Sex-offenders database inaccessible and confusing, Julie Surprenant inquiry told
MONTREAL – Like any good parent, Michel Surprenant put some effort into finding out what kind of neighbourhood he was moving to in 1997.
But like most people in Quebec, he had limited access to information that could have helped him learn he was moving into an apartment building housing a convicted sex offender, just above him, who would kill Surprenant’s daughter Julie two years later.
During an inquiry hearing Wednesday before provincial coroner Catherine Rudel-Tessier, Surprenant outlined the extra steps he took when choosing where to live in Terrebonne two years before Julie was killed. The man who lived above them, Richard Bouillon, admitted on his deathbed in 2006 that he abducted Julie, killed her, placed her body in a sports bag and dumped it into the Mille Îles River. Julie’s body has never been found.
The girl’s father testified he chose to live on the street on Île St. Jean, part of the town of Terrebonne, because it ended on a circle and only local traffic would use it. He told the coroner he also asked the landlord about the other residents in the building.
“I was told that Mr. Bouillon was a car salesman,” Surprenant said.
But by 1999, Bouillon already had been convicted of several sexual offences, including some involving minors.
Surprenant said he rarely saw Bouillon before Julie disappeared in November 1999, and their exchanges were limited to “Hello.”
“So you had no way of knowing about the danger that lived above you,” Christian Hacquin, a lawyer for the coroner’s office, asked Surprenant.
“No,” the father replied.
Surprenant said that even if he had suspicions about Bouillon, he probably wouldn’t have found Bouillon’s criminal record on Quebec’s antiquated court record system. The database, available in any courthouse in Quebec, hasn’t changed in at least two decades and is not user-friendly.
Surprenant said that when he learned Bouillon had been a suspect in his daughter’s disappearance from the start of the investigation, he tried to research his neighbour but couldn’t figure out the database. He said he tried again in 2011 at the Laval courthouse, and still could not navigate the database.
“When I asked (staff) for help, they said they were too busy,” Surprenant said.
The issue of what information on convicted sex offenders is available to the general public represented the bulk of the testimony heard by Rudel-Tessier on Wednesday morning.
Sûreté du Québec Sgt. Gaétan Ruest is one of only two police officers mandated in this province to access a federal sex-offender registry. The registry, created by the federal government in 2005, is not accessible to the public.
The situation is the opposite in the United States. As an example, Ruest said, someone in New York who wants to find out if a convicted sex-offender lives in a certain neighbourhood can do the research using an Internet search engine like Google.
Answering questions from Surprenant’s lawyer, Marc Bellemare, Ruest said no other police officer, except for his partner, can access the database in Quebec. Trudel-Tessier asked Ruest where his partner was at that very moment; Ruest pointed to the back of the courtroom, where his partner sat. This meant if a police officer wanted to request a search of the register in an emergency situation Wednesday morning, the only two people in the province who could do so were in a Laval courtroom, several kilometres from the SQ’s headquarters, where the database is located.
This prompted Rudel-Tessier to throw her arms in the air in apparent exasperation.
Ruest said 5,400 sex offenders are currently listed in the part of the registry run by Quebec. More than 4,000 of the offenders are not behind bars. Changes made to federal law in 2011 require judges in Canada to order that the name of a person convicted of certain sex-related offences be placed in the registry for a periods of 10 or 20 years. In the worst cases, an offender can be ordered to be on the registry for life.
Ruest described the database as a useful tool for investigations, and cited a recent crime committed at a hotel in St. Hyacinthe as an example. The SQ had no suspects, so Ruest simply entered the hotel’s postal code into the registry. That search alone produced a list of 27 sex offenders who live within five kilometres of the hotel.