British Columbia·In Depth

Trial begins for man accused of cold-case murder of 12-year-old Monica Jack

Prosecutors claim a man on trial for the murder of a 12-year-old girl nearly 40 years ago admitted to the crime after police made him the target of a so-called "Mr. Big" undercover operation.

Prosecutors claim Garry Taylor Handlen admitted to 1978 killing after RCMP undercover operation

Monica Jack was a few days shy of her 13th birthday when she vanished on a bike ride near Merritt, B.C. Garry Taylor Handlen is on trial for her murder.

Prosecutors claim an Ontario man on trial for killing a 12-year-old girl in Merritt, B.C. 40 years ago admitted to the crime after police targeted him in a so-called "Mr. Big" undercover sting.

The details emerged on the opening day of Garry Taylor Handlen's first degree murder trial in B.C. Supreme Court.

In his address to the jury, Crown counsel Mark Sheardown said Handlen told a police officer who he believed was actually a crime boss that he killed Monica Jack in May 1978.

"Mr Handlen told (the officer) that he grabbed her, took her in his camper, went up the hill, had sex with her — in Mr. Handlen's words — and killed her by strangling her," Sheardown said.

"Thus, Mr. Handlen confessed to the abduction, rape and murder of Monica Jack."

'The sound of someone crying out was heard'

Monica Jack was last seen on May 6, 1978, riding her bike on the roads between the town of Merritt, about 270 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, and the tiny nearby Quilchena Indian reserve where she lived with her family.

It was a few weeks before her 13th birthday and she had permission to ride a new bike into town.

Monica's mother was driving into Merritt to pick up supplies for an overnight fishing trip when she caught a glimpse of her daughter pedalling in the direction of home.

Garry Taylor Handlen as he appeared in 1978 when 12-year-old Monica Jack went missing. Now in his 70s, Handlen is on trial for her murder. (RCMP)

"Monica was offered a ride home but she turned it down," Sheardown said. "(Monica's mother) never saw her daughter again."

The new bicycle was found the next morning, abandoned at a pull-out between town and the reserve. Sheardown said witnesses told police a truck and camper had stopped at the pull-out right around the time Monica was passing through.

"A bicycle was seen almost directly across the road from the camper, and the sound of someone crying out was heard," Sheardown told the jury. 

"It was thought to be a girl because of its high pitch. And a short time later, the truck and camper left the pull-out and headed toward Merritt."

The prosecutor said police took photos of a truck and camper at Handlen's residence several weeks after Monica Jack vanished.

But it wasn't until 17 years later that police saw a break in the case with a worker's discovery of human remains at a remote forestry site.

Sheardown said dental records suggest the skull and teeth belonged to Monica Jack.

'This repo man was in fact an undercover police officer'

Handlen, now in his early 70s, has pleaded not guilty to the crime.

He listened through headphones to Sheardown and the first witness of the day, the officer who played the role of a crime boss in the undercover operation that resulted in Handlen's arrest.

The accused wore an untucked grey flannel plaid shirt and glasses as he sat in the prisoner's box, hearing aids visible beside thinning white hair.

Garry Taylor Handlen is charged in the murder of 12-year-old Monica Jack. He was arrested after he allegedly confessed to abducting, raping and killing her. (David Ridgen)

He was living in the town of Minden, Ontario about 200 kilometres north of Toronto when police targeted him for the sting in February 2014.

Sheardown said officers initiated contact with the pensioner and then worked to gain his trust by recruiting him for work with a man he believed to be involved in automobile repossession.

"Unbeknownst to Mr. Handlen, this repo man was, in fact, an undercover police officer," Sheardown told the jury.

"You'll hear how Mr. Handlen started doing more work for the organization, such as participating in loan sharking, debt collections, dealing in counterfeit goods and other activities."

Sheardown said the operation culminated with Handlen being told police were investigating him for Monica Jack's murder.

And that his experience with what he thought was a criminal organization had taught him that unless he came clean, the so-called crime boss couldn't help him.

Sheardown said Handlen was arrested in November 2014 after confessing to killing Monica Jack.

Context and content of confession

Members of Jack's family filled the first row of the courtroom. At one point, one woman sobbed as she sat directly behind the accused.

In his instructions to the jury, Justice Austin Cullen noted the challenge ahead in terms of considering a confession gained through a Mr. Big operation.

He told the jury they shouldn't make assumptions about Handlen's character based on "simulated criminal activities" that were — in fact — fabricated and encouraged by agents of the state.

Cullen said the law requires jurors to scrutinize the context as well as the content of Handlen's confession.

The trial is likely to take several months and will hear from witnesses including Monica Jack's mother.

The prosecution is expecting to play a tape of Handlen's confession on Tuesday as the testimony of the undercover officer continues.

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.