The Current

What makes it a murder? Coroner's office inquiry into 'concealed homicides' after Mississauga deaths

Three family members died in their Mississauga home over a period of several years, but it was only after the third death that police established a suspicious pattern. The Current talks to investigators about how they approach the scene of a death, and where mistakes can be made.

Three members of the same family died in the same house over a period of several years

Melissa Merritt is escorted at provincial court in Halifax on Jan. 29, 2014. She and Christopher Fattore were convicted of first-degree murder in the death of Merritt's ex-husband Caleb Harrison. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

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A family believe the murders of their loved ones could have been prevented if investigators spotted the pattern of deaths occurring at their home.

William Harrison, his wife Bridget and son Caleb, all died separately in the same house over a period of several years.

"That really has been so difficult," said Wanda Jamieson, a long-time friend of the Harrison family. "Our concerns really remained our own private nightmare until Caleb's murder in 2013."

"It's unbelievable when you think about it ... a number of years in which these deaths happened and we lived with that throughout," she told The Current's guest host Laura Lynch.

Caleb Harrison, 41, was found dead in his Mississauga home in 2013, the same house where his 63-year-old mother Bridget died in 2010, and his father William died a year before. While the case of William's death — initially attributed to natural causes — was reopened after his wife's passing, the follow-up investigation classified both deaths as undetermined. It was only when police investigated Caleb's death that they concluded both mother and son had been asphyxiated.

In January, Caleb's ex-wife Melissa Merritt and her common-law spouse Christopher Fattore were convicted of first-degree murder in his death. Fattore was also found guilty of first-degree murder in Bridget's death, but not guilty of second-degree murder in William's.

Last week, the Ontario Chief Coroner's Office announced a review of "concealed homicides," including cases going back almost three decades, as well as a separate review of the Harrison cases, after extensive investigative reporting by the Toronto Star.

It seems to imply that a death might not be readily identified as a homicide to the police ... but why?- Wanda  Jamieson  on the term 'concealed homicide'

The family have concerns about the independence and reach of the inquiry, but also about the term "concealed homicide" itself.

"It seems to imply that a death might not be readily identified as a homicide to the police," said Jamieson, "or maybe to the coroner, or to the pathologist — but why?

"Is it because the manner of death is staged or hidden, or is it because they're not … using the right tools or an objective lens, or is it because they've made mistakes?"

Jamieson argued that the cases should be called "missed homicides," and she's not alone in wanting police to examine their own mistakes.

Communication in the evidence-gathering process is key, said Lorimer Shenher. (Andrew Friesen/CBC)

How do officials assess the scene of a death?

"The buck stops with the police, in terms of the collection and pursuit of evidence," said Lorimer Shenher, a former police detective in B.C.

"To me it's clear that this was missed through what appeared to be some errors, or at the very least just a failure to recognize a pattern."

Normal procedure, he explained, is that police attend any death that occurred outside a hospital or care home, or where suspicions or concerns have been raised. Officers would wait for the coroner and ensure the body was removed properly, as well as securing the deceased's valuables and attending to their relatives. The attending coroner can contact a pathologist to arrange an autopsy, based on the information at the scene, or provided by the police.

We want to concentrate a little bit more on the death of the child, to know if it was something that was done on purpose.- Dr. Barry Heath

Communication in that process is key, said Shenher, who compiled the missing persons database that helped to uncover the crimes of Robert Pickton.

He said that during that investigation not many people believed there was serial killer on the loose, but his "excellent relationship" with the coroner Larry Campbell — who is now a senator — helped him to access medical records.

Shenher said it was helpful to be "able to say: 'Look, they went missing and they've never been to the doctor since. They've never been in emergency room, and these were people that were highly, highly dependent on medical care. I smell a rat here. There's a problem.'"

Christopher Fattore was also found guilty of first-degree murder in Bridget Harrison's death. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

What can go wrong?

Dr. Barry Heath, who was a coroner in Saskatoon for 24 years, agreed that mistakes can be made and clues can be missed when investigating parties aren't sharing information.

Heath's work included infants who died, where it was "very difficult to know whether ... it was an intentional layover, or smothering, or accidental."

In some situations, he relied on police to give background information if there is a history or abuse or drug use.

In some of those cases, he relies on police for information about the home environment, including criminal records or a history of abuse.

In those cases, he said, "we want to concentrate a little bit more on the death of the child, to know if it was something that was done on purpose."

A wider problem, he noted, is that records are not shared from province to province.

"A person may live in a different province, and the investigation may not follow up on the person's past to know where they lived before, and if there's any record of a similar child dying under similar circumstances."

Co-operation between all the parties is important, he said, adding that no investigator should have "blinders on," when they approach a situation.

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's John Chipman, Willow Smith and Kristian Jebsen.