Have you ever played Clue? This is a detective game that asks participants to discover the murderer, the location, and the murder weapon. The results can be:
“Miss White did it in the library with the candlestick!” or “I accuse Colonel Mustard of the murder; he did it in the kitchen with a knife!” or “I suspect Miss Scarlett, in the lobby, with the revolver!” and so on.
In the coroner’s inquest into the murder of Carole Fecteau and those of Raymond Grimard and Manon Bergeron, one sometimes has the impression of being at the heart of an enigma where the avenues seem endless because of the many twists and turns.“Les trois meurtres: avenues sans fin”, La Tribune, 16 Septembre, 1978
Reach back and recall the opening of Patricia Pearson’s series in the National Post, Who Killed Theresa?” Her first sentence was, “We tend to think of unsolved mysteries as a parlour game.” 24 years earlier, Sherbrooke 1978, the editors of La Tribune were likening the murders of Grimard, Bergeron and Fecteau to a game of Clue. Why care about these small-time hoods and drug peddlers? Because they may hold the key to solving your greatest personal mystery – the one you cannot solve is the one that keeps your heart from mending. The one that propels you and keeps you halted in place and time.
Calisse de merde
In his infinite wisdom, coroner Jean-Pierre Rivard decided his inquiry would be a three-fer: the murder inquests of Raymond Grimard, Manon Bergeron and Carole Fecteau would all be done together. Whether this was done for thrift and expedience, or under pressure from police is unknown, but the result the creation of a gordian knot of confusion, it was hard to separate the “twists and turns” of all the testimonies and determine what information belonged with what potential criminal process. How do you argue three at once, if the whole purpose of the coroner process is to determine whether or not a criminal act was actually even committed, and by whom? What if the conclusion is three different assassins? Coroner Rivard had an answer for that too. His process had already pre-determined the identity of the guilty party: Fernand Laplante.
By now you should be all wondering, who was this Fernand Laplante? He wasn’t any mother nature’s son. Laplante certainly was no stranger to the Sherbrooke criminal underworld. In 1965, at the age of 20 he served a six month sentence at St. Vincent de Paul penitentiary for the burglary of a Coaticook garage. In 1969 he received another two years for breaking and entering. Apparently the charge never stuck. In 1970 Laplante and his partner, Gaston Brochu were caught red-handed with $27,000 worth of mens clothing from a Magog haberdashery stashed in the trucks of their cars. In 1971 he attempted to burgle the home of a small arms collector, again in Magog. By 1974 Laplante had racked up fifteen convictions when he was again arrested for attempting to steal a safe from the Felix market in Sherbrooke. Robbery, burglary, breaking and entry; but not murder.
After the July 1978 attempted bank heist in Hatley (to which Laplante was a party along with Jean Charland), and the murders of Grimard and Bergeron which quickly followed two days later, police arrested Laplante on August 3rd in Montreal during another attempted hold-up. Someone who worked closely on the cases of Grimard and Bergeron told me police suspected Laplante of committing murders in his past, but not these murders, “It didn’t matter that he hadn’t killed Grimard and Bergeron – they wanted him so badly.”
Jean-Pierre Rivard began his coroner’s inquest in late August 1978. The star witness was Jean Charland. At first, Charland’s testimony went smoothly. He told the court how he was unemployed, how Carole Fecteau was his little brother’s girlfriend and that he had seen Fecteau two or three times “at the most”, and how he and his brother and “two other guys” had stolen Hélène Larochelle’s vehicle (Fecteau’s roommate).
When questioning turned to Fernand Laplante things became strange. Charland stated that he knew the guy, that he was usually armed, and that he had lent Laplante $160 so he could buy a .32 caliber revolver. When prosecutor Michel Côte continued to press Jean Charland about Fernand Laplante, Charland suddenly cried out, “the seven-page statement I gave to the police is false from one end to the other. I was tired and I made it because the police had told me that Laplante had taken me in, up to my neck and I wanted to take him in too!”
For the uninitiated, what Charland meant was that police told Charland that Leplante had blamed him for the murders, so then Charland turned on Laplante and said that it was in fact he who killed the three victims. Lying to a witness during a police interrogation is generally frowned upon because there is no scientific evidence that the technique produces results, but it is not illegal. When questioning resumed, Charland again reiterated that everything he had said about Fecteau was true, but that all the information that came after it about Laplante was false.
Undeterred by these outbursts – which was clearly perjury – the court continued, and Coroner Rivard blithely called his next witness, 20-year-old Claire Dussault. Laplante and Dussault were only recently married that summer. The scene in court was repeated almost identical to Charland’s eruption. Claire Dussault-Laplante started calmly, stating she had known Carole Fecteau since February, 1978. She talked of how shortly before her disappearance, she accompanied Fecteau to pick up some hashish. The questioning then turned to Fernand Laplante. Dussault-Laplante was coaxed to say that her husband had taken a trip to Coaticook, near the site where Fecteau’s body was discovered in East Hereford. At this point Claire Dussault cut off her testimony, saying it was all false, and how she had been molested and beaten by police into giving false statements (striking a witness under interrogation is illegal).
Following this second interruption of Rivard’s kangaroo court, the coroner immediately adjourned the inquiry until September 15, presumably so that police could administer some additional persuading of their star witness, Jean Charland. Recall that when Carole Fecteau’s roommate was questioned, Hélène Larochelle mentioned that Fecteau was fearful of two people she referred to as “Claire and Fern”. We can surmise that she meant Claire Dussault and Fernand Laplante, but one now wonders how much Larochelle was “coached” by police into giving this answer, given that both Dussault and Charland refused to testify because they felt their testimony had been coerced by police. As we shall see, this was a pattern with the Townships Sûreté du Québec that calls into question all of their investigations from this era.
Three weeks later when the inquest resumed, Charland didn’t appear any more sure of his statements. He talked of an Oldsmobile he had sold to Laplante, and of Raymond Grimard’s Cadillac, which they had used to go to Montreal. This was most assuredly the Cadillac found at the Lennoxville Golf Course, registered under his girlfriend’s name, Manon Bergeron. Mostly Charland just stated that he didn’t know very “much”, or he didn’t remember “anything”. Never mind Charland’s sudden amnesia, the SQ would soon come up with a method to make sure he remembered.
Claire Dussault was called back to testify, but her statements were a repeat of her first appearance: small talk, but few incriminating details. She spoke of an incident that occurred in early July outside the Moulin Rouge where she accidentally backed the car she was driving into a motorcycle belonging to the Gitans. After her marriage to Fernand on July 14, the couple spent most of their time in St-Denis-de-Brompton until her husband’s arrest on August 3 in Montreal. Any of the information she had provided to officers about Fernand Laplante’s involvement in the murders of Fecteau, Grimard and Bergeron was all “blabbering” and “a bunch of lies” she told investigators because she was molested and beaten by them.
Proven to the satisfaction of the coroner
On October 16, 1978 Coroner Jean-Pierre Rivard held Fernand Laplante criminally responsible for the violent deaths of Raymond Grimard and Manon Bergeron, and Carole Fecteau. In late December 1978, Laplante was charged with three counts of first-degree murder, with a trial set for January 1979. If found guilty, Laplante faced a sentence of life imprisonment.
When you look at Coroner Jean-Pierre Rivard’s official verdicts for all three murders, all dated October 16, 1978, what strikes you is the uniformity of all three documents. They could have almost been done using carbon paper in triplicate. Three distinct murders in two different places at two different times. Two victims shot, one bludgeoned and strangled to death; yet only one party responsible.
It was a sprint to judgement. The coroner and police hastily and aggressively drew the conclusion that only one man was responsible for all the uncharacteristic violence that took place over the course of a couple of weekends in June and July 1978. The evidence was clearly pointing to several parties involved. There was already evidence of a criminal underworld that worked in groups; the hotel shakedown in January, the casing of the bank in Hatley two days before the Grimard and Bergeron murders, Fecteau selling drugs for both Charland and Grimard. Yet it was “proven to the satisfaction” of the coroner that Fernand Laplante was the only guilty party.
At the close of the year, Jean-Pierre Rivard unexpectedly announced that he was stepping down as coroner effective December 31, 1978. Rivard called the work of the coroner, “thankless”, and in its announcement, La Tribune reminded the public that “a coroner always works behind the scenes of death”. Perhaps a rebuke to Rivard – and the ones pulling his strings – that he had become too much the focus of attention. A coroner in Quebec was often a lawyer, rarely a medical professional. Rivard was neither, learning the trade while a professional notary before fading into obscurity.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with the Quebec criminologist, Jean Claude Bernheim. He told me in the era of the 1970s the coroner worked with police forces, and that the coroner, “made decisions not on facts but in the interests of the police.” He said that when police officers were involved in a case the coroner always took the side of law enforcement: “If you don’t respond to the coroner, you can be held responsible, and your testimony can be used against you.” I asked him if it were possible for a coroner to lie in the interests of the police, and Bernheim responded immediately, “Fully”.
What agitated police more than anything in this entire process was Laplante’s steadfast refusal to play his part as the fall-guy in a preordained outcome. Laplante would not testify at Rivard’s coroner’s inquest, even though he was subpoenaed to do so. During the testimonies by his wife and Charland, he shouted in court that “he did not know anything, did not know why he was there and before he went on board, he wanted to know what had been said about him in his absence”. Not only did Coroner Rivard declare Laplante criminally responsible for all three murders and fit to stand trial, he cited Laplante with contempt of court and sentenced him to one year in jail for refusing to testify at his inquest. Fifteen years later when Laplante was appealing his guilty verdict for the Grimard and Bergeron murders, a contrite Fernand Laplante, then serving his life sentence in a Maritime penitentiary, said he “had paid dearly for his lack of cooperation.” I’ve skipped ahead to what you all should have guessed eventually occurred, but Laplante’s guilty verdict was the least surprising element of his trial, as we shall soon see.
It’s the stuff that breaks your heart, but wipe away your tears and focus your attention on one important detail. Rivard’s one year sentence for contempt occurred in October 1978. Meaning Laplante was in prison all through the month of November 1978. Therefore he could not have played any part in the murder of Theresa Allore, or her disappearance on November 3, 1978.
But someone was free and operating in the Sherbrooke community in November 1978. The man who fingered Laplante: Jean Charland.