It was one of the hardest things I had to do as a supervisor working in the Winnipeg Police Service’s Homicide Unit.
The need to keep families in the dark after they’ve lost a loved one to murder is not just excruciatingly painful for those left trying to put the pieces of their lives back together, it’s also emotionally difficult for police.
It’s not easy watching people suffer.
Many surviving family members only find out what happened to their loved ones at trial, a process that can keep them in an information vacuum for years.
It’s a cruel reality of the criminal justice system and can be difficult for people to understand.
Winnipeg Free Press reporter Gordon Sinclair Jr recently wrote an article that provides an excellent opportunity to offer some clarity for those we leave in the dark.
In case you missed it, Tina Fontaine (15) was a troubled teenaged girl whose body was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg on August 17, 2014. Fontaine had been murdered, her body wrapped in plastic and dumped in the river.
Her killing remains unsolved.
Fontaine’s case garnered incessant media attention and became a catalyst for groups calling for an inquiry into Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women in Canada.
Police have disclosed little regarding Fontaine’s killing.
There’s a good reason for that.
It’s called “hold-back” information.
What is “hold-back” information?
Hold-back information can be any piece of information or detail that’s unique to the case under investigation.
In homicide investigation, hold-back can be information or detail regarding the modus operandi of the killer, the clothing worn by the victim, the manner of killing, nature of injuries, autopsy results or any other minute detail.
Police make concerted efforts to protect any piece of information or detail that would only be known to a killer or anyone who may have been present or party to the killing.
When a suspect is arrested, one of the primary goals of police interrogators is to extract high value hold-back information that only the killer would have known. This type of evidence is critical to successful case resolution and any subsequent prosecution.
Hold-back information is also vitally important to protect to avoid providing critical information to people who may be motivated to provide a false confession to the crime.
Enter Gordon Sinclair Jr.
Sinclair suggests, “There is no bigger police story in Winnipeg,” and has been tireless in his pursuit of information regarding the Fontaine case.
He recently requested a formal interview to explore the status of the investigation with WPS Supt. Danny Smyth or Homicide Unit Supervisor Sergeant John O’Donovan.
The request was denied.
Like a dog on a bone, the rejection only proved to inspire Sinclair to sink his teeth deeper.
In his quest for further information he interviewed Thelma Favel, a primary care provider, foster-mother and blood relative of young Tina.
During the conversation Sinclair asked Favel what she’d heard from police regarding the state of the investigation.
This investigative technique is commonly called using the “back door.”
If you can’t get the information directly from a source, find a creative way to find out what you want to know.
Sinclair writes Favel remembered a call she received from Sergeant O’Donovan that suggested the police are going to great lengths to solve the case.
“He told me all of Tina’s clothing and things that she was wrapped up in have been sent to Austria,” Favel explained to Sinclair. “He said because that’s where they have a high-tech forensic lab,” she continued.
(Sinclair investigated the information and identified the Innsbruck Medical University as a potential crime laboratory where the exhibits may have been sent.)
Sinclair continued to question the woman who disclosed further aspects of her conversation with Sergeant O’Donovan.
“You wouldn’t believe the tips we’re getting from gang members,” O’Donovan is alleged to have told Favel.
“Even the hardest gang leaders are phoning in with tips. These are people that would rather see us dead than help us. When it comes to a child, they sort of put their hatred aside and try to help,” he allegedly continued.
Favel indicated O’Donovan told her to expect a news conference sometime in March.
While I don’t fault Gordon Sinclair Jr from pursuing a high-profile crime story, his back door approach provides a classic illustration of why police need to go to extraordinary lengths to protect hold-back or other vital information from the stakeholders affected by the tragic cases.
The very people who deserve to have the facts so they can properly grieve and have answers to the many questions that consume them.
It’s the nature of the beast.
The lion hunts and kills the gazelle because it’s in his nature.
The lion plays his role in the animal kingdom.
While the back door information published in the article is not the type of information that could jeopardize a homicide case, I’m confident Sergeant O’Donovan would prefer not to have his private conversations with grieving family members quoted in newspapers.
I’ve met few columnists, journalists or crime reporters that concern themselves with how their reporting might impact a police investigation. For many of them, it’s about getting the scoop, breaking news or selling newspapers.
For police, it’s about maintaining the integrity of the investigation, solving the crime and making sure the right person goes to jail.
An experienced former homicide supervisor once cautioned me, “Only tell people what you don’t mind reading about or hearing in the press.”
It was a lesson I would learn years later when I sat in his chair.
The urge to share information to offer a level of comfort to a grieving family member came back to bite me as well.
A sensational headline and our private conversation splashed in a newspaper article.
It only happened once.