It was a murder that shocked the City.
A seventy-three (73) year old grandmother abducted from the safety of her apartment building and killed by an unrepentant predator driven by urges far too dark for any of us to comprehend.
The victim was identified as Elizabeth Lafantaisie, born June 21, 1937, a gentle, religious women who was loved and treasured by her family. A hard-working mother of four (4) and grandmother of nine (9) who was known for being a great cook and a selfless care provider. Her death was an indescribable loss to those who loved her.
The responsibility to lead the investigation into her death fell on my shoulders.
I assumed that responsibility on Thursday, February 24, 2011 at 4:00 pm, the moment Sergeant Chris Puhach from the Winnipeg Police Service Missing Person’s Unit stepped into my office to tell me Elizabeth’s body had been discovered in the trunk of her car a few blocks from the Osborne Village Hotel at 160 Osborne Street.
Up to then, Puhach was running a missing persons investigation into Elizabeth’s disturbing disappearance. The truth was, Puhach had grave concerns regarding Elizabeth’s wellbeing right from the start. Those concerns intensified on Monday, February 21. That was the day her purse and contents were located by a witness in a parking garage at 77 University Crescent.
The purse had been rifled through and all the contents strewn about.
The purse was void of cash despite the fact Elizabeth had been paid $75 for a house-cleaning job she did on Friday, February 18. Missing Persons Unit investigators learned newspapers delivered to her suite after February 18 remained in her hallway and were later picked up by a neighbor. Investigators also learned Elizabeth failed to show up for a cleaning job on February 21. (A highly unusual occurrence for her.)
At this juncture, investigators determined Elizabeth was last seen alive by one of her house cleaning clients at a residence on Yorkwood Drive on Friday, February 18, at approximately 10:30 am.
The case at this stage of the investigation was all about building a time line to determine a location where Elizabeth met her killer. Was it at her apartment building at 100 Adamar Rd, at 77 University Cres where her purse was recovered or was it somewhere at or near Yorkwood Drive where she was housecleaning.
It was a mystery that had to be solved, and solved fast. A killer capable of unspeakable acts was “out there” and had to be stopped.
At 5:15 pm, I conducted the first of many briefings we’d have on this case. Present were a total of nine (9) Homicide and four (4) Missing Person’s Unit investigators. Known details of the investigation were discussed and assignments were delegated.
- Checking bank records
- Identifying locations where video evidence might be secured
- Checking garbage bins
- Conducting a thorough Police canvass
- Checking parking access card data
- Conducting family and witness interviews
- Conducting crime analysis
- Identifying parolees and sex offenders in the area
- Establishing a victim profile & routine
- Securing Elizabeth’s vehicle and body
- Liaising with CSI investigators
- Dispatching CSI to search 77 University Cres to check a potential crime scene
Before the investigation could gain any traction the first potential suspect came into play. Luigi Deangelis was a well-known high-risk sex offender with a horrific violent sexual assault history. A violent sex offender who just happened to be at the Osborne Street Hotel over the weekend Elizabeth went missing. That put him within a few blocks of the location where her body was recovered.
With news coming from the Crime Lab that Elizabeth’s killer had removed her pants, the high-risk sex offender scenario was extremely popular with investigators. With this offender came one of the great perils that often derail Homicide investigations – tunnel vision.
Tunnel vision can be a real problem in an emotional case like this. As a supervisor leading this kind of case, it’s extremely important to keep an open mind and stay “alert” to all possibilities. Although I “liked” the high-risk sex offender scenario, my experience told me all other possibilities had to be considered.
The task of including or excluding Deangelis was assigned to Detective Sergeant Daryl “DK” Kostiuk and his partner, Detective Jared “JR” Reid, two hard-working, detail oriented investigators.
Kostiuk had several years experience in Major Crime investigation and Homicide. He was a meticulous, slow-moving investigator who always made sure every “t” was crossed and every “i” was dotted. He was famous for his love of making bets and creating caveats that almost ensured it was impossible for him to lose. I would watch and listen in amazement when he would persuade seemingly intelligent Police Detectives to accept the terms he attached to his wagers.
Detective Reid was an upstart of sorts, a rookie Homicide investigator who cut his teeth working in a Detective Office in the largest District in the City. He was a respected investigator with a fierce work ethic and keen investigative skills. In his life before Police he worked for a local radio station as a sports reporter.
If Deangelis was responsible for this crime, I was confident these guys would get me the evidence I needed to make a charge stick.
By 7:00 pm, I was learning some disturbing information about the condition of Elizabeth’s body and other evidence. Information such as;
- Her body had been wrapped in a blue tarp
- She had heavy bruising on her wrists and forearms
- She had bruising on the side of her face
- Her left ear appeared to have a bite mark
- She had an undetermined liquid poured all over the lower part of her body
- Her under garments had been removed
- The front of her pants had been torn from the zipper down to the knee
- A struggle appeared to have occurred in the rear seat of her car
- Her vehicle had been sprayed down with a pressure washer
- The door handles on her vehicle appeared to have been wiped down
After reviewing this troubling evidence it was clear this was the work of a sexual predator. The case had all the markings of an experienced offender who was conscious of the need to eliminate forensic evidence. All signs pointed to an offender with historical involvement in sex crimes.
It was around this time in the investigation I found myself alone with my thoughts, sitting in silence at my desk in the Homicide Office. As I sat and pondered the investigation, I suddenly started to feel overwhelmed by it all, the intensity of the case, the complexities of the investigation, all the moving parts, the elevated internal & external pressure to solve it and the outrage being expressed by the Community and Police Officers alike.
Doubt started to enter my mind, “Can you really handle this?’ The question was posed by that little voice inside my mind. That little voice that resides in the depths of our minds, that little voice that surfaces at the most inconvenient times. I started to experience the involuntary physiological changes that come over a person when confronted with such doubt. The increased body temperature, the flushed face, the sweat on my brow & the uneasy feeling in my stomach.
These were feelings I rarely experienced, at least, not in my role as Supervisor in the Homicide Unit.
These were feelings I had to quickly overcome.
I knew I had to promptly reject the little voice. I told myself I was up to the task and assured myself I was surrounded by dedicated professionals who could be relied upon for support. I was part of a highly motivated, successful team and it would be that culture of teamwork I could rely on to get through the horrific case.
Regardless, I’d put in my time; I had as much experience as anyone else that was still in the game.
I convinced myself I was up to the task, took a deep breath, had a glass of cold water and got my head back in the game.
The Homicide Investigators were starting to get excited about the possibility the case might be solved quickly. Everything was pointing to Deangelis who had two (2) previous convictions for sex crimes in the immediate area.
To elevate interest, investigators learned he met with his parole officer on Monday, February 21 during which time he was noted to be highly emotional and crying. The Parole Officer described the offender’s behaviour as being “out of the ordinary.”
The plot was thickening!
At 10:13 pm, one of the investigators contacted me and advised that three (3) studio brand cigarette butts had been located at the crime scene at 77 University Cres. Two (2) of these cigarettes were broken and one (1) was intact. The Detective also observed a plastic 1 litre container of 10W30 oil and surmised this was the undetermined liquid that had been poured over the lower part of Elizabeth’s body.
The information about the cigarettes was provided to Kostiuk & Reid who were now on a mission to determine what cigarette brand Deangelis smoked.
Around midnight I’d learn the last time registered on Elizabeth’s garage access card was 7:53 am on Friday, February 18, 2011. There was no further activity on the card. This information led me to believe Elizabeth left her garage that morning, went to the Yorkwood Dr address to do house cleaning and never returned back to her apartment building.
Where did Elizabeth encounter her killer?
That remained the million-dollar question.
At 1:00 am, we retired from duty. This marked the end of an eighteen (18) hour day and meant most of us might get around four (4) hours sleep before we returned to duty. For me it would be much less.
I recall getting home that night, taking a shower and laying on my bed finding it impossible to sleep. Thoughts of Elizabeth permeated my mind, the unsettling feeling associated with having a deviant killer on the loose was paralyzing me, my blood pressure was rising, my pulse rapid, my heart thumping in my chest.
The magnitude of the case intensified the anxiety I was experiencing.
The innocence of the victim, the tragedy of the loss and the horrific nature of the crime disturbed me. The fact Elizabeth Lafantaisie was a loving mother and grandmother exacerbated the sense of tragedy.
Thoughts of the heinous crime, the innocent victim and sense of loss troubled me deeply.
It caused me to do something I’d never done in any Homicide case before.
It caused me to make a promise.
A promise to Elizabeth Lafantaisie that I would never rest until we brought her killer to justice.
To be continued…..
“A mother is always the beginning. She is how things begin.” Amy Tan