Solving for X
I have some follow-up thoughts on the 1985 murder of Francine Da Sylva, but in order to get there, I need to revisit two other unsolved murders we’ve covered: the 1979 death of Nicole Gaudreault and the 1975 strangulation and incineration of Diane Thibeault. Solving for x involves bringing an unknown variable to one side, then seeing how other elements line up with that variable – that’s what we’re going to do here – move and reconsider some variables.
Thibeault was found in a vacant lot at the corner of St. Dominique Street and Dorchester Boulevard in downtown Montreal. Riding past on his bicycle at 4:30 in the morning, 16-year-old Jean Brisson noticed a fire in a vacant lot on Saturday morning, August 2, 1975. When he approached the fire, which was in danger of igniting a nearby abandoned house, he saw legs and immediately notified the police.
When Montreal police detectives Roy and Lemieux arrived, they found the still smoldering body of 25-year-old Diane Thibeault: dyed jet-black hair, pale skin, naked from the waist down, wearing a partially burned blue sweater with yellow stripes, with a piece of burning wood embedded in her vagina.
Thibeault had been beaten to death, strangled then set on fire. In his police report, Agent Roy noted, “The victim was sexually assaulted.” Thibeault was a denizen of The Main, a “Lower Depths” enclave of downtown Montreal known for drugs and prostitution. Near the body, police found a floppy hat, two scattered shoes, a comb, and a purse containing $26.40 in cash (the equivalent of more than $125 in today’s dollars). Thibeault was petite; 4 foot 9 inches, weighing approximately 82 pounds – her assailant could have manhandled her like a ragdoll.
According to the newspaper Allo Police, Thibeault frequented local “flop houses” and was known to hang out at the bars along Saint-Laurent: Chez Frafa, Capitol, Brasserie Alouette, and the Rialto. She had lots of “friends” along The Main. Given her lifestyle, police were none too aggressive in solving the murder. It wasn’t until three years later, in 1978, that they began to focus on a suspect.
Roger Moreau met Thibault at his mother’s rooming house four weeks before her death. His mother introduced Diane as her tenant. Coincidentally, three days later, Moreau was drinking with his brother-in-law, Edmond Turcotte, when Turcotte asked him if he knew Diane Thibeault because he got her pregnant and if he ever saw her again, he was going to give her a beating, “she’ll remember it for the rest of her life…” Shortly before her murder, Moreau observed Turcotte and Thibeault in a bar near Saint-Zotique Street. The two were drinking beer and making out, so he assumed the couple had reconciled.After the murder, when Moreau saw photos of Diane in Allo Police, he immediately called the police and said,” If you’re looking for Diane, look for Edmond Turcotte, ” then he hung up.
La Presse reporter Nicolas Berube covered the story in 2018. Berube interviewed former detective sergeant Jacques Duchesneau who was assigned to the case in 1975. Duchesneau later became Director of the Montreal Police, then Member of Parliament for Saint-Jérôme – Thibeault’s hometown – from 2012 to 2014. Asked to explain why it took the police three years to follow up on the lead, Duchesneau explained, “We were pretty busy …. “
Edmond Turcotte was working as a cook at the New Spiro restaurant on Peel Street when police arrested him in November 1978. He was taken to the Sûreté du Québec headquarters on Parthenais Street and subjected to a polygraph test. After a lengthy interrogation, Turcotte confessed to the murder.
Turcotte’s confession – lengthy and in grisly detail – is the subject of a podcast I also did in 2018 and was the basis for Berube’s La Presse story. For today, I’d like you to focus on dates and the geography of this case: the morning of the murder, August 2, 1975, Turcotte and Thibeault were drinking at Cabaret Rodéo on Saint-Laurent Boulevard. The Rodéo (later named Lodeo) was quite famous; it’s where Quebec playwright Michel Tremblay set his play about Montreal’s underbelly, Sainte Carmen of the Main, in 1976. The couple next moved to a rooming house near Saint Catherine Street. Turcotte then beat, raped, and strangled Diane Thibeault, but he did not leave her there. He dragged her half-dead to the vacant lot at St. Dominique and Dorchester, where he set her on fire and left her for dead.
As the case moved to trial, the police assumed they had a slam-dunk win on their hands. The coroner had ruled that “Diane Thibeault died a violent death on August 2, 1975, death for which you, Edmond Turcotte, must be held criminally responsible.” That’s not the way things turned out.
Turcotte went to trial in late November 1978. La Presse tells us that his lawyer was a defense attorney named Réal Charbonneau: that’s sort of true. More on that later. Nicolas Berube spoke to Charbonneau on 2018. Incredibly, he was still practicing law. Charbonneau remembered the case and the “incredible chance” he experienced during the trial. The judge was André Biron, a good judge but a young judge. Though he does not directly say it, Charbonneau clearly felt Biron could be easily manipulated. Charbonneau was permitted to introduce the testimony of a psychiatrist who suggested that Edmond Turcotte was “slightly deficient” mentally. In doing so, Biron became convinced that Turcotte’s confession could not have been given voluntarily and would not admit it as evidence.
Charbonneau offered this final, cold assessment of the case’s dismissal:
“That’s it, life, huh? I do not think that the police put eight investigators to find another accused after that … He was acquitted, he was acquitted … If he had been another judge, who had not had that experience, he might have had a different attitude on the perception of facts. All this is chance. It is providence. “Réal Charbonneau
The La Presse reporter, Nicolas Berube, tried to track down Edmond Turcotte – who today would be seventy-four – by following his police record. Turcotte’s most recent offense was from 1997, a charge of theft in Joliette, for which the decision was withdrawn. At the time, Turcotte had been living in nearby Sainte-Julienne. When Berube visited Turcotte’s former residence, he found a well-kept mobile home and children’s toys but no Edmond Turcotte.
I think I know why Berube never found Edmond Turcotte. To understand that, you have to know more about Turcotte’s attorney Réal Charbonneau.
Edmond Turcotte was not “slightly deficient.” He had enough of his mental faculties to hold down a job as a line cook. He could order drinks at a bar and turn on the charm with the ladies. He was not coerced into a confession as his lawyer Réal Charbonneau had suggested. To look at his confession transcript, Turcotte was ordered and methodical in his thoughts. He asked for a cup of coffee, so his police interrogators ordered coffee. And he was quite clear in his motive: Diane Thibeault was a “nothing” and a “cow” and, therefore, presumably deserved to die according to Turcotte’s chauvinistic worldview. The one thing police detectives didn’t do during Turcotte’s interrogation was allow him to see his lawyers—more than anything, that probably led to his acquittal.
Réal Charbonneau’s career as a Montreal defense attorney was colorful, to say the least. In 1980 he was charged with contempt of court for failing to show up in court to represent his client, a man accused of the kidnapping and rape of a 13-year-old. Charbonneau alleged that the error was due to a mix-up between him and his legal associate, Frank Shoofey. Charbonneau and Shoofey often worked on cases together in this era, and in this instance, Shoofey decided that Charbonneau would represent the case of the pedophile on his own. The only problem was that Shoofey had failed to notify Charbonneau that he had abandoned him in this affair.
A word on Shoofey, who we’ve talked about before numerous times. Like one of his best friends, Jean-Pierre Rancourt, Shoofey was known as a mob lawyer (Rancourt writes a glowing chapter about his legal counterpart in his autobiography, Les Confessions d’un Criminaliste). Less known for his work as a negotiator in the recovery of Brother Andre’s heart (we will be here all day if we go down the rabbit hole of creepy Quebec Catholicism), Shoofey famously represented Montreal gangster Richard Blass, later gunned down by Quebec police for the murder of Italian mobster, Paul Violi. On October 15, 1985, Shoofey himself was murdered in the hallway outside his fifth-floor law office at 1030 Cherrier across from Parc La Fontaine in the Plateau ( remember my heeding about dates and places). The other point to track here is that Shoofey and Charbonneau had a long association as legal comrades documented in the public record, over a decade from about 1975 until Shoofey’s murder in 1985.
In 1982 Charbonneau got in trouble again when he was banned from a coroner’s inquest by Roch Heroux, then failed to show up for his court appearance on obstruction of justice charges. What exactly Charbonneau did in that coroner’s inquest is unknown, but he was immediately the target of an arrest warrant. By 1984 the matter was settled with Charbonneau ordered to contribute $5,000 towards a center for drug addicts.
Remember when bikers’ bodies started popping up in the St. Lawrence River in 1985? Charbonneau was in the middle of that too. Charbonneau represented Laurent “L’Anglais” Viau and Guy “Brutus” Geoffrion, both gunned down in a Hells Angels clubhouse, a purging incident that would become infamously known as the Lennoxville Massacre. Among Charbonneau’s transgressions representing The Hells, he was accused of encouraging a client to sign a false affidavit about the bombing of an apartment building on de Maisonneuve Blvd. in 1984 that killed four people.
In 1987 Charbonneau was sentenced to 18 months in prison in the case of that apartment bombing. He appealed and, in 1993, was granted a new trial. By 1997 Charbonneau was acquitted and never served a day behind bars. In 2003 Réal Charbonneau was in the news again, tossed from a Hells Angels megatrial for repeatedly arguing with the judge. When he was called to trial for the contempt case, Charbonneau was again a no-show. The matter was finally sorted out in 2006 – by this time, Allison Hanes doing the reporting for The Gazette – with Charbonneau slapped with a rebuke by the Quebec bar association.
In 1986, The Gazette’s William Marsden interviewed another noted criminal lawyer, Sydney Leithman, who at the time was becoming the heir apparent to the then recently gunned-down Frank Shoofey. Among Leithman’s clients were Italian mob kingpin Frank Cotroni, the East End Gang’s Claude Dubois, and West End Gang leader Billy MacAllister. Leithman told Marsden how he started building his business representing clients in “whorehouses and gambling establishments.” In Leithman’s words, “The small little client today can provide you with the big case tomorrow.”
It begs the question that Leithman sort of answers: why do guys like Charbonneau represent apparent “lowlifes” like Edmond Turcotte (or, for that matter, Jean-Pierre Rancourt representing Fernand Laplante)? Because they know they are connected to money. Leithman was once asked to take on a client who did not appear well-healed, so he inquired of a police source, “Do you think this guy has any money?” The police officer replied, “Well, Sydney, the charge is drug-dealing.”
Charbonneau and Leithman were cut from the same cloth. In fact, in the matter of the phony affidavit, Charbonneau claimed it was Leithman who drew up the document. Charbonneau would not have taken on a client like Edmond Turcotte if he were just some low-level petty criminal who murdered a whorehouse prostitute. Charbonneau represented Turcotte because he was connected to money and was more than likely an earner for some Montreal mob outfit.
A word about Francine Da Sylva. Because this story is ultimately about Francine Da Sylva. I can’t remember if it was in a podcast, but I’ve spoken many times about the area’s strong influence on me: where she lived and her murder was committed. The locus is Place Emilie Gamelin. That is in itself a focal point in Montreal: the main library, BAnQ, is located there. It’s also where the Berri-UQAM metro station is placed, one of the main terminals of the city’s subway system. Archambault’s is there but will be closing this spring – a bookstore that has been an institution in the city for at least half a decade; my nephew worked there for years, and I used to drop in and surprise him whenever I was in town. I didn’t know until recently that Place Dupuis – an indoor shopping court across the square known today more for a homeless and drug problem, was the original location of Dupuis Frères, one of Montreal’s most venerated department stores.
I could go on and on. Place Emile Gamelin is like a magnet for me. I am compelled to stay in this area whenever I visit Montreal. One time, after dark, I went out photo-exploring and unknowingly shot a picture of Francine Da Sylva’s apartment on Rue Andre without even having known Francine had lived there – and it’s a very unassuming building. The bus station is north of the square: I used to hang out there as a kid, and so did Francine and her friends – anonymous to each other. Finally, I can’t tell you the number of hours I’ve spent in that library, BAnQ, staring at microfilm of old newspapers, looking for clues and meanings.
I believe without question that Edmond Turcotte murdered Diane Thibeault. There is such specificity in his confession, such defiance in his posturing in court. But the judge let him go. Why? I would argue that Edmond Turcotte was protected. He served a low-level purpose to organized crime, and they would come to his aid when he needed assistance. Not for everything, of course. There are petty crimes where Turcotte met with justice. But nothing ever like murder. Which I believe he continued to commit throughout his criminal career.
In 1978, while living in LaSalle, Turcotte was charged with soliciting a prostitute. Réal Charbonneau also represented Turcotte in that process. In 1980 while living in Pointe Aux Trembles, he was charged with manslaughter, though he appears to have beaten the sentence. In 1981 while living in Terrebonne, he was handed a six-month sentence for minor infractions. There are almost 20 years where Turcotte does not appear to have been in trouble with the law. Then in 1997, Turcotte resurfaced in the Ste. Calixte area (biker territory), where he was charged with theft.
The legal process for the murder of Diane Thibault started in late November 1978 and dragged out all through the spring of 1979, with the judge’s final decision not delivered until May 14. Charbonneau and Turcotte stuck together all through that process. There would have been telephone conversations and meetings for almost half a year. Throughout this process, Turcotte was incarcerated in the Parthenais jail at the Surete du Quebec headquarters near the Jacques Cartier bridge. Then all at once, he was set free in mid-May 1979. Two and a half months later, Nicole Gaudreault was found murdered in an alleyway near the Plateau. But Gaudreault isn’t murdered on just any Montreal summer night; she’s found on August 3, 1979, exactly four years from the date of the murder of Diane Thibeault. Would Edmond Turcotte have celebrated his release from incarceration for the murder of Diane Thibeault by murdering another woman on the anniversary of Thibeault’s killing?
Gaudreault spent the evening of August 2 at a bar called Baltimore at the corner of Saint Hubert and Ontario. Like Thibeault, Gaudreault was severely beaten, then transported from a domicile to an open area. In Gaudreault’s case, this was an alley – really an abandoned lot and field – where she was left to die. Montreal Police hypothesized that either she was attacked on the street by a stranger between the Baltimore and her destination two blocks away on Rue Saint Andre, or her assailant had been drinking with her at Baltimore, and the two left the bar together. The second scenario matches Turcotte having partied with Thibeault at the Rodeo before taking her back to a rooming house and assaulting her.
Six years later, Francine Da Sylva was also on her way home after dark. Like Nicole Gaudreault, she too had been out that evening; she met a friend at La Fameux at Mount Royal and St. Denis, and the two parted ways at St. Denis and Duluth with Francine making her way on foot back to her apartment at St. Andre. St. Andre is the same street where police found Gaudreault’s blood and belongings the night she was murdered. Francine’s apartment was a mere two blocks from what is thought to have been the place where Nicole was attacked.
Francine didn’t make it back to St. Andre. In fact, at Sherbrooke and St. Andre, she continued on that main artery, overshooting St. Andre, perhaps because, at this point, she knew she was being followed, and she wanted to remain in the public view of the heavily-trafficked Sherbrooke. At Rue Saint Timothee, she is attacked. Francine is dragged into the alley behind the apartment building at 902 Sherbrooke Street East, where she is raped and stabbed repeatedly.
Early in the process, police focused on a suspect named Raymond Charette. When arrested, Charette had evidence of blood on his clothing. A second victim of an attack on the same day that Francine was murdered came forward and told police she was waiting for a bus on rue Mont-Royal when she was forced into a vehicle by a man with a knife, alleged to have been Charette. They drove around The Plateau for a while, and this Charette character eventually let her out of the vehicle. Charette was never charged with Da Sylva’s murder.
Over the years, others have offered theories about who might have murdered Francine Da Sylva. Kristian Gravenor from Coolopolis suggested to me that it could have been Agostino Ferreira, a Quebec serial killer convicted of the 1990 rape and murder of Claire Samson and Danielle Laplante. In 1995, he sexually assaulted two women in an apartment at Berri and Ontario, one block west of the Baltimore, where Nicole Gaudreault was last seen in August of 1979. But Ferreira doesn’t quite fit. There is an age problem here. He was born in 1964; he would have been 16 when Gaudreault was murdered; not out of the question, but not great either. My bigger issue is his m.o.. Ferreira committed his murders indoors; Thibeault, Gaudreault, and Da Sylva were all found outdoors.
It’s the same problem as when producers for Sur les traces d’un tueur en série appeared to suggest William Fyfe was responsible for all the downtown murders in Montreal in the ’70s, a bit like throwing a ubiquitous sleuthing blanket over everything. Fyfe’s m.o. was strictly: daytime, indoors, ruse entry, and usually older women. Whoever killed Thibeault, Gaudreault, and Da Sylva was a nightcrawler. Fyfe’s not our guy.
Who could be our guy is Edmond Turcotte. He is often in the right place at the right time. He confessed to a murder with a very similar m.o. to those of Gaudreault and Da Sylva – outdoors, encounters on streets, or in bars. Whoever killed Gaudreault did it on the anniversary date of Thibault’s murder, almost like a punctuation mark saying, ‘I got away with murder!‘ And Turcotte appeared to have gang or gangster-affiliated protection. He certainly had a high-powered lawyer at his side, a man who later rose to prominence as a defender of the Hells Angels in some of their most infamous cases in the province of Quebec. Turcotte rarely served time for his convictions; usually, he was given a slap-on-the-wrist fine, something a high-powered lawyer could manufacture. When we catch up with Turcotte nearly 20 years later, he’s living near Ste. Calixte, an area well known for Hells Angels inhabitants. There’s one more thing that makes Turcotte unique: he had an association with the assassinated ‘mob lawyer’ Frank Shoofey.
One of the most interesting things about Francine Da Sylva’s murder on October 18, 1985, is that three days earlier, Frank Shoofey was gunned down, on October 15, 1985. And not only that, Shoofey’s law office on the 5th floor of that apartment building on Rue Cherrrier is two blocks from the alley where Da Sylva was stabbed to death. Standing at the entrance to that alley on Saint Timothee, you can see the Shoofey building up the hill.
Edmond Turcotte knew Frank Shoofey. At his interrogation for the murder of Diane Thibeault on November 23, 1978, the first thing Turcotte tells the coroner and police is: “My lawyers are not here this morning. They are supposed to arrive this afternoon… Mr. Shoofey and Charbonneau…”
This is the same thing that played out two years later, where Shoofey and Charbonneau initially shared a case, but Charbonneau eventually ended up holding the bag for Frank. Recall the case: Réal Charbonneau was charged with contempt of court for failing to show up in court to represent his client, a man accused of the kidnapping and rape of a 13-year-old. Charbonneau alleged that the error was due to a mix-up with his legal associate, Frank Shoofey. Charbonneau and Shoofey often worked on cases together in this era. The one problem was Shoofey had failed to notify Charbonneau that he had drawn the shortest straw in this affair. Something like that might have irked Charbonneau; in fact, it could have really pissed him off.
Over the years, there’s been a lot of speculation about the motive for Frank Shoofey’s assassination, and the consensus appears to be that it was a mob hit. Quebec crime writer Michel Auger has written that “it was likely mobsters… were the killers of Shoofey,” with Claude Grant, an attorney who articled under Frank, adding that the Montreal underworld had a contract out on Shoofey a year before the actual murder. It’s a little complicated, but at its heart, Shoofey had influence with the Hilton family (not the hoteliers, this was a family of boxers). The Hiltons were set to sign an agreement with American boxing promoter Don King. Shoofey publically advised against this, which put him in the crosshairs of Montreal mafia boss Frank Cotroni. Frank Cotroni, who was representing the Hiltons, wanted the deal with Don King to go through. Cotroni was on the verge of being extradited to Connecticut on charges of heroin trafficking. He needed the money to pay for his legal defense (and by the way, his lawyer was Sidney Leithman, who you’ve already met). Shoofey was becoming too much of a nuisance for Cotroni, so he put a contract out for Frank’s murder. There is also a theory that the hit on Shoofey had nothing to do with the Cotronis, but everyone agrees that it was a mob hit.
When a contract is issued, someone has to carry out that contract. And we’ve seen an example of how this was carried out in this era. In 1969, a Sherbrooke businessman wanted his partner in the Pat’s Fried Chicken franchise murdered, so he ordered a contract on Rolland Giguere to be carried out by a local hood named Yvan Charland. Charland then had two thugs, the brothers Regis and Jean Claude Lachance, allegedly execute that contract for $10,000. So if Frank Cotroni wanted someone murdered in 1985, he might do something similar. He’d order a contract for the murder of Frank Shoofey, and then someone would find a low-level guy to carry that out for $5,000 to $10,000. We’ve also seen how lawyers like Sidney Leithman were well acquainted with underworld figures and how the lawyer Réal Charbonneau was not above getting involved in criminal activities: he was sentenced for forging a false affidavit about the bombing of an apartment building on de Maisonneuve Blvd. in 1984 that killed four people, a document which he said Sidney Leithman drew up.
There’s an element of geographic profiling to this theory. It suggests that criminals habitually stick to familiar territory. Turcotte hunted in the area around Sherbrooke and St. Andre because he had dealings in this area as early as 1978, where one of his lawyers was officed. Then – possibly – he ended up assassinating that lawyer. This is not unlike the urban section around King and Wellington in Sherbrooke, Quebec. Regis Lachance, Johnny Charland, and Luc Gregoire lived in that area, also around 1978. It’s where they partied at the Moulin Rouge (like the Rodeo), where Gitanes and Atomes gang clubhouses were located, where some of them committed arsons, abductions, and murders. It’s also where the criminal courts are located. Like Turcotte periodically visiting Shoofey, Lachance, Charland, and Gregoire spent many days in court hearings in the same area where they committed their crimes.
There’s a nagging component that I’m omitting – possibly that I should omit – but it keeps tugging at my pant cuff: the phone calls.
There’s an odd theme of anonymous phone calls in this narrative. They probably mean nothing, but I’m nosey by nature, so here it is:
Turcotte’s brother-in-law, Roger Moreau, made an anonymous phone call to the police saying,” If you’re looking for Diane, look for Edmond Turcotte, ” then he hung up. There was also an anonymous call made in the Nicole Gaudreault murder. The caller stated, “I just killed a woman. You’ll find it in the vacant lot of rue Saint-Andre,” then hung up. I’m not done. The English language newspaper, The Gazette, received a call after the Shoofey murder where the caller explained, “I and my colleagues have just assassinated Frank Shoofey. Good riddance.” They also claimed affiliation with the “Red Army Liberation Front,” something everyone believes to be a ruse to through police off the trail of the real killer.
I guess I’m bringing this up because two years before the Gaudreault murder, someone called the police after the Montreal murder of Katherine Hawkes in 1977, saying almost the exact same thing as the Gaudreult call: he explained that he had killed a woman and told police where they could find the body (you can see that whole story here).
One final thought: I reached out to Réal Charbonneau for this story. He replied once, confirming his law office today is located in Old Montreal, then ignored all my subsequent emails and phone messages.
I suggest that someone got word to Edmond Turcotte that he could make some fast money by carrying out the contract killing of Frank Shoofey. The execution of a man he knew, he had most likely been to the office on Rue Cherrier on numerous occasions. He was familiar with the area. He possibly murdered Nicole Gaudreault in that vicinity in 1979, on the anniversary he murdered Diane Thibeault. And he was there again just three days after Shoofey’s murder when he most likely stabbed and sexually assaulted Francie Da Sylva. The values are Shoofey, Da Sylva, Guadreault and Thibault. Solving for x requires moving the Turcotte variable to the other side and seeing if the two sides add up.
But solving for x has more significant implications. Do you recognize the pattern? Where x are Quebec unsolved murders? Then on the other side, we have all these broad themes, these variables: Biker and gang activity, police forces unwilling to go the distance to solve the murders, the destruction of case evidence, innocent women caught in the crosshairs of gang members’ extra-curricular activities. Lawyers cutting corners and cutting deals. Coroners making deals with lawyers. Weak, easily manipulated judges. We see it here with Turcotte = Da Sylva + Gaudreault + Thibault. We’ve seen it before. The murder of Teresa Martin and the involvement of bikers. The murder of Theresa Allore + Rolland Giguare + Carole Fecteau = Regis Lachance, also a gang member.
Unsolved Murders ≠ Justice.
All of this is speculation. But after decades, with Montreal police seemingly taking no interest in this criminal investigative affairs, speculation is a weapon of last resort – someone needs to lift a finger and least to try and bring some sense of resolution to these unsolved murders.