Today’s story is so good it writes itself. And for some of you from Montreal, you may be aware of the case of Debbie Robinson, and her death as the ultimate bitter punchline. What you may not know is its relation to another case, the unsolved murder of Theresa Pearson. So today’s story begins bitter, turns sweet, then bitter again.
We’re going today to the neighborhood of LaSalle on the island of Montreal, Quebec. Lasalle is a neighborhood on the southwest corner of Montreal. To the west is Lachine, then Dorval, then the West Island. To the north is Verdun, then Pointe Saint Charles.
As I said, many of you may remember the case of Debbie Robinson. What you may not know is exactly one year earlier almost identical circumstances played out in LaSalle, with a much less fortunate outcome. And keep in mind, today’s story is about two young women, and two very different murders.
The story of Theresa Pearson came to me from a friend of her family. This friend contacted me and asked if I could help her dig up any information on the case. After some digging, I told them I was interested, interested enough to do a podcast on the case. They replied, “what’s a podcast?”. So I sent them an example – the case of Francine Da Sylva. After that I never heard from them again. So…
Theresa “Terri” Pearson went missing on Wednesday, May 18th, 1983, one week before she was due to graduate from a secretarial course at LaSalle High School, also known at that time as College Lasalle, located on rue George. Pearson was planning to attend CEGEP in the Fall of 1983. The 19-year-old girl – who never drank, smoked, took drugs or “hung out” – was last seen getting off a city bus after school at the corner of boulevard Lasalle and 90th avenue. Her home – where she lived with her parents – was a two minute walk from the bus stop, a straight shot down Lasalle boulevard, which borders the Saint Lawrence river to Terrace Greenfield. The Pearson’s lived at the end of the cul-de-sac in a duplex at 9339 Terrace Greenfield.
Pearson’s body was found later that day in the underground garage of an apartment building at 9379 LaSalle boulevard. The apartment building is located a little further along, down the street from where she lived, about a 3 minute walk from the bus stop.
Pearson was identified by her Uncle, David Mooney, “I am the uncle. She was hit on her head in the garage of a building at #9379 Blvd Lasalle. I was advised by the police.”
Theresa Pearson’s body was found between two cars by a tenant around 4:00 pm, a few hours after she got off the bus two blocks away at LaSalle and 90e. She was found on her back, and died of a fractured skull and massive brain hemorrhage brought on by 10 blows to the head, possibly by a tire jack bar. Her schoolbag and books were found nearby. Her schoolbag contained $2. Her purse, which police believed contained no money, was missing. There were no obvious signs she had been sexually assaulted.
In the early days of the investigation, police were looking for a red car that was spotted in the alley beside the basement garage on LaSalle blvd. Police later discarded the lead when they were able to track down the owner, questioned him, and became convinced of his innocence.
Police later apprehended another man and subjected him to a lie detector test after concluding, “We didn’t think he was giving the right answers to our questions.” This lead ultimately went no where.
At her funeral that Victoria Day weekend family, friends and classmates seemed “dazed, confused – and angry”. Rev. Maurice Nerny of the Verdun United Church tried to express the grief of the crowd:
“I won’t try to find the words to describe what kind of a person Terri was. You were a part of Terri, and Terri is a part of you. That’s the best way to describe her.”
Theresa Pearson’s Coroner’s Report was signed August 9, 1983. It contained this curious statement:
“To date, despite all the research done by the investigators,
it is impossible to reconstruct the circumstances of this crime and
to identify the culprit (s). A public inquiry would be of no use.”
And with that, the book was closed on the case of Theresa Pearson. It’s been 36 years. Her murder remains unsolved.
Exactly one year later. We’re still in LaSalle. The same college / high school. Another graduation approaching. Another secretarial student goes missing.
18-year-old Debbie Robinson goes missing on Tuesday, May 22, 1984 around 6 a.m. after she had delivered 10 of about 40 papers on her route from her home at 1064 Sylvestre street in LaSalle. Debbie had been a carrier for the Montreal Gazette for about 5 years. The 1983 Christmas edition of The Gazette featured Debbie and a group of other carriers in a full page ad on December 16th:
Her mother, Glenda Robinson describes Debbie as, “a well-liked kid… She cooks, she sews. She would never take a lift with somebody she didn’t know.”
Debbie had just graduated from the secretarial program at LaSalle High School and was scheduled for a job interview with a local insurance company that afternoon. She never showed up.
Her newspaper bag with the undelivered papers were found in the driveway of the duplex where she lived. This duplex was under a 10 minute drive from where Theresa Pearson disappeared one year earlier:
Very quickly the community, police and the media pick up on the uncanny similarities between the disappearances of Debbie Robinson and Theresa Pearson. Both are teenagers from LaSalle. Both disappear close to their graduations, from the same secretarial program at the same school. Both knew each other at school. A student from LaSalle High School comments, “If I was one of the girls planning to take the course next year, I’d be scared.” Despite concerns, police feel the similarities are coincidental.
Though police search empty buildings, warehouses and wooded areas around LaSalle, they classify the case as a “missing person” and “a part of their normal police work”. Within 48 hours the Robinson family is critical of police efforts, voicing concern the police are “keeping too low a profile and aren’t putting enough personnel on the case.”
On May 25th, The Montreal Gazette offers a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the disappearance of their carrier, Debbie Robinson. The case is now assigned to Montreal detectives specializing in kidnap and extortion cases. Almost immediately a $100,000 ransom demand is made by an anonymous caller to police.
Later that evening – On Friday, May 25th, 3 days after she first disappeared – a miracle. Debbie Robinson is found safe.
Angus and Annie Dickson return home from a two-week vacation in Toronto. Checking the basement, Mr. Dickson notices that the door to the basement furnace room is bolted. Unbolting the door he finds Debbie on the concrete floor of the eight by four foot room housing an oil tank. The Dicksons live at 1073 Belec Ave. almost immediately behind the Robinson’s Sylvestre street home, 60 metres from where she disappeared from her front driveway:
Debbie Robinson tells police she had been hit on the head and knocked unconscious while doing her morning paper route that Tuesday morning. She didn’t see her captors, didn’t know how she ended up in the basement closet. She was left with a jug of water and a small milking stool.
Later, Annie Dickson told the press she had an intuition about Debbie Robinson. Having read about the abduction in the Toronto papers, when she got home she immediately sent her husband to check on the furnace room: “I sent my husband down to look… and there she was. She fell into his arms.”
During the nearly 4-day ordeal hundreds of volunteers showed up to search for Debbie including friends, strangers, former Gazette paper carriers, and the mother of a young girl who was brutally raped and murdered in the spring of 1975, Yvonne Prior.
A neighbor of the Dickson’s comments in an interview with La Presse that he was at his residence and parked his car on the street in front of their Belec home all that week; he heard no screams, no noise, and did not observe anyone coming or going from the residence.
By the following week police are tight-lipped about the investigation. Det.-Sgt. Gilbert (Buddy) Gagnon states that until the kidnapping is solved police do not intend to discuss the case further. He calls reports that police will put Robinson under hypnosis to answer questions surrounding her disappearance “imaginative”.
The next day, police announce that Debbie Robinson has agreed to undergo hypnosis and to take a lie detector test. Debbie’s mom says Debbie has “nothing to hide”. All she can remember is that she was struck on the back of the head by two masked men who visited her three times during her captivity.
June 4, 1984 Debbie Robinson is administered a lie detector test by the SPVM . Montreal police won’t say why Robinson was asked to take the “controversial experiment”.
“All I can tell you is that the case is still being treated as a kidnapping”, says Det.-Sgt. Pierre Tetreault.
Debbie says she agreed to take the test to help clear up any doubts about her mysterious abduction. Debbie’s parents say they are “fed up” with the grueling hours of interrogation police have put their daughter through. Debbie begins to breakdown and cry before television cameras which catch her leaving the police headquarters.
In an editorial in the June 4th Montreal Gazette, LaSalle resident P. Boisvert writes that police handling of the case was “monumental in its inefficiency”.
“They gave the people who were out searching for Debbie no help at all. If anything, they hindered our efforts….. The only time there was any obvious police involvement was on Friday evening after Debbie had been found. Then the street swarmed with police. Where were they on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday?”
The final insult was on Thursday night when two of my neighbors arrived home at 3 a.m. after having searched all day and night. They came out of their homes on Friday morning and found parking tickets on their cars. What were police thinking of to be ticketing cars on that particular street?”
On June 9th popular Montreal journalist Ted Blackman voices similar complaints in his Gazette column. I’m going to include the majority of the article because it rings a deafening bell in our current climate with Quebec police. See if this sounds familiar:
“Several valid questions were raised after the abduction of The Gazette carrier [Debbie Robinson] in LaSalle.
How quickly did police move? Why did it take some 36 hours for her status to move from “missing person” to “suspected abduction” and only then bring in expert kidnapping detectives? Did this delay preclude a systematic search of unoccupied homes?
In short, was the [Montreal Urban Police] sleeping at the switch and leaving one family’s agonizing predicament to the luck of routine patrols instead of the experienced detail work of specialized detectives?
We don’t have these answers. We don’t have them because every question on the matter was directed by MUC police away from the officers involved and to the department’s public relations office. In this case, to Constable Charles Poxon. [here you can sub in Guy Lapointe, Martine Asselin, or any of the litany of police public relation puppets that have come after him]
Now Charlie Poxon is a fine guy who busts his butt. He takes reporters’ calls, he’s available for radio interviews.
He explained patiently that police followed policy formulated by commanding officers. The Debbie Robinson investigation was handled “according to the book.”
Who wrote the book? Is the book well written? If not, will the authors stand up to its inspection? Poxon is not at liberty to answer under current procedures. All inquiries are directed to him. even if you track down a detective who dissents
“Can’t say a word, call public relations,” a station house cop replies to the most routine query. “They’ll bust me a rank if I’m caught talking to the media.”
In this way, the upper echelon of the MUC police has protected itself from accountability in a way that would astonish the public in the U.S, where elected sheriffs and district attorneys are properly grilled over the efficiency of investigations”
Again, I’ll remind you that was written in 1984.
On June 16th 1984 The Montreal Gazette runs a full page article in their Saturday edition on the fallibility of lie detector tests. “How lie detectors can twist the truth” warns that lack of regulations puts individuals reputations “under clouds”. At the time, there are no fixed standards for lie-detectors in Quebec, and the Supreme Court of Canada said results of such tests are inadmissible as evidence in criminal proceedings. Recall that in the Theresa Pearson case a suspect was apprehended and subjected to a lie detector test, but police let them go.
The following month on July 28th, 1984 the Montreal Urban Community police announce that Debbie’s case is closed. An uncle comments that Debbie is resting at the family cottage and, “She seems to have put everything behind her.”
Police Constable, Normand Belair addresses the situation:
“We have no leads or information that makes it of any interest for us to go forward in the investigation.”
The article closes by mentioning that although Debbie hadn’t eaten for four days, “She refused an offer of food from detectives the night she was found. She was given a lie-detector test – and passed.”
Debbie Robinson went on to a very successful career with an insurance brokerage company. She got married and had a child. Rather than telling you the rest of the story, I’ll read from an article written about Debbie by Montreal Gazette columnist, Peggy Curran. Curran had been following Debbie’s life for over 25 years. On May 3, 2011 she wrote this article It’s an extraordinary story, and I can’t improve on Peggy Curran’s words. I’ll pick up toward the end:
Turning back to the Theresa Pearson case, which is still unsolved. The geography of that case is very tight, very clustered. It gets you thinking that someone who lived in the neighborhood might have committed the murder. Which is why I’m including the address and telephone directories of the people who lived in that area in 1983-84. Maybe someone else can do some investigation, and put the pieces together: