Winnipeg woman's 2004 death not accident, son says

A Winnipeg man who has spent years investigating his mother's death says he has solid evidence that her death was a homicide and not the accident police claim it was.

Jim Garwood says he believes mother's death was a homicide

A Winnipeg man who has spent years investigating his mother's death says he has solid evidence that her death was a homicide and not the accident police claim it was.

Two independent experts, along with Manitoba's chief medical examiner, now believe foul play may have been involved.

After accumulating stacks of evidence he says supports his belief there was foul play involved, Jim Garwood has begun the process of filing a wrongful-death lawsuit with Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench.

"My mother's death was no accident," Garwood said in an interview with CBC News.

"It was a homicide."

On a winter day in 2004, the body of 87-year-old Jessie Garwood was found in the basement of her Winnipeg home, where she lived alone.

There was a pool of blood on the floor. However, police found no sign of a break-in.

The police investigation would conclude that Garwood died accidentally after falling down the basement stairs and hitting her head.

No doubts at first

At first, Jim Garwood said he had no reason to doubt that version of events. He moved into the house where his mother used to live.

But as time wore on, he began to think there was more to the story of how his mother died.

Jim Garwood, who has spent years investigating his mother's death, told CBC News he has solid evidence that her death was a homicide. (CBC)

The autopsy report detailed many injuries, including extensive bruising on the back of both hands, a broken arm, four broken ribs, and 13 distinct wounds to the head.

‘'When I looked down the basement stairs — there's only eight stairs — I then came to the conclusion that this was not possible," Garwood said.

In 2007, after Garwood raised concerns with Manitoba's office of the chief medical examiner, officials changed the classification of Jessie Garwood's death from "accidental" to "undetermined."

In the five years that followed, Garwood spent countless hours doing his own detective work.  He hired the services of a private investigation firm in 2009.

When he asked the police to release more records about their investigation, they refused — forcing Garwood to go to court in 2010 to get more information from the file.

When he got the additional information, he hired forensic experts to review the case. Their reviews now are among the court documents filed by Garwood.

Private experts disagree with police conclusion

Joe Slemko, an Edmonton police officer and private forensic consultant who is an expert in analyzing blood splatter, said in a July 2011 report that the majority of the bloodstain pattern evidence does not support the interpretation and conclusions provided by the Winnipeg Police Service in the death of Jessie Garwood.

The blood patterns on the basement floor suggest to Slemko another person may have been involved in the tragedy. 

Another expert hired by Garwood to review the file came to the same conclusion.

Glenn Woods, an expert in crime analysis, is a former RCMP superintendent and the former director of the RCMP's behavioural sciences branch. He said in his report that "homicide was the most probable manner of death."

"I think it should be investigated from start to finish as a homicide versus an accidental death,'' Woods told CBC News.

Garwood's allegations have not been proven in court.

Medical examiner urged police to reopen case

In a letter to Winnipeg police Chief Keith McCaskill, dated Aug. 26, 2011, provincial chief medical examiner Dr. Thambirajah Balachandra also urged police to reopen the investigation.

Medical examiner's letter

Read the letter by Dr. Thambirajah Balachandra to the Winnipeg Police Service regarding the Jessie Garwood case.

The letter is one of many documents Jim Garwood obtained from police through a freedom of information request.

Dr. Balachandra wrote, "…the death appears not to be an accident…. I think it would be prudent to investigate this case further, as it appears that foul play may have been involved in this case.''

"It's very disappointing as a police officer, but I've seen this before where they [police] reach an opinion and they're going to stick to that opinion no matter what,'' said Slemko.

The Winnipeg Police Service declined an interview request from CBC News.

A police spokesperson said in an email that at the request of Jim Garwood, the police service has reviewed the investigation and the findings of a forensic consultant that Garwood had hired.

"There is no new evidence that supports reopening this investigation," the spokesperson said in the email.

Police official questioned theory

But documents filed in court show a high-ranking police member questioning the "accidental death" theory.

In a sworn affidavit, filed in 2010 to prevent Jim Garwood from obtaining certain police documents, the head of the Winnipeg Police Service's major crimes and homicide units said he believes the death of Jessie Garwood is "undetermined" and it "may or may not have been the result of foul play."

Over the years, police have reviewed the evidence on several occasions, but each time the conclusion was the same: the death was an accident.

Last November, Winnipeg police did ask for an independent review of the file.

For that, they turned to the Saskatoon Police Service. That review discounted Slemko's blood spatter analysis and supported the Winnipeg police position.

In finding no reason to doubt the original investigation, the Saskatoon report said, "The biggest pitfall in any investigation is to follow theories and speculation that are not supported by evidence."

Jim Garwood said he remains convinced the original investigation was flawed.

"I would like to see them do something. I mean, it's their responsibility, not my responsibility to do a criminal investigation", he said.

"And they're not doing it. They didn't do it Day 1, they didn't do it in 2007, and they haven't done it since," said Garwood.

Who might have done it?

But if Garwood is convinced his mother was the victim of a violent attack in her home, who might be behind such an act?

In court documents supporting his wrongful-death lawsuit, Garwood points to someone in his own family, a person who was possibly the last to see Jessie Garwood alive, and the person who discovered her body.

The day before she died, Jessie Garwood had a visit from her step-granddaughter, Cathy Watson. They went out to dinner and a movie, according to court documents.

That seemed unusual to Jim Garwood.

"Unusual in the sense that Cathy had never done that before — taken her to a movie — but secondly, my mother was not able to see the movie. She had macular degeneration of the eyes," he said.

Watson declined an interview request by CBC News, but her lawyer spoke on her behalf.

"My client has absolutely no compunction in saying that she was probably the last person to see Mrs. Garwood alive. But she had absolutely nothing to do with her death," said lawyer Graeme Young.

"It's an unfortunate tragic accident," he said.

Emergency call transcript

But in court documents, Jim Garwood raises a number of his suspicions about Cathy Watson.

Jessie Garwood wore a Victoria Lifeline alarm around her neck — something she would press if she was in distress.

The alarm went off that evening at 10 p.m. and an emergency operator called the house. 

Jessie Garwood did not answer the phone, but Watson did, as outlined in this excerpt of a transcript of the phone call:

  • Operator: How may I help you? Mrs. Garwood?
  • Responder: She's fine, she fell. I am her granddaughter.
  • Operator: You are her granddaughter?
  • Responder: Yeah, Kathy Watson [sic]. It's fine.
  • Operator: She fell.
  • Responder: Yes.
  • Operator: Is she hurt?
  • Responder: No, she just slipped. It's OK.
  • Operator: So you don't need any help?
  • Responder: No, I'm good.

Glenn Woods, the crime analysis expert, pointed out that Jessie Garwood wore the alarm all the time.

But in the moment when she would have needed it most — when, according to Winnipeg police, she was on the floor of her basement, bleeding to death — it was nowhere to be found. 

A police photograph showed the alarm upstairs on Jessie's dresser beside her bed.

Replied Young, "Mrs. Garwood had taken a small tumble in her house when my client was there, such that the Victoria Lifeline device was activated. And so when my client left, Mrs. Garwood was a little bit unnerved about the fall.

"And so my client wanted to phone her in the morning to make sure that she had a restful night, and make sure that she was a bit more comfortable," he said.

Watson would then return to Garwood's house the next day and discover the body.

'Gambling habit' accusations

Jim Garwood's suspicions about Watson are also fuelled by what he calls in court documents her "severe gambling habit."

Garwood said that in 2003, he co-signed a loan to help Watson get out of debt.

In the five months before his mother died, four cheques were written on Jessie Garwood's account — for a total of $14,000 —  to Watson.

Winnipeg police had their doubts about the cheques. Investigators thought they were "suspicious" and had reasonable grounds to believe they were "forgeries," according to a police report obtained by Jim Garwood.

Because Jessie Garwood was dead, there was no complainant, so police stopped the investigation into the cheques.

The last of the suspicious cheques was written two days before Jessie's body was found.

"I know of no reason that my mother would have written four cheques to Cathy Watson," said Jim Garwood.

In his court affidavit, Garwood said he had at one point witnessed his mother and Watson arguing over repayment of the money Jessie had lent to Watson.

Watson's lawyer confirms there was a history of Jessie Garwood lending money to Watson.

But Young said, "My client entirely rejects the assertion that she had anything to do with forging cheques, or helping herself to funds. This is money that was provided to her by Mrs. Garwood. It was done without the intimidation or cajoling of Mrs. Garwood."

Young said the police investigation was exhaustive, and efforts by Jim Garwood to pursue Watson in court have caused her an enormous amount of strain.

"My client's position is that she has, from the moment of this incident, cooperated fully with the Winnipeg Police Service. She's been interviewed … she's given statements. She's accounted for the time when she was in the house. There have not been any inconsistencies with her information that she's provided to the police," said Young.

But Garwood said until police agree to reopen the investigation, he will keep pushing for answers into how his mother died.