‘Why aren’t they solving this?’
Nieces continue to look for answers 60 years after Saskatoon nurse’s death
WARNING: This article contains graphic content and may affect those who have experienced violence and/or sexual violence or know someone affected by it.
Lynn Gratrix fondly remembers her music-loving aunt babysitting her and her siblings when they were children.
She would put on a song after Gratrix’s parents left and teach them how to dance. Sometimes, the girls would don their mother’s skirts, and their aunt would fix up their hair like movie stars.
“She would just get us grooving,” said Gratrix, who’s now in her sixties. “And it was just unbelievably so much fun.”
Gratrix holds onto these memories of her aunt Alexandra Wiwcharuk as she and her sisters strive to find out who is responsible for Wiwcharuk’s murder.
May 18, 2022, marks 60 years since Wiwcharuk was killed. No one has been charged in the 23-year-old Saskatoon nurse’s death.
“Seeing how our grandparents reacted, our mother reacted, our family reacted when this happened … it hit us like a bombshell when we were little,” said Gratrix.
“Why aren’t they solving this?”
For decades, that question remained unanswered. So in 2008, Gratrix and her sisters, Patty Storie and Lorain Phillips, decided to investigate the case themselves. Despite being separated by distance, they have gathered tips and have even collected evidence. They push to keep Wiwcharuk’s story in the spotlight, which may be paying off: tips continue to come into police about the case.
“We wanted to find out who did this for the peace of mind, a sense [of] resolve and closure that so few cold cases are able to get,” Phillips said.
After 14 years and hundreds of interviews, Wiwcharuk’s nieces think they’ve likely spoken to the person or persons who murdered their aunt.
A nurse goes missing
Wiwcharuk left the apartment where she lived with three other nurses on the evening of Friday, May 18, 1962, stopped at a nearby pharmacy, bought stamps and mailed a few letters. She didn’t make it to her night shift at City Hospital.
Police searched Saskatoon, including a patrol of the river. They circulated Wiwcharuk’s photo and description to departments in Victoria, Winnipeg and even as far as Quebec City.
It would take 13 days from when Wiwcharuk was last seen for police to locate her body, after a group of boys who were fishing along the river spotted her. Police recovered the body on May 31 in a shallow grave on the riverbank, six blocks from where Wiwcharuk lived.
The young woman’s skull had been fractured by a blow from a concrete block. She had been sexually assaulted, and the autopsy would determine that her unconscious body was buried before she died.
Over six decades, the investigation by the Saskatoon Police Service would involve interviews with 700 people and amass thousands of documents.
Still, no one has been charged in connection to Wiwcharuk’s assault and death.
“No disrespect to the Saskatoon Police Service, but given the technology back then at the time of the murder, it really isn’t surprising that someone got away with murder,” Storie said. “Do I think the police did a good job back then? Well, really, if you want to take it in its purest form … no, I don’t think they did a good job.”
A cold case
By the 1970s, Wiwcharuk’s case had gone cold.
Wiwcharuk’s sister, Pearl Cherneske, who is now nearly 90 years old, said that to this day she still can’t believe what happened.
“My father, he cried for three days straight. He didn’t do nothing but cry,” Cherneske said.
Cherneske is glad her daughters decided to look into the case. The women began their deep dive in 2008 following the release of a book on Wiwcharuk’s death by her friend Sharon Butala.
It has included taking investigation courses, doing interviews, consulting with forensic investigators, and even collecting DNA to pass along to police (though officials have previously said that DNA collected by non-professionals can be tainted).
Gratrix said she spent several years looking through newspaper articles on cold cases from Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba with elements similar to her aunt’s case. In the end, she had a list of 160 names of possible people of interest.
The sisters have set up websites and social media pages to garner tips, and done countless media interviews.
And they’ve dug through dumpsters – or at least one of them has.
“Because I was the youngest, I always had to do it,” Storie said. “And I’ve quit.”
The sisters said that over the years they have been threatened, chased down and have had police “scold” them for putting themselves in danger.
In October 2008, they put up a billboard in Saskatoon with a photo of their aunt and a phone number for tips, which they said resulted in many leads.
WATCH | Wiwcharuk’s nieces unveil the billboard and detail how they’ve launched their own investigation:
They remain tight-lipped about what exactly they’ve unearthed and who they consider to be persons of interest. They told the media previously that their investigation has revealed three persons of interest, two of whom are still living. Gratrix said DNA has cleared one of those people. She believes the police should still consider the other two.
While Gratrix, Storie and Phillips now live in Edmonton, Dallas and on Vancouver Island respectively, they still try to visit Saskatoon every year. But they also look to volunteers to be their team on the ground to conduct research at local libraries and place flowers at Wiwcharuk’s grave.
“It’s just like an extended family because they really believe and truly believe, like us, Alex’s case can be solved,” Gratrix said.
The sisters continue to keep pressure on and communicate with investigators at the Saskatoon Police Service. But they’ve been frustrated as investigators on the case have changed over the years.
“When they’re finally getting up to speed, they have to be transferred to some other department and we have to start again, and this has been really bad for us,” Phillips said.
Staff Sgt. Grant Obst, who oversees the historical case unit, said Wiwcharuk’s case has had three investigators in the past four years alone. The police service has bins upon bins of documents on the case. Files are mostly hard copies, which adds to the time an investigator needs to become familiar with the case or follow up on a tip.
“I certainly appreciate the frustration of the family,” Obst said.
'Nobody's forgotten her'
Obst said one thing that keeps historic case investigators hopeful is when tips come in – and that happened with Wiwcharuk’s case just last month.
“Alexandra’s name gets mentioned in our office on a weekly basis,” said Obst. “Nobody’s forgotten her or the case, so we’ll just keep plugging away.”
In the Saskatoon Police Service, homicide files are never closed. However, most cases are solved within about a week, Obst said. The historic case unit has around 25 cold cases that it continues to look into, with Wiwcharuk’s being one of the oldest.
Investigative techniques have advanced over the decades since Wiwcharuk’s death, with one of the most well-known being the use of DNA. Obst said no one working on the case in 1962 would have been thinking of DNA, but there are a lot of exhibits that have allowed for analysis throughout the years.
“Yes, there’s DNA and there’s forensics and there’s technology [now], but there’s still a lot of good old fashioned police work that goes into a homicide investigation,” said Obst, “and there was a ton of that that got applied to this case back in the sixties.”
In 2004, Wiwcharuk’s family gave permission for her body to be exhumed, and a hair was found that led to a DNA profile.
Obst said it has allowed investigators to eliminate some theories and people of interest in the case.
Obst also pointed to the recent use of genetic genealogy, which combines DNA analysis with genealogical research to create family trees and identify a likely suspect.
“We still hope that at some point, DNA may help us to find the perpetrator,” said Obst. “I got to say, though, after 60 years, your hope starts to diminish a little bit.”
The sisters think more funding is needed for the historic unit so that cold cases don’t suffer.
WATCH | Wiwcharuk’s nieces and Saskatoon police provide the latest on their respective investigations:
'Somebody might remember something'
With the decades since Wiwcharuk’s murder, there have been times when tips have waned. But beyond her nieces keeping the case in headlines, Wiwcharuk’s death has been the subject of books, documentaries, online videos and podcasts.
When Mike Browne was looking for a Saskatchewan story to feature on his true crime podcast, Dark Poutine, he said Wiwcharuk’s case kept coming up in his searches.
When he eventually covered the case, he recalled the audience “being moved by the fact that this girl who had just been doing her thing [was] just cut down in her youth like that.”
Browne said the fact that members of Wiwcharuk’s family have passed on without knowing what happened to her adds to the tragedy of the case, and is part of the reason why he feels it’s important to talk about cold cases.
“Somebody might remember something today that will give the family a bit of closure … It’s like intergenerational trauma at this point.”
Phillips pointed out that podcasts and shows can help reach a broader geographical audience, and may resurface memories of people who have long moved away from Saskatoon.
“The internet sleuths we have now who have reached out to us about this case have given us some great ideas and lines of investigation that we may not even have come across otherwise,” said Storie.
'No way it's ever going to stop'
With all three recovering from recent surgeries and effects of the pandemic still lingering, Wiwcharuk’s nieces weren’t able to make it to Saskatoon for the 60th anniversary of her death. They hope instead to visit the city later in the summer.
Despite these barriers, new interest in the case helps motivate the sisters to continue their search for answers, confident that others will pick up the torch should they not be able to continue their investigation.
“If something happens to us, our next generation of our kids, they’re going to go ahead and finish this off. There’s no way it’s ever going to stop,” Gratrix said.
They hope that if Wiwcharuk’s case finds resolution, it can give hope to other families whose loved ones are also the subjects of cold cases.
“She was a real, living, breathing person who loved, who was loved and loved back so much and very deeply,” said Phillips. “Because we don’t want her just to be a footnote in books of unsolved murder cases.”
If you have a tip about the Alexandra Wiwcharuk case, you can contact the Saskatoon Police Service at 306-975-8300 or Crime Stoppers anonymously at 1-800-222-8477.
With files from CBC’s The Fifth Estate