Cold cases leave families in the dark – The Gazette August 21, 2016

Jesse Feith – Montreal Gazette

After coming home from a night out, Nicole Monast could always spot a sliver of light coming from under her younger sister’s bedroom door.

Hélène, two years younger, would wait up to make sure she got home safely.

They’d share a coffee and chat into the early hours of the morning — about boys, school and what they wanted out of life.

For Hélène in the summer of 1977, there was nothing she wanted more than to turn 18 that September.

She dreamed of studying to become a veterinarian, but spent the summer packing beans at a cannery, working bingo nights at the local arena and babysitting as much as she could. She’d tell Nicole of how she craved the freedom and new adventures she figured would come with adulthood.

In the weeks leading to her birthday, she had already started scribbling the number 18 beside her name on the back of the pocket-sized, 25-cent photos she would take at the mall. 

When the day finally came, she celebrated in the afternoon with her parents and siblings at the family’s South Shore home in Chambly. 

They shared cake, gave presents and caught up: Nicole had married only a month earlier and moved out of the house they’d always shared. Planning a corn roast with her husband that night, she wanted to invite Hélène. 

But Hélène had plans with her friends,  and they went their separate ways. Hélène told Nicole to stay safe, something she had recently started telling her more and more. Nicole told her to enjoy her birthday.

The next morning, Hélène was found between trees in a park bordering the Chambly Canal, half-naked and severely beaten. A neighbour noticed her lifeless body from an upstairs window. Her blue jeans, shirt and shoes were found nearby, as were cigarettes and a pack of chewing gum. She had been strangled and it’s believed she was sexually assaulted. 

Nearly 40 years later, her family still doesn’t know what happened. 

And they’re not alone. Nicole recently added her voice to those of the families of seven other women killed in Quebec between 1975 and 1981. All cases that have gone unsolved, in which evidence has been lost or destroyed, and aging family members have been left feeling ignored or forgotten.

They’re asking for answers from the government and police, and they’re demanding changes to protocols they feel have left them in the dark for decades.

They want to make sure it never happens again. Because, they say, it’s one thing to have a loved one killed, but it’s another to have to spend a lifetime not knowing who’s responsible. 

****

Nicole Monast still takes the time to visit the grave of her sister, Hélène, who was killed in 1977. “I ask for strength, for help,” Nicole Monast says. “To help me keep looking, to send me signs. Anything.”
Nicole Monast still takes the time to visit the grave of her sister, Hélène, who was killed in 1977. “I ask for strength, for help,” Nicole Monast says. “To help me keep looking, to send me signs. Anything.” ALLEN MCINNIS / MONTREAL GAZETTE

It’s the lingering questions that bother Nicole the most. They nag, then go away, then show up out of nowhere and turn good days into bad ones.

“It’s been 38 years,” she says over a cup of coffee. “But you still constantly go over all these theories in your mind.”

Was Hélène killed at random or was it something planned? Was it someone who saw her that night, or someone who had targeted her for a while? Did she witness something she shouldn’t have? And why had she started telling Nicole to be safe all the time? 

That night, Hélène’s brother dropped her off at a local restaurant around 9 p.m. to meet up with a friend. He crossed paths with her later at another restaurant, Chez Marius — a popular casse-croute where young men revved their engines outside, trying to impress those inside.

Hélène was supposed to spend the night and next day at a house where her aunt was babysitting. She asked her brother for a quick ride home to pick up her jacket and a book before heading back out with her friend. 

Shortly after 11 p.m., Hélène wished her friend goodnight and walked a poorly lit street back to where she was staying.

Her aunt called the next morning to say that Hélène never came in. 

Her father, Roland, contacted the local police station to know if there had been any car accidents during the night.

“We thought it could be that,” Nicole says. “Because Chambly was a quiet place. It wasn’t a place where people were killed. And she led such a calm, normal life.”

Come afternoon, Roland was identifying his youngest daughter at the morgue. Because of the violence, he was only shown her face from the eyes up.

The killing shocked the family and town alike. Newspaper reports from the time describe dozens of anxious citizens lining the street near the crime scene to try to learn more about what happened. Theories, based more in rumour than fact, swirled and were forgotten.  

“The entire population of this peaceful town is in turmoil,” said one report, “trying by all means to find the despicable individual responsible.”

Hélène Monast had just turned 18 when she was murdered in 1977. (Allen McInnis / MONTREAL GAZETTE)
Hélène Monast had just turned 18 when she was murdered in 1977.  ALLEN MCINNIS /MONTREAL GAZETTE

They described Hélène as a young girl without any problems, who came from “an honest family with an excellent reputation among everyone in Chambly.”

Nicole’s brother called to tell her about Hélène that night. All she remembers is her body shaking so badly that she couldn’t hold the phone. Her husband tried to comfort her with a coffee she couldn’t drink. She had nightmares for months on end and became terrified of being alone. 

Her youngest brother, 11 at the time, “had never lost anyone,” Nicole says. He didn’t know what death was, and the family tried to shelter him from it.

Her mother, Lise, was distraught but tried to keep it together for her children. She hoped for the rest of her life that she would find out what happened.

She knew her chances were getting slimmer with each passing year, Nicole says, but at the same time, she thought improvements in forensic technology could lead to a breakthrough of sorts, that maybe time was actually on her side. 

When she died three years ago from liver complications, still without answers, she encouraged Nicole to keep looking. 

“He always had the biggest smile on his face, but from that point on he became … His smile just never came back.”

Nicole’s father, Roland, might have taken it the hardest.

He was always known as the “cool dad” in town, Nicole says — friends would visit and end up spending as much time with him as they would with the kids. 

He ran a popular snack bar — equipped with jukeboxes, pool tables and table football — that served hotdogs and fries. He made a living as a dynamite expert, but collected and resold scrap metal on the side. In the winter, he sold Christmas trees to the community — the family would joke about always ending up with the worst tree, because he was eager to sell the best to customers. 

He was only 46 when Hélène was killed, but never managed to return to work.

He spent his days carrying out his own searches instead, walking around Chambly or eavesdropping in restaurants and bars. He urged police to drag the entire canal next to where she was found for any possible clues. He couldn’t sleep. He’d keep binders full of information and punch the walls in anger after long days spent not finding anything. His marriage fell apart within five years, and he continued to search.

“It traumatized Mr. Monast,” says Hélène’s childhood friend, Pierrette Morin.

“He always had the biggest smile on his face, but from that point on he became … His smile just never came back.”

Hélène had been Morin’s first friend, meeting each other before they were old enough to ride bikes up and down the street their families shared.

She remembers how tense the funeral was. Instead of mourning, everyone was still trying to figure out what happened. 

“They thought maybe whoever did it would come by the funeral home and we wouldn’t even know it, there were so many people,” Morin said.

Someone left a bouquet of flowers but didn’t sign the card that was attached; everyone was suspicious.

Last September, to mark 38 years since the killing, provincial police opened a command post in the town, hoping to entice anyone with information to finally come forward.

Leading up to it, Morin helped Nicole plaster posters with Hélène’s picture at dépanneurs, grocery stores and parks, trying to jog people’s memory. 

She says she had some of the posters on her car seat recently when she parked to do groceries in Chambly.

People walking by noticed them.

“Oh, I remember her,” they said. “What ever happened with that?” 

****

There are two other unsolved killings, linked closely by time and place, that Monast can’t help but bring up when she talks about her sister.

Ten days after Hélène was killed, two young men walking by a bushy area next to a train station in Montreal found a 34-year-old woman’s body below a tree, her clothes removed and piled nearby. Katherine Hawkes had been beaten, sexually assaulted and left to die.

“It’s very rare cases are solved after so much time has passed. But if any case is solvable, it’s Katherine’s case,” Hawkes’s cousin, Nancy Hawker, says.

“It’s just not normal how someone who did that could go unpunished.”

The night Hawkes was killed, a man called Montreal police twice from a pay phone to tell them he had attacked a woman and left the body where she was found. Despite the calls, Hawkes was only found the next day when the two men alerted police.

“There’s so much evidence,” Hawker says. “You have a recording. Besides the guy walking into the station and saying I did it, what more do you want?”

A month later, 23-year-old Denise Bazinet’s body was found in a ditch by Highway 35, near the St-Luc exit, less than 15 minutes away from Chambly.

“Police started an investigation and quickly stopped, and we never heard about it again,” says Bazinet’s brother, Georges.

“My mother had 10 other young children to keep raising. We were poor. We never spoke about it because my mother didn’t want to. We had no money for a lawyer or whatever to help look into it,” he said.

“It’s just not normal how someone who did that could go unpunished.”

Police have told Monast through the years that there’s no link between the cases.

“But given the circumstances,” she says, “you can’t help but think about it sometimes.”

Hoping something would give, in April, Monast joined seven other Quebec families — including the Bazinets — who also lost relatives in unsolved crimes in asking for a public inquiry into the police methods used during their investigations.

It was one of the first times in 40 years that she met with families going through similar situations. She says it helped. 

“In the eyes of people who haven’t lived through what we have, it can seem ridiculous,” she says.

“They’ll say: ‘Come on, get over it, move forward, it’s been so long.’ They’ll discourage you, and it makes you feel like everything you’ve done will never lead to anything.”

So it was nice to know she wasn’t alone, she says. 

The families are represented by former justice minister turned lawyer Marc Bellemare, and besides calling for a public inquiry into the policing methods used, they agreed on five other requests.

They all, in some way, feel something went wrong during the investigations. 

Since many of the women came from underprivileged families, some feel the killings were never properly investigated or considered priorities. Others have since had police departments confirm evidence has been lost or destroyed. All have felt left in the dark by investigators throughout the years.

The families — of victims Sharron Prior, Louise Camirand, Joanne Dorion, Lison Blais, Theresa Allore, Roxanne Luce, Bazinet and Monast — are requesting the following: 

  • That all murder cases in Quebec be handled by the Sûreté du Québec;
  • That a protocol be put in place to conserve samples and exhibits from cases in one centralized location overseen by the Sûreté du Québec;
  • That police investigators receive better training in dealing with families;
  • That families be systematically informed about the cases;
  • And that after 25 years, if no one has been charged for the crime, families be allowed to have access to the investigation file with their lawyers.

“The killings date from a long time ago and the families have the impression that they’re completely abandoned,” Bellemare says in an interview. “They have no information. No follow-up from the police. And when you say that evidence has been destroyed, it raises a lot of concerns.

“The more time that goes by, the more they want answers. But in fact, the more time goes by, the less answers they get.”

Other than last year’s command post, the last time Monast was contacted by police about the case was in 2009, she says.

An officer showed up at her front door with photos of jewelry. They asked her is she recognized it as her sister’s. She couldn’t say. It had been 32 years at that point. She’s recently been told police are conducting polygraph tests on people who were initially interviewed following the crime, and analyzing photos from Hélène’s funeral. 

According to Sûreté du Québec spokesperson Martine Asselin, the provincial police’s cold case unit has 10 full-time investigators. In 2010, the police department established a structure that allows the unit to call on 250 investigators from the SQ’s major crimes unit when needed.

“The (cold case) unit’s mandate is to re-take cases and look at them from a different angle — to see if all the steps were followed and validate that each step was well done,” Asselin explained. That can include re-examining old notes on the case, going over remaining evidence and returning to talk to witnesses again. A fresh set of eyes alone can sometimes go a long way, Asselin said. 

“There’s always someone somewhere who knows something.”

There are a number of factors that lead to a file being transferred to the cold case unit, but in general, Asselin said, the unit takes over cases around five years after the initial investigation started.

The Sûreté du Québec considers it has roughly 800 unsolved homicides, dating back to the 1960s.

Asselin said the small unit has to juggle staying in touch with families and doing investigative work.

“There’s not one family that reacts the same way,” she said, “Some families would rather talk to the investigators each year, others will tell us to only ever call them if we have something new to tell them.”

It’s crucial families don’t give up hope, she said, adding that cases do get solved decades later. 

“There are a lot of elements that could lead to someone wanting to talk who never wanted to 30 years ago,” she said. “Maybe their situation has changed and they want to free themselves of what they know before dying.

“There’s always someone somewhere who knows something.”

Nicole agrees. It’s almost impossible that there isn’t someone out there who knows what happened to her sister, she says.

Maybe someone had one drink too many at a bar and started talking, she’s thought. Maybe a confession has been heard somewhere, or someone has bragged about it in prison. She has a hard time believing that someone could live with themselves for so long without ever telling anyone.

She’s also deeply aware that knowing could bring closure as easily as it could bring pain.

“You fear it could hurt,” she says, “It could be someone who we knew. I’m also scared it could go to the justice system and they could get a sentence that isn’t severe enough, because it’s been so long.

“Is it better to know, or not to? That’s impossible to answer,” she says. There’s also the chance, Nicole concedes, that given how long ago it was, whoever is responsible has since died.

“But I can’t mourn without knowing what happened,” she says. 

Hélène Monast is buried along a row of lean trees in the back corner of a once more intimate cemetery in Chambly. (Allen McInnis / MONTREAL GAZETTE)
Hélène Monast is buried along a row of lean trees in the back corner of a once more intimate cemetery in Chambly.  ALLEN MCINNIS / MONTREAL GAZETTE

When she does try to mourn, she knows where to go.

Hélène is buried along a row of lean trees in the back corner of a once more intimate cemetery in Chambly, one that’s lost its seclusion as the town has developed over the last 40 years.

A short drive from where Hélène was killed, the dark granite slab bears only a single inscription, engraved below a white dove: Hélène Monast, 1959-1977. Below the text is a plastic-covered piece of paper Nicole comes and replaces every now and again to make sure it stays intact. 

Hélène Monast’s naked body was found on Sept. 11, 1977, it reads. None of the leads explored during the investigation have helped solve the crime yet. A $2,000 reward is in place for any information.

Nicole still visits the grave at least a few times a year, she says, not always sure why.

“I ask for strength, for help,” she says. “To help me keep looking, to send me signs. Anything.”

A month ago, Nicole found herself going through her mother’s jewelry box for the first time since she died. She was surprised by what she found: a small golden name-tag with Hélène’s name engraved on it, from her time working at the arena.

Her mother had kept it all these years.

“I know it can seem a little strange,” Nicole says as she unclasps it from her purse, where she keeps it now. “But it felt like a reminder to not give up.”

****

Despite the many setbacks and false hopes, Nicole admits she’ll never be able to leave what happened to her sister alone. 

Promising leads have fizzled out or been debunked. Petitions to politicians have gone unanswered. A request to the town for a small plaque to honour Hélène was denied. Her calls for better lighting along the street and park where Hélène was killed have been ignored.

Nicole’s brothers were more the type to try to move on, she says. To try to forget and look forward. She admits to days where she wishes she could, too.

Nicole Monast visits her father Roland, 85, at a seniors’ home in Chambly. He was 46 when his youngest daughter, Hélène, was killed on her 18th birthday in 1977 “It’s a big piece of me that I lost. And it doesn’t go away. Not at all," he says. (Allen McInnis / MONTREAL GAZETTE)
Nicole Monast visits her father Roland, 85, at a seniors’ home in Chambly. He was 46 when his youngest daughter, Hélène, was killed on her 18th birthday in 1977 “It’s a big piece of me that I lost. And it doesn’t go away. Not at all,” he says.  ALLEN MCINNIS / MONTREAL GAZETTE

But she can’t help but keep hoping for an ending. Her father, for all it’s taken from him, does the same.

Ronald Monast, 85, lives out his days in old age home in Chambly, a five-minute drive between where his daughter was killed and where she was buried.

Walking into the home’s communal room, Nicole finds him asleep, sitting upward on a couch near the room’s windows. A television blares against the wall, a few other seniors play cards or sip on tea. 

Nicole approaches him and wakes him with a gentle pat on the back. Confused at first, his eyes widen as he recognizes her.  A smile wrinkles across his face. They hug and she guides him toward his room. 

“A crazy person must have been going by there. That’s all it can be.”

Suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, his memory seems to be worsening each passing day, Nicole says. But she knows he still remembers what happened.

He’s not allowed to talk about it at the old age home —  it’s too negative for the other people living there, he’s been told. But he carries a photo of Hélène around in his pocket every day.

And sometimes, when he thinks no one is watching, Nicole catches him take it out, close his eyes and gently press it against his lips.

In his room, one of the last remaining photos of Hélène  — of her blowing out candles on a cake for her 17th birthday — hangs on the wall. Another photo of her sits beside his medicine and bandages on a dresser. A custom-made calendar shows his two daughters riding horses.

As they speak, Roland shows all the traits that made him so popular among teenagers all those years ago. Witty and quick, he makes Nicole laugh with jokes about his age and by singing French love songs. She’ll later say that it was a good day.

She sits him down by a window as he thinks back to what happened.

“She loved animals,” he says of Hélène. “Loved animals: dogs and cats.”

Hélène loved children too, he says. “She was like Santa Claus,” he says, always bringing them gifts when she babysat.

“She loved animals,” he repeats, struggling to get his thoughts straight. “It was terrible how much she loved animals.”

Nicole stands up and asks him if he needs anything, but he frowns and tells her he’s fine.

“It was quite a thing,” he mumbles. He’s still always wondering why it happened to Hélène, he says, almost to himself. 

“A crazy person must have been going by there. That’s all it can be.”

He takes a deep breath, exhales and looks back out the window. He’s lucky he has other children, he says, pointing toward Nicole while she looks away.

“It’s a big piece of me that I lost. And it doesn’t go away. Not at all.”

Anyone with information about Hélène Monast’s case is asked to call Échec au crime at 1-800-711-1800. Anyone with information leading to an arrest could be eligible for a $2,000 reward.

jfeith@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/jessefeith

Lost or destroyed evidence: “They don’t explain it. They don’t admit their wrongdoing. And they haven’t ever apologized.”

Stéphane Luce was 13 years old, trying to sleep through stomach aches at a dormitory when his mother, Roxanne, was beaten into a coma at home in 1981. The attacker used a wooden stick wrapped in a garbage bag, held together by five pieces of electrical tape.

She was found the next morning, and died three days later in a hospital.

Police found the weapon beside a shed behind the apartment. But they’ve since lost the bag, the electrical tape and a fingerprint that was found on the weapon, Luce says.

A hair found on the weapon, Luce says he was told, was destroyed in 1983 in an effort to make room at the police laboratory in Montreal.

Luce hadn’t worried about his mother’s case until the late 90s, assuming police were on top of it.

“I listened to what police told me and didn’t ask any questions,” he says.

But his mother being a freelance photographer, he wondered what had happened to all her negatives. So in 1997, he went to the police headquarters to ask if they had them.

“It’s as if it’s branded with a hot iron on my subconscious.”

He found out about the hair and the fingerprint — two pieces of evidence he said his family never knew existed. Then he found out they had been lost or destroyed just as quickly.

“They don’t explain it. They don’t admit their wrongdoing, and they haven’t ever apologized,” he says. 

Longueuil police wouldn’t confirm which pieces of evidence are missing in Luce’s case, but said that some evidence was lost or destroyed when it was handed over to other organizations for expertise.

Unlike many cold cases, police have long had a suspect in mind for the case, Luce says. But police have told him that the destroyed or lost exhibits aren’t needed for the investigation.

“So I tell them: ‘Well, if you don’t need them, then why hasn’t there been an arrest?’”

He can try all he wants not to think about what happened to his mother and who did it, he said, but it still creeps into his thoughts almost every day.

“It’s as if it’s branded with a hot iron on my subconscious.”

In April, he joined seven other families in asking for the public inquiry into the policing methods used in their cases.

“I have the proof that it happens and I don’t want it to happen anymore,” Luce said. “If I have to live with the fact that my mother’s killing will never be solved, I want to at least make sure that kind of error doesn’t happen again.”

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