THE DARK SIDE OF JASON
Neighbors were unaware that the youth was already on probation for two sex offences
Summer sunlight fell in green-filtered shafts through the heavy branches, dappling the wet, brown teenage bodies. Laughing at their own horse-play, the clutch of tanned boys and girls fought good-naturedly for a place aboard a bobbing inner tube as it spun and drifted slowly on the river’s current. Among them was the tube’s owner, Jason Gamache, a handsome, rather lanky youth, his thick brown hair plastered against his head. Apart from his height, a strapping 6 feet, 1 inch, there was nothing—nothing visible, at least—on this August, 1992, day on Vancouver Island, to set the easygoing 15year-old apart from his playmates. There most certainly was nothing to suggest that within weeks this same laughing boy would lure an unsuspecting younger child into darkened woods, rape and casually murder her.
The strangling of six-year-old Dawn Shaw on October 24, 1992, in Courtenay, B.C., a community of 12,000 people 180 km northwest of Victoria, sent shock waves through British Columbia. Horror at the killing redoubled eight weeks later, when police arrested Gamache, Shaw’s next-door neighbor in a townhouse complex, and charged him with the girl’s murder. No one apart from investigators had suspected the personable youth of harboring a hidden impulse to lethal violence. Lloyd Doucet, another resident of the complex and the one who discovered Dawn’s bruised and naked body, trusted Jason so completely that later that night he left the teen to babysit his own two young sons. “It never dawned on me at all that it could be him,” Doucet says now.
But there was a side to young Jason that his neighbors knew nothing about—one that was, and may still be, a mystery to Jason Gamache himself. What the neighbors did not know was that the youth was already on probation for two previous minor sex offences. What no one knew, although police quickly began to suspect it, was that the polite young man, the captain of his high-school rugby team, was also brutally capable of murder. Physical evidence collected from the crime scene, however, pointed directly to Gamache. Confronted with that evidence eight weeks after the crime, the youth confessed. After nearly a year of assessment by court-appointed experts, Jason’s case was raised to adult court last fall, and his name made public. On April 6, a B.C. Supreme Court jury in Victoria convicted him of Dawn’s murder. He is now serving a life sentence.
That sentence, however, hardly closes the case on Jason Gamache. Now, still only 17, he
will be eligible for unescorted release from prison by Christmas, 1999. He will then be 23, an age when many violent sex offenders are reaching their predatory peak. In his first-ever interview—with Maclean’s late last month— Gamache made it clear that he does not want to follow in that pattern. His dreams, in fact, are those of most ordinary young people of his age: “A job, a stable family, someplace I’m not crowded,” he said. But Gamache also appears to accept that those ambitions must remain on the far side of a razor-wire fence until he understands the contradictions in his character well enough to contain his own deadly potential. That will be a tall order. Twenty-two months after the murder, Gamache said that he is “baffled” by his own capacity for violence. Whatever monsters lurk in the soul of Jason Gamache today, they were apparently not evident in his childhood. His mother, Nicole, remembers the baby bom in Red Deer, Alta., on Sept. 29,1976, as an easy infant to care for, in contrast to older brother Darren, who was colicky. “Nothing seemed to faze him,” she says of her younger son. “He laughed all the time.” But the youngster’s life was soon disrupted. Nicole and the boys’ father, Dale Gamache, separated when Jason was two, and over the next several years the boys moved often, first within Alberta and later within British Columbia. By the time Jason turned 14, in September, 1990, he was living with his father in Nanaimo, on Vancouver Island. And apart from brief visits that summer and the previ-
ous Christmas, Jason had not seen his mother since 1986.
It was in Nanaimo that Jason began a rocky entry into adolescence. No longer the “chatterbox” that both parents say he was before the separation from his mother, Jason had become withdrawn. At home, he argued frequently with Dale Gamache, a recovering alcoholic who tended to be an inflexible disciplinarian. Jason’s close relationship with Darren, three years his elder, had become more distant when the older boy began dating and spending more time away from home. At school, Jason fell in with an unruly crowd and began to play hooky. It was also in the fall of 1990 that the young adolescent’s emerging interest in sex first became enflamed. It found a potent early focus when Jason saw a portion of a sex video, belonging to his father, in which a woman performed oral sex on a man. The images became central to Jason’s sexual fantasies.
Within eight months, they would lead him into his first offences. In March, 1991, Gamache invited a five-year-old boy to his home and gave him a toy in exchange for taking the teenager’s penis in his mouth. Two months later, he took a four-year-old girl into his father’s bedroom, undressed her and asked her to do the same thing; when she refused, Jason let her dress and leave. Both children eventually told their parents what happened, and they reported the incidents to police. In November, 1991, Jason pleaded guilty to two criminal charges and was placed on 24 months probation. As a young offender, however, his convictions were not made public.
By the end of 1991, Dale Gamache had moved with his younger son to Courtenay, a choice dictated by the presence there of a John Howard Society treatment program for adolescent sex offenders. Still, as 1992 opened, there was reason to hope that the teen’s erratic life was getting back on track. Nicole, who had been living in Kirkland Lake, Ont.,
moved to Courtenay and took over day-today responsibility for Jason. Mother and son moved into a two-bedroom townhouse in a low-rent housing complex next door to an elementary school.
Jason, meanwhile, appeared to shake off his delinquent habits. He joined the Sea Cadets, completing a junior leadership course and attending a summer camp with the group. According to Nicole, he made conscientious efforts to abide by a probation order forbidding him to be in the company of children under 12. And he was faithful in his weekly attendance at the John Howard Society. “I thought I was doing pretty well,” says Gamache now, echoing an assessment that his counsellors gave to both Nicole and Jason’s probation officer.
By his 16th birthday, Jason’s life once again looked promising. Weeks earlier, he had enrolled in his 13th school: Georges P. Vanier Secondary, about a kilometer and a half away from the Gamache townhouse. The athletic youth went out for the rugby team and became captain of the junior squad. “He made a huge contribution,” recalls Vanier rugby coach James Milne. “He played hard, but he played fair. He was one of those kids that other kids respected.” Adds the coach, with perhaps unintended irony: “He was a model person.” The terrifying flaws in Jason’s personality, though, were soon to become evident.
Saturday, Oct. 24,1992, was cool and dry in Courtenay. In the parking lot outside the Gamache townhouse, children lingered in the early autumn dusk. At 7:30, Carol Shaw, who lived with her husband in the townhouse next to the Gamaches, called her three children in for the evening. When only 10-yearold Anthony and four-year-old Robin responded, Shaw asked neighbors to help look for her missing middle child, six-year-old Dawn. A police patrol, responding to an unrelated call, was told about the missing girl and joined the search.
It did not take long. At 8:40 p.m., Doucet, searching a wooded area on the far side of the neighboring school playground, came upon Dawn’s body at the junction of two footpaths. The small form lying on the carpet of freshly fallen leaves was nude, legs splayed, face turned to the right. Livid bruises and scratches disfigured her torso and neck. Dirt was smeared on her chest and abdomen; and across Dawn’s left cheek, her nose and upper lip, was the muddy imprint of a shoe’s diamond-patterned sole. Her body was still warm.
It took less than four hours for investigators to focus on Gamache, who had spent part of the evening after the discovery of Dawn’s body minding Shaw’s other children. A records check revealed Jason’s earlier convictions. And just before 1 a.m., police knocked on the Gamaches’ door. Questioned closely, Jason acknowledged that he had briefly played hide-and-seek with Dawn and other children at about 7:30. But he insisted that when the game broke up 10 minutes later, he had returned home to watch the final few innings of the World Series on TV. After the police left, recalls Nicole, “I asked him point-blank, ‘Did you do it?’ He said, ‘No, I didn’t.’ ”
Less than four hours after they left, the police returned, this time with a search warrant. Jason calmly stood by his original account. The investigators, however, took the clothing that Jason had been wearing the previous day: a black-and-purple tracksuit, and a pair of black-and-white running shoes.
Whatever the investigators’ suspicions, they appeared not to bother Jason. He agreed to take a polygraph test. ‘We’ve got nothing to wony about, Mom,” he said. “1 didn’t do it.” Flown by helicopter to Victoria to take the three-hour test, Jason was asked on nine separate occasions whether he had killed Dawn. Each time he answered, “No.” And RCMP polygraph specialist Sgt. Ken Schmidt was unequivocal in his conclusion. “It is my opinion,” Schmidt told Jason in the presence of investigators, “you were being truthful to the questions at issue, that is, whether or not you physically caused Dawn’s death.”
Back in Courtenay, Gamache gave no indication that he was anything but innocent. At the townhouse complex, he helped a neighbor make and distribute pink lapel ribbons in Dawn’s memory. At school, he openly discussed his status as a suspect and his polygraph examination with his rugby teammates. “He wasn’t bragging,” recalls coach Milne.
“He wasn’t apprehensive or nervous. There was no noticeable sign that something had happened.”
Then, two months later, early on the morning of Dec.
17, investigators called Jason and Nicole back to the Courtenay RCMP offices. With icy detachment, Const. Les Brushett presented the conclusions reached by forensic specialists who had examined Jason’s clothing and Dawn’s body, as well as her discarded shorts, blouse and blue denim jacket. Red and black threads found on the jacket, Brushett explained, matched black strands from Jason’s tracksuit and red fibres from an afghan that covered the sofa where the Gamaches watched TV. The diamond pattern on Jason’s shoes, he continued, matched the one etched in dirt on Dawn’s face. “OK,” the police officer concluded, “why don’t you tell me what happened?”
His voice glum, Jason asked for his mother to be present while he gave a new account of his actions on Oct. 24. Now, he admitted that he had walked with Dawn towards the schoolyard, and then lifted the little girl onto his shoulders. Carrying her, he quickly crossed the open playground and entered the woods. There, Gamache recounted tearfully, he removed Dawn’s clothes and forced her to the ground. The rape was brief, interrupted by the voice of her brother, Anthony, calling her name. “I didn’t have time to warn her, or threaten her with anything so she wouldn’t end up telling, right?” Gamache explained. “And I just lost control... I grabbed her by the throat and I started to choke her. And then I jumped on her ... I just jumped straight up and landed on her.”
Later the same day, a video camera followed Gamache as he retraced his steps on the evening of the murder. Strikingly, this
second account was delivered in a very different tone from his first tearful confession. This time, the youth’s voice was firm and unemotional, even flippant, as he recalled his victim’s last, terrified cry for help. “She yelled, ‘Mom,’ ” recounted Gamache. “Probably at the top of her voice, which ain’t very loud.” The videotaped re-enactment, later played in open court, left no doubt about Gamache’s responsibility for Dawn’s death. But in the 19 months since the teenager’s confession, a succession of psychologists, psychiatrists and social workers, to say nothing of his shattered family and shocked friends and neighbors, have struggled to explain his violent actions.
Some of those who have examined Gamache assert that he is a psychopath, lacking the human faculty of conscience. Relying on psychological testing and observations at the juvenile detention facility in Victoria where Gamache spent 1993 in custody, psychologist Steven Sigmond declared, in a written report to the court, that “while Jason does not yet fully qualify for a diagnosis of antisocial personality disorder [psychopathy], he certainly shows very strong traits of that condition.”
But there are inconsistencies in the diagnosis of psychopathy. On subjects other than the murder, for one thing, Jason is not an especially accomplished liar. “He fidgets,” says Nicole. And Gamache himself disputes the assertion that he has no conscience. “I have a conscience,” he told Maclean’s at the federal Regional Psychiatric Centre at Abbotsford, B.C. “I’ve had times when I’ve broken down and cried and screamed, thinking what it would be like to be my victim.”
Psychiatrist John MacTavish suggests a different explanation, arguing that Gamache may suffer from Multiple Personality Disorder. That ailment remains controversial: many experts challenge its central hypothesis that several different “personalities” can
exist within a single body, often without being aware of each other’s actions. MacTavish notes that Gamache meets several diagnostic criteria for the disorder, among them experiencing blackouts when he cannot remember where he has been or what he has done. Jason, indeed, continues to insist that he does not remember killing Dawn or even re-enacting the murder for the police. Adds MacTavish: “Jason passed the lie-detector test. It could be explained on the basis that the murderer was not ‘Jason.’ ”
While that explanation fails to answer all the questions posed by Jason’s actions, it is strikingly reflected in Gamache’s own descriptions of his murderous impulses. He told his parents shortly after his arrest: “It is as if some-
one else is taking over. He’s mean, he’s cruel and he’s vicious. It’s not me. I want the old Jason back.” Together, the Gamaches decided to call that vicious personality “Karl,” Jason’s middle name. Speaking last month to Maclean’s, Jason elaborated, describing Karl as the side of his personality that takes over when he is in danger: “If I’m in the yard and three or four guys come up and start threatening me, I’m not going to be there,” added Gamache. “Karl is.” The issue is not just academic. While psychopathy is generally regarded as untreatable, multiple personality disorder appears to be amenable to longterm therapy. Gamache himself expresses the hope that a treat-
ment program begun last month will bring his violent impulses back under rational control. “If I can blend me and Karl,” he said, “some of my feelings and thought patterns will cancel out some of his. As soon as I can get that together, I can start a new life.” Until then, he insists that he does not want to be released.
But after nearly two years in custody, there is a disturbing new development in Gamache’s thinking. “There is part of me that likes Karl,” he acknowledged, “because he’s got qualities that you need in the [prison] system.” And indeed, it is hardly necessary to believe in multiple personalities to accept that a capacity for ruthless violence might find reinforcement within the frequently brutal precincts of a penitentiary. It is an outlook that deeply troubles Gamache’s lawyer, Keith Jones. Without appropriate treatment, argues Jones, “Jason will have gone in [to prison], but Karl is going to come out. And Karl is lethal.”
Given the strong likelihood of Gamache’s eventual release, that prospect is clearly unsettling. For those outside the razor-wire fences that currently confine Jason Gamache, it is also a powerful reason to hope that the laughing, sun-dappled youth who drifted through carefree afternoons down the Courtenay River will someday return, healed, from his private voyage into the dark. □