Living in terror

PAUL KAIHLA May 11 1992

Living in terror

PAUL KAIHLA May 11 1992

Living in terror


Letter from St. Catharines

The stacks of missing-person posters are gone. Before the horrific news, Douglas and Donna French had handed them out from their St. Catharines, Ont., living room, desperately hoping that they would produce clues to the fate of their missing daughter, Kristen. Someone had abducted the 15-year-old Grade 10 student as she walked home from school on April 16. Fourteen days later, a man scavenging for metal in nearby Burlington found the girl dead near a wooded ditch, humped in a fetal position, her long brown hair shorn. Now, people in the frightened Lake Ontario community of St. Catharines are closing ranks around the victim’s family. On this rainy night, as car tires hiss across the wet asphalt in front of the French’s bungalow, friends and strangers alike pay their respects, bearing flowers, food and gifts. One of the grievers is Karen, a 29-year-old pregnant mother of two who, like other young women in the area, asked that her last name be kept private for security reasons. Said Karen, who has never met the French family before, but delivered a wooden model of a church with tiny stained-glass windows that her mother had made: “People in St.

Catharines are outraged. Whoever took Kristen is not just a criminal mind—but a really sick one.”

The tragedy is the latest dark link in a chain of chilling events that has infected the Niagara Peninsula and the city of St. Catharines (population 130,000) with an overwhelming sense of revulsion. Five months before Kristen’s abduction and death, 14-year-old Terri Anderson disappeared sometime after 2 a.m. from the St. Catharines townhouse that she shared with her father. The striking blonde was a cheerleader and honors student at the city’s Lakeport Secondary School, next to the Catholic high school that Kristen French attended. Her fate remains unknown. The gruesome saga began last June when a father and son, while fishing, discovered the remains of Leslie Mahaffy, a 14-year-old Grade 9 student from Burlington, whose parents had reported her missing two weeks earlier. Someone had dismembered Mahaffy’s body and attempted to conceal it in concrete blocks dumped in a nearby reservoir. “After two girls disappearing in the past five months, and another one five months before that, I’m scared,” said Andrea, a 21-year-old night

cashier at a local gas station who graduated three years ago from the same high school attended by French. “I don’t go anywhere without an escort now.”

That fear is clearly well-founded. Last week, police said that a serial killer was likely responsible for Anderson’s disappearance along with the Mahaffy and French murders. French—affectionately nicknamed “Browner” by classmates—was last seen at about 3 p.m., struggling with the driver of a cream-colored Camaro in a church parking lot along her usual route home. During the struggle, French lost one of her leather loafers before she was pulled into the car. Investigators have concluded that the murderer kept French alive for about 10 days, sexually abusing the teenager before strangling her to death and dumping her body. At week’s end, forensic psychiatrists from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation were drawing up a psychological profile of the killer, and police investigators said an arrest was imminent.

While the nervous citizenry waited for a possible arrest, they radically altered their daily routines. Situated on the southwest shore of Lake Ontario, 110 km from Toronto, St. Catharines has traditionally enjoyed a reputation as a safe, family-oriented community, typical of small cities with large working-class and ethnic populations. But as the first lawn mowers of the season began to whine last week, cutting green grass beneath still-bare trees, residents were haunted by many unknowns. Who was responsible? Would Terri Anderson be found alive? And, perhaps the most dreadful question of all, who would be next? In the climate of fear and paranoia, the mere sight of a young woman walking alone down a sunny street appeared jarring—an act of unnecessary risk.

Fearful that whoever is responsible for the recent disappearances could strike again, many women were staying at home or arming themselves with small weapons when they had to go out. At the gas station where she works, night cashier Andrea relies on a hefty companion for protection. Brushing back her long auburn hair behind the counter, she draws a heavy wooden baseball bat with the words “little billy” scrawled along its length in black marker—an ironic reference to the traditional policeman’s^ stick. Declared Andrea, whof knows the French family:

“There is a father outz there, and some bastard0 has killed his daughter. If anyone comes near me, Lord help him.”

People are particularly alarmed by the increasing boldness of the crimes. “What is so shocking about Kristen French’s abduction is that she was taken in broad daylight,” says Ken Lee, an education consultant who served as principal at two high schools near French’s and Anderson’s schools. “I was a principal for 27 years and thousands of kids have gone through my hands. Nothing like this has ever happened. It’s unheard of.” The sense of incredulity has also developed into a thirst for revenge. “Kristen was such a beautiful and talented girl, she could have gone anywhere in life,” said 74-year-old Ward Mitchell, the French family’s next-door neighbor of 15 years. “She was almost like my own daughter.” Added another neighbor: “If they find him, I wish they’d put him in a room with me. He would die a slow death.”

As residents tensely waited for police to make an arrest, mere acquaintances exchanged the latest tidbits of information during chance conversations in parking lots and local stores. They shared rumors trickling out from the police investigation, reports of possible sightings of suspects and theories about what might have happened. Some of the speculation about the string of crimes has indeed been cruel. When Anderson’s father—whose first name is Terry—awoke on the morning

after his daughter disappeared last Nov. 30, he found the front door mysteriously ajar. After he reported Terri missing, Anderson, 41, says that he learned that some local residents suspected him of foul play. “People said that I’d killed her and I was driving around with her body in the trunk,” he says.

Last week, a group of teenage boys from Terri Anderson’s Lakeport school, milling about a nearby convenience store between classes, held out little hope of finding their missing classmate. Said 18-year-old student Mike Doyle: “I think it’s a situation like Silence of the Lambs. Psychotic people get ideas from these movies. Whoever is doing this is getting better at it, and he’s going to keep doing it.”

Police say that the culprit is likely an area resident. But Michael Doucette, the 42-year-old paper-mill technician who found Mahaffy’s body, disagrees. The events of the fateful day last year are still clearly etched in his mind. After dinner, Doucette and his oldest son grabbed their fishing gear and set out for Lake Gibson, a muddy reservoir 15 minutes away by car from their St. Catharines home. After casting for perch and bass for an hour that warm summer night, Doucette spotted an odd-looking object and waded out from shore to investigate. There, in about three feet of water, he discovered a human thigh partly encased in a block of concrete. Nearby, a shocked Doucette pried a bloodstained layer of cement from the top of another block, exposing the lower half of a girl’s leg. A six-hour search later that night turned up a several other body parts—each concealed in its own concrete tomb. “It has to be someone pretty sadistic to do that to a person,” Doucette recalled last week. “It was very sad.”

But Doucette adds that the grisly discovery demonstrates that the

person responsible for the Mahaffy murder could not have known the area very well. “He dumped the concrete in only three feet of water,” Doucette noted. “If he had dumped the stuff over the bridge down the road, the water there is quite quick and deep. We might never have found her.”

As the French family made funeral arrangements last week, students from Kristen’s Holy Cross Secondary ^School helped distribute 140,000 green ribbons as a symbol of community solidarI ity—and of hope for the safe ° return of Anderson. Two of the students handing out those emblems were Amanda, 17, and Wendy, 18, a friend of one of French’s brothers. While other classmates now make a practice of walking in groups, French’s abduction also led the two girls to acquire a minor arsenal. Together, they carry three sound-alarm devices, two pocketknives and, although the substance is illegal in Canada, a can of Mace acquired from a U.S. mailorder firm.

Ever since French’s abduction, the growing tension has even moved into the schoolrooms at Holy Cross. Teachers urged students not to talk to journalists, and before the discovery of French’s body principal Maurice Charbonneau assigned a beefy member of the school football team to ensure that a visitor left the school property without asking students questions about the case. Later, the first reports of Kristen’s death were greeted with loud sobs in classrooms and corridors. For those students, along with their teachers and parents, the terror remains. In a eulogy for Kristen read by Charbonneau over the school’s public address system last Friday, the principal ended with a simple request—“God, deliver us from evil.”