Manitoba

Thomas Sophonow offers $150K reward for answers about evidence that cleared him

Thomas Sophonow, who was tried three times for the murder of Barbara Stoppel, and convicted twice before finally being acquitted, is offering a reward to anyone who can tell him what the "new evidence" was that exonerated him.

Sophonow was never told what 'new evidence' cleared him in the 1981 killing of Barbara Stoppel

Thomas Sophonow was exonerated in 2000, after being wrongfully convicted for the death of Barbara Stoppel. (CBC)

A man who was tried three times and convicted twice before finally being acquitted of murder is offering a reward to anyone who can tell him what the "new evidence" was that exonerated him.

"I want to know what it was that clearly proved me innocent," said Thomas Sophonow, who was officially cleared of the murder of Barbara Stoppel in June of 2000.

"Maybe it's just for closure — a need for closure."

Winnipeg police announced in June 2000 that evidence had cleared Sophonow in the killing of Stoppel, a doughnut-shop clerk.

But the 66-year-old says even after all these years, he's never known exactly what that evidence is.

Just last week, Sophonow stumbled upon a news article that said DNA evidence was used to clear his name — a surprise, given he had always believed there was no DNA evidence.

"I was just on the internet and I was looking up another case and it popped up," he said.

"Since I found this a couple days ago I haven't been able to sleep properly. I've been tossing and turning."

Sophonow is now offering $150,000 to anyone who can tell him what the evidence that cleared him was.

Public inquiry

In March of 1982, Sophonow  was arrested for the killing of 16-year-old Barbara Gayle Stoppel, who was strangled in a St. Boniface doughnut shop four months earlier.

Sophonow was tried three times for murder. His first trial ended with a hung jury. The other two resulted in convictions, which were later overturned on appeals. 

Sophonow spent 45 months in prison before his second conviction was overturned in 1986 by the Manitoba Court of Appeal, which said he could not be tried again without new information. The Supreme Court of Canada later upheld the acquittal and he was released.

Stoppel's killing remains an unsolved case.

Barbara Stoppel was found strangled in the Ideal Donut Shop in St. Boniface on Dec. 23, 1981. She died in hospital a few days later. (Canadian Press photo/Winnipeg Free Press)

But the shadow of being labelled a killer who got away with murder followed Sophonow for years.

It wasn't until the late 1990s that pressure from Sophonow forced the Winnipeg Police Service to take another look at the case.

By June of 2000, the chief of police at the time, Jack Ewatski, issued a public apology and declared Sophonow an innocent man. A public inquiry was also called at that point.

Ewatski said at the time "new evidence" had come to light, though it's not clear what that evidence was. Ewatski said there was a new suspect in the case at that point, and he didn't want to jeopardize the ongoing investigation.

The public inquiry determined Sophonow had been wrongfully convicted, and awarded him $2.6 million in compensation.

But the mystery about the evidence that cleared him has remained.

"If my lawyers knew, they didn't tell me — and I'm sure if they knew they would have told me," he said.

Sophonow had submitted DNA and hair samples to police at the time of his arrest, and then again nearly two decades later when the case was being re-examined.

He said he won't ask a lawyer to try to get the answers about the new evidence, or ask police directly, because he doesn't trust he would get the truth.

"The reason I'm doing it this way, offering the reward, is if I do approach the police … they are going to say 'no, there is an ongoing investigation,'" said Sophonow.

"In my considered opinion, there is no ongoing investigation."

Former police chief Jack Ewatski announced Sophonow had been cleared of any involvement in Stoppel's death and publicly apologized to him on June 8, 2000. (CBC)

The Winnipeg Police Service said the officers involved in the original review have all retired. The case sits with the historical homicide unit, and all tips that come in are sent to that unit for follow-up.

"We have no further information that we can provide at this time," a spokesperson said in an email.

CBC News also contacted former police chief Jack Ewatski.

"All matters related to Mr Sophonow's wrongful conviction were dealt with at the public inquiry," Ewatski said by email.

"I have nothing further to add."

Panel on wrongful conviction

If the evidence was based on DNA, "I want to know what that DNA is," Sophonow said. "I'm offering the reward to anybody that… has access to the DNA database."

He knows that anyone who would have information about the evidence would probably be a police officer or someone who worked in a lab, who would likely be disciplined for coming forward — hence the large reward, which he says would require proof such as a photograph.

"We all know things go missing in the police department, we all know things disappear or are moved around, so somewhere in the police department is that information," he said.

On Friday, Sophonow will be at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights as part of a panel of wrongfully convicted Canadians, who will discuss the impacts of being wrongly convicted and the need for an independent review board.

Sophonow plans to officially announce the reward at the event. 

He hopes that someone, somewhere who was involved in the investigation will come forward with the piece of the puzzle that might help answer the question that's burned in him for decades:

If he didn't kill Barbara Stoppel, who did? 

The Friday panel at the CMHR runs from 2 to 5 p.m. CT and is free to the public.

Panelists include Sophonow, David Milgaard, James Driskell, Frank Ostrowski and Brian Anderson — all of whom were convicted, and later cleared, of crimes — and lawyers Greg Rodin, Gavin Wolch and James Lockyer.

$150K reward for answers

3 years ago
Duration 2:39
Thomas Sophonow was tried three times and convicted twice before finally being acquitted of murder. He is offering a reward to anyone who can tell him what the "new evidence" was that exonerated him.

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