It was the most bizarre turn of events I’ve witnessed in the world of criminal justice.
The Winnipeg Police Homicide Unit solves the heinous killing of a young Indigenous woman and within 24 hours, the grieving family and their private investigator, Janie Duncan, hold a press conference to criticize the investigation and suggest the accused killer may be an innocent man.
“What we are here to say is that the Winnipeg Police investigation was seriously flawed and we will be continuing our investigation in hopes of finding the true killer,” Janie Duncan said at the presser.
I’m guessing the Homicide Detectives who lived and worked the case are somewhat bewildered by Ms. Duncan’s accusations.
(Most Police Officers accept the fact Law Enforcement can be a thankless job, but this turn of events takes lack of appreciation to a whole new level.)
One of the most controversial aspects of the case surrounds the issue of Simone Sanderson’s involvement in the sex trade, a fact angrily disputed by the victim’s grandmother who accused the Police of using, “false labels” and creating a negative image of Sanderson in the media.
Others share her opinion…
Simone Sanderson was a victim, no dispute there.
So why do Police release this kind of information when a homicide victim is involved in the sex trade?
I can assure you it isn’t to bring shame and embarrassment to the family members left to mourn the loss. There are a number of reasons why it’s necessary to release this kind of information.
Solving Homicide Cases
Sex trade worker homicide cases can be extremely difficult to solve for a number or reasons that include;
- A large suspect pool
- Inability to establish victim time lines
- Inability to establish motive
- Lack of Eye Witnesses
- Outdoor Crime Scenes
These complicating factors are explained in more detail in a Police Insider article with the headline – “Elusive Killers – Sex Trade Worker Slayings Not so Easy to Solve.”
Sex trade workers are part of a unique community.
The women involved in the sex trade often know each other and are familiar with the “Johns” who access their services. In fact, sex trade workers often circulate “bad date” lists containing detailed information and descriptions of potentially sketchy, violent or dangerous men who exploit these women.
When a sex trade worker is killed Police release the information in hopes of motivating the public and people who work in the sex trade to come forward with information that may assist in identifying a suspect.
The release of the information motivates the sex trade worker community to communicate with Law Enforcement, heightens their awareness of the risk and encourages them to take precautions to ensure their safety.
In the Robert Picton case, Police were sharply criticized for failing to protect sex trade workers by releasing the relevant information.
If a sex trade worker is killed as a result of her participation in the sex trade the fact she was a sex trade worker becomes an important factor in the investigation.
If the information was to be kept in a vacuum the solvability of the case would be dramatically reduced.
An important aspect of Law Enforcement revolves around the obligation of the Police Service to promote and encourage public safety.
Involvement in the sex trade was identified by Project Devote (a joint RCMP / WPS initiative tasked with investigating cases of missing and murdered women) as one of several substantial risk factors associated with the victimization of women and girls.
Police have an obligation to educate and inform the public when certain lifestyle choices put people at risk.
Police do not treat the killings of sex trade workers as “dirty secrets” that need to be suppressed from the public to avoid causing people embarrassment.
There’s a bigger picture.
Police have done much in the last decade to humanize the women who work in the sex trade and have “labelled” them as victims of sexual exploitation to reduce the stigma attached to sex trade work.
In November of 2013 the WPS announced the creation of the Counter Exploitation Unit. At the time the Unit was created Police made a commitment to treat investigations involving the sex trade with respect, dignity and a victim first mentality.
Police Spokesman Constable Jason Michalyshyn wants the public to know the Police take the issue very seriously;
“As a police agency, we also have an obligation to the public to inform them about individuals who may be putting the public (this includes individuals engaged in the sex trade) at risk, this allows members of the public to safeguard themselves.”
“As you are fully aware, a lot of time is spent determining what must be released and what information needs to be protected for the sake of the investigation. These discussions are not taken lightly.”
Criteria for Release
So what kind of evidence would the Police have that would support the release of information indicating a homicide victim was involved in the sex trade, and further, that her participation in the sex trade was a relevant factor in the investigation?
Inferences can be made regarding information released by WPS Deputy Police Chief Danny Smyth who said Sanderson’s alleged killer, “Was known to sexually exploit women he believed were working in the sex trade.”
Smyth confirmed Sanderson and her killer were not previously known to each other.
His comments are highly suggestive of a connection to the sex trade.
Constable Jason Michalyshyn takes out the guess-work;
“This type of detail is released only when there is absolute certainty. This is not about labeling, it’s about being open and honest and trying to gather credible information for the sake of the victim and their loved ones.”
Translation – 1) It’s about solving the crime 2) The truth matters.
The Conspiracy Theory
PI Janie Duncan suggests her investigation refutes Police assertions Simone Sanderson was working as a sex trade worker.
“In 2013, the police told the public Sanderson was a sex-trade worker and that she was soliciting clients from Facebook and working in that area of the North End as a “hooker,” Duncan said.
“We have access to Simone’s Facebook and have found no evidence to date that she was soliciting.”
The fact the WPS indicated Sanderson was a sex trade worker is not in dispute.
The question I would ask is, did the Police say Sanderson was using Facebook to solicit clients?
A search of the WPS media releases provides clarity;
The media release indicates, “Sanderson utilized social media platforms to make contact with potential sex trade clients.”
There are many social media platforms that can be used by sex trade workers to solicit clients – Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Craigslist, Tinder and Plenty of Fish are just a few that come to mind.
Janie Duncan seems to place great emphasis on the fact no evidence of sexual solicitation exists on Simone Sanderson’s Facebook account. In fact, if I understand her position, her conspiracy theory relies on the fact the Police got this aspect of the investigation wrong.
If Simone Sanderson was not involved in the sex trade, as Duncan suggests, then it stands to reason the Police may have taken the case down the wrong path.
It goes to motive, a central piece of any homicide case.
But what if Janie Duncan got it wrong?
What if strong evidence exists that indicates Simone Sanderson used some other social media platform to solicit sex trade clients?
What if Simone Sanderson’s killer was known to sexually exploit women who worked in the sex trade as the Police suggest?
What if the sex trade factors into the to motive in the Simone Sanderson murder case?
It’s important to note, Janie Duncan has no idea what evidence Police relied on to charge alleged killer Kyllan James Ellis with 2nd degree murder in connection with Simone Sanderson’s death.
Police did not disclose their evidence to Janie Duncan.
They disclosed their evidence to a Senior experienced Crown Prosecutor employed by Manitoba Justice who reviewed the case and provided their authorization to lay the murder charge.
Crown Prosecutors do not authorize murder charges unless there is a reasonable likelihood of a conviction. That is the charge standard.
If Janie Duncan got it wrong and Simone Sanderson was using a social media platform to solicit sex trade clients then her conspiracy theory collapses under its own weight.
The trial will provide much clarity.
Sex Trade Work – Stigmatization
Imagine the pain of losing a loved one to homicide.
Now imagine how that hurt is intensified when the Police inform the public your loved one was involved in the sex trade.
I’ve investigated many homicide cases involving sex trade workers and I know how difficult it can be for the people left behind to acknowledge and accept the reality of their loved ones participated in one of the most stigmatized commercial enterprises on earth.
Families need not be ashamed or embarrassed regarding these circumstances.
I understand that’s an easy thing to say.
Real life is more complicated.
It’s my hope people affected by these cases take comfort knowing the investigators tasked with solving these crimes do not stigmatize, judge or devalue sex trade worker victims.
Their lives matter.
They deserve respect and dignity like anyone else.
The proof is in the results.
The Police never quit seeking justice for Simone Sanderson and through their commitment, hard-work and determination, they were able to put a name and face on a young woman’s killer.
It was a remarkable effort on a difficult case.
For that, they should be commended.