Reflections on the McDonald's murders
On a mild February afternoon in 1982, I watched two men guide a body bag through a doorway and into the sunlight. Their foreheads almost touched over the tiny load as they carried four-year-old Stacey Weatherbee down a set of wooden steps and away from her Vulcan Avenue home in Sydney.
Just a few hours earlier, Stacey was sexually assaulted, strangled and left dead in a tangled thicket nearby. I was 20 then, two years into a career that already included too many body bags. Still, I was sure this case was different. This one would somehow change Sydney. Be remembered forever. Her cousin was charged and convicted. Memories of Stacey melted away in the spring thaw.
A few weeks ago, I watched a police officer shrouded in a pre-dawn fog on Gottingen Street in Halifax. She crouched low beside an evidence marker, snapping a photo of the blood stained pavement where Raymond Taavel exhaled one final time.
I'm 50 years old now and I know what happened to Raymond will not change the community. I know he will be forgotten by all but those who were lucky enough to know him in life.
This weekend I returned to a crime scene I first visited 20 years ago. It's a place where the stain of violence and death doesn’t fade with time. Rarely does a month pass when someone doesn't ask me about the murders at the Sydney River McDonald's. The fisherman in Yarmouth last week wanted to know if "those guys" are still in prison. The woman at the courthouse in Kentville last month asked, as many do, how Arleen is doing.
The restaurant where it happened is gone, replaced by a mess of cracked concrete, broken asphalt and an overgrowth of weeds and brush. Still, people tell me the hill where it stood has a power all its own. They say they can’t drive past without feeling its darkness and remembering what happened in May of 1992. I understand what they mean.
There are dozens of places scattered among the years between Vulcan Avenue and Gottingen Street that hold that same power over me. What is more difficult to understand is why these three murders and the maiming of Arleen McNeil still haunt so many who were not there, who did not know the victims.
Violence has always kept a firm grip on the public imagination. Edgar Alan Poe first plunged the bloody talons of murder into the Zeitgeist from the Rue Morgue a full 150 years before the murders in Sydney River. Only the Bible and Shakespeare have outsold Agatha Christie's take on it, and the ratings juggernaut that is the CSI franchise on TV is proof that death still sells.
Murder still jumps to the top of a newscast when it happens. But anyone who reports on it will tell you the public interest drops off exponentially, especially once the crime has been solved. Yet the terrible things that happened inside the Sydney River McDonald's still drift near the surface of public consciousness.
Place is part of it. Rarely is there such an intimate connection with a murder scene. We went to McDonald's as children and later took our own children there. In a way we knew the victims:
- Donna Warren, the shift manager, with the big smile and that thick wavy hair saving her money for law school.
- Neil Burroughs, the meticulously dressed — yes, even in that uniform — young father cleaning and readying the kitchen for the morning.
- Jimmy Fagan, the comic relief on any shift, heading to work early to chat with his friends before they left.
- Arleen McNeil, the beautiful prom queen, forever disabled by the bullet that pierced her brain.
They were the familiar smiling faces behind the counter at every McDonald's. The people with the little golden M on their hats and shirts. Its as though evil kicked down the front door and walked into living rooms and kitchens across the province, even the country.
Even those who know how to face evil and walk away whole say this case was different. The police officers, prosecutors, paramedics and defense lawyers who lived with the aftermath say the violence in 1992 is something they cannot fully shake. Looking back through the clarifying filters of time and context, it is obvious people were struggling to cope from the very beginning.
There was a noticeable silence outside the restaurant that night. Murder scenes are never boisterous but they do have a certain energy of their own. The people who work them often talk in a slightly higher pitch, but they talk. Over the years I've watched many police officers step outside the crime scene tape to shake off the weight of violent death; to laugh off a little nervous energy over jokes that don’t have to be funny. It's normal human behavior under the most abnormal of circumstances.
On May 7, 1992, the police officers I greeted at the yellow tape spoke through parched throats if they spoke at all. No one laughed. They shared a look I couldn't define until a few years later when I saw it in the eyes of a woman standing beside a mass grave in Bosnia. Her husband, son and grandson were among the dead there. I recognized it because that was war and it belonged there. It was the "thousand yard stare" described by Tim O'Brien in his brilliant Vietnam memoir, The Things They Carried.
I didn't recognize it in 1992 because it was still foreign to me. I didn't make the connection until late last year when I was standing at another terrible crime scene. It was the place where Amber Kirwan's body had been left in the deep woods of Pictou County. I ran into an RCMP officer there who had worked the Sydney River murders. He began talking about the crime scene photos from the McDonald's case and the look returned to his eyes. Even there, in that place, at that time, just thinking about it seemed a little too much.
I caught a fleeting glimpse of it again last week in a boardroom in Halifax where Joel Pink was reflecting on his role as a defence lawyer in the case. He too talked about the crime scene pictures and the video tape evidence he had to review and also about the raw emotion he witnessed in court; about being led from Cape Breton Island by a police escort after making a deal for his client. He says the case haunts him more than any other.
Kevin Cleary led the RCMP investigation in 1992. He retired from the force and leads the security team at Acadia University now. That's where he asked me to close the office door last week as we talked about a case he says still affects him. He stays in touch with members of the team who solved it. They share a bond.
In the end, I guess there are many reasons why the McDonald's shootings haunt so many people, including me. First and foremost are the victims, of course, and their families. The people left behind who will never really be whole again. There is the insane violence delivered for no reason on people we can all relate to.
The crime scene pictures I've mentioned cause an immediate visceral reaction, an adrenalin dump. As Joel Pink put it, all murder is horrible but what happened there is something else, something he will never forget. I could continue to list the reasons, but suffice it to say they are all good because things like that should not happen and, if they do, they should never be forgotten.
I guess what troubles me most is not why so many people still ask me about the McDonald's case, it's trying to understand why no one has ever asked me about Stacey Weatherbee.