PHOTO COURTESY OF ELIZABETH WITHEY

Closing Doors

When a reporter knocks on the doors of the bereaved, ethics clash with duty. Especially when murder has struck her own family.

By Elizabeth Withey

No one likes having a door slammed in her face. But talking to dead people’s relatives is part of my job as a newspaper journalist. It is a skin-thickening, awkward task and I don’t relish it, but I don’t refuse it, either. I ignore the urge to back off. I knock again. Leave a note in the mailbox. Talk to the neighbours. Did you know the girl who got shot? Which school did she attend? What is her family like?

Phoning relatives is no easier than ringing their doorbells. “Hello, my name is Elizabeth Withey and I’m a reporter at the Edmonton Journal,” I say politely. “I’m very sorry to bother you this morning, but I’m looking for the family of mr….”

Sometimes, after I’ve finally found the right number, they hang up on me. I don’t blame them. I’d hang up on me, too, if a relative of mine had just become the city’s latest homicide.

But sometimes they talk. They want to tell me about their loved one. They want someone to listen.

“What kind of person was he?” I ask as sensitively as I can, typing furiously, with the receiver cradled between my head and my left shoulder. “I see… he sounds like a nice guy… funny?… uh-huh…”

I’m thankful I don’t work the crime beat full time, though after three years at the paper I have become detached from the emotional side of it.

Sometimes I feel like a professional grief manipulator, someone who massages people’s pain and convinces them to share it with me for public consumption. They cry into my ear. They say, “Thanks for writing a story about my dad. About my boyfriend. About my grandmother.”

Over the sound of chatter on the police scanners, my ethics duke it out with my professional sense of duty. Part of me thinks I’m brave to make cold calls to strangers, harvesting quotes about their suffering. I’m doing a decent thing, I rationalize, helping people pay tribute to their dead loved ones.

The other part of me thinks this is so wrong. I question the compassionate tone in my voice, the words I use to get people talking, the unwillingness to leave them alone. You’re exploiting vulnerable people for the sake of selling papers, I tell myself. You’re fooling them with fake sympathy. All you care about is beating the other media. getting praise from your bosses.

“Did you get the family?” my editor asks.

Yeah, I got them.

As a member of the news media, my job is to “get” things.

We hunt and gather information. Reactions. documents. Stats. Photographs. Feelings. We knock on doors. Ask questions. Get answers. But “we” are people, too. We have front doors. We have families.

I have my great-grandmother’s smile. The Lequiea smile. It’s a wide grin, with an upper lip that disappears as it stretches. I’ve been told I look like Jack Nicholson as the Joker in Batman.

For many years, the only thing I know about the Lequieas, my father’s maternal ancestors, is their Joker smile. Not until I’m a university student in my early 20s does my mother mention, at the breakfast table, that my great-grandmother was sexually assaulted and strangled with a nylon stocking before I was born. Nine days before Christmas, mom says, and they never caught the guy who did it.

Over the sound of chatter on police scanners, my ethics duke it out with my professional sense of duty.

“Why didn’t anyone tell me?” I ask, stunned.

“I thought you knew,” mom says.

I didn’t know. My father died more than a decade ago, and never said a word about it. And it certainly didn’t come up at family gatherings in Calgary.

I am stunned, ferociously curious, even a little thrilled. My relative, murdered? What a scandalous morsel of family history. I want to know more. I want details.

But mom doesn’t know much, and though I mean to call my relatives, I get preoccupied. School work. Travel. Relationships. Time passes.

Albina’s murder comes back to mind a couple years later, in 2003, when I begin my studies in writing and journalism. Eager to get “the story,” and still curious, I request my great- grandmother’s files from the RCMP through Freedom of Information. They keep my $5 cheque but refuse my request: the case is unsolved, they say; the file is still open. Sharing information could compromise the investigation.

Meanwhile, I start a job at the newspaper in Edmonton, and occasionally work the crime beat. I report on fatal stabbings, fatal fires, fatal car accidents. I type tragic story after tragic story. One day, I plug my great-grandmother’s name into our online newspaper database. I don’t find much; those archives only date back to the mid-1980s.

The U of A’s microfiche reels yield more disturbing results. “North Vancouver RCMP are hunting a psychopathic killer who strangled a 96-year-old woman over the weekend,” reports a front-page story in the Vancouver Sun on Tuesday December 18, 1973.

“Woman of 96 raped, strangled,” is the headline in the Calgary Herald the following day. Across the page, holiday ham is on special at the Co-op for $1.09 a pound.

“The victim, Mrs. Albina Christiana Lequiea, was discovered in her room by a member of the staff at the Convent of the Child Jesus,” reads a news brief in the Edmonton Journal on December 18. The story is buried on page 12 below a sizable photo of four Santa Clauses rolling balls at the Bonnie Doon Bowling Alley.

“Police said it was first believed she had died of natural causes, but it was later discovered she had been choked,” the Journal brief continues.

Here, in the archives of the newspaper where I work, are the scant, sensational details of how my great-grandmother’s long life suddenly ended.

Albina Christiana Proulx was born in Nicolet, Quebec, in 1877, one hundred years before me. She married Phillip Lequiea at the age of 19, and together they raised nine Catholic children—seven daughters and two sons—on a farm near north Battleford, Saskatchewan. Only one of those children is still living: my grandmother, Juliette Ferguson. I drive down to Calgary to ask her about Albina.

Grandma Julie is 90, nearly as old as her mother was when she was murdered. Like Albina, my grandmother is a petite French matriarch who has shrunk in her old age. The chronic obstructive pulmonary disease makes her breathless and dependent on an oxygen tank, but she can still push her wheelchair. Personal items clutter grandma Julie’s nightstand in the nursing home where she lives. A purple hair pick, Kleenex, a rosary. The rosary beads are plastic and cream-coloured, about the size of capers. grandma Julie says she still “mutters” the rosary prayers to herself every evening in the room she shares with a woman who refuses to speak and spends her days in bed.

My grandmother inherited her Catholic devotion from Albina. Growing up, Grandma Julie and her siblings would try to sneak off to bed so they wouldn’t have to do the rosary. Albina would always catch them. “mother made us all kneel and do it together, as a family,” Grandma Julie says. “She was a fervent Catholic until the day she died, that woman.”

“We’re not talking to the media,” a woman’s voice says. Click. The line goes dead. Try again, says my editor.

The crime happened on a Saturday night at a north Vancouver convent-turned-rest-home. Albina was living there to be close to her daughter, Sally Horne. According to newspaper clippings, one of the nuns found a bearded stranger in jeans wandering around inside the convent about 3:30 a.m. The man was in his 20s, with messy shoulder-length hair and “striking eyes,” the papers reported. He smelled of liquor. “Where’s the door? how do I get out?” he muttered. The nun showed him the exit. The next morning, another nun discovered my great- grandmother dead in her bed. no one suspected foul play; after all, Albina was quite elderly. The nuns cleaned up her body and her room, unknowingly contaminating the evidence before anyone realized a crime had been committed.

Grandma Julie got the news from her brother. “Ed phoned and said mother had died,” she tells me. “She was 96 and you expect these, you know, things. I was glad she wasn’t ill or anything. Then he phoned me back about an hour later and said she’d been murdered. What do you say? It’s just devastating.”

The family was grief-stricken and bewildered. How could someone do that to an elderly woman, so randomly? “It was surreal,” says my aunt, Julie Ferguson, over the phone from her home in Calgary. “You’re sad that your grandmother passed away, but it’s a different feeling. I was angry. It was anger. Nobody believed it. It was crazy, just crazy.”

Auntie Julie was 19 when it happened, still living at home. She says Grandma Julie took it hard: “I can picture Mom making roast dinner and crying all afternoon.” But life gave a shove and Grandma Julie continued on, tending to her family, her home, her dignity.

“It’s not that she hides things, but she’s not one to hang out her laundry,” Auntie Julie says. “She still cooked meals, made the beds. I would have been on the couch bawling for weeks.”

Ed, an ordained priest, led the funeral mass for his mother. The “psychopath” remained at large; police continued their investigation. Lurid headlines about the slaying disappeared from the papers, and my family tried to come to terms with Albina’s death.

“You know, Edward, I feel so privileged having this past two years with Mum,” Sally wrote to Ed in a letter dated January 21, 1974. “Actually we developed a beautiful mother-and-daughter relationship… She never felt sorry for me—always confident that I would do what she wished—and I did—except at the end when she really needed help. No one was there. Horrors. How strange life is… I’ll always cherish the time we had together. We had fun in our own funny way. This I am going to miss oh!

So much. I feel she has taken part of me with her.”

My second cousin Noela Cossette was also fond of Albina, whom she describes as tiny, gentle and devoted to her family and God.

Albina went to church every morning before breakfast, Noela tells me, and even travelled to the Vatican at age 80. “Religion was the highlight of her life,” Noela says. “But she didn’t push it on you. It was her personal thing.”

Noela is forthright when I ask difficult questions and take notes. How did you react when you heard your grandma was murdered? How did it affect you?

“She didn’t hurt a fly, and someone had to do that,” Noela says, shaking her head. “I don’t know if anyone understands it yet. Wrong place at the wrong time, I guess.”

Noela is doubtful police will ever catch the criminal. Every few months, she goes online and plugs the name “Albina Lequiea” into Google, in case there are updates on the case. Once, she found a black and white image of the crime scene.

“Her purse was just sitting there,” Noela says. “It was weird.”

I clutch at that same smidgen of hope for justice. But I don’t find it in the burgundy folder where Ed stored Albina’s papers along with the notes he dutifully took at a police inquest in Vancouver in early 1974. “Injury to larynx… fracture of ribs and injury to vagina…” Ed’s handwriting says. The words are from the statement of Dr. Harmon, who conducted the autopsy.

“Mother called her to close window,” Ed’s notes continue. These are the words of Sister Rose, who spoke to Albina the night of her death. “Pink nightgown. Room very orderly.” Sister Rose was the one who found Albina’s body. “Saw bruise on left cheek… throat and back were blue… blood on sheet—a lot.”

As I read these details, my feelings are conflicted. Intrigue, entitlement. Guilt, invasion of privacy. I question my motivations, my hunger for the gruesome details. Am I inside my family’s home, where grief and loss reside? Or am I on the front step, knocking on their door?

This crime happened to a person I never met. I am more than three decades removed. Albina is the name of a stranger, not unlike the many victims’ names I type in news stories. But I am invested in this story. Part of this crime, this pain, belongs to me. I’m knocking on the door, and I want to get answers, but not from my family. For my family. For all of us.

We still don’t know what happened that night. We have not celebrated a guilty verdict or savoured any sense of closure. The bearded stranger in jeans who smelled of liquor is still out there, and 33 years later all my family can do is speculate. Was he on drugs? Is he still alive? Did Albina wake up? Did she fight back?

Speculation? Big no-no in journalism. We want the facts, just the facts. But I am a relative, too. Relatives can speculate, can’t they? Sometimes I imagine my great-grandmother’s last night alive: Albina took out her dentures and slipped into her pink nightgown. She had her own room, just across the hall from the chapel. She knelt beside her single bed and prayed the rosary. The words came without thinking; Albina had recited them every night for as long as she could remember. It didn’t matter that she was nearly blind; she could feel each bead between her fingers as she whispered, in French, the old prayer: “Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women…”

“Our Catholic faith says she’s better off where she is now anyway,” Noela says. “She’s well looked after. Heaven must be better than Earth, right?”

Noela’s words cycle through my head as I drive down to Calgary for Grandma Julie’s 90th birthday party. If I were Catholic, would these words console me? Would I believe we’re better off up there than down here? I marvel at the human ability to reckon with tragedy through faith, to accept unacceptable acts of cruelty.

The birthday girl is dressed in a hot pink pants suit and gold flats. Her white hair has been freshly set in curls. Family and friends surround Grandma Julie’s wheelchair in the nursing home auditorium, congratulating her, hugging her. She is thin and fragile but glows with that famous Lequiea smile. The guests nibble on store-bought white sponge, making polite, meaningless chit-chat: “How’s Edmonton?” “How’s Calgary?” “Julie looks great.”

A wave of alienation rocks me. I feel like an outsider at this party, surrounded by strange faces babbling and shoving cake down their throats. Who are these people? Where do I fit in? I want to shout: “Don’t you know that Grandma Julie’s mom was murdered? Don’t you care?” Do they want the answers? Why do I?

What good is an answer if it can’t undo a horrible crime? Would knowing who killed my great-grandmother make it all better? Would having a name, a face, a life sentence documented in a daily newspaper, help my family make sense of something vicious? In some ways, I think the absence of answers allows us to hope. Hope for something that might mollify the rage, soothe the anguish. The question marks allow us to believe in the possibility of mercy in brutality, of sense in what doesn’t make sense.

“Hello, my name is Elizabeth Withey and I’m a reporter at the Edmonton Journal,” I say politely, a few weeks after my trip to Calgary. I press record on the digital recorder connected to the phone. “I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m looking for relatives of Mrs….”

“We’re not talking to the media,” a woman’s voice says. Click. The line goes dead. My editor tells me to try again later. I nod obediently but, when later comes, I hesitate. Should I call back? I should. I really must. It’s my job.

Ethics and duty are wrestling again, ethics on top, duty fighting back. The woman said she didn’t want to talk. Why harass her? I could lie, tell the news desk I couldn’t get the family. Who would ever know? It’s tempting. But if I can’t dial I shouldn’t be here, in this newsroom. I pick up the receiver, punch in the numbers slowly, deliberately. My pulse throbs thickly under my chin. Ring. Ring. Ring. No answer. There is no answer. My conscience is a commotion of applause and alarm bells. Relief, decency. Weakness, failure.

I’m back on that front step, figuratively this time. Outside, knocking on the door. Seeking answers. But I’m inside, too, and I’m upset, skeptical. A voice inside me is burning: You’re heartless, you people. Why don’t you just scram? Just go away.

Thing is, crimes don’t seem to be going away. Bad things keep happening—and as long as they do, media will continue to report on them. Some headlines will be sensational, others more sensitive. The phone will keep ringing. The reporters will keep knocking.

Sure, I want answers. It’s my job to ask questions, so I will continue to ask. But frankly, I don’t know if the whos and the whys will make any difference to my family anymore. They certainly won’t make any difference to Albina.

Maybe I need to stop knocking. Maybe some doors need to be shut for good.

Elizabeth Withey has worked for the Edmonton Journal since 2004. She currently writes for the paper’s Culture section.

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