BROADCAST DATE : Mar 28, 2014

Your Tips, Our Stories

EPISODE SYNOPSIS : This season, the fifth estate was flooded with tips from viewers, asking our team to investigate stories important to you. We listened, we did our research, and now in 'Your Tips, Our Stories' we have three stories built on your suggestions. Bob McKeown uncovers the disturbing past of a man who promised love to at least ten women across Canada, but delivered only deception. Mark Kelley follows up on a viewer’s request to investigate the mysterious death of a young blind woman in Halifax, and learns that a key witness in the police investigation has changed his story. And we went looking for the worst case of small town corruption, and found one - south of the border, in Dixon, Illinois.

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If you have a story idea for the fifth estate, you can email them to fifthtips@cbc.ca

By Julia Sisler

LOVE AND THE PERFECT STRANGER

The former host of a survival show on Finnish TV charmed at least 10 women across Canada with promises of love before he was arrested in Orangeville, Ont., on assault charges last month, CBC’s the fifth estate has learned.

Before coming to Canada, Markus Vuorinen had a disturbing past in Finland, where he deceived more women into financially supporting him, and is facing two other assault charges.

In early February, the fifth estate received a tip about Vuorinen from one of the women he’d been living with, Anna Ripmeester of St. Catharines, Ont., alleging he was taking advantage of women here in Canada as well.

“I never believed something like this could happen to me,” she wrote in her first email to the fifth estate.

“My hope by telling this story is that somehow we can stop him from hurting/scamming more women.”

Online dating

The fifth estate has learned that Vuorinen has been in Canada since at least 2011. He set up a profile on the online dating site Mingle2 under the screen name 72Markus. It included many photos of him doing outdoor sports like hiking, white-water canoeing and sharpshooting, and it suggested he was looking for a long-term relationship.

The profile impressed Ripmeester.

“He had lots of pictures, he was a nice-looking guy, but the biggest thing wasn’t even, I mean, looks - it was just the fact that, ‘oh my gosh, here is a guy who loves the outdoors as much as me,” she told the fifth estate’s Bob McKeown.

Within 48 hours of meeting online, Vuorinen was declaring his love for her. But as their relationship continued, he would not come visit her and he discouraged her from coming to his home in Winnipeg.

There was a good reason. He was living there with another woman, Lynne Kohler, who he also met through Mingle2. She said he was very loving and supportive, and eventually he asked her to marry him.

“I said yes. I was very much in love with him,” she said.

Complications

But Kohler’s marriage plans were interrupted when she intercepted a text message to Vuorinen from a woman in British Columbia, who claimed he had got her pregnant.

Kohler says she told Vuorinen not to come home.

Shortly after that, Ripmeester received a call from Vuorinen saying he was finally on his way to visit her in Ontario.

“When he got to my place, he got down on his knee and asked me to marry him, and he asked me several times. And I was always like, ‘yeah, sure, whatever,’ right? And after a while I finally said yes,” she told McKeown.

Before that marriage could take place, Ripmeester received a phone call from a woman in Alberta, who also believed she was in a committed relationship with Vuorinen.

That’s when Ripmeester sent her email to the fifth estate.

Since then, the fifth estate has learned that there are at least 10 women who believed they were in a committed relationship with Vuorinen, some of whom supported him financially, in Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia.

Pattern of deception

The fifth estate has learned that Vuorinen started his pattern of dating and deception years before, in Finland.

There, Vuorinen is known as the host of a reality TV show called Luonnon Lait, or The Laws of Nature, in which he taught survival skills to celebrities. He said it was experience he gained during his time in military combat around the world.

But Finnish journalist Risto Kunnas received a tip that suggested Vuorinen was not telling the truth. In an interview, Kunnas asked him how he could travel so extensively without a passport.

“He was silent,” Kunnas told McKeown. “He said, ‘come on, you should understand that life isn’t so easy. Life is hard. I had to do something for a living.’”

Kunnas said that Vuorinen eventually admitted he’d only been out of Finland once, to go to Sweden, which doesn’t require a passport.

Soon after his deception was revealed, Kunnas said about 20 women came forward saying they’d been fooled into relationships with Vuorinen, and two of them claimed they had his children. There were also two assault charges against him, in 2009 and 2010.

Kunnas said a magistrate told him Vuorinen never went to court to face the charges against him in Finland.

Canadian arrest

Back in Canada, Vuorinen continued dating multiple women until he was arrested on Feb. 11. The Orangeville police were called to a domestic dispute, where they say they found him in a woman’s house. He is charged with assault. He was also charged with possessing a weapon, and two counts of uttering death threats.

There are also allegations of theft. Some of the women Vuorinen met in Canada say he stole their jewelry to give to new girlfriends.

Vuorinen is being held in custody, while Canadian and Finnish authorities sort through the allegations against him.

The fifth estate contacted Vuorinen and his lawyer requesting an interview, but he declined to comment.

Ripmeester says she wants others to be aware of her story.

“I wanted him to not be able to hide behind the internet, and target women and prey on women anymore,” she told McKeown. “I just wanted him stopped.”

THE LONG WAY HOME

A Halifax cab driver who was the last known person to see Holly Bartlett alive has changed some of the key details he told police in 2010 after the blind woman's body was found.

In an exclusive interview with reporter Mark Kelley for CBC-TV's the fifth estate, taxi driver Paul Fraser acknowledged he misled police, but said he was just being "flippant."

Bartlett, 31, was found unconscious under the A. Murray MacKay Bridge — just a few hundred metres from her house — in the early hours of March 27, 2010. She later died in hospital. At the time, police said she became disoriented after getting out of a taxi and fell off a concrete abutment. Then last month, police announced the investigation into her death would undergo an independent police review.

Bartlett's mother told the fifth estate she thought police reached their conclusion too quickly. "It was wrapped up before Holly was, before we had her service. That was the end of it," Marion Bartlett told the fifth estate's Mark Kelley.

"They thought, 'That poor little blind drunk girl.' Holly was anything but a poor little blind drunk girl. Anything but."

Peter Parsons, a friend of Barlett who is also blind, helped teach her orientation skills to get around on her own. He says she was skillful and confident navigating without sight, and he doesn’t accept that she could have been easily disoriented in the parking lot of her own apartment.

“I believe that it was discrimination not to investigate the case like if it were a sighted person. If assumptions weren’t made and it wasn’t chalked up as drunk blind girl, unfortunately we could have had more answers,” he told Kelley.

After receiving a request for further investigation from Parsons and another friend of the Bartlett family, the fifth estate tracked down Fraser, who had driven Bartlett home on the night she died.

Witness changes story

He was questioned by police in 2010 and he said they asked whether he thought Bartlett was drunk. Fraser said he told police on a scale from one to 10 — with 10 being the most drunk — she was probably around eight.

In the interview with Kelley, Fraser changed his story. He said Bartlett only spoke one word to him that night and when she got out of his taxi, she didn't seem that drunk.

"I was misleading them, not purposely, but just being flippant. I don't know. Not taking it seriously," he said. "I don't think it affected the investigation that much."

A large part of the police theory about how Bartlett died was based on Fraser's statement about how drunk she was that night.

Fraser also denied another part of what he told police, in the interview with Kelley.

According to the lawyer for the Bartlett family, Fraser told police he cheated her that night after she overpaid him.

Now, four years later, Fraser told Kelley he did not tell police he took extra money from the blind woman that night.

"To the best of my memory, no. Because I didn't do it," Fraser said.

Fraser also did not initially tell police that he came back to Bartlett's apartment shortly after he dropped her off. Police saw his taxi return after viewing security footage from a camera on a bus parked near her apartment.

Fraser later explained that he came back because he saw Bartlett trip and fall and guilt prompted him to check on her. By then, he said, she was gone.

Unanswered questions

There are a number of unanswered questions about Bartlett's death. It's not known why her cellphone and wallet were found outside her building, instead of with her. There is also no explanation for why some of her friends found Bartlett’s cane leaning against a fence under the MacKay bridge.

Findings included in the police report about her blood alcohol content are also invalid. Before her blood alcohol level was tested, Bartlett received several blood transfusions in the hospital.

Halifax Regional Police Chief Jean-Michel Blais was not in charge when the Bartlett case was underway, but he acknowledges there are still many questions around this case. He decided to hand the investigation over to Quebec City Police for review.

"That's why we've taken this highly unusual step, OK? I mean, there was a significant amount of public pressure to go ahead, but we chose this as being the right thing to do for Holly and for her family," Blais told Kelley.

"To be able to say, 'All right, is there something that we missed here?"

The results of the review will likely be made public this summer.

SMALL TOWN SHAKEDOWN

Over the past season, viewers have sent in plenty of tips about corruption in cities and towns across the country. So we went looking for the worst case of a small town shakedown - and we found one, south of the border. For more than two decades, the trusted treasurer in Ronald Reagan’s hometown - Dixon, Illinois - was stealing millions from the town coffers.

Rita Crundwell was a farmer’s daughter who grew up on a ranch just outside Dixon - and she seemed destined for the role of town treasurer. In high school, she was a member of the young business association, and she parlayed that into a job at City Hall when she was just a teen. Before long, she was in charge of every municipal penny in Dixon.

“Everybody loved Rita. She had a pretty smile, she knew her job, people trusted her,” Kathe Swanson, the town clerk, told the fifth estate’s Mark Kelley in an exclusive interview.

When Crundwell started the job, Dixon was running a healthy surplus. But gradually, finances became tighter and tighter.

The police and fire department were told to stretch every dollar. There was no money to pave rutted streets; Crundwell would only allow a few potholes to be filled. Streets commissioner Jeff Kuhn told Kelley he asked Crundwell for money to replace his rusted trucks.

“The best I could ever get was four tires for an in-loader. Otherwise, I got no new equipment the whole time she was here. All I got was tires,” he said.

While the town struggled to make ends meet, Crundwell lived a life of luxury. Most of her coworkers believed she was privately wealthy. When some of them were invited to one of her ranches, they saw her trophy room, cowhide furniture, and even a six-shooter chandelier.

“I honestly thought she made her money in the horse business,” Swanson said.

Crundwell invested much of her money in prize-winning show horses, and they won 69 national championships for her.

But as her wealth grew, Dixon was bleeding money. The mayor, Jim Burke, had a vague suspicion that Crundwell could be involved - and he took his concerns to the town’s outside auditor.

“And he [the auditor] said listen, we handle a lot of communities and a lot of county governments and she said, ‘I’ll tell you one thing, there isn’t anybody that’s smarter, handles the books better than Rita Crundwell’,” he told Kelley.

“So that sent me out the door with my tail between my legs.”

It was the town clerk who eventually uncovered the truth, almost by accident.

One day, when Crundwell was away at a horse show, the town clerk Swanson was going through some financial records normally set aside for Crundwell, when she stumbled across an account she’d never seen before. Swanson took it to the mayor.

“I said Jim, I think something’s terribly wrong. So I told him about the statement, he said go and get it, he made a copy of it and he said ‘I’m going to call the FBI’.”

How did she do it?

The FBI revealed that Crundwell had been embezzling money for 22 years.

The town was audited every year, at a cost of about a million dollars. So how did she do it?

Crundwell made herself the sole signatory on all cheques signed in the name of the city.

Then she created a fake municipal account, called the Reserve Sewer Capital Development Account, or RSCDA, which functioned as a slush fund.

She forged invoices to transfer money to that account. In 1991, she began skimming money out of it. That first year, it was $181,000. Soon she would be stealing millions every year.

Crundwell started spending. She owned 400 horses, bought a condo in Florida, and got a vintage Corvette for her boyfriend. One of the priciest items was an RV, with granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances, and a price tag of $2.1 million.

While the FBI was building their case, the mayor and the town clerk could not let on that they knew Crundwell was being investigated.

Swanson said she had to bite her lip - since her pay, like all city workers, had been frozen for years by Crundwell.

“I was very angry, but I couldn’t show it. When she left to go to Florida I mumbled to myself, ‘you better go and have a good time, because it’s probably going to be your last time going to Florida’,” she told Kelley, in her first interview since she uncovered Crundwell’s scheme.

Payback

In April 2012, the FBI arrested Crundwell. She quickly admitted to stealing $10 million. But in truth, she had actually stolen $53, 740, 394 over 22 years.

Crundwell pled guilty and was sentenced to 235 months in jail - almost 20 years.

“I would just really like to ask her why. Was it that important to live your lifestyle to hurt this many people that you did?” Streets Commissioner Kuhn said. “How could you take that from your fellow Dixonites, from your neighbours, from your friends?”

But Dixon did not just accept its losses.

The city reached an out of court settlement with the outside auditors and a bank in connection with Crundwell’s 22 year long theft, and they agreed to pay Dixon $40 million.

Then the town staged a huge fire sale. Everything Crundwell owned was seized and sold at auction.

All of her horses were sold, including two named ‘Have Faith in Money’ and ‘I Found A Penny’. Her boat, tanning bed, trucks, grand piano and even the multi-million dollar RV were sold to the highest bidder. The town made about $10 million from selling her jewelry, including a diamond-encrusted SpongeBob Squarepants pendant.

But it was the items monogrammed with Crundwell’s initials that were the hot sellers. Saddles, jewellery and signs emblazoned with “RC” sold for a premium as buyers tried to get a piece of Dixon’s criminal history.

These days, meetings at city hall in Dixon look very different. Mayor Burke says now, the town has the pleasant problem of figuring out how to spend their fortune.

And for Swanson, the clerk who blew the whistle on Crundwell, seeing justice served was the best payback.

“I saw the female marshall get up with the handcuffs and stand behind her, and for closure, I closed my eyes and I listened to her click the handcuffs,” she told Kelley.

“And to me, that was the end of the whole ordeal. It was over, she was going to prison. I had done the right thing.”