Nova Scotia

Harley Lawrence's cause of death withheld for 6 months by police

In the days and months that followed Harley Lawrence's gruesome death at a bus shelter in Berwick, people living in the Annapolis Valley town questioned whether they had a murderer in their midst. It turns out the police knew all along.

Preliminary inquiry revealed medical examiner concluded case was a homicide soon after death

Harley Lawrence was found inside a burned-out bus shelter in Berwick on Oct. 23, 2013. (Courtesy of Debbie Saltzman)

In the days and months that followed Harley Lawrence's gruesome death at a bus shelter in Berwick, people living in the Annapolis Valley town questioned whether they had a murderer in their midst.

At the time, Nova Scotia RCMP would only say the homeless man's death was suspicious. However, the community argued it was, in fact, a homicide.

People lined Commercial Street on the morning of Oct. 23, 2013, just hours after Lawrence's body was discovered at a charred bus shelter. A heavy police presence indicated something serious had happened. 

Several onlookers told CBC News that Lawrence had been the subject of verbal and physical abuse for weeks.

The rumour around town was that two young men bought gas from the nearby Irving station and used it to light Lawrence on fire. RCMP repeatedly refused to confirm those details in the months that followed, citing delays from the medical examiner's office.

CBC News asked chief medical examiner Dr. Matt Bowes about the case in February 2014

"You know, there are also situations where an investigation has information that only we and the perpetrator know, and this kind of information has to be held back," Bowes said at the time.

It turns out the medical examiners knew exactly how Lawrence died.

In the preliminary inquiry, Dr. Marnie Wood revealed she did the autopsy on Lawrence the day after he died. On Oct. 24, 2013, she determined the cause of death as smoke inhalation and dermal injuries. She also concluded the fire had been intentionally set by others, and she listed the death as a homicide. 

Video surveillance played for court in the preliminary inquiry showed two men at the gas station. On the witness stand, Becky Surette identified the man paying for the gas as her son, Daniel.

Why withhold information?

RCMP spent six months gathering evidence on Lawrence's death using the controversial Mr. Big technique on Kyle Fredericks. It's a tactic used by undercover police officers posing as criminals to persuade suspects to admit to past crimes.

Sgt. Al LeBlanc, a spokesman for the RCMP, said officers weren't prepared to call Lawrence's death a homicide in the beginning for investigative reasons.

"In the early stages of the investigation, we deemed it a suspicious death. The investigation continued and we charged two individuals with first-degree murder," he said.

On Monday, Fredericks and Daniel Surette pleaded to a lesser charge of second-degree murder. They both admitted to pouring gasoline on Lawrence, then lighting the homeless man on fire and burning him alive.

Fredericks and Surette will be sentenced at the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia in Kentville on April 28.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Angela MacIvor is CBC Nova Scotia's investigative reporter. She has been with CBC since 2006 as a reporter and producer in all three Maritime provinces. All news tips welcome. Send an email to cbcnsinvestigates@cbc.ca

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