Two families were left without justice after a 16-year-old girl was found strangled in a doughnut shop washroom and police could only see one culprit — but it wasn't the killer.

Stoppel, a new book by a former Winnipeg police detective Andrew Mikolajewski, explores what went wrong in the investigation of one of Manitoba's most notorious cases of wrongful conviction.

The book explores details of the botched investigation, including many details that weren't included in the inquiry following the exoneration of Thomas Sophonow.

"They made several mistakes in the prosecution of Tom Sophonow and in his arrest," Mikolajewski said from his home on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

"But if you review the file and realize he is innocent, the next step is to do something about it."

The murder of Barbara Stoppel 

There was fresh snow on the ground when Barbara Stoppel, 16, went to work at the Ideal Donut Shop in Winnipeg on Dec. 23, 1981. She had a new boyfriend, a loving family and dreams of being an actress.

But while people excitedly shopped for Christmas presents throughout the city, the young waitress was strangled in a women's washroom and found unconscious on the floor.

She died a few days later.

Police immediately began looking at Sophonow, and he was arrested a few months later.

However, it was just the start of a decades-long ordeal with Sophonow arguing his innocence and Winnipeg police stuck with tunnel vision, Mikolajewski says.

Sophonow had a preliminary hearing, went through three separate trials, two of them ending in guilty verdicts and one where the jury couldn't agree on a verdict, and he won multiple appeals.

He was in prison until 1986 when his conviction was overturned by the Manitoba Court of Appeal, which said Sophonow could not be tried again without new information. The Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear an appeal of that decision.

'Is this it?'

More than a decade later, Mikolajewski was handed that task: Review the case and find evidence that Sophonow was guilty or, in what would turn out to be the case, whether a different suspect had been overlooked.

"After a spending a few hours [looking at the file], I basically looked around the room and said to myself, 'Is this it?' I was expecting something a little bit more complicated," Mikolajewski said.

Andrew Mikolajewski

Former Winnipeg police officer Andrew Mikolajewski's new book explores the investigation into Barbara Stoppel's death and the wrongful conviction of Thomas Sophonow. (Facebook)

It was clear that not only was Sophonow not guilty, but that there was a suspect who hadn't been pursued — Terry Arnold.

Arnold was found dead in Victoria, B.C., in 2005. Before committing suicide he left a note maintaining his innocence.

A public inquiry was called to look into what went wrong in the investigation, using information discovered by Mikolajewski and other officers, and that led the way for Sophonow to receiving $2.6 million in compensation.

"I was absolutely amazed that something like that could happen. Try to convey that to Tom Sophonow, the wrongfully accused who spent almost three years in jail for a murder he didn't commit. Try to explain that to the family of Barbara Stoppel, who for God knows how many years believed that Tom was guilty, that he got away with murder and more importantly that there was a real killer out there," Mikolajewski said.

"Try finding them closure after all these years, which still hasn't happened."

At the time of the murder, the police department had "suffered a major blow to its reputation," Mikolajewski writes in the first chapter of the book. Public trust was shaken after Paul Clear's canvas-wrapped body was discovered in a shallow grave outside the city in 1981. Two police constables were later convicted of his murder.

So, police were under intense pressure to find the young woman's killer, Mikolajewski said. Bill Norrie, the mayor at the time, even wrote a letter to the Stoppel family and the police issued a reward of $8,500 for information leading to an arrest, the book says.

That pressure led to major mistakes, Mikolajewski said.

Seekers of the truth

While reviewing the investigation, Mikolajewski wasn't thinking about writing a book. As time went on, he says, he realized it was a story that needed to be told.

After a 28-year-career on the police force, he retired in 2014 and knew it was finally time to explain the details, many which had been excluded from the public inquiry, of how the wrongful conviction happened.

"The Winnipeg Police Service was labelled the seekers of the truth. However, in a lot of cases, much like this, because we claim it's an ongoing investigation we seem to become keepers of the truth and nothing else is released," Mikolajewski said.

"But there's all sorts of information that is very pertinent and very blatant that should not be held back from the public or the families involved."

Over the next two months, that information will come out week by week on the website Mikolajewski set up for the book.

The first chapter was released online Tuesday, and the following chapters will come out every Sunday. Mikolajewski said he wanted to make sure the book was accessible to everyone.

Thomas Sophonow was wrongfully convicted in the death of 16-year-old Barbara Stoppel3:14

But before the first pages hit the website, Mikolajewski said he made sure to share it with the Stoppel family and Sophonow.

"[It's] the truth for the victim and her family, and there's lots of victims here more than you can imagine, they deserve the truth," he said.

The book, which will include details of the investigation and extra interviews with people who have approached Mikolajewski with information since the public inquiry, will likely upset some people in the Winnipeg police, he said.

But Mikolajewski added he hopes it will increase accountability and make sure the same mistake doesn't happen again.

Corrections

  • We initially reported Thomas Sophonow was found guilty in three separate trials. In fact, he was found guilty twice; the first trial ended with a hung jury.
    Aug 09, 2017 7:37 AM CT
  • We initially reported the Supreme Court of Canada overturned Thomas Sophonow's conviction in a third trial. In fact, the Manitoba Court of Appeal overturned the conviction.
    Aug 09, 2017 7:39 AM CT