An emergency operator in Vernon, 300 km northeast of Vancouver in the B.C. Interior, took the call at 7:14 p.m. on Jan. 18, 1991: a report of a house fire. By the time firemen reached the white stucco bungalow on Vernon’s 26th Street, the small blaze under the basement stairs was out—extinguished by water released from a pipe that had been melted by the flames. But in place of a fire, the emergency crews found something even more dramatic: the bludgeoned body of the house’s owner, 67-year-old Daniel Schraeder. Outside, they found the victim’s terrier mutt in the garage. Its skull had been crushed.
The gruesome discovery set off what quickly became one of the most frustrating cases in the annals of the Vernon RCMP detachment. Its eventual resolution, however, marked the first success for a joint force formed by the RCMP’s E Division, which polices most of British Columbia, and the province’s largest municipal force, the Van-
couver police. Based in an undistinguished two-storey commercial centre in Surrey, the provincial Unsolved Homicide Unit, like television’s fictional Cold Squad, exists to take a fresh look at murder files that previous investigations have failed to solve.
A special murder squad gets the call when the trail grows faint
When its 20 members (16 of them Mounties) began work in January, 1997, they faced a daunting stack of 400 unresolved suspicious deaths dating back to 1953. Starting with the most promising, the unit began re-examining each set of facts, often revisiting crime scenes and re-interviewing wit-
nesses, and exposed old evidence to new forensic techniques. Beginning with Schraeder, they have been retiring unsolved murder cases at the rate of about one a month ever since.
Within minutes of the discovery of Schraeder’s body in 1991, investigators had a strong lead, in the form of a distinctive red-and-white baseball cap found at the scene. One of them remembered having seen an identical cap on a man known to Vernon police for showing a savage temper during frequent bouts of drinking. As it turned out, William Faulconer, 39 at the time, was already in custody; he had been arrested earlier that evening on an unrelated complaint. When police interviewed him, his clothes were found to be bloodstained. Faulconer said the blood was his own and denied killing Schraeder. RCMP Cpl. Alan Lees did not believe the denial, but forensic tests established only that the blood was the same type as both the victim’s and the suspect’s. ‘We could place Faulconer at the scene,” recalls Lees, who retired from the RCMP a year ago and now works as a civilian in the Vernon detachment. But, he adds, “we didn’t have enough physical evidence at the time” to link him to the attack.
That evidence emerged six years later— from the laboratory. Forensic researchers have spent most of the 1990s extending their ability to retrieve and analyze identifying strands of genetic material—DNA— from human remains. Work at the University of British Columbia’s Bureau of Legal Dentistry, for example, has made it possible to extract DNA from a single incinerated tooth or the saliva left behind on a bite mark. Because such advances promised to draw a more damning story from the bloody clothing, the case became an early priority for the newly constituted squad. A new generation of tests proved that the blood on Faulconer’s clothes came not only from Schraeder, but from the victim’s dog as well. In May, 1997, Faulconer was charged with second-degree murder; four months later
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he pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Since then, charges have been laid in a dozen more deaths from as far back as 1964. A handful of additional cases have been turned over to Crown lawyers for consideration of charges. Among the cases police believe they have now solved:
• The 1977 murder of 12-year-old Carolyn Yuen Lee in Port Alberni, on the west coast of Vancouver Island; 47year-old Gurmit Dhillon faces a firstdegree murder charge.
• The 1964 strangling of another 12-yearold, Judy Howey, in Squamish, north of Vancouver; a 49-year-old man, who cannot be identified because he was a minor at the time of the killing, is charged with firstdegree murder.
• The 1977 death of toddler Jason Loverock, ruled accidental after a controversial inquest at the time; his mother, Kathy Loverock, 38, is now charged with manslaughter in Jason’s death.
Despite a growing string of successes, the investigators of the Unsolved Homicide Unit are acutely sensitive about being described as “elite.” “That’s not true,” asserts RCMP Cpl. Frank Henley, designated spokesman for the generally media-shy team of veteran investigators. In most of the cases the unit has closed so far, Henley says, “the original investigators surfaced the suspect, they knew who was responsible. They just didn’t have the information to go over the top.” The special unit, he notes, has resources unavailable to local forces—who are also faced with the problem of today’s murder being quickly overtaken by tomorrow’s sexual assault or fatal car crash. In some cases, time alone unlocks the testimony of witnesses who were too timid to speak out immediately, and the unit maintains a toll-free tips line for those with new information (1-877-MURDERS). But about a third of the cases solved have been cracked by new advances in technology. And even then, Henley insists, ‘You’re able to go back and get DNA from the files because the original investigators did their job properly.”
The B.C. unit is no longer unique. Last September, the Metropolitan Toronto Police department created its own two-person cold-case squad, and several U.S. law enforcement agencies have sent representatives to look at the Unsolved Homicide Unit’s operation. It, meanwhile, has no room to rest on its laurels. Only about 80 per cent of British Columbia’s 125 or so murders each year are solved by the first investigation. That leaves about 30 new cases a year for the Unsolved Homicide Unit—providing it with ample additional opportunity to put new bite into the hoary old motto that the Mounties always get their man. □
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