Like most people, Donald Neilson thought the terrible things that happen to people would always involve someone else.
But the relative comfort that distance provides to almost everyone when they read, watch or listen to news reports about murders or people who go missing was shattered last year after his 25-year-old daughter, Jessica, disappeared.
Neilson and his family spent the holidays last year living on edge while waiting for news. They told Jessica’s then-2-year-old daughter Katrina that her mother was “on
The last time Neilson saw his daughter was on Dec. 8, as she left the downtown insurance brokerage where she worked with her parents.
The Montreal police sought the public’s help in finding Jessica, but they turned up no trace of her for three months. Her parents’ worst nightmare became reality on March 27 when Jessica’s body was discovered inside her car. It had been parked in an alleyway separating row houses on Notre Dame and Workman Sts. in St. Henri. The car had been under a cover of snow for most of the winter. The homicide remains unsolved.
As the painful anniversary of her disappearance approaches, Neilson finds himself trying to sort out his emotions while trying to be a source of support to his wife, son, friends and co-workers who, in turn, do the same for him when he needs it. He also has realized such tragedy can happen to anyone.
“I don’t know if there is a right way to doing this,” Neilson said about how he has tried to deal with his loss. “I would not wish this on my worst enemy. It’s just overwhelming. You always think it happens to the other person. I have a different outlook on that now – let me tell you.
“We have no real choice but to go on. It still does get to us emotionally. I mean it’s still an incredible thing to us. There are no results from the police side of it yet, so that doesn’t make it any easier. So we deal with our emotions as they come up.”
Neilson said that when the stress or frustration gets to be too much, he and his family go to a counsellor.
“I think I’ve found a place in my heart and in my head where I can deal with it. I’m not saying I don’t cry from time to time but I feel, speaking for myself, I can stand a little bit stronger for a little bit longer.
“I still talk to people at work about her and they look at me and cry. I tell them to stay strong and I give them a hug.”
The biggest contributor to his stress, Neilson said, is the fact no one has been charged in his daughter’s death. He also said he has difficulty with how the Montreal police are unable to tell him much about the investigation.
“When you let that stress build up and build up inside of you, that’s something you don’t want to bring to your family. You don’t want to be sitting at the kitchen table trying to work it out and then banging your fist on the table. That’s not the place to do that. So I go see my counsellor. In my case, she tells me not to think about what hasn’t been done but to think about what’s been done to date and then think of my granddaughter.
“My mission in life right now is Katrina. She keeps me on my path. That helps a lot.”
Neilson and his wife get to look after their granddaughter on weekends. Shawn Forster Murray, 34,
Jessica’s partner at the time of her death, looks after the child during the week.
Murray is the last person known to have seen Jessica alive. He was arrested and questioned about her death in June and was released without being charged.
Donald Neilson is aware of this, plus the fact Murray was charged with assaulting his daughter on Sept. 25, 2007. The case ended with Murray agreeing to a court order to take anger-management courses. Jessica left Murray for a brief period after the assault and moved back in with her parents until she decided to return to the apartment she shared with Murray in LaSalle.
“I saw it as a good chance to have some solid time with her and talk with her – to see where she was going (in life),” Neilson said. “All of a sudden she said she wanted to move back (with Murray). We tried to talk her out of it but she wanted to move back.”
Neilson hesitates when asked about his current relationship with Murray.
“The only thing I have in common with Shawn is Katrina. I expect him to take care of Katrina as her father and to protect her as her father,” he said.
Murray did not return a request for an interview.
The assault on Jessica was not the only time he was accused of being violent toward a girlfriend.
In 2001, he was charged with assault, forcible confinement and uttering threats after an alleged altercation with a woman in LaSalle. During a preliminary inquiry, the woman testified Murray struck her in the face while she was holding their baby in her arms, and tried to choke her. He was acquitted on all charges in 2002.
He was also charged with assaulting and threatening a woman on New Year’s Eve 2000 and was acquitted in 2002.
Commander Clément Rose, head of the Montreal police major crimes division, which is investigating Jessica’s death, said there have been no recent developments in the case. “But the investigation isn’t over and it won’t be over until we arrest and charge a suspect or suspects,” Rose said.
Donald Neilson said he looks forward to the day someone is charged with his daughter’s death. But he’s not sure if that will bring any significant relief.
“I don’t know how we’re going to feel even if it is solved. How are we going to react to that and how are we going to feel about that? I don’t know. It’s like we’re half in a void and half in reality.”
Neilson said he sometimes finds peace in visiting his daughter’s grave and talking to her there. He also plans to attend an informal memorial on Tuesday, planned by Jessica’s friends on a Facebook page.
Jennifer Fink, a friend of Jessica’s, said the page is intended to encourage people to visit the spot in St. Henri where Neilson’s body was found. The memorial will run between 6 p.m. and midnight. Fink hopes it will keep alive the memory of Jessica’s death and maybe prompt someone to come forward.
“Because the case has not been solved, I feel that anything we can do to get it solved or get someone to come forward can help,” Fink said. “It’s to let people know this will not be forgotten.”