Remembering Candace Derksen: Family braces for retrial of man accused of her murder

Candace Derksen disappeared in Winnipeg on Nov. 30, 1984 at age 13. This week, three decades later, the man accused of killing her will stand trial for a second time in connection with her death.

In the 32 years after a teen's abduction and death, her family has found strength in each other

Candace Derksen was killed in 1984. A new trial begins Monday for Mark Edward Grant, the man accused of killing her. (CBC)

She was a 13-year-old girl walking home from school. And then she was gone.

Candace Derksen disappeared on Nov. 30, 1984. Her abduction shocked Winnipeg — Candace could have been anyone's daughter, anyone's sister, anyone's childhood friend. She was a social butterfly who loved horses and her Mennonite faith.

Volunteer searchers came out en masse to look for a girl with pale freckles and brown hair. After nearly seven weeks, the search ended on Jan. 17, 1985, with a grim discovery. The girl's frozen body was found tied up inside a machine shed just 500 metres from her home. 

Candace Derksen and her brother Syras Derksen in the summer of 1984. (Derksen family)

Candace's wrists and ankles were bound with twine. Her killer left her to die of hypothermia and exposure.

On Monday, a new trial begins for the man accused of killing her.

Mark Edward Grant's second-degree murder conviction was overturned by a Manitoba Court of Appeals judge in 2013 after it found relevant evidence was wrongly withheld during his trial.

A second trial begins

Tears still come easily to Wilma and Cliff Derksen when they talk about their daughter. But then laughter comes easily, too.

Along with Candace's two younger siblings, Syras Derksen and Odia Reimer, the parents sat down together for a rare family interview Friday with CBC's Marcy Markusa.

"She was very much like Cliff," said Wilma, chuckling at her husband. "She was definitely sanguine. She loved people."

Thirty-two years to the week since Candace was found, the Derksens continue to believe Grant is guilty. 

"I resent it. I'm angry," said Wilma of the retrial. "Why do we have to go through this again? We were convinced the first time."

Grant has always denied killing Candace and won back his presumption of innocence after his successful appeal.

Now in his 50s, the Winnipeg man will be retried for Candace's murder, beginning Jan. 16.

DNA evidence was crucial to Grant's arrest in 2007. A forensic specialist called to testify by the Crown at his first trial said there was a one-in-50-million chance the DNA found on the twine used to tie Candace's limbs together belonged to anyone other than Grant.

After a jury found him guilty in 2011, Grant filed an appeal and two years later was granted a retrial. His defence lawyer put forward several grounds for appeal, arguing evidence that may have helped acquit Grant was withheld, regarding the abduction of another girl.

Nine months after Derksen's body was found, and while Grant was in custody, a crime similar to Derksen's abduction took place. Another girl was found tied up in a boxcar not too far from the shed where Derksen was discovered, using the same knots used on Derksen. No suspect has ever been charged in relation to the second abduction.

Grant's retrial is expected to include evidence of an unknown third party potentially involved in both cases.

Wilma Derksen said she resents having to sit through a second trial in her daughter's killing. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Revisiting the end again

A new trial will mean a journey back through difficult memories for Candace's family, but Wilma said they are determined not to let it distract from the good in their lives.

"When Candace's body was found a man came and told us, 'You know your life is over. Trauma does that. It's gone,' and we can't forget that. We realize the aftermath of murder is as deadly as murder," she said.

Candace Derksen and her little sister Odia Reimer (née Derksen) in 1980. (Derksen family)

"We started right then and there to learn how to cope. We have, over the years, tried it and worked at it and we're using all of those skills."

Coping through forgiveness is something Cliff said is paramount to his family moving forward. But art helps, too.

During the first trial, Cliff, who works as an art teacher, used sculpture to help process the heart-wrenching details of his daughter's death.

His work resulted in an art piece called 6.5 Weeks — a reference to the time it took for Candace's body to be found after she died. The sculpture shows Cliff's own hands bound and broken.

"It was a very difficult piece," Cliff said.

"Frozen hands, frozen arms, a frozen situation and the fact there had been animals and mice and other things there that had gnawed on her fingers. It's an ugly, hard thing to think about."

Originally, Cliff had intended to sculpt Candace's hands in the piece but opted for his own because, he said, he would have taken her place if he could have.

Like her father, Odia Reimer expressed and processed her own grief through her art.

Candace's younger sister was just nine years old when her sister, her hero, was abducted. Despite the age gap, the two were tremendously close. They even shared a large double bed. 

"I definitely looked up to her for a lot of things," she said. "When she was gone, that was a huge hole in my life."

During the first trial, Odia processed each moment with a crochet stitch.

Each crocheted circle contained three colours to express what she was feeling in that moment: white for neutral, red for pain and black for anger. They ended up turning into a kind of diary. 

The first day's circle was mostly cream with one black squiggle. The black stitches came when Grant's defence lawyer referred to her sister's murder as "alleged."

"It wasn't very long, it was four stitches and it was just a flash of anger and I captured it … I love that I captured the moments," said Odia.

Her family members also appreciated the work, often looking over and taking note of what colour she was stitching.

"It gave us permission to feel it [too]," said Wilma.

Cliff Derksen looks at photographs of his daughter, Candace, with his son Syras by his side. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Walking on holy ground

Candace's baby brother, Syras, was a toddler when his sister was taken. He turned three during the six-and-a-half-week search for Candace.

Cliff Derksen's sculpture about his daughter's death. Behind it are circles crocheted by Odia Reimer during the first trial for the man accused of killing her sister. (courtesy Cliff Derksen)

For a while, a small mark on his foot where Candace had accidentally dropped an iron was a little reminder he held onto, but it has faded over time. Wilma said the incident "horrified" Candace, who loved babysitting her little siblings.

"We've always said that Syras had to deal with the ripples of a stone, and so as you're dealing with the ripples of a stone being chucked in the water, he had to deal with all of our brokenness," said Odia.

Today, Syras is a psychologist, something that his family says is part of Candace's legacy, since after the trauma he became a very good listener.

Syras also looks to his own spirituality for guidance, something that also would have pleased his devoted older sister.

"That has been very meaningful for me now … the Jesus psychology, the Jesus way has been something I've been relying on."

During the first trial, Syras brought his spirituality into the courtroom by removing his shoes — a gesture in the Christian faith to indicate walking on holy ground.

"We're talking about something that is very meaningful and special to us, so I took off my shoes the whole time," said Syras.

When the guilty verdict was read in 2011, the whole family and even some friends took off their shoes in solidarity.

"It was a traumatic experience and we needed each other. We needed support, we needed unity and we had that, fortunately, as a family," said Cliff.

'It's about a 13-year-old girl who was great'

The family is taking a new approach to the retrial. At least one member will be present for each day of the trial, but jobs and family responsibilities will keep them from attending together as they did during Grant's first trial.

"I was so afraid that the trauma of murder would stop our family from living, and so we worked very hard over the 32 years to really keep on moving and not get stuck. So now that we're moving we need to keep moving," said Wilma.

Candace Derksen and her baby brother Syras in 1982. (Derksen family)
Wilma, a prolific author on the topics of grief and violence, plans to blog during the trial, something that helped her cope before.

"Just telling it the way it is, just going down deep into my emotions and giving people a feeling of what it's like to go through this. In that I solicit a lot of support, and encouragement," said Wilma.

Regardless of the trial's outcome, the Derksens said they want the focus to stay on Candace.

"Try to think of her when you think about the trial because it's not all about Mark Edward Grant and it's not all about the system, it's about a 13-year-old girl who was great," said Syras.

The family said they feel total support from Winnipeggers, just as they did the day Candace went missing. Cliff said he and his wife are especially touched by prayers during church services.

"That's just fantastic and we really appreciate that as a family," he said.

"Everyone thinks that Winnipeg is so cold. Even on a day like this, it's just so warm with people and love," said Wilma.

Editing: Joff Schmidt | Graphics: Jamie Hopkins | Photos: Jaison Empson, Derksen family

Listen to CBC Information Radio host Marcy Markusa's full multi-part interview with Syras Derksen, Wilma Derksen, Cliff Derksen and Odia Reimer on Monday and Tuesday on 89.3FM or online.