Toronto

Toronto police made 'series of mistakes' while investigating death of Alloura Wells: interim chief

The investigation into the death of Alloura Wells, a transgender woman found in Toronto's Rosedale Ravine in 2017, was plagued by a "series of mistakes," the city's interim police chief conceded in the face of information dug up by the CBC podcast The Village.

Few answers in unsolved case of trans woman found dead in ravine in 2017

Nicki Ward, left, and Monica Forrester were among about 100 people attending a vigil and march for Alloura Wells in Toronto ahead of the Transgender Day of Remembrance in 2017. Today, they're still no closer to finding out how Wells died, in part because of a police investigation fraught with serious mistakes. (CBC)

The following story is based on material from the second season of the CBC podcast The Village, a five-part series that investigates the deaths of Alloura Wells and Cassandra Do, two transgender women of colour in Toronto's LGBTQ community, and the systems that failed them. Listen here or wherever you get your podcasts.

The investigation into the death of Alloura Wells, a transgender woman found in Toronto's Rosedale Ravine in 2017, was plagued by a "series of mistakes," the city's interim police chief concedes following in-depth reporting for the CBC podcast The Village.

Among those mistakes: a failure to follow protocol, paperwork not filed, a person of interest not interviewed and a community never notified.

Toronto Police Service interim Chief James Ramer said neglect of duty charges would have been filed against one officer had he not retired.

The admissions come as Ramer is trying to rebuild relations with the LGBTQ community. He's pledging to make good on recommendations included in a damning report, released by retired Ontario Court of Appeal justice Gloria Epstein in April, detailing the force's failures on a slew of missing persons cases.

Because Wells was transgender, homeless, a drug user and a sex worker, Epstein wrote, she was often a target of police. But when she died, officers did not investigate with the seriousness required. "In many ways, the issues respecting the Alloura Wells investigations are a microcosm of the systemic issues existing at the service," the report concludes.

  • Listen to the CBC podcast The Village here or find it wherever you get your podcasts

Ramer, however, rejects the idea that the investigation into Wells's death was particularly shoddy because of who she was.

"I, quite frankly, have never seen anyone ... look at an individual and decide because of their gender or where they were born or whatever else was going on, to influence how we investigated that case," he said.

The investigation into Wells's death is now being led by the homicide unit of the cold case squad. But four years after her body was found, the chances of her friends and family ever getting answers appear slim.

Body found while friends searched

Wells's last Facebook update was on July 26, 2017.

At the time, she had been living in a tent in the Rosedale Ravine. Wells's housing had been insecure for years, but those close to her were hopeful she would get back on her feet.

It didn't take long for her friends to notice she wasn't around. Monica Forrester, an outreach co-ordinator at Maggie's Sex Work Action Project who had known Wells for years, became worried after she hadn't seen Wells at the drop-in centre or on Facebook.

Wells in an image she shared on Facebook. Her last Facebook update was on July 26, 2017. (Alloura Wells/Facebook)

Wells's sister, Michelle Wheeler, noticed her absence around the same time.

"I basically, like, messaged every single person ... just asking what's going on," Wheeler said. That's how she got in contact with Forrester.

Wells, 27, had been arrested numerous times over the years for such offences as shoplifting and communicating for the purposes of prostitution and had spent time at the Vanier Centre for Women, a provincial jail in Milton, Ont.

Wheeler and Forrester called Vanier to see if Wells had been incarcerated. "They said, 'Oh yeah, she's there,'" Forrester said. "We know where she is. She's in jail. She'll be out probably very soon."

But on Aug. 5, 2017, two hikers in the Rosedale Ravine came across a tent, and beside the tent was the body of a woman.

"There were no obvious signs of foul play," the coroner wrote. Nevertheless, "Toronto criminal investigation bureau detectives and homicide division detectives were and continue to be involved in the investigation."

But Ramer said the homicide unit was not initially notified of the body in the ravine.

Volunteers comb the Rosedale Ravine Lands Park, where Wells was known to sleep, after her disappearance. (John Sandeman/CBC)

Severe injuries on body

The body had decomposed past the point of recognition. With police unable to find ID or a cellphone at the scene, the coroner couldn't identify the body. He was able to determine the deceased was between 21 and 28 years old, transgender and about five feet nine inches — but not much else.

The coroner did find two sets of severe injuries, including two fractures to Wells's spine that occurred sometime immediately before or after her death. "It is possible that the trauma could have been related to death," the coroner wrote.

There was evidence of another set of injuries, which occurred in the months immediately prior to her death: a cracked rib, sternum and manubrium. Two doctors who reviewed the coroner's report said those injuries could be caused by blunt force trauma.

LISTEN | The Village S2E5: Toronto police chief faces tough questions about failures in Wells investigation:

Justin discovers a shocking failure in the investigation into Alloura's death and poses tough questions to Toronto’s police chief. Trans activists honour Alloura and others who have inspired change, and who deserved better. Note: If you're in crisis or just looking for someone to talk to, try the Trans Lifeline’s Hotline — a peer support phone service run by trans people for trans and questioning folks: CAN (877) 330-6366 or US (877) 565-8860 53:42

In his final report, the coroner listed the cause of death as undetermined, writing, "There are competing manners of death, namely the possibilities of homicide, accident, or natural are all possible."

Even with the possibility of homicide, police did not issue a news release, upload information about the body to a national database of unidentified remains or reach out to LGBTQ groups in the city's Gay Village — specifically to transgender organizations.

The only group in the Village that seemed aware of the discovery was the 519 Community Centre, which had been contacted by one of the hikers. The centre also kept the information largely to itself.

Forrester, right, and Jennifer Porter, of Maggie's, a sex worker support centre in Toronto, warned at the time of Wells's disappearance that it was alarming she hadn't been attending a drop-in or posting on social media. (John Lesavage/CBC)

Wells's isolated tent in the ravine later struck her friends as odd, since she usually camped with a small group of people, including her boyfriend, Augustinus Balesdent.

In early August, several people in the ravine told police they should talk to Balesdent, who was known to date transgender women and would likely know the identity of the person found.

Police searched for potential suspect, who was in jail

Police issued a BOLO — be on the lookout — bulletin, so that if any officers came across Balesdent, the investigating officers would be notified.

But he wasn't in the ravine. He was sitting in a jail cell.

Balesdent had many run-ins with the law before. Less than a year before he was interviewed about the unidentified body, he had been charged with sexual assault, assault, break and enter, robbery and uttering threats. Police alleged he had broken into a public housing unit and threatened to kill the occupant with a knife.

In March 2017, Balesdent pleaded guilty to uttering a threat and was sentenced to two months in jail. The other charges were dropped. He was ordered to stay away from the victim for a year. While the victim's name listed on the charges was male, a review later indicated the victim was a transgender woman.

Those who knew Wells described her as a great soul who died too young. (Toronto Police Service)

The next time he appeared in court was Aug. 7, charged with violating the restraining order a day after he was sentenced.

Sometime in the two weeks after his arrest, an officer interviewed Balesdent about the body in the ravine. The officer "establishes no connection between Balesdent and the found remains," according to a timeline from Toronto police. A source with knowledge of the investigation said Balesdent offered a name of a transgender woman, but it was not Wells.

Into the fall of 2017, the investigation largely stalled. Detectives planned to develop a facial reconstruction of the body, but it was never completed. In the police's own timeline, nothing of significance occurred between Aug. 17 and Nov. 6, 2017, when Wells was officially reported missing.

Father's concerns weren't initially taken seriously

After months of believing she was incarcerated, Wheeler and Forrester began to worry. When they called Vanier to check on Wells, the jail revealed she wasn't incarcerated and had never been inside that summer.

"That's when alarm bells started going off," Forrester said.

Wells's friends noticed her absence, too. One even posted "R.I.P" on Facebook. When Wheeler started questioning some of those Facebook friends, she learned that nobody had seen Wells for months.

Wheeler, who isn't based in Toronto, and Forrester, who isn't family, arranged to have Wells's father report her missing. But when he went to a police station on Nov. 4, an officer told him she'd probably just run off.

"He was really disturbed that they wouldn't take a police report immediately," Forrester said.

CBC News wasn't able to reach Wells's father, but he shared his experience with retired justice Epstein.

He had to visit another police division for an officer to fill out a missing persons report. On Nov. 8, police published a news release about Wells's disappearance.

Later that month, police realized the unidentified transgender woman in the morgue was likely Alloura Wells, and they asked her father for a DNA sample to confirm.

While they waited for results, Wells's friends began conducting searches in the ravine, without support or co-operation from police.

Police, meanwhile, turned their attention back to Balesdent.

Not only had he and Wells been dating, but Wells's friends and family say they thought the relationship was abusive. Forrester recalled that the last time she had seen Wells, not long before she disappeared, she looked as though she had been beaten up. Wells said her boyfriend had beaten her with a brick, Forrester said.

'Paperwork was never processed'

Wheeler and Forrester suspected Balesdent was either responsible for or knew something about Wells's death. But in Facebook messages reviewed by CBC News, Balesdent insisted, "I haven't seen her for a month or so. I was in jail."

Nothing in Balesdent's court records, however, suggests he was incarcerated in late July or early August 2017.

On Nov. 30, DNA results identified the body in the morgue as Alloura Wells.

In early December, investigators filed paperwork to enter Balesdent into the Canadian Police Information Centre — a database that should ensure if Balesdent came in contact with police anywhere in Canada, investigators on Wells's case would be notified.

Toronto police now acknowledge, however, that "this paperwork was never processed."

Police made a public appeal for Balesdent to come forward but stressed he "is not a suspect at this time." In the years that followed, however, Toronto police arrested him twice, in July 2019 and in June 2020.

Yet despite being in custody — and making dozens of court appearances on other charges — he wasn't questioned about Wells's death.

Only recently have police recognized the mistake and added Balesdent to the police database.

"Investigators are still interested in speaking with Balesdent," Toronto police said in a statement.

Multiple requests for comment sent to Balesdent's Facebook and email accounts have gone unanswered. In late June, a woman identifying herself as his girlfriend contacted CBC News saying Balesdent didn't want to talk.

"If the cops want to find him," she said, "they know where to find him."

'We did not do this well,' says interim chief

Ramer concedes the investigation into Wells's death was poorly done. "Particularly at the start, you know, we did not do this well," he said. "The homicide squad wasn't notified, as per procedure."

He also couldn't explain why the public wasn't notified. "Public outreach, particularly to that community, would have been very, very important to do and a very important step. And so these were things that were done poorly."

Interim Toronto police Chief James Ramer has been trying to improve relations with the city's LGBTQ community and says he will implement the recommendations made by a review panel examining missing persons cases, led by retired Ontario Court of Appeal justice Gloria Epstein. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Ramer, a veteran of the homicide squad, acknowledges that failing to fully interview Balesdent — who he said is "believed to be one of the last people that saw Alloura" — points to "a series of mistakes."

"There was an [officer] in that case that we would have laid charges with under the Police [Services] Act. But that individual retired, so we didn't have jurisdiction and couldn't proceed." The charges, he added, would have been for "neglect of duty."

Wells's disappearance, and the investigation into it, took on renewed significance after the release of Epstein's review.

Her report found a series of problems with how the Toronto Police Service conducts missing persons investigations and deals with the LGBTQ community.

"The service must recognize that the overpolicing and underprotection of the LGBTQ2S+ communities and other similarly and overlapping marginalized and vulnerable communities have resulted in systemic discrimination and damaged its effectiveness in serving and protecting those who live in Toronto," Epstein's report said.

Forrester, who has fought for sex work decriminalization and trans rights for more than two decades, puts it more plainly.

"I'm tired of people treating trans people like this," she said. "Regardless if we're homeless, we're addicts, whatever we are, we deserve the same rights as everyone else."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Justin Ling is a Toronto-based journalist and the host of Uncover: The Village. He has written for the Globe & Mail, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, VICE News and others.

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