5 questions with Michelle Shephard, host of Uncover: Sharmini

Twenty years ago today Sharmini Anandavel's remains were discovered. Journalist Michelle Shephard answers questions about the case she's been investigating since 1999.

The award-winning journalist and podcast host discusses the case she's been following her whole career

Journalist Michelle Shephard interviews Stanley Tippett in 1999. Tippett is a main suspect in the murder of 15-year-old Sharmini Anandavel. He was a resident in her apartment building. (Dale Brazao/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Twenty years ago today, Sharmini Anandavel's remains were discovered in the East Don parklands in Toronto. Journalist Michelle Shephard has been covering the case since it first broke in 1999, when she was a cub reporter on the Toronto Star's crime beat. This year, Shephard revisited the murder with Uncover: Sharmini. The podcast host talks about Sharmini's family, the main suspect, and ethical journalism in the true crime genre. 

1. How did Sharmini's family react when you told them you wanted to reinvestigate her murder?

They were so lovely. Her father was as kind and generous as I remembered him, and it was amazing seeing what her brothers had become. We didn't speak to her mom. It was tough for them, as I'm sure it always is, talking about the case, but after thinking about it for a few months, they agreed to speak with us. I can't stress enough how much we appreciate their cooperation and understanding of what we were trying to do. They really are incredible and I admire them a lot. 

2. As one of podcasting's biggest genres, true crime shows have often been criticized for being exploitive or sensational. What are some things you did during the investigation to ensure that the series does more good than harm?

I agree with a lot of the criticism, so this was something that we talked about constantly. One of the things we (producer Kathleen Goldhar, associate producer Ilina Ghosh, and myself) wanted was to make sure Sharmini's memory was first and foremost. That's why we called the podcast "Sharmini." We kept in touch with those who we interviewed as well, trying to prepare them both for our talks (which could be emotional) and the reaction once the podcast was out. And we tried to be mindful of the production too. Our mixer, Mitchell Stuart, is incredible and also wanted to make sure we didn't sensationalize anything, stressing this is a real case, not entertainment. Lastly, we tried to look into any larger themes that arose, because ultimately when reporting on any crime story (or stories in general), the goal is to right a wrong, or expose an injustice. 

3. The main suspect you focus on in the series, Stanley Tippett, is convicted of another crime and serving time in prison. Why is investigating Sharmini's murder still so essential?

For so many people we interviewed — those who knew Sharmini — they talked about wanting justice; wanting someone to answer for her murder. "Closure" is a terrible word, because when you lose someone, especially violently, there's never going to be closure. But they wanted to know what happened to her and make sure it doesn't happen again. They believe there's enough evidence to put him on trial. And while he's in prison, likely for life as he's designated a dangerous offender, he's still eligible for parole. 

Michelle Shephard interviewing Stanley Tippett at Warkworth Institution, a medium security prison, in 2019.

4. Have you ever felt that Tippett was unfairly treated during the investigation of the case, due to his visible condition, Treacher Collins syndrome?

I have no doubt that Tippett struggled at times and has been unfairly targeted because of his condition. His mother told us as a child he was bullied. And I'm sure in the court of public opinion, once he was identified as a suspect in Sharmini's case or others, he has also suffered. But we did not see any evidence of him being unfairly investigated by police due to his appearance. 

5. Twenty years ago, you and your colleagues grappled with whether or not to publish a photo of Tippett in the paper, thus branding him a suspect to the public. Do you regret that decision?

I don't regret that we didn't publish the photo. I think at the time it was the right decision. All we knew was that he was a suspect in the case, and back then, the decision to run someone's image was often debated. This was the pre social media era, so running a photo in a newspaper was a big deal and he would have been a marked man. The only unknown now is if running his photos would have prompted someone to come forward with information that would have cleared his name, or added to the investigation. We can't know that. 

Listen to Uncover: Sharmini

Hear the full series for free at cbc.ca/uncovercbc or on your favourite podcast app — including Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and Spotify. And if you're new to podcasts, start here.

Produced by Judy Ziyi Gu.