Mysterious killing of Manitoba teen Kerrie Ann Brown explored in CBC podcast
WARNING: This story contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault and killing
This season, Someone Knows Something travels to Thompson, a northern Manitoba mining town, to explore a cold case more than three decades old.
The unsolved rape and killing of 15-year-old Kerrie Ann Brown — whom horseback riders found dead two days after she disappeared from a house party — continues to haunt her family three decades after the devastating loss.
"Someone could've just dropped a nuclear bomb on us; it wouldn't have been any worse," her brother, Trevor Brown, told Someone Knows Something host David Ridgen.
"My great obsession is who did this?"
The killing is the subject of the new season of the CBC podcast, which found new witnesses and information about the case.
LISTEN | Episode 1: Kerrie's father and brother describe her disappearance and the discovery of her body:
Kerrie's father, Jim Brown, reported her missing at about 4 p.m. CT on Friday, Oct. 17, 1986. She had vanished from a party the previous night.
Less than 40 hours after she was reported last seen, Kerrie was found dead in a wooded area on the outskirts of her hometown of Thompson, a northern Manitoba mining town that's ranked near the top of the list of Canada's most violent communities for several years running.
No one was ever convicted. A local man was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, but a judge stayed the charges in early 1987, citing a lack of evidence.
Over the years, the sheer volume of interviews, evidence and paperwork ballooned into the largest unsolved cold case file in Manitoba, said Const. Janna Amirault of the RCMP's historical case unit in Winnipeg. Forty-five boxes hold 14,000 documents and details about the 2,500 witnesses, friends, suspects and investigators involved over the years.
'I replay that night'
The mystery still weighs on Kerrie's best friend, Nicole Zahorodny.
The night of Oct. 16, 1986, Zahorodny and another friend stopped by the Brown family home in Thompson.
Zahorodny remembers walking to the party from Kerrie's.
"I replay that night so much," she said. "I can see us skipping down the road arm in arm, going to this guy's house."
Zahorodny recalls Kerrie sitting on her lap in a recliner at the party when Kerrie's ex-boyfriend came down the stairs. They had broken up just days earlier, and now he was hand in hand with another ex-girlfriend he dated before Kerrie.
"There was no arguing or bad blood or anything like that. It was an awkward situation," Zahorodny said.
"He had gone back to his ex-girlfriend, and we were teenagers, so it was pretty upsetting."
The girls left but re-entered the house because Zahorodny had forgotten her purse.
Zahorodny went downstairs to grab it and got into an argument with her own ex-boyfriend.
She suspects Kerrie got tired of waiting for the two to work things out on the stairs and left at about midnight.
A few minutes later, Zahorodny emerged to find a single set of footsteps in the snow leading down the driveway and ending at tire tracks on the street. They were Kerrie's, she says.
Kerrie was supposed to sleep over at her house that night. Zahorodny searched nearby streets, returning to the house party twice. Unable to find her friend, panic set in.
Zahorodny is the last person known to have seen Kerrie.
She soon found herself before a group of mourners reading her friend's eulogy. That was eventually followed by seven years of psychotherapy.
"PTSD, survivor guilt … that doesn't go away, no matter how much therapy you have."
LISTEN | Episode 2: Donna Covic describes how she came upon Kerrie's body, and David Ridgen gets an update on the investigation:
'I had to leave'
On Oct. 18, less than 40 hours after Kerrie was reported missing, Donna Covic and another woman were horseback riding when they came upon her body.
Covic later became a long-haul trucker, in part because of what she saw.
"Too many weird things happened in Thompson. I had to leave," a white-haired Covic said at a truck stop outside Winnipeg, her eyes red and teary. "I got into trucking just as a way to cope."
She remembers pressing on that day, past a graveyard, with her friend Joanne, who was riding an inexperienced horse. Both animals "started fussing" in the moments before Joanne shouted out, "Is that a mannequin?!"
They saw Kerrie's body lying on a jacket, with one hand up and one down. She was dressed in a pink and black leopard-print outfit and white socks, Covic said.
"You could see the face was smashed and beaten."
She sprang off her horse and felt Kerrie for a pulse.
"Once I knew she was gone, I said, 'Look, I'm going to go get help. I hate to leave you, but I'm going to go get help,'" she said she told the dead teen.
"I said, 'I'm … I'm so sorry this has happened to you. I'll see they pay.' And that was a bad thing to say, because I feel like I let her down."
Evidence at scene
Someone had raped Kerrie and bludgeoned her to death with branches. Police found them at the scene, stained with blood.
Tire tracks were also found, along with a red-and-blue air mattress and a black rubber car mat, suggesting a vehicle used them for traction to get unstuck from the mud before driving off.
At the time, two teenagers described seeing a green muscle car and a white van with their lights off leave the area around midnight the night Kerrie disappeared.
Those descriptions helped RCMP identify a local 22-year-old owner of a similar muscle car, who became their prime suspect.
He was charged and there was a preliminary hearing in the case, but the judge decided not to proceed to trial, saying there was a lack of evidence against the accused.
Watch a trailer for Season 5 of Someone Knows Something:
Glimmer of hope dashed
The case languished for years until investigators found a glimmer of hope. Advances in DNA technology not available at the time of the crime helped them build profiles of two new suspects.
Investigators collected DNA samples from people associated with Kerrie or suspected of being connected to her death, but in the end, no new charges were laid, and RCMP haven't released details of the DNA profiles.
The Mounties renewed their call for tips in 2016, on the 30th anniversary of her disappearance.
The investigation is still open.
'It changed the community'
Trevor Brown said it isn't just his family, friends and witnesses who have been left to fend off the darkness and uncertainty all these years.
"It changed the community here ... It changed a lot of people," he said.
On the screen door in the entrance to the white townhouse where Kerrie lived hangs a poster with a plea asking anyone with information about her killing to contact Crime Stoppers.
He said posters like it, featuring a photo of a light-haired, smiling Kerrie taken by a friend weeks before her death, have hung on the same door since the day their father reported her missing.
Inside the home, an ornately framed photo of a much younger Kerrie has taken on a red tinge with age.
Kerrie would have turned 47 this past summer.
Not much that belonged to her remains.
"This is pretty well all that's left of Kerrie's stuff, is her teddy bear," said her father, Jim. "This guy's 40 years old."
A few years ago, a woman returned a metal belt to the family, now slung around the bear's waist. She said Kerrie lent it to her at the party that night.
"Kerrie just took it off and gave it to her. That's how Kerrie was," Trevor said.
'It destroyed our family'
Trevor said losing his sister has caused him to struggle with alcohol issues, bouts of depression and an aversion to starting a family of his own.
"This has destroyed my dad. It destroyed our family," he said.
It was devastating for Kerrie's mom, who was blind due to a disease of the retina that Trevor shares. She died of cancer at age 57 — 15 years after Kerrie's death.
"She wasn't in a good space when this happened and this just drove her into a darkness she never came out of," Trevor said.
'I think of the ravens'
He's left to question who — or what — might know something they aren't sharing.
"I think of the ravens. They're so intelligent, and there are some old ones around here. You can tell by the size of them."
It sounds weird, Trevor admits, but maybe some of the wise old birds flitting from tree to tree in town know more than they're able to let on.
"They would remember the faces of the people that did it to her, and they could pass that information on to everyone in their family. They can pass it on, they say, for generations," Trevor said.
"I often think to myself maybe the ravens will show us one day."
With files from the Someone Knows Something podcast