BROADCAST DATE : Mar 28, 2014

The Long Way Home

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.  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.

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.