Fewer homicides in Montreal, but fewer solved, too

The homicide rate is dropping in Montreal, but the number of crimes which are solved has remained unchanged.

Homicides rate continues to drop, but families remain haunted by unsolved cases

Montreal's homicide rate is in decline. The rate at which homicides are solved is another story, however. (Charles Contant/CBC)

The evening of Sept. 20,1977, the entire province of Quebec was blacked out for six hours.

There had been a breakdown at the Montagnais substation in the northeast of the province, shutting down three high-voltage power lines.

When 33-year-old Katherine Hawkes left her downtown office, she had to take a bus to her apartment in Cartierville, since her regular train was not running.

The bus driver remembers her getting off around the corner from her apartment building.

That night, local police received a chilling phone call.

"Monsieur," a man says in the police recording, "could you please take note that I just attacked a woman at the corner of Bois Franc and Henri Bourassa....Hurry up, sir, I'm worried she could die."

That first call was followed a few minutes later by a second, more urgent, call.

"Yes, hello, I just attacked a woman at the corner of Henri Bourassa and Grenet. In Saint-Laurent....Do you understand?" He is out of breath and tense. The police officer asks,"Is the lady still there?" The man answers, "thank you," and hangs up.

Audio: Police call concerning the death of Katherine Hawkes

5 years ago
Duration 0:36
Audio of the phone call as obtained by Radio Canada's Zone Libre

Local police did not go there that night to investigate.

In fact, they did not actually go until the next evening, after two young men had stumbled across Hawkes' body, as they walked through an overgrown lot near the bus stop.

Hawkes had been sexually assaulted and then beaten. The coroner could not say if she had died from the beating or from the exposure she suffered on the unseasonably cold night.

Today, her family members are still angry with police. They don't understand why police did not investigate as soon as they received the shocking phone calls. And they don't understand why the clues did not lead to the killer.

"I think it's totally inept," said Nancy Hawker, Hawkes' cousin.

"I think it just shows a lack of care. What did they think? It was a hoax? Why didn't they go out there and see?"

Katherine Hawkes died in 1977. Her family members are still angry with police. (Radio-Canada)

Hawkes' murder was never solved, despite the phone calls and a great deal of physical evidence. There were more than 90 homicides in Montreal that year.

Since then, the homicide rate has been falling steadily in Montreal.

Although it peaked in the 1970s, the average rate is now equal to what it was in the 1960s, in Montreal and across Canada. In 2016, there were 23 homicides in Montreal and there have been 24 this year.

But the number of homicides being solved has not improved.

The latest numbers from Statistics Canada show that, for the last 40 years, Montreal police have solved, on average, 65 per cent of cases — usually by charging someone.

And for the last 40 years, Montreal police have the lowest solve rate in the country, slightly below Laval and Vancouver, and well below the average of 75.5 per cent solved by Toronto police.

Vincent Rozon, the commander of the major crimes division of Montreal police, believes investigators are making progress.

But he also says Montreal has a special burden, because many of the killings are mob- or gang-related. And that kind of crime is more difficult to solve.

"Technology is helping us, but it's helping the criminals too. It works both ways," he said.

Professional killers are much less likely to leave their DNA on the scene, and they are very aware of camera surveillance.

In fact, Rozon says, professional criminals are very adept at using technology, for example, setting up their own cameras to plan their crimes.

Rozon said if you look at the two years 2014 and 2015 the solve rate in Montreal was actually 73 per cent. And he says cases are never closed, until they are solved. "Every year, those cases are never finished and we are still investigating them."

Montreal police recently added a "cold case" section to their website. They have put up the details of three homicide cases.

Earlier this month, police put together their first video of an officer describing a cold case and asking for the public's help.

Would the Katherine Hawkes' case play out the same way today? Probably not, Rozon says.

He says police are much more adept at gathering physical evidence. And Rozon promises all that evidence is now kept for as long as necessary, unlike in the 1970s, when police often threw out physical evidence, claiming it took up too much space.

As for Nancy Hawker, she would like police to remember that most of the people who are murdered by strangers are women and girls, like her cousin. "Girls are vulnerable. And I don't think there's enough done to protect girls."

She holds out little hope that her cousin's killer will ever be found. It was a long time ago. The physical evidence appears to be gone, and the killer could be either very old or dead by now.

"There are so many crimes," she says, "that go unpunished."