When I Was 11, My Dad Killed My Mom
Journalists made my private tragedy public. Now I’m talking to them about what they wrote
By John-Michael Schneider
AT AROUND 8:30 P.M. ON JUNE 7, 2001, POLICE in Ajax, Ontario — a small commuter suburb east of Toronto — received a 911 call reporting an abandoned car in a nearby plaza parking lot. The caller was on probation and terrified of returning to jail for the act he had just been asked to commit. He said that a friend had asked him to dispose of the car, which he knew contained the body of a dead woman. When police arrived at the parking lot, they checked the licence plates and discovered that the car belonged to a woman reported missing earlier that day. She lived with her husband and three kids in a new subdivision two kilometres north of the plaza. When police opened the trunk, they discovered the woman’s body. Her face and head had been injured by what a forensic team later determined to probably be an axe.
Within an hour, police assembled at least six armed officers and converged on the dead woman’s two-storey house. On their arrival, two boys, aged 11 and 6, were sitting in the back of a green minivan parked in the driveway. They thought they were going to their grandparents’ house. The officers grabbed the children and carried them down the sloping crescent to safety. A neighbour across the road was watching through her window when, a few moments later, a man emerged from the house carrying his disabled seven-year-old daughter, unaware of the surrounding officers. Police came up behind the man, took the girl from his arms, and arrested him. The father of three was later charged with the murder of his common-law wife.
I WAS 11 YEARS OLD WHEN THIS CRIME TOOK place, and my mom — the woman whom police found in the trunk of our car — was 38. Her name was Andrea. She commuted every day to her job as a secretary at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. She often returned home exhausted, only to start working from home to get a head start on the next day.
The man accused of murdering her was my stepdad, but to me he was just my dad. My biological father left me and my mom when I was a baby, and my parents met two years later. They had been together for nine years before my mom was murdered, and had two kids of their own: my sister, Stephanie, and my brother, Thomas. My stepdad, in part due to his previous criminal record, struggled to hold down a job. He was a butcher at St. Lawrence Market in Toronto for a while, and was a window washer before that. Following the birth of my sister, our dad stayed at home to take care of her. She had a genetic disease that slowly destroyed her brain. She died in October 2004, one month before her eleventh birthday.
In the 16 years since my mom died, there have been days when the feelings of emptiness and loss have overwhelmed me. The public spectacle during the year after her death was especially diffcult, and I wanted nothing to do with it. I wondered for years why this disgusting event, this stain on my family history, should become a part of the public record, and why journalists were so interested in it.
In the years that followed, my family moved on with our lives. I graduated high school and finished a bachelor’s degree in English. I don’t know if my experiences as a child influenced my decision to pursue a master’s of journalism, but I know that I’ve always had a skeptical view of the world. At the start of my second year of graduate school, I realized that I had not turned that skepticism onto my own past, and I started to contemplate learning more about what happened when I was a child. Doing so has been as much a lesson in the dangers of prying deep into an unquestioned past as it has been about the process of journalism. One of my colleagues at the RRJ was worried about me being “re-traumatized” by what happened, and I initially dismissed the concerns.
I was mostly just curious about what was written in the newspapers 15 years ago. I wanted to know how journalists approached the story of what happened between my parents, of my mom’s death, and of the murder trial a year later. So I started going through old clippings from the Toronto Star, the Toronto Sun, and The Globe and Mail, and found dozens of stories about my family.
I realized that I was stirring up something inside myself that had been dormant for many years. The old news clippings were a record of what happened, and they tell a story that I barely seem able to accept, let alone understand. There are some stories that are difficult to write about in a way that captures the truth of their inexplicable pain. In the pages adjacent to articles about my parents were ads for what to buy dad for Father’s Day. Where some people see a wound ready to be torn open, I see a wound that can be mended, the pain of which can be alleviated by meaningful day-to-day purpose.
My understanding of the importance of crime coverage has changed. With that has come an interest in discovering the motivations of the journalists who wrote about my family. I understand that violent incidents demand an immediate explanation to the community, but that there are also long-term implications for families dealing with the aftermath. My interest is both professional and personal — I wanted to talk to people as a fellow journalist, but also as a family member trying to fill in the gaps of my memory.
WHEN DURHAM REGIONAL POLICE SERVICE officers interviewed me after my dad was arrested, I didn’t know my mom was gone. One of the detectives questioned me for what felt like hours. He asked me to name the Great Lakes, I think partly as a test of my general knowledge, but also to ease me into more difficult questions. He asked if my parents ever argued. I said yes. He asked about the words they used when they yelled, and I remember feeling nervous about using the “f-word” in front of a police detective.
It was only after the interview that the detective said the words that he had to withhold: “Your mom died.” I couldn’t breathe. Or maybe he said, “Someone killed your mom.” I don’t exactly remember. But I do remember imagining a scene — a foggy corner behind a building in the dangerous part of some nameless metropolis. They were random villains who lurked in dark alleys, behind dumpsters. That’s what my 11-year-old self thought a murder looked like.
And then it was my turn to ask a question: “Where’s dad?”
I don’t remember how or when I found out that my father had killed my mother in our garage and studied her body into our car, but it was probably my grandmother — my mom’s mom — who told me, after my brother and I went to live with her in Burlington, Ontario. My grandparents’ house was normally where we went to have fun and to give my parents a break from taking care of us. We visited often on weekends, but could not have imagined living there permanently. Unable to take care of my sister, my grandparents placed her in a group home.
I remember my grandmother yelling while reading the newspaper one morning not long after, and I quickly realized that what happened was bigger than my sadness. She was upset at how the news was portraying my father as a loving, caring man. There were conflicting accounts of what we were like as a family. Were we happy? We had a nice house, food, clothes. People read in the newspaper about the family they thought they knew, and were shocked to hear about a group of angry, frustrated people. “Couple in ‘Vortex of Stress, Secrets,’ Murder Trial Told,” read one Toronto Star headline. My family’s private life was being dissected and laid out for everyone to see. Factions formed. Friends of my father seemed to sympathize with him, and could not conceive of him doing something so violent. Others felt as though their quiet suspicions about my father had been confirmed, and that his prior criminal record had reached its inevitable conclusion. The Crown argued in court that my dad had attempted to cover up the crime by paying his friend, the man who contacted the police, $80 to help dispose of my mom’s body. The defence lawyers argued that my dad had learned my mother was having an affair and snapped. This “snapping” theory became central to the distinction between the second-degree murder charge he faced, and the lesser charge of manslaughter the defence wanted.
My siblings and I fell somewhere in the middle of all of this. We were in the “kids’ faction.” We passively accepted everything that was happening to us, because we didn’t know how to go on without mom and dad. Our need to carry the rest was kept up by accepting everything that was happening. The reality of what my father did became background noise. The people who surrounded me, including my grandparents, told me that my mom was in heaven looking down, and I nodded along. Meanwhile, they were so engrossed by the details of the trial that they lost sight of the fact that the man they read about was still my father. The man who played street hockey with me, who let me watch scary movies, who had earned my love and trust, had taken it all away. Seeing his picture in the newspaper — his face turned away from cameras as he entered a police car — was real, but seemed like a distortion.
For months after deciding to write about this event, I struggled with the question of which details to include. I knew that there might be people who would wonder about how my mom died, about my father’s defence in court, and perhaps even about small things like the colour of the car. To some extent, I can understand why writers and editors instinctively search for details that draw readers’ attention. Open questions are distracting, and they can make “scenes” weaker. But where I saw a possibility for describing the “sensationalism” of violent crime in the news, I also saw a risk of reproducing that sensationalism here.
A day after Durham police announced criminal charges against my father, our neighbours across the street held their annual summer barbecue. This family included the woman who watched as a police squad arrested my dad on our front lawn just a few days earlier. Elaine O’Connor, a reporter in the Toronto Star’s summer intern program, travelled to our house in Ajax and interviewed neighbours, aware of the contrast between the balloons on one side of the street and the police tape on the other. She talked to one man who worked at a local clothing store. “This was pretty close to my work … and close to my home,” he told her, adding, “That’s why it scares a lot of people.” The silence of Ajax never struck me as safe, but the stereotype of a town shielded from harsh realities existed anyway.
O’Connor, who went on to work at the Ottawa Citizen and the Vancouver Province, says going out and interviewing people in the aftermath of violence was just part of the job, but one which she disliked. “I have seen and written about some very ugly things, and covered some heartbreaking stories that really affected me,” she told me. “This was one of them. I live with the details of some cases still, and I hated having to delve into people’s pain — almost all journalists do. It takes a toll, nothing compared to the victims, but a toll.”
When I first talked to O’Connor for this story, she was supportive. When I forwarded her the clippings from 16 years ago, she said she was shocked and sorry to hear about all of this, and that she thought about her own children. I realized that even though we seemed to have only this terrible event in common, our interests as writers also converged. Her description of that small corner of that quiet crescent resonates with me more deeply than she knows.
Just as I was being whisked away from my home to live with my grandparents, O’Connor was being sent to a crime scene that I could only imagine. The image of our neighbours going ahead with the annual party — trying to maintain a sense of normalcy despite living in the immediate aftermath of unexpected violence — is not what I expected to read. I had always wondered what those days immediately following the murder looked like for our neighbourhood, and reading news articles has helped fill in this small, empty part of my family history. The neighbours told O’Connor that my father was a caring man who worked tirelessly to take care of his disabled daughter. People wanted to know how it was that someone who cared so deeply for his family could do something so horrible. This was not the way I would have liked to have introduced myself to a fellow journalist years later, but it couldn’t be helped.
In the case of Toronto Sun court reporter Sam Pazzano, the introduction wasn’t the first. I met Pazzano in 2015 during a class at Ryerson University on court coverage, for which he was invited as a guest speaker. We gathered at the University Avenue courthouse in downtown Toronto. Pazzano showed us the docket, gave some advice, and led a handful of graduate students to the courtroom where Everton Biddersingh was being tried for the first-degree murder of his teenage daughter, Melonie Biddersingh. (He was later convicted.) I sat and took notes, pausing while the jury left the room, in awe of the violent history being explained in court. I remember thinking, how could someone do this to their own family?
I didn’t know at the time that Pazzano also covered my father’s trial for the Sun back in 2001. It wasn’t until I reviewed the archives that his name came up again. When I contacted Sam nearly a year after our crash course, and as a student asking to speak to him about a piece he wrote nearly 15 years ago, I’m not sure he expected that the conversation would play out the way it did. Perhaps Pazzano forgot that I was a student, or maybe he was just being callous, but I was at first surprised by how matter-of-fact he was when he laid out his memory of the trial:
“This is the one where the accused killer bludgeons her to death after some kind of exchange where she says, ‘Don’t you know I’ve been having an affair?’” he began.
“Yes,” I told him.
“So she had some kind of affair with this guy, what was his name, Colin?”
“I think so.”
“And your stepdad — you had a severely disabled sibling? And he would take good care of the sibling, and his world revolved around that child, right? And he snaps and kills her and puts her in the trunk of the car?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
Whether Pazzano intended to or not, he gave me his version of what happened, without euphemizing.
His initial words seemed to be aimed at a fellow adult journalist writing a story, and that’s all I could have asked of him. It wasn’t the language presented to me as a child, even though I am grateful that my grandparents tried to protect me from the gruesome parts of my father’s trial when I was younger.
APPROACHING THE STORY AS A JOURNALIST has given me an excuse to talk to my family about what happened. We normally don’t talk about my parents or the trial. The topic is especially difficult for my grandmother, who lost her only child. When anyone brings up my father, the jury, or even my mom, my grandmother turns red and raises her voice. It is not my intention to cause her pain by having these conversations, but I can see how even the mention of our family history distresses her.
“There were people who said they were a happy couple,” I told her after reading a passage from one of the archived articles in the Toronto Star.
“Bullshit! Who said that they were a happy couple?”
“You can go look back at these articles. There were people who said they seemed happy.”
“They seemed happy, but they were not happy.”
“That’s not in question, but the perception is that they were.”
“We all put up good faces.”
Faces have become a point of disagreement between us. After the trial, she went through old photos of my parents and cut my father out of them. People ask why the edge of one photograph is trimmed off, and I tell them that it’s where my father’s arm was when he hugged her. There are several boxes in my grandparents’ basement with intact photos of my mom and dad. When I look through them and remember the family we used to have, I wonder what good it does to meddle with reality by cutting it up. I have tried to pretend that my aversion to manipulating photos comes from some high-minded journalistic impulse but, really, it’s just because I’m afraid of what might happen to my own memory.
It seems like my grandmother’s reasoning is the same — that she has cut my father out of photos because she, too, is afraid of the memories. I barely recognize my mom’s face in the photos, and my memory of my family 16 years ago has become more of a feeling than an image. We were stressed out, scared, uncertain about what would happen in the future, but we were together. We held one another and smiled, because that’s what families do, even when they’re just “putting up good faces.”
Tracy Huffman, the Toronto Star court reporter who picked up the coverage from Elaine O’Connor once the trial started, told me that it doesn’t surprise her to hear that my grandmother’s reaction is so intense, even years later. Huffman, who left journalism in 2008, now owns two massage therapy clinics east of Toronto. I explained to her how my grandmother wished that Canada had the death penalty so she could see my father suffer the way my mom did.
“That’s something that family members struggle with. That feeling is pretty common,” Huffman said. “I always tried to respect those opinions; I’m not in their shoes. For some people, those feelings change, and sometimes they don’t. The worst thing that happened to your mom happened, and I understand how her mom wouldn’t be able to move on from that. I can’t imagine that pain, or even having to have those feelings.”
My grandmother still believes, 16 years later, that my father planned to kill my mom, that he mulled everything over a week and a half in advance, and was hoping to get away with it. She blames herself for what he did to her daughter and looks for any excuse to see herself as the cause of the problems in our family.
I told Tracy that my grandmother looks back and sees it as a travesty that my father was convicted of manslaughter. I added that it is difficult to have a meaningful discussion because, when I start trying to talk about why a premeditated murder is difficult to prove in court, my grandmother breaks down. “If you look at it from a legal point, yeah, but if you’re a family member who lost someone they love in a horrific way, then you would be shocked, and that would be a fair reaction, because they aren’t thinking about the law. They just want the person put away,” Huffman said.
I am a family member who is trying not to let intense feelings get in the way of my research. It has meant looking at the facts of the court case, and considering them alongside what I have learned from listening to other people. It might mean one day interviewing my stepdad and, perhaps, the man with whom my mom was having an affair. It has meant negotiating my role as a journalist with my role as a brother, and as a grandson. It feels impossible to embody all of these roles without upsetting anyone.
I STILL DON’T REALLY KNOW WHO MY MOM WAS, and I would have liked to see our relationship evolve over time. But my father’s actions foreclosed on this undiscovered potential, and I am left here as an adult trying to make sense of it. That is ultimately what hurts the most — realizing the memories that could have been. Curiosity about the past 16 years has led me back to the journalists who wrote about one of the most turbulent moments in my life. They provided the public with an account of what happened, and have moved on to new stories, new professions.
But their work is still out there, tucked away in boxes along with old photo albums. Memories are blurry, and there are children of victims who might someday be curious about what happened. They will look at the most reliable sources of information available to them to try arriving at an understanding of what actually happened. There are families across the country for whom old newspaper clippings are one of the few remaining ways left to learn about the past.
I stopped by my old neighbourhood a few months ago, on that sloping street that Elaine O’Connor wrote about 16 years ago. The houses look smaller, and down the road, new shopping centres have opened up. The police tape is gone, but I can still imagine it there.
I wonder if the people who now live in that house know what happened, and whether they would care. I also wonder if, one day, I might be called to a quiet neighbourhood just like this, in the aftermath of some horrible domestic crime. Maybe I’ll grab my voice recorder and notebook and, like journalists before me, start knocking on doors and asking neighbours what they saw.
I wonder if I’ll be ready.
John-Michael Schneider is a digital editor at the Ryerson Review of Journalism. Follow him on Twitter @jm_schneider.