Judge to ex-officer: You can't blame yourself for Tina Fontaine's death

Craig Houle, a former Winnipeg police officer who was one of the last people see Tina Fontaine alive, has received a conditional discharge after judge agrees depression played a major role in Houle's descent into theft. The judge was also moved by Houle's remorse for his crimes and his subsequent extensive volunteer work.

Craig Houle's depression after missing chance to aid homicide victim led to thefts, court hears

Craig Houle, one of two police officers who encountered Fontaine in the last hours she was seen alive, receives conditional discharge on theft charges. (Tom Andrich)

Craig Houle, a former Winnipeg police officer who was one of the last people to see Tina Fontaine alive, spiralled into depression and guilt after her body was discovered and wound up turning to crime, court has heard. 

"From that point forward Craig's life simply took a different turn. He became obsessed with what happened," defence lawyer Richard Wolson said at Houle's sentencing hearing.

In January, Houle, 27, appeared before provincial court Judge Ryan Rolston to learn his fate after pleading guilty to two counts of possession of property obtained by crime under $5,000.

By that time, Houle had resigned from the Winnipeg police force. 

The rookie officer was just weeks into his career when he and senior officer crossed paths with Tina Fontaine. The pair were on general patrol in the early morning hours of Aug. 8, 2014. when they pulled over a vehicle and arrested a man for driving with a suspended licence. Tina, 15, was in the passenger seat. 

He blamed himself for her passing. He fell into a deep depression.- Richard Wolson, defence lawyer, on client Craig Houle

​Houle ran her name through the police computer system but missed an alert flagging her as a missing person. The officers told Tina she was free to go, and she wasn't seen alive after that day. More than a week later, her body was pulled from the Red River, wrapped in a duvet cover weighted down by rocks.

"He blamed himself for her passing," Wolson said. "He fell into a deep depression."

Both Houle and his fellow officer were suspended from the police force after the incident came to light. The senior officer resigned, but Houle was later reinstated.

Ad for boots traced to Houle

When Houle returned he was placed on station duty and in November 2015, court heard, officers began reporting various items began going missing around the office.

Months later, in February 2016, an officer spotted a pair of Winnipeg police-issued tactical boots and a flashlight for sale on Kijiji. He notified the service who traced the ad to Houle.

The Winnipeg Police Service arranged for an undercover officer to meet Houle to see whether they could purchase the stolen flashlight, the Crown said.

After the sale, police executed a search warrant on Houle's apartment. They seized more than 20 pairs of police-issued tactical boots, a bulletproof vest, a WPS plain clothes badge, brass knuckles, tactical flashlights and a tactical shotgun. They also found grenade simulators, smoke grenades and a parachute flare belonging to the Canadian Armed Forces where Houle was a reservist, court heard.

"He apologized immediately and said he was embarrassed for his actions," Crown attorney Kaley Tschetter said at the hearing.

Lost sense of purpose

Houle's lawyer told the judge his client had lost his sense of purpose as an officer and has no explanation for the behaviour.

"He is absolutely humiliated and frequently mentally beats himself up for his actions," Wolson said. "It's clear he knew what he was doing in law, [but] his mind was muddled with depression. There's no question about it."

Court heard Houle, 27, from Ebb and Flow First Nation was raised by his grandparents and had no prior criminal record.

Houle resigned from the police service after the thefts and court heard he began counselling for his depression and began working to give back to the community. Wolson said Houle had been volunteering on a regular basis with the Bear Patrol Clan, Rotary, Ma Mawi and Siloam Mission.

Wolson acknowledged that the aggravating factor in this case is that Houle was a police officer and police officers are held to a higher standard, he said.

Houle apologizes

During his hearing, Houle apologized for his actions.

"I would like to say sorry to the community, to my family, to my friends, and I will not be before a judge again after this," Houle said. "I would also like to apologize to the police service and the Canadian Forces."

Judge Rolston granted Houle a conditional discharge, which included 18-months of probation and 75 hours of community service.

He acknowledged the "significant" extent to which Houle has attempted to move forward with his life and make reparations to the community, which factored into his decision not to give him a criminal record.

Rolston also acknowledged Houle was a young, inexperienced officer who had barely started his career when he came across Tina.

"What happened was a mistake, but it's also not just your mistake," Rolston told Houle.

"It also doesn't put the responsibility of everything that happened to Tina Fontaine on your shoulders and you need to come to grips with that if you haven't already … Police officers are always called upon to make judgment calls on the street and you and your partner made a judgment call that turned out to go the wrong way."