Half a year in Hell

JUDITH TIMSON September 20 1976

Half a year in Hell

JUDITH TIMSON September 20 1976

Half a year in Hell


On the day of March 10, a 12-year-old girl in the British Columbia coastal community of Port Moody received a call from a neighbor she knew well. Would she like a ride to school, the man asked. The girl, alone at her home at the time, accepted the offer and ran off to get the lift to her grade seven classes.

That was the last time anyone saw the deeply religious, pixieish youngster until early September. While Port Moody police diligently tracked down almost 200 leads on her whereabouts and family and friends gradually gave her up for dead, the girl was undergoing a special kind of hell only five houses away from where she lived. There, in a dank, nightmarish underground cell that had originally been constructed as a concealed bomb shelter, she was sexually abused and mentally tortured—for 181 days.*

As the seasons changed and her thirteenth birthday came and went the girl

*The case provided a classic dilemma on ethics for Canada’s press. Usually, newspapers do not publish the name of the victim when a rape charge is laid, but all the country’s major news outlets, as well as the two news agencies, The Canadian Press and United Press International, all identified the girl in their reports from Port Moody. Bruce Larsen, managing editor of The Vancouver Sun, which circulates widely in Port Moody, defended the decision on the grounds that the girl’s name “had been very much used from the time she went missing, ’’both in newspapers and in police posters seeking information on her whereabouts. Merv Moore, managing editor of The Vancouver Province, said that “when we reported the story we had no idea of what the charges would be” and therefore used her name. However, the Province ’s first-day story on the case contained a paragraph listing connected charges against Donald Hay. (In a slightly different vein, one other newspaper—The Toronto Star— offered the girl and her mother an all-expenses paid vacation in return for exclusive rights to the story of her ordeal. It was turned down.)

marked the days off on her hand with a ballpoint pen, and listened to rock and roll music on a small radio. She often went for days without eating and was never given a hot meal, existing on canned tomatoes, bread, instant soups and chocolate bars. She lay on a filthy mattress in a windowless room, eight feet long and six feet wide, where maggots crawled the floor and insects buzzed around a bare light bulb. Human waste accumulated for six months in a chemical toilet, and the air, heavy and damp to begin with, stank beyond most human endurance. But the girl endured. The only human being she saw in six months was her captor. Once, he went away on vacation for two weeks while she remained locked in her cell. At another point, on pink paper, with a pen from her red pencil case, she wrote him a note:

“I know you think I’m stupid and like you say everyone is entitled to their own thoughts, but I do believe in God and I be-

lieve in friends and I just wish you would be my friend.

“I also know that I will get out of here so I’m not worried. God has helped me so far and he’ll help me to the finish. God works in mysterious ways but what he does is right. I know you don’t believe in God but I’ll just say that God will be with you.”

In the end, God seemed to be with the girl. On September 6, Port Moody police officers Bill Reid and Paul Adams went to a house on the Barnet highway in response to a call from a woman who believed her husband had committed suicide in the garage workshop of their home. Kicking open the door, the police found no one, so they left. As they were driving away, the police radio despatcher informed them the woman thought she had found her husband dead. When they returned they found a man climbing out through an opening in the cabinet in the workshop. Behind him, weak and whimpering, but

crawling up the ladder on her own, was the girl. She was pale to the point of greyness, emaciated, and had been, in the words of one choked-up police officer, “mentally tormented in quite an extensive way.”

Police charged Donald Hay, 43, the owner of the house with the bomb shelter, with rape, gross indecency, kidnapping and abduction with intent to have sexual intercourse. Hay, a balding, dark-haired man, who built camper trailers, had been one of several people questioned by police after the girl’s disappearance. Several times, police had visited the Hay garage and had unknowingly stood only a few feet away from the girl’s prison, at the bottom of a seven foot shaft, concealed under the false bottom of a cabinet.

Neighbors say that after the girl disappeared, Hay had taken to rounding up children in the area in his car, driving them to school, saying “We don’t want anything to happen to you, too.” Hay’s stepdaughters had played with the missing girl, and the girl’s mother, while visiting Hay’s wife, had stood in the garage discussing her daughter’s whereabouts unaware that she was imprisoned seven feet below. “It was a

miracle we found her,” said one police officer. The girl’s father, who is divorced from her mother and now lives in Calgary, added that it was “a miracle she survived.” While there was general rejoicing over the girl’s return, the crime itself evoked profound horror and anguish, especially among police officers and reporters. “I haven’t slept for three nights,” confessed Constable Wayne Smith, who had headed the investigation into her disappearance, after seeing the cell where she was held. Reporters, haunted by the image of several lengths of light chain hanging above the girl’s bed, said they didn’t even want to know the grisly details of her confinement. The girl herself was making a remarkable recovery from her ordeal. Within two days of her rescue, she had begun to walk again, had eaten ice cream, been taken for a boat ride, and relaxed enough to tell her mother and two sisters the story of her six months in captivity. Both police and family agreed her faith— she was brought up as a Seventh Day Adventist—had been her biggest comfort and the main force behind her powerful will to survive. “She was just a normal girl when

she went in,” said Constable Smith, “but she had a good, solid belief in God.”

The police in Port Moody, about 15 miles east of Vancouver, were unusually candid in dealing with the press, until they were severely rebuked by the prosecutor and ordered to continue their investigations sans press conferences. They had already revealed that less than one month after her disappearance, a 60-year-old psychic had written them, enclosing a map, with the instructions that the girl would be found under the floor or at the back of an old garage in almost the same area she was eventually found. Police searched the general area at the time, but found nothing.

While the man accused of torturing her began a series of court appearances, defended by a legal aid lawyer, the girl, according to her 17-year-old sister, had confided her thoughts about her captor: “She’s forgiven him for what he did, but she thinks he should die for it.”