canadian morality play. Though a few of the characters might

as easily have been seen in Chicago or Jersey City, the main cast represented an extraordinary cross-section of Canadian society. There were the eager faces of the Peel Regional Police force, who had gambled enormous (for them) reserves of cash and manpower on the most glamorous case in their experience and who saw it as their chance to show larger, more sophisticated city cops what a really tight-knit operation could do. On the bench, Mr. Justice Campbell Grant was winding up a long and distinguished career. In spite of the occasional pain of a gallstone condition, Mr. Justice Grant appeared determined not to have what a fellow judge called “the greatest trial of the century” overturned in appeal, and indeed the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld Demeter’s conviction unanimously. As an extra added attraction there was the comely figure of Marina Hundt, who jetted in from Vienna to sit at the side of her lover, Demeter. Her hair pulled back and her figure concealed by demure blouse and blazer, Marina read into evidence her love letters to Demeter— letters that depicted a swinging lifestyle that included heavy drinking and lesbian affairs. And so it went. Friends and enemies recounted to a rapt audience tales of the Demeters’ struggle for a larger piece of the Canadian dream. They ranged from accounts of how he talked Bell Canada out of long distance charges to how she allegedly tried to arrange her husband’s mur-

der. Tales of pettiness, passion and greed, like some soap opera gone berserk. Who wanted to have whom killed remained a mystery, but the fascination of the case was really no mystery at all. The dreams and insecurities of the decade were dramatized

in perfect detail by the story of the unhappy Mississauga couple. Any person looking in his own mirror might have perceived, however dimly, the faces of Christine and Peter Demeter.

Maclean’s Barbara A miel and poet-playwright George Jonas have researched the Demeter case for two years. Their book. By Persons Unknown, is being published this month by Macmillan of Canada.