Justice

An English murder mystery

A Canadian’s case involves a death, assumed identities and a whiff of incest

BARRY CAME June 22 1998
Justice

An English murder mystery

A Canadian’s case involves a death, assumed identities and a whiff of incest

BARRY CAME June 22 1998

An English murder mystery

A Canadian’s case involves a death, assumed identities and a whiff of incest

Justice

BARRY CAME

They sit within sight of each other on top of the highest hill in Exeter—a grim jail built when Victoria was Queen and a fortress constructed 800 years earlier by William the Conqueror. The trip between Devon County Prison and Rougemont Castle is brief, a matter merely of skirting the old Roman walls in the town in southwestern England and passing into the castle beneath a portcullis flanked by a gaunt Norman tower. It is, however, a journey that will soon become alltoo-familiar for Albert Johnson Walker, the 52-year-old highflying financial entrepreneur from Paris, Ont., who was once Canada’s most-wanted man and fourth on Interpol’s list of global fugitives. On June 22, Walker, currently held in Exeter’s prison, will stand trial within the castle’s walls, accused of murder. And as that trial unfolds over the ensuing five to six weeks, it may finally shed some light on an enduring Canadian mystery—a murky tale of a dead body scooped from the sea, double lives and switched identities, gold bars, ghost bank accounts, even a whiff of sexual scandal involving incest.

There are, in fact, not one but two legal proceedings about to commence in Exeter—a High Court criminal trial and a parallel County Court civil action. Both involve the jet-setting Walker who fled Canada

in 1990, taking with him as much as $3 million that Canadian authorities allege he bilked from dozens of mostly elderly investors in southwestern Ontario. In the criminal case, British Crown prosecutors

will argue that on or about July 21, 1996, the Canadian killed British businessman Ronald J. Platt, then 51, while the two were onboard Walker’s seven-metre yacht, sailing in the English Channel near the Devon resort town of Torquay. Walker, the prosecution will contend, first knocked Platt unconscious, then tied a 4.5kg anchor to his belt and dumped him overboard. He committed the deed, according to the Crown, in order to eliminate the man

whose identity he had assumed. “It is difficult to conceive of a stronger motive for the defendant to get rid of Platt, who had returned to haunt him,” prosecutor James Townsend told the 1997 preliminary hearing that resulted in Walker’s committal for trial on charges of murder.

Even as criminal action begins, a battery of British lawyers is to appear in Exeter County Court within the next few weeks, seeking permission to seize Walker’s known assets in Britain, a cache currently in the possession of the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary that includes as much as $300,000 in cash, gold bars, oil paintings, prepaid credit card balances and his sailboat, the Lady Jane. ‘We think there’s a lot more money and assets around, maybe another million or two still unaccounted for,” said London, Ont.-based lawyer Angelo D’Ascanio, a member of the transatlantic legal team that is acting on behalf of KPMG Inc., the professional services organization acting as trustee in Walker’s bankruptcy and that of his now-defunct Ontario business empire. ‘The police have receipts for $125,000 in gold bars that have never been found,” says D’Ascanio. “And we have good reason to believe that Walker controlled around 40 different accounts in more than two dozen banks in the U.K., Switzerland, other places in Europe, and the Cayman Islands in the Caribbean.”

While D’Ascanio refused to speculate about the outcome of the impending murder trial, the businessman’s bankruptcy trustees are clearly concerned about the possibility of Walker gaining release from custody, only to disappear again before he can be brought to trial in Canada, where he faces 18 counts of theft, fraud and money laundering. “Let’s just say we feel it prudent to have Walker’s assets in our hands right now,” said D’Ascanio. In pursuit of that goal,

KPMG’s lawyers went to court in London, Ont., in April. Last month, Ontario Court Justice Edward Browne granted the firm permission to corral Walker’s international assets after ruling that those assets had been acquired through “misappropriation from Ontario creditors.”

If Walker’s financial woes appear daunting, however, they pale in comparison to the personal challenge he faces when he appears before British High Court Justice Neil Butterfield in Rougemont Castle on June 22, accused of murdering Ronald Platt.

Since Walker’s arrest on Oct. 31,1996, a 50-member team of detectives drawn from two British regional police forces has, according to Sgt. Simon Chapman of the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary, “expended a tremendous amount of time, energy and money on the case.” Police have taken 617 statements, seized 1,150 potential exhibits and entered 480 documents as evidence.

The 12 members of the jury who will decide Walker’s fate will listen to that evidence presented by a total of 55 witnesses, summoned either by prosecutor Charles Barton, a Bristol-based barrister, or Gordon Pringle, the London barrister who is conducting Walker’s defence.

“It won’t be like one of your American trials with a lot of legal technicalities,” said a spokesman in Barton’s office. “We’ll get right down into it from the first or second day, as soon as the jury is empanelled.” Among the witnesses scheduled to appear for the prosecution is Walker’s 22-year-old daughter Sheena. She disappeared with her father in 1990, when she was 15. She did not resurface again until Walker’s arrest six years later in the hamlet of Woodham Walter in Essex, 100 km northeast of London.

By then, she was the mother of two young daughters, Emily, who was 3 at the time, and Lily, 11 months old. The paternity of the two children has never been firmly established. But their British birth certificates list murder victim Ronald Joseph Platt as the father. Walker and his daughter were known among their neighbors in Woodham Walter as husband and wife, calling themselves Mr. and Mrs. Platt.

Precisely what role Sheena has to play in the prosecutor Barton’s case remains unclear. The young woman and her two daughters returned to Canada after Walker’s arrest, where they were reunited with Sheena’s mother—and Walker’s ex-wife— Barbara Walker, who still lives in the family home in Paris, Ont., along with the couple’s three other children. But Sheena’s appearance in Rougemont Castle is likely to be one

of the more electrifying moments in the upcoming trial.

It may also offer a glimpse into the events that transpired during the six years that elapsed after Walker and his daughter, ostensibly on a Christmas skiing trip in Europe, simply dropped from sight. The prosecution’s entire case is based on the central premise that Walker was moved to murder Platt to protect the new identity he had assumed during his flight from Canadian justice. Barton will argue, as his junior, Townsend, did during pre-trial hearings last year, that Walker befriended Platt and his girlfriend, Elaine Boyes, persuaded the couple to move to Canada in 1993, then assumed Platt’s identity. But Platt and Boyes returned from Canada in 1995 and, according to the prosecution, threatened to unravel the new life that Walker had built for himself and his daughter. It alleges that the onetime finan-

cial adviser from small-town Ontario dealt with the danger by luring Platt aboard the Lady Jane, then tossing his unconscious body, weighted by the sailboat’s anchor, into the English Channel.

But the prosecution’s case is almost entirely circumstantial—which may help to explain the edginess of the team of bankruptcy lawyers. There are no witnesses to what transpired on the day Platt drowned in the

Channel. Six, seven, perhaps eight days later, his battered, decomposed body was dragged by chance from the sea in the net of the Torquay-based trawler Malkerry. An anchor came up with it, but it was not attached. The victim would never have even been identified were it not for a Rolex watch on his wrist. Its serial number led police to Platt’s address, where they found the man living under Platt’s name.

British police investigators have assembled a huge mountain of evidence that, they claim, incriminates Walker. A battalion of experts will testify about tides and currents, about traces of anchor zinc on Platt’s belt and samples of the dead man’s blood and hair aboard the Lady Jane. The boat’s GPS— global positioning satellite—logs have been examined to place the vessel near where Platt likely died. Telephone records have been combed, bank accounts traced, movements reconstructed. In the end, however, Albert Johnson Walker’s ultimate fate will rest with the 12 men and women selected to sit on the jury in the old Norman castle on the top of the hill in Exeter. □

Sheena Walker’s role in the trial of her father remains unclear