When Coroner Jean-Pierre Rivard adjourned his inquiry into the murders of Raymond Grimard, Manon Bergeron, and Carole Fecteau on October 16, police were still without a cooperative witness that would confirm their version of the darkness that transpired in late June and early July of 1978. Three weeks later they would have their compliant witness.
On November 10, 1978 someone attempted to set fire to the Aloha Motel in Rock Forest. You’ll recall Rock Forest as a bedroom community to the west of Sherbrooke (five years later it would become the setting of another motel drama: the massacre of two carpet layers by police at the Motel Chatillion). Tragedy was averted, the Sûreté du Quebec just happened to be across the street before the blaze was ignited. Police immediately arrested a nineteen-year-old suspect leaving the scene of the attempted arson: Jean Charland. Welcome to the world of Sherbrooke subterfuge (AKA S-Town), where even the police play a part in the underhanded shenanigans.
Charland pleaded not guilty and opted for a trial by judge and jury. Police tagged on charges of impaired driving and a hit and run. Agents from the Sûreté du Quebec reportedly saw Charland heading towards the motel located at 5790 Bourque Boulevard with two cans in his hands. In one of the rooms, police discovered a lighted candle and the two cans containing gasoline. Charland was apprehended, and the investigation was handed over to Réal Châteauneuf, the agent who just happened to be also assigned to the cases of Raymond Grimard and Manon Bergeron, and Carole Fecteau; the same agent who had followed the bank heisters to Hatley just prior to the Grimard-Bergeron murders.
What we know of these events would eventually come out in the trial of Fernand Laplante, set for January 1979, but subsequently postponed until that spring. I’m jumping ahead here because it’s important to know that these events played out over the weekend of November 10, 1978, during the time that Theresa Allore went missing, and her story was first reported in the local newspapers.
To begin with, Jean Charland was an arsonist of herostratic proportions well before the Aloha Motel incident. He was accustomed to receiving payments for contracts to burn down establishments where the owners (or the mob that controlled them) wished to liquidate the business and cut-and-run with the insurance proceeds. Charland was suspected of setting a fire at a Wellington Street South hotel. He may have played a part in the October blaze at the Ripplecove Inn in Ayer’s Cliff that killed 12 guests. So I have no problem believing Jean Charland accepted a contract to burn down the Aloha Motel. The question is, who put out the contract? Was it the owner, Paul Bergeron, as the police would have you believe, or was it someone who had a specific interest in setting-up Jean Charland so he would testify against Fernand Laplante? To put a blunt point on the question, did the Sûreté du Quebec, through an intermediary, put out a contract on the Aloha Motel? Because it sure looks like it.
In the aftermath of the Aloha Motel fire, Charland was effectively put under house arrest, confined to his parents’ home and ordered to obey a one o’clock curfew. Judge Yvon Roberge required that the 19-year-old meet every Thursday with agent Réal Châteauneuf. In other words, Chaland was to meet weekly with the Sûreté du Québec every week for 6 months until he finally got his story straight. If the Quebec legal process had shown this level of concern when Charland was merely a petty criminal there might never have been three murders committed in 1978 Sherbrooke. It’s important to note here that Jean Charland too was set to stand trial as a co-conspirator in the three 1978 summer murders, but where Laplante was clamped down, Charland was allowed to walk free and roam the streets of Sherbrooke doing as he willed; drug dealing, setting fires, and getting shot at (we’ll get to that).
At the trial in April 1979, even though he testified against Laplante, Charland equally admitted that he believed the police had set him up to perform the “arson contract on November 10 at the Motel Aloha, the purpose of which was to make [me] talk.” In fact, Charland only made a statement incriminating Fernand Laplante in the murder of Carole Fecteau on November 11, the day after the Aloha fire. Charland pointed out that he found it curious that the police arrested him at the scene, and he believed “in that moment and still thinks today that it was ‘a frame up’ to get [me] talking”.
Fire in the hole
If a business was paying out, through drug distribution or money laundering, there was no need to do anything. But if a business was dying or bled dry, better to take the one-time insurance cash and burn the place down. Sometimes it was just for revenge, or to take out a competitor. Arson could also get complicated, sometimes involving the darker side of municipal redevelopment and urban renewal.
In the late 1970s, arson was a tool of choice in the Townships underworld. In January 1977, The Lantern Inn in Georgeville, Quebec was destroyed by flames, but its popular nightclub, the discothèque La Poupée survived, only to be burned to the ground three years later. Later that fall someone set fire to Martin Furriers on Rue Frontenac in a blaze initially thought to be connected to the Charles Marion kidnapping. Nineteen-seventy-eight saw the Ripplecove Inn fire in Ayer’s Cliff. Arson was again suspected in a February 1979 blaze that raised the Royal Hotel at the corner of Belvedere and Minto (across from the Fusiliers armory). Then in April 1st, fire destroyed the Woolworth’s building at 79 Wellington North. In mid April, the Sherbrooke Fire Department reported that 1978 was the worst year for fires in the city’s history. Material losses rose from $900,000 in 1977 to $2.5 million in 1978. 437 fires were reported in the city with per capita losses costing each of Sherbrooke’s 86,000 residents $29.
By the end of the summer of 1979 police finally managed to catch a bone fide serial arsonist. Patrick Baron was charged with second degree murder for a fire that killed two women, including his 19-year-old girlfriend. Baron admitted to setting fires in Montreal and Sherbrooke while out on leave from the Pinel Psychiatric Institute.
In addition to the Aloha fire, in April 1979, Jean Charland was suspected of setting a fire at a janitorial building at 83 Wellington Street South. Then later that June he did it again, igniting a blaze in the neighboring building at 79 Wellington Street South. For this job, Charland had a partner, Mario Vallières (ya, Charland and Grimard’s drug supplier). They received two grand to burn down a unit that housed nine apartments, a grocery store and a sex shop. At the time of these fires, Charland was preparing, then had just completed being the Crown’s star witness in the trial of Fernand Laplante, and was under special protection by the Sûreté du Québec. So apparently you could continue to break the law so long as the local police provided justice for crimes of their choosing (I’ve added the locations of these fires to our Google map).
Pay any price just to get you
What came out at trial was something not revealed at the time of the Aloha Motel fire: Jean Charland had a partner in the arson plot. This was a man who at the time the Sûreté du Québec desperately wished to remain anonymous. Even today, I suspect parties in this whole affair would prefer that I not identify him. So I’m gonna identify him. His name is Regis Lachance, and this is what he told the court on May 2, 1979:
43-year-old Regis Lachance had a prior criminal record with convictions for gross indecency, fraud, theft, and breaking and entering. He said he had taken a contract to set the Aloha Motel fire from someone named Carrier who he had seen only two or three times ( this would be 25-year-old Normand Carrier who would eventually get 6 months for setting a fire in an apartment belonging to Mr. Orphir Phaneuf, Phaneuf committing the offense of not renting a unit to Carrier’s girlfriend). Lachance said he was to be paid a total of $5,000 after the job was completed, and received $2,500 in advance. Lachance accompanied Charland, who he had hired to do the job, first to a gas station to purchase gas and then to a Brasserie near the Woolco shopping centre, where they had a few beers before proceeding to the Aloha around 9:30 p.m. (for those keeping score, yes,this is the same Woolco where in 1983 police found the vehicle containing a shotgun and discarded clothing which eventually led to the whole cockup at the Motel Chatillon).
Charland was driving a car belonging to Lachance’s sister. Lachance testified that he didn’t ride with him, “because I was afraid of him and he was pretty full of beer too”. I’m having a hard time understanding why a 43-year-old would be scared of a 19-year-old kid, but let’s continue. Lachance explained that he instead took a taxi to the motel. He entered the motel bar and proceeded down the passageway to unit 3 which he had rented earlier that day. He found Charland in the room and when everything was ready and a candle was lit and placed near some gas, he again left the way he had come in.
Charland went out the outside door (as we’ve seen with the Rock Forest Affair, this style of motel had a dual entrance) and was arrested immediately by officers Daniel Hébert and Réal Châteauneuf who cocked a 12-gauge shotgun in his face. Charland was bemused and visibly drunk. Lachance claimed he had seen a tow truck taking his sister’s car down the highway as he stood hitchhiking from the Aloha. He followed it to a garage where he was informed that the police had taken possession of it at the scene of a crime. You don’t have a tow truck at-the-ready unless the entire operation was pre-ordained. Lachance was never questioned by police for his part in the motel fire. Nor did the mysterious ‘Carrier’ ask for his $2,500 advance back, which Lachance claimed to have already spent. He denied knowing the whole thing was set up by police to get Charland, while admitting he was practically friends with the arson investigator, agent Plourde. In fact, Lachance seemed to be on good speaking terms with many members of the Sûreté du Québec.
At the SQ headquarters, Charland gave a simple statement to officer Réal Châteauneuf about the Aloha case. Châteauneuf then turned matters, and asked Charland why he had retracted a statement given to the coroner on August 23 concerning the death of Carole Fecteau (wait, this is now about Fecteau? How’d that happen?). Charland refused to answer. It was close to midnight, and at this point the officers ordered lunch for Charland, consisting of fried chicken and three pints of beer ( the chicken, no doubt supplied by Pat’s KFC just down the street from the HQ). Recall that both Regis Lachance and the arresting officers said that Charland was already visibly drunk from the beers at the Woolco brasserie. After ‘lunch’, Châteauneuf then asked Charland if he knew anything about the murders of Raymond Grimard and Manon Bergeron, and then offered the young man police protection in exchange for his statement. Charland had already been shot at a number of times around King and Wellington in the months after the murders, someone in the underworld was apparently attempting to silence him. At this point the police used the word “bargain” to imply Charland would be protected in exchange for a cooperating statement. At approximately two in the morning, November 11, 1978, Jean Charland wrote his statement incriminating Fernand Laplante for the murders of Grimard, Bergeron and Fecteau.
Securing a false statement from a witness under hours of interrogation, while drunk and offering false bargains of protection maybe something covered under the Reid technique, but it’s never been proven as an effective technique to extract a confession under any scientific scrutiny. If the role of a police investigator is to, well, actually fucking investigate, then why not try that?
So what did Charland say happened? If you’re thinking that it’s odd that we’re at this point in our story – 5 months into the story, 4 chapters into this tale – and we still don’t know exactly what happened to our three victims, you’re right – It’s odd. It’s really fucking odd.
And a gentle reminder here, while local police were “still wondering about the fate of Theresa Allore” on November 14, 1978, Jean Charland and Regis Lachance, two criminals with many prior convictions, were on the loose and left to their devices all through the month of November; during Theresa’s disappearance on November 3, right up to Charland’s arrest on November 10. And even after that, Charland was “ordered” to stay with his parents and Lachance remained free, he was never charged with anything in connection with the Aloha Motel fire, even though it was clearly Lachance who rented unit number 3. Recall that the guy police pegged as suspect number 1 in all of this, Fernand Laplante was at this time in prison serving a one year sentence for contempt of court, so he clearly had nothing to do with Theresa Allore’s disappearance or the motel fire. Why did a guy like Regis Lachance, a career criminal get to walk away scott-free from the scene of an arson? Unless he was working for the police.
I’ll add here that by now, I’m sure all of this sounds a little looney tunes, the product of an over-active imagination. Consider this: everything I’ve told you this far is backed up with evidence by then defense attorney Jean-Pierre Rancourt, the private investigator from that era named Robert Beullac, and today’s Sûreté du Québec cold case investigators. We’ll get there, I’m getting ahead of myself.
In September 1979, the owner of the Aloha Motel. Paul Bergeron, filed a $300,000 civil claim against officers from the Estrie district of the Sûreté du Québec for arrest without warrant, illegal detention and mistreatment suffered on November 10, 1978 as well as for humiliation, loss of profits and the forced sale of his motel. Réal Châteauneuf was not named in the suit which included Sergeant Pierre Marcoux and agents Daniel Hébert, Robert Lauzon, Guy Lessard, all officers with hands in the Aloha case as well as the summer murders of Grimard, Bergeron and Fecteau.
In the legal action Bergeron detailed how he had bought the Aloha Motel in 1967. How on the evening of November 10, 1978 he was arrested by Officer Hébert who took him to room no. 3 where the fire had started. There he was met by six or seven SQ officers who accused him of being complicit in the arson, one of them stating, “you have been dying for long enough, but you have gone too far”.
Bergeron was taken to headquarters on Don Bosco, detained and interrogated in a small office. He alleged that the police insisted on asking him “how much did you pay to burn down your motel?” According to Bergeron, Sergeant Marcoux, who was leading the interrogation, told him “Paul, you might as well admit it; we saw the gas and the candles in the room.” He mentioned to the officer that he had rented room No. 3 to an elderly person in his fifties (Regis Lachance), who claimed that the heating system in his residence was defective. According to Bergeron, Sergeant Marcoux insisted to him “say that you rented it to a young person” (Charland), which Bergeron refused to do. If the SQ was capable of such witness tampering, it is easy to now imagine them strong-arming Hélène Larochelle into saying her roommate, Carole Fecteau was scared of a “Claire and Fern”.
It was at this point that officers began to beat Paul Bergeron. He received blows and slaps on each side of the head from his interrogator. Sergeant Marcoux repeated to him “you are going to speak” and continued to hit him in the head and in the face. The assault continued with officers pulling his hair and slamming his face into the cell wall. Bergeron pointed out that Constable Guy Lessard witnessed the scene and encouraged his colleague (Lessard would soon become one of the officers ‘investigating’ Theresa Allore’s murder). According to Bergeron, agent Lessard explained to him that “[they] weren’t trying to “frame” him but wanted to get details because he was a victim.” The hotelier added that he was locked in a cell, though charged with no crime, and the officers continued to beat him to the ground and trample him, all the while drinking beer and playing with their guns and cards. After a six-hour interrogation, Sergeant Marcoux told Bergeron, “We are good guys, but others will arrive later and they may not be as good”. Marcoux then said that his insurance would be canceled and that an uninsured motel was without value.
In January 1981 the Quebec Police Commission held a public inquiry into the conduct of Sergeant Pierre Marcoux, as well as Officers Guy Lessard and Robert Lauzon of the Sûreté du Québec. Agent Réal Chateauneuf then joined the fray and attempted to discredit Bergeron, now claiming that on the night of November 10, he “was drunk, staggered slightly and had a hesitant step”. At the conclusion of the inquiry in 1982, Sergeant Pierre Marcoux and constable Robert Lauzon were ordered to pay $7,500 in restitution to Paul Bergeron. Also implicated in the case was Quebec Justice Minister Marc Andre Bedard, who on behalf of the government was ordered to share the cost of the restitution, which was nowhere near Bergeron’s original lawsuit for $300,000. Bergeron was eventually forced to sell the Aloha Motel due to his financial difficulties. It is worth noting that by this time the incident at the Rock Forest Motel was only a year away. The owner of the Chatillon Motel in that affair would also go bankrupt due to police fuckery.
What was missing in the reporting on Paul Bergeron’s legal action against the Sûreté du Québec was any mention of the men who attempted to set fire to the Aloha Motel: Regis Lachance and Jean Charland. Without that information, the public could never connect that Bergeron’s suit was one more example of the police’s attempts to fabricate a narrative in the miscarriage of justice against Fernand Laplante. When you add up the evidence – the beating and harassment of Bergeron, the coercion of a confession from Charland by getting him drunk and the frame-up for the arson, the use of Lachance as a willing rube in the scheme – it all points to a police force desperate to convict a man at any cost. But the public never saw this. They were never provided the tools to decide for themselves.
Nineteen-eight-two was a long way from 1978. After winning their fourth consecutive Stanley Cup in 1978-79, in 1982 the Montreal Canadiens were eliminated in the first round by the upstart Quebec Nordiques. By 1982, René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois had largely abandoned their sovereigntist roots. ABBA, Blondie, The Doobie Brothers, The Jam, The Knack, The Sweet all called it quits in 1982. By this time, even I was a long way from Quebec, preparing to enter my first year of college in Ontario. When Paul Bergeron was finally awarded $7,500, all the facts had been trampled underfoot in a rush to judgment. All the important details were forgotten.
Now when I say this was a miscarriage of justice, ultimately, a miscarriage of justice against who? Next time: The trail of Fernand Laplante.