Episode 1

The tip

Note - The transcript below is taken from the podcast of Missing & Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams? We encourage you to listen to the podcast as some of the material is better conveyed in audio format. This transcript may contain errors, please refer to the audio in the podcast to ensure accuracy.

As a journalist, you spend a lot of time searching for a good story.

Deciding which ones to research, which ones to pitch, and which ones to let go.

But sometimes a story chooses you.

And call me superstitious but I think this story found the exact right person at the exact right time.

I’m an investigative reporter at CBC News in Toronto and I remember it was just before lunch last October, when I got the tip that started this unbelievable journey.

You hear of journalists getting anonymous phone calls from whistleblowers, or brown secret envelopes filled with secret documents, but this tip came to me in the most mundane way.

By email.

I didn’t recognize the sender but the subject jumped out at me right away.

Intrigued, I clicked it open.

I still get chills when I think about what it said.

She was murdered by **** ***** ******

That was it.

Just one sentence long.

But it was the beginning of a journey that would take my producer, Marnie Luke, and me, across the country, and into the centre of an unsolved murder.

She was murdered by **** ***** ******.

For now, we’re concealing the identity of the person named in that email. For legal and ethical reasons, we can’t point a finger at someone in an unsolved murder without more information.

After reading the email, I immediately Googled “Alberta Williams” case.

She was murdered in 1989 in Prince Rupert, British Columbia.

27 years later, her case is still unsolved.

Who was Alberta?

Why was she killed?

And why is the person who wrote that email so sure he knows who killed her?

There was only one logical place to begin.

I need to start with the man who wrote the email.

“Why did I hit send? Because it was the right thing to do and...well to be quite blunt with you if I can, when you called me back I almost didn't even know if I should answer the phone. Cause it was like 'oh my god what have I done?'” - Garry Kerr

As soon as I read his email, I wrote back and gave him my number, and we talked on the phone that very afternoon.

I was shocked to find out who he was.

His name is Garry Kerr and he is not just some armchair detective who sends random messages to journalists.

He’s an actual detective, a former cop.

And he was the lead investigator in Alberta’s homicide.

Garry and I spoke many more times after that, but it was a few months before we were actually able to meet face to face.

We’d spoken so often on the phone that I’d begun to develop a picture of him in my head.

He told me that he grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan--that’s where I’m from.

So I imagined a big guy with a handlebar moustache.

But when I went to his house on Vancouver Island the guy who answered the door was different than I had pictured.

He was shorter, with a friendly face that was immediately welcoming.

Connie Walker: So Garry you sent us a pretty compelling email. What compelled you to write that email to us, and why are you convinced that you know who’s responsible for Alberta Williams’ murder?

Garry Kerr: I guess it’s just, it's a case I've always thought about. I do go back online once in awhile and I look at various cases. Or you know, it's an interest because I was so involved in so many of them. It’s a case that stuck with me right from the day it happened. And it's you know, really got me thinking again at the time. I do know it's an unsolved case, and I just felt I wanted to reach out to somebody. Something inside me just said, ‘hit send’.

I’ve spoken to a few police officers about other homicide cases of I’ve reported on.

But none were like Garry.

He’s so candid and open.

I was surprised when I learned that for ove 30 years, Garry worked for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the RCMP.

He’s retired now but clearly his cases are still with him.

For most of his career, Garry worked in major crimes.

The cases he worked were among the most violent: abductions, robberies, sexual assault and homicides.

Garry Kerr: You know over the years I spent...I couldn't even put a number on it, but like way too many murder investigations. I don't know, 50, 60. And some of them really stick with you. And the one's that generally stick with you are the ones where nobody's ever been brought to justice. And the family - I hate that word closure, I really do -- but you know, you just want the family to know that somebody has been found responsible for killing their daughter, their sister, their aunt. Out of all the years I was in the RCMP and all the years I worked homicides, you know there's probably about three or four maybe five cases that really, and they truly do, it really sticks in your guts.

Alberta Williams’ case is one of them.

I want to tell you more about Alberta, but first I feel like I need to stop here, to explain something.

Alberta’s story is not an anomaly.

It’s part of a horrific trend in Canada.

Indigenous women are disproportionately victims of terrible violence.

We are three times more likely to go missing and four times more likely to be murdered.

According to the RCMP, there are more than 1200 missing or murdered Indigenous women in Canada.

But advocates believe that number is actually much higher.

And the problem doesn't seem to be getting better.

It seems a week doesn’t go by without an alert.

Another woman or girl has disappeared.

Or worse, is killed.

It’s become a major issue in Canada.

The federal government has launched a national inquiry, and every news organization in the country is reporting these stories.

But for me it’s more than an important story.

It’s personal.

I’m also an Indigenous woman, Cree from Saskatchewan.

I grew up on a reserve.

I’ve experienced the good, and the bad.

I know about the realities of life for Aboriginal women, and how until recently, these stories have been largely ignored.

It’s the reason I became a journalist, and for the last two years I’ve been focussed on helping to tell stories of missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Not just about the crimes or the violence, but who they were, how they lived, how much they are loved, and the impact their death or disappearance still has on their communities, and their families, even decades later.

This is the story of one young woman.

****************************

I’m looking at the Prince Rupert Daily Herald from September 1, 1989.

In the classified section, right next to an ad for a local hair salon, a picture of a pretty girl jumps out.

It’s Alberta, and she’s smiling.

It’s not a huge grin - it looks more like she was caught in a partial laugh.

Her dark hair is shorter at the top and parted down the middle and feathers out the sides, down to her shoulders.

She’s wearing a shirt with a black collar, with small delicate earrings and a beaded necklace.

I don’t know how much of what I’m about to say next is coloured by what I’ve heard about Alberta from friends and family, but she looks nice.

Kind, with warm eyes.

Right above her picture it says:

Missing since Friday, August 25, 1989. Alberta Gail Williams 5’2, 115-120 lbs, 24 years old. Shoulder length dark brown curly hair.

Now this next part will become important later on:

Last seen wearing a blue sweatshirt and black stretch pants with slip on shoes

After months of looking into Alberta’s case, I feel like I’ve gotten to know her a little bit.

I want to find out what really happened on the night she disappeared, and if the person Garry named in that email is actually responsible for her death.

I met Alberta’s sister, Claudia Williams, at a park near her house in Vancouver.

It was a gorgeous spring day and we sat on a bench surrounded by cherry blossoms and a children’s play structure just a few feet away.

I’m excited to meet Claudia in person and to tell her about Garry’s email, but I’m also nervous.

Interviews with family members of missing and murdered indigenous women are incredibly hard.

I know these are important stories and families want to tell them, but my probing sometimes feels like such an intrusion, and I feel guilty bringing up the pain and hurt and trauma of losing a sister.

But I also really want to tell Claudia about Garry’s email.

Connie Walker: One day we got an email from somebody, and the subject said Alberta Williams murder, and in the body it said, it said she was killed by and the email named a person. And I think you know the person I’m referring to.

Claudia Williams: Yeah, yeah I do.

Connie Walker: So I wrote back and I got in touch with the person who sent the email. And it turns out he’s a former RCMP officer who was the lead investigator in her homicide, so someone that you would have met.

Claudia Williams: Mmm hmm. Yeah, it's good that, you know, Alberta's case is not forgotten.

Claudia only sort of remembers Garry.

It was 27 years ago, and her parents, Lawrence and Rena, were the ones that had the most contact with the RCMP.

Both of her parents have since died and now Claudia feels it’s her responsibility to try to get justice for her sister.

And since the night that Alberta disappeared, she’s also had her suspicions about who killed her.

Connie Walker: Does it surprise you that he says he thinks he knows who’s responsible for Alberta’s death?

Claudia Williams: No. Doesn’t surprise me at all.

Connie Waker: Why not?

Claudia Williams: Ah simply because um, you know, for me I know myself. You know it's again, it's a matter of evidence and all of that. I know for myself that you know Alberta didn't just go missing. She didn't just go missing and she didn't just walk away. You know, she trusted, it’s what she did.

Connie Walker: She trusted the person?

Claudia Williams: Yeah. She did. She knew the person. She trusted the person. Nothing to fear. Yeah, and not only that -- I was with her that night.

Claudia and Alberta spent a lot of time together.

In 1989, they both lived in Vancouver; Alberta with her boyfriend, and Claudia with her young son.

Connie Walker: What else, tell me a bit about her? How would you describe her personality?

Claudia Williams: Fun. A lot of fun. She never took anything serious, she’s so much fun. Even if somebody pissed her off, she'd shrug it off. That's the way she is. She shrugged it she was just very caring.

Geraldine Morrison: With her parents she was really close. They were a very close knitted family….We went out picking berries, walking along tracks, did a lot of walking, babysitting.

Geraldine Morrison was Alberta’s best friend they lived right next door neighbour growing up.

Geraldine Morrison: Yeah that's how we were yeah and If we did like we’d bang on a wall and have a certain bang that we'd call each others and when we were ready. When we were done our chores and everything because we didn't have a phone. . And we weren't allowed to step out the doors unless all out chores were done. And we also, helped like with our parents being in the fishing industry and we help look after each other's families. Yes she was very very helpful that way.

Connie Walker: What were Alberta’s dreams, what did she want to be doing?

Geraldine Morrison: When we were younger she used to always talk about travelling, getting away from the small villages..just travel. We used to talk about being nurses.

Connie Walker: Do you think Alberta would have been a good nurse?

Geraldine Morrison: Yeah yeah, just cause she was so kind hearted. She had a lot of empathy with her Yeah.

Connie Walker: Was she a good friend?

Geraldine Morrison: Ahh…(crying) every time I drive by, going to Prince Rupert, she’s on my mind.

**************

There is only one road into Prince Rupert, along Highway 16, a windy road with mountains on one side and the Skeena River on the other.

In 1989, Alberta and Claudia were struggling to make ends meet in the big city.

The sisters decided to return home to Prince Rupert for the summer to make some money.

The Daily News in Prince Rupert calls the port city ‘the key to the Great Northwest’.

If you don’t know it, it’s a pretty remote spot in northern British Columbia, about halfway up the coast.

Back then, it was a boom town, packed with people migrating there to work in fishing, on boats or in the canneries, like Alberta and Claudia.

At the same time, Garry Kerr was a young constable stationed at the RCMP post right downtown.

Garry Kerr: At that time there in the RCMP there was only two of us that were working in plain clothes. At the time it was called a general investigation section. Now you'd call it maybe a major crime unit or something, but there was only two of us. And so then we started the investigation into Alberta. And at the time she went missing, she was going to school in Vancouver, and she had come back to Prince Rupert to work in the fish plants or fish cannery for the summer. Because the fish canneries at the time were literally going a hundred miles an hour. Prince Rupert was a, it was a crazy town at the time. It was extremely busy. It was just a crazy wild place.

Connie Walker: Did you guys have a good summer in Prince Rupert that summer?

Claudia Williams: Mmm. It was okay. It was okay for me. A lot of work. It was a lot of work. The purpose of going there was just to work. Work and make some fast money, then come home.

Working in the cannery was hard, and by the end of August, both sisters were looking forward to going back to Vancouver.

But it was time for one last night out.

Connie Walker: Tell us what happened on the last night that you saw Alberta?

Claudia Williams: Ah the last night that I saw Alberta, it was actually our last day of the cannery. It was pay day, time to come back to Vancouver. And then you know everybody kind of, you know, ‘oh we're going to go her, we're going to go there, we're going to go to the Cabaret, go to Bogey's, the big Cabaret in Prince Rupert’.

Connie Walker: It was called Bogey’s?

Claudia Williams: Yeah.

I’m going to stop here and admit that I am still confused about the bar that Alberta and Claudia went to that night.

Claudia says it was Bogey’s, but the first time I talked to Garry, he said it Popeyes.

Both Bogey’s and Popeyes were in the former Prince Rupert Hotel.

One was upstairs, one was downstairs.

I’ve discovered you can use the names interchangeably.

If you say Bogeys or Popeyes, locals will know where you mean.

And by all accounts it was the place to be on the Friday night, at the end of summer.

Claudia Williams: Everybody was in Bogey's, you know, table full of people, probably a couple of tables pulled together. I knew everybody at that table. So did she. And it was quite packed the table, and I thought well you know what, they're already ahead of the game, they’re laughing.

Connie Walker: How was Alberta that night? How was she doing?

Claudia Williams: Good. She was having a good time. She was having a good time. She was, you know, I was looking at everybody else but then I looked, I stood there and I looked at her. And she was laughing so hard, you know, I looked over. I just smiled. You know, just let her know I'm here. And you know, I just roamed around, came back again, stood there .

Connie Walker: You were keeping an eye on her.

Claudia Williams: Yeah. I don't know, something told me just keep an eye on her. So I did. You know, other than that you know if I was going to leave, I would have told her. ‘Hey, you know what, this is a bit boring for me. I'm going home.’ But that's the way we were. We let each other know where we're going, what we're doing.

I tracked down a few other people who were there that night.

Connie Walker: Hello

Eva: Hello, this is Eva.

Connie Walker: Hi Eva, this is Connie calling. Thank you so much for calling back….

Do you remember Alberta?

Eva: Yep….

Eva didn’t want us to use her last name.

She was at the bar that night--a designated driver.

Connie Walker: Do you remember seeing Alberta that night?

Eva: Yes I did. She was sitting at the same table, only all the tables were joined together. They put the tables together so it was quite a big, long table.

Everyone describes it as busy. Lots of people and a band playing.

Geraldine Morrison says Alberta was in a good mood that night.

Geraldine Morrison: We were all sitting around, laughing, dancing, talking with everybody. And everybody that was there was all happy. I hadn't’ seen her in a while & it was good to see her & her sisters.

Connie Walker: Was she having fun that night?

Geraldine Morrison: Yes, we were. It was crazy. Girls. A lot of girl talk. Everything was going the way it should have been going.

Now I found this interesting and a bit odd, but Claudia said she never sat at the table with the group, but she says she watched them and Alberta all night.

Connie Walker: Did you trust everyone at the table that she was with?

Claudia Williams: I had no reason not to trust, distrust anybody. I had no reason. They didn't give me any reason - at the time - not to trust anybody. To me it's a bunch of friends getting together, one last night. And... unfortunately that was one last night for her.

Claudia, Alberta and most of the group at the table stayed at the bar for hours.

They stayed until after the band finished, after last call, until closing time.

Connie Walker: So that last night in Prince Rupert, what happened at the end of the cabaret?

Claudia Williams: At the end of the cabaret, everybody walked up those stairs and then outside, there was a bunch of people to my left. Alberta was maybe from here to you, but this way. And I was standing there and then I thought, well what now? And I said ‘we have to get back to Vancouver.’ And Alberta said, ‘come with us, come with us. We're going to a party.’ And she told me where the party was.

Connie Walker: She said who, who was hosting the party?

Claudia Williams: “Yeah. She said who was hosting the party. And... and then in between her saying that and my head turning like this and then she's like, ‘Claudia, Claudia.’ She goes, ‘come with me.’ And then you know I just looked and I said a couple of words to my boyfriend. I turned around, in that short a time she was gone. Gone.”

That was the last time Claudia saw her sister alive.

And what happened next is murky, to say the least.

Did Alberta go to the party that she told her sister about?

Was there even a party there that night?

Did she see another friend and go somewhere else?

Was she picked up by a stranger?

Was she kidnapped?

There are numerous theories.

But Claudia believes the simplest scenario is also the most likely.

That Alberta went to that party.

************************

When Alberta didn’t come home her parents filed a missing person's report with the local RCMP, and it landed on Garry’s desk.

Garry Kerr: (reading from his notebook) The date is, August 25th, 1989. And the first thing I've got noted there is ‘Missing Person, Alberta Williams. July 8th, 1962’ with a question mark behind it. That would have been her birthday. ‘24 years old. Was in Popeye's pub Friday night until closing.’ And that was I guess how it all started.

People disappear all the time. According to the RCMP, most missing adults are found within 24 hours and 90% within a week.

But Alberta’s case was different.

Garry Kerr: There was nothing initially that would have really suggested anything criminal. I mean, people were reported missing all the time. And the more we dug into it, it was, you know, something wasn't adding up here like very, very quickly. I mean from all the interviews we had done, and it wasn't just with her family, it was the people she was with that night. I believe there was at least one of her sister's there, I think it was Claudia if I remember right. Maybe even another sister. There was other family members present. We interviewed everybody, you know, we possibly could. And again it was just, from never having met Alberta in person, it was apparent very, very quickly that this was completely out of character for her. Everybody we talked to said she was, you know, responsible. And a lot of times people will maybe tell you what you want to hear, as opposed to the truth, but again from everybody that we talked to, I mean, there was just no red flags raised. She’d never been a runaway, there was no history of drug abuse, from what I can remember, she wasn’t a heavy drinker by any stretch. It was just, sort of all those things kind of put together, raised those flags.

Connie Walker: It was out of character?

Garry Kerr: It was absolutely out of character.

Connie Walker: So when she didn’t come home for days and then weeks, I mean, what was, what was going through your mind?

Claudia Williams: My parents were super worried. They were super worried. And for me, I needed more time. I needed more time, to process everything. And to find out and re-track the steps. Where did everybody go? And who left? And where everybody left. I didn't have all that information. The only thing that I did have was mom and dad, worried, and I was with her that night. And that was the worst part…

Connie Walker: Because you were there?

Claudia Williams: “f I didn't, I felt if I didn't turn my head away, she would be here. She was calling me to go with her. I don't know if it would have made the situation worse or it could have been both of us? Or it could have been the other way. She could be here today and it could be me in her shoes. So to me, to find out the answers is the most thing I can get out of this life. Because whoever did that to Alberta, that person needs to be held accountable for that.

Three weeks after she disappeared Alberta’s body was found near the Skeena River outside of town.

Just off highway 16, which is now known as the Highway of Tears because so many women have either disappeared or been killed while traveling along it.

Garry Kerr: The investigation went from very quickly from a case of a missing persons to a homicide case. In this case here it's sort of your worst case scenario as a policeman. A female, young. And I believe she was killed where, not right in the location where she was found, but within you know probably feet of there. Because it was again evidence in my opinion, in our opinion, that there had been a very violent struggle. I mean there's not a doubt in my mind that Alberta did whatever she could to get away from whoever it was. She died a horrible death. I mean it is - like there's no way to minimize it. It's, it's horrible.

It wasn’t only the horrific violence.

Alberta’s case has stuck with Garry because he always felt he knew who was responsible, but he was never able to prove it.

Garry Kerr: I know it's not that long ago but 1989 in terms of forensic examination of forensic evidence, I mean, it's like night and day. I mean you can't even - I don't think I'd even heard of DNA. I don't think DNA was even on the chart. Like, we never had computers, I mean everything was, it was pen and paper. That's what you had.

Twenty-seven years later, Alberta’s killer has never been caught.

But Garry believes this cold case could still be solved.

Garry Kerr: I'm not pretending to be judge and jury because I'm not. But just from having been on that investigation from the day Alberta was reported missing to where she was found and even going through the experience of the autopsy, again is just...you know, just, sometimes you just like to sit down and say to somebody, ‘I think I want to tell you who did it’. And go do something, but I mean you can't. Because I believe it is a solvable case, and I think there's probably more than one person knows something. I really, really do. Because she died an absolutely - I don't know if I can imagine a worse type of death, because if the person that I think is responsible is responsible, that’s somebody you should have been really able to trust.

Trust.

Was Garry right?

Did Alberta trust the person who killed her?

And did the person he believed killed Alberta really do it?

If he was so sure, why wasn’t that person ever charged or convicted?

Garry seems like a reliable source, but I need to be very careful before I reveal the identity of someone who could be completely innocent.

But the person Claudia believes killed her sister is the same person Garry named in his email.

A relative.

Someone Alberta should have been able to trust.

Coming up on the next episode of Missing and Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams.

Police hone in on the man they suspect killed Alberta, but another possible suspect emerges.

Rick Ross: There was always a mysterious pickup truck with some, I believe Caucasian guy that Jack Little told us about.

Garry Kerr: The person that I'm speaking of is somebody that for all the right reasons you would think you would want to sit down with the police and do absolutely everything they could to find Alberta. And that didn't happen.

Claudia Williams: feel that other family members...I don't know if covering up would be the word? But to me it's like, maybe they have a fear. Maybe they don't want to get involved.

To explore more of Alberta’s case, visit our website at cbc.ca/whokillledalbertawilliams

You can listen to episodes online , or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or your favourite podcast app.

Missing & Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams is written and hosted by me, Connie Walker.

The producer is Marnie Luke.

And the associate producer is Lori Ward.

Technical production by Ashley Walters, Cesil Fernandes and Harold Dupuis.

Arif Noorani is a consulting producer.

And Heather Evans is senior producer of the CBC News investigative unit.