CRIME

Murder in a small town

ANNE STEACY August 1 1988
CRIME

Murder in a small town

ANNE STEACY August 1 1988

Murder in a small town

CRIME

The numbing discovery confirmed the worst fears of the townspeople. As dusk fell on July 17, a search party of six volunteers found the naked body of eight-year-old Erin Burkholder in an abandoned gravel pit on the scrub-covered outskirts of Mount Forest, Ont., 100 km northwest of Toronto. The daughter of Ernest and Gertrude Burkholder had disappeared less than 27 hours earlier, after the blond, bespectacled Grade 3 student left home to play nearby. On July 19, the results of an autopsy showed that the girl had died of a massive skull fracture inflicted by a blunt instrument—and that she had been sexually assaulted. The same day, police arrested 27-year-old Bryan Dahmer—a local man who worked as a basket maker—and charged him with firstdegree murder. Said an anguished Gertrude Burkholder, a lifelong resident of the quiet farming community of 3,600 residents, as she faced the fact of her daughter’s death: “These things happen in big cities, not in small towns like Mount Forest. But it does

happen. We know it has happened.” The Burkholder family’s personal tragedy sparked feelings of sympathy, fear and anger among many Canadi-

ans—particularly Ontario residents. Only one month earlier, on June 16, someone abducted 11-year-old Christopher Stephenson from a shopping mall in Brampton—a city of 188,000 that lies between Mount Forest and To-

ronto—and stabbed him to death. Forensic scientists have not yet released the results of tissue tests that they performed in order to determine whether the boy was sexually assaulted. Police have charged Joseph Fredericks, 45, a furniture company worker who had recently moved to Brampton, with first-degree murder in that case.

The spectre of their I children suffering abâ duction and violent I death has haunted par¿ ents in recent years—es| pecially since 1982, 8 when B.C. serial killer I Clifford Olson confessed to the murders of 11 children and teenagers. In response, police in many Canadian centres have instituted street-proofing programs—courses that help show youngsters how to avoid potential ab-

ductors. And in 1986, the federal government established a missing-children’s registry, a computerized list that can provide comprehensive information rapidly to 300 police forces across the country. But federal statistics show that the rate of sex-related murders of children 15 years old and younger has remained fairly constant—at about six slayings a year— between 1976 and 1986, the last year for which figures are available.

The death of a child is always devastating for a family and community, and Winnipeg-based clinical psycholo-

gist Patrick Mulgrew said that a child murder is particularly traumatic. Said Mulgrew, who frequently treats police officers who are suffering from the stressful effects of investigating violent crimes: “Tragedies like that

threaten and challenge the ordinary sense of benign security that we operate under.” And Neil Boyd, the director of the school of criminology at Burnaby, B.C.’s Simon Fraser University, said that society regards sex-related child killings as the worst possible crime. Declared Boyd: “It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.”

For some parents, that nightmare has no ending. Of the 72 sex-related child murders committed across Canada during the 11 years from 1976 to 1986, 10 remain unsolved. Among them: the rape and strangulation of nine-year-old Sharin’ Morningstar Keenan, who disappeared on Jan. 23, 1983, and whose body was discovered by police nine days later in a Toronto rooming house refrigerator. And there have been others more recently, including the July 19, 1987, murder of three-year-old Holly Marshall in Port Alberni, B.C., a pulpand-paper town 135 km north of Victoria on Vancouver Island. According to local RCMP officials, the toddler’s killer entered the home of family friends where she was sleeping, sexually assaulted her and murdered her.

Only four months earlier, in Kamloops, B.C., on March 16, 1987, another three-year-old girl, Stacie Harker, was sexually attacked and killed. James Jones, 37, is now serving a life sentence for that murder. Said local RCMP Const. John Guignion: “The community was revolted and upset that something like this could happen here. Parents are still very concerned about their children’s safety and they take extra precautions.”

Clearly, however, precautions cannot guarantee a child’s safety. Alison Parrott, a bright, talented 11-year-old track star, was lured from her Toronto home by a telephone caller posing as a sports photographer on July 25, 1986even though she had participated in a street-proofing program. Two boys found her naked body two days later in a heavily wooded park by the Humber River, 10 km from her home. Forensic evidence showed that she had been raped and strangled. And despite one of the most intensive and—at a cost of more than $2 million—expensive investigations in the city’s history, police have been unable to find her killer.

The residents of peaceful Mount Forest, where Mennonites’ horsedrawn buggies sometimes clatter down the streets, say that they find it difficult to confront the stark reality of a child murder. Indeed, town councillor Frederick McLuhan said that there had not been a killing in the area since 1868—when a young man died on Main Street after his mother’s physician struck him with a cane during an argument. But on the morning of July 21, as friends and neighbors watched four pallbearers carry Erin Burkholder’s small, white coffin into St. Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, their presence underlined the fact that such tragedies can—and do—occur where families expect them least.

ANNE STEACY

BETTE LADEROUTE