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Retired police officer writing new book about Thomas Sophonow's wrongful conviction

Nearly 35 years after 16-year-old Barbara Stoppel was strangled in a Winnipeg doughnut shop, a former detective sergeant involved in re-investigating the case feels his work still isn't done.

'It will still be with me forever': Thomas Sophonow

Nearly 35 years after 16-year-old Barbara Stoppel was strangled in a Winnipeg doughnut shop, a former detective sergeant involved in re-investigating the case feels his work still isn't done. 2:19
Nearly 35 years after 16-year-old Barbara Stoppel was strangled in a Winnipeg doughnut shop, a former detective sergeant involved in the case feels his work still isn't done. 
Barbara Stoppel (CP photo / Winnipeg Free Press)

Andrew Mikolajewski retired in 2014, after 28 years with the Winnipeg police force. Now, he's writing a book about the case in an effort to reveal insight into the investigation of Stoppel's death, what led to the wrongful conviction of Thomas Sophonow and how other wrongful convictions can happen. 

"In essence it explains the necessary ingredients for Tom's wrongful conviction, the consequences of inaction and the challenge for the Winnipeg police service to be accountable," said Mikolajewski.

Stoppel worked at the Ideal Donut Shop in St.Boniface. She was strangled in the woman's washroom on December 23, 1981 and died in hospital days later. Sophonow had been in Winnipeg to visit his young daughter at the time. Police announced Sophonow had been arrested and charged with murder on March 12,1982. He spent nearly four years in jail and went through three trials before he was acquitted on Dec. 12, 1985.

Mikolajewski was one of the people assigned to take another look at the homicide case in 1999, more than a decade after Sophonow had been acquitted of second degree murder.

His work helped lead the way to Sophonow's exoneration in 2000, and identified Terry Arnold as a new prime suspect in the case. Arnold was found dead of an apparent suicide in Victoria, B.C. in 2005. In a note, he denied killing anyone.
Former Winnipeg police officer Andrew Mikolajewski is writing a new book about Thomas Sophonow's wrongful conviction. (Facebook)

Mikolajewski isn't ready to disclose details about what he's writing, but said he hopes it will help people understand the truth about what happened during the course of the Stoppel investigation and bring closure to the families affected. 

A lecture he received by an inspector in charge of the homicide division during a recruit class in 1986 is one of the things that has kept him motivated.

"He let us know that the most important person in a homicide case is the victim and that we look after the victim's interest," said Mikolajewski. "As far as I'm concerned, that wasn't done and now at this time I feel like I can do it."

Thomas Sophonow forever changed by wrongful conviction 

Sophonow now lives in British Columbia with his family and spends his time working to restore his New Westminster home. He's spoken to Mikolajewski and thinks the book will give an inside look into what went wrong in his case.

After time in therapy, Sophonow doesn't think about what happened the way that he used to. Still, he's not the same person he was before living though the nightmare of a wrongful conviction, which included years spent living under a cloud of suspicion until his exoneration. 
Earlier this month, Innocence Canada held events to mark Wrongful Conviction Day - in an effort to raise awareness about the issue. The CBC's Alana Cole spoke with Thomas Sophonow to see what life is like for him now, and what he'd like to see happen to keep others from suffering the way he did. 3:14

"I went in as a happy fellow," said Sophonow. "Came out as a cold, unfeeling person. Trying to get back to that happy person."   

He can remember what it's like to be convicted for a murder he didn't commit. 

"The only real scary part of it all was when the cell doors slammed behind you," said Sophonow. "Because everything before that was 'Well I didn't do it. You know I will be found not guilty'.... But, it isn't until you are found guilty and the door slams behind you then you come to the realization that this is it. And the only thing that had me going after that was my appeals. I've always won my appeals."

'Tunnel vision' by investigators who focused in on Sophonow as a suspect and flawed police lineups were among some of the key factors identified by an inquiry into Sophonow's wrongful conviction. 

Sophonow believes public and political pressure to find someone also played a role. 

"What I've learned after my exoneration and everything is that if they would only have read a couple of (police) reports, they would have known that I didn't do it."  

He believes what happened to him will stay with him for the rest of his life. 
Thomas Sophonow was exonerated in 2000, after being wrongfully convicted for the death of Barbara Stoppel. (CBC)

"This was such a traumatic experience," he said. "Even with all the therapy and treatment that I took to be able to forget things, which worked, it will still be with me forever."

Over the years Sophonow has offered help to two others fighting wrongful convictions. 

"I know what it's like to be in there," said Sophonow.  

He thinks there needs to be a continued effort from law enforcement to try and reduce the chances of what happened to him, from happening to others in the future. 

He would like to see recommendations from past inquiries into wrongful convictions revisited and discussed at annual conferences held by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

He suggests starting with the top two recommendations, then continuing down the list. 

"They should dust off the books," said Sophonow. "Open them up. categorize  them, all the recommendations and work on it and expand as the years go by." 

Innocence Canada reviewing nine Manitoba convictions 

Innocence Canada, formally known as the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC), has helped secure the exoneration of 21 people, including Sophonow, who were wrongfully convicted in Canada and has offered assistance in several other cases. 

"Prison is a horrible place for anyone," said Innocence Canada Co-president Ron Dalton. "But particularly if you don't belong there, it's all the worse."

Dalton was convicted of murdering his wife in Newfoundland in 1989. He spent nearly 10 years in maximum security custody before his appeal was heard and a re-trial was ordered. He was acquitted in 2000. 

Innocence Canada has currently adopted 16 cases and is reviewing another 85 from across Canada. Nine of those cases are convictions from Manitoba and range form 1974 to 2010. 

Dalton said it can take months or years to review a case.

"Once we have determined that we are dealing with someone who is innocent, then we'll adopt the case and try to find a way to prove that innocence," said Dalton. "The most frustrating cases are the ones where we've got a pretty strong belief in someone's innocence and can't find a way to unlock the case."
Ron Dalton is the co-President of Innocence Canada, formally known as the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted. (CBC News )

Dalton said faulty science, 'tunnel vision' by investigators who only look at evidence that relates to a particular suspect and false confessions are just few of the causes of wrongful convictions. 

He said he likes to think there have been improvements when it comes to reducing the number of wrongful convictions in Canada.

"Certainty the science has evolved over the last 25 or 30 years that we've been doing DNA science in particular," said Dalton. "We know the judiciary has taken more notice in the last 15 or 20 years. We've had half a dozen public inquires in this country looking into cases like my own."

 Innocence Canada still gets applications monthly. Dalton would like to see an independent review body, arms length from government, to reviews claims of wrongful conviction.

"If there's an independent properly funded body, we could probably resolve a lot of these cases quicker," said Dalton. "We don't have the resources to move them along quicker. We don't have the money to pay for investigators, we don't have the money to pay lawyers.... We've estimated that we're putting in $3.5 to $4 million dollars a year in volunteer lawyer time."

Mikolajewski said he will show the completed book to Sophonow and members of Stoppel's family before he moves forward with publishing once the book is finished.