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Friday, October 29, 1999

A brief respite from the bleakness
Testimony at trial of police killers was a gift of normalcy
Christie Blatchford
National Post


National Post
A page from Rose Cece's diary introduced in court yesterday.

Finally, yesterday, there came a little light into the tunnel of bleakness that has been the story of the trial of Rose Cece and Mary Barbara Ann Taylor.

Finally, a smile touched the grave face of the widow Kim Hancox, the regal young woman who sits every day at the front of the court; the jurors were able to throw back their heads and laugh outright, and even Marshall Sack, one of the defence lawyers and a man whose every word is usually tinged with imperious sarcasm, had nothing cutting to say.

What brought this great relief was nothing more, and nothing less, than a parade of ordinary citizens who yesterday came and went from the witness box.

These are the folks who, on the evening of Aug. 4, 1998, either took in a fleeting image of the two accused women -- loitering about a small strip mall and hospital parking lot, later running from that mall where Toronto Police Detective-Constable Billy Hancox lay dying in his own blood -- and who recognized immediately that there was something unsettling, and badly off, about what they had seen.

They also knew it might be significant, and went forward to police, and then yesterday came to tell the court.

Their decency was palpable; their normalcy was a gift.

Ms. Cece and Ms. Taylor are pleading not guilty to second-degree murder in the stabbing death of Det.-Const. Hancox; the twist is that they have already admitted responsibility for killing him, and tried in vain to plead guilty to manslaughter.

Because they themselves were at the time of the slaying wholly disenfranchised (homeless, hapless, broke, suicidal and drug-addicted), many of the witnesses who have testified here have come from what might be called their peer group -- broken people, in other words, the sort who, as one of my colleagues remarked yesterday, might as well have been born dead, so dim are their prospects, so grim and hardscrabble their lives.

So the 11 eyewitnesses who came into the courtroom yesterday were a welcome reminder that there are human successes, too.

The one who stole the show outright was a stout woman named Isabella Noulet who has the loveliest, whitest head of big hair and who wore a wacky pair of specs; she looked like one of the cartoonist Gary Larsen's wonderful old ladies from his Far Side strip.

Prosecutor John McMahon called her to the stand.

"Isabelle Noulet," he purred, giving it the French pronunciation.

Ms. Noulet was sworn in and had to announce her name.

"Isabella No-let," she said in a no-nonsense Scottish burr.

Mr. McMahon grinned; he knew, of course, what she would say, and was I think relishing the prospect of questioning such a sterling character.

It turns out she was playing bingo on the night the young officer was killed. She went to the early games, and left before the 10 o'clock session began. "How did you do at bingo?" Mr. McMahon asked. "Ach," said Ms. Noulet, "I didn't win anyway."

She "tooted" her way at a pretty good clip home, then an apartment building that Det.-Const. Hancox and his undercover colleagues had had under surveillance (they were watching for a suspect in an organized break-and-enter gang) and which is across the street from the little plaza where he was killed.

Shortly after 10 p.m. -- this was but minutes after Det.-Const. Hancox was stabbed through his open van window by Ms. Cece and was bleeding to death -- Ms. Noulet said she got to her building and was heading to her underground spot when she saw two women near the ramp. There was something awry with them; she might have got out of her car to inquire, but "they looked a bit rough for me," so she turned on her high beams instead, and had a good long look.

(At this point, reporter Sam Pazzano of the Toronto Sun whispered in my ear in a rich brogue: "She's going to say, 'I dinna like the looks of them'", and indeed, in the next breath, Ms. Noulet said as much.)

The woman she identified as Ms. Cece was leaning against the building wall, her head down; the other, Ms. Taylor, had one hand on the wall beside her, the other "waving up and down ... I thought she was giving her hell," Ms. Noulet said, adding delicately, "Or shit."

She went upstairs to her apartment, and no sooner had she taken off her shoes than she heard all the sirens and commotion. She went out to her balcony, saw the cruisers at the plaza across the street, and tore back downstairs to see if the women were still there, but they were gone.

Throughout her brief evidence-in-chief, Ms. Noulet addressed Mr. McMahon as "Your Honour," causing his boyish face to crease with pleasure. Then she addressed one of Ms. Cece's lawyers, Aaron Harnett, as "Your Honour." The only person she didn't call Your Honour was His actual Honour, presiding judge Mr. Justice David Watt. It was one of Ms. Taylor's lawyers, David O'Connor, who gently broke it to her that there was only one judge in the joint. "We're just lawyers," he said.

"Yes sir," she replied.

"But they're all suspectible to flattery," Judge Watt broke in.

"And they'll be your friends for life if you call them Your Eminence."

This is when the room erupted into laughter, Kim Hancox and her mom and Billy Hancox's family along with them.

Among the other good citizens who testified yesterday was a woman named June Martin, who it appears might well have been Ms. Cece's and Ms. Taylor's victim that night, but for luck, or perhaps the pair's icy version of feminism (the jury has already heard that had they decided to steal a woman's car, they would have tossed her alive at the side of the road.)

Ms. Martin was leaving Scarborough Centenary Hospital, where Ms. Cece and Ms. Taylor had unsuccessfully tried to be admitted ensemble to the psychiatric unit earlier that day, about a half-hour before Det.-Const. Hancox was killed. As she sat in her car, preparing to turn the key, she was startled by a loud rapping at her side window and the sight of a broad, fat-cheeked face. This was Ms. Cece.

Ms. Martin was frightened, but, she said, "When I saw it was a woman, I rolled down my window" and snapped, "You scared me!" It was then Ms. Cece leaned forward, so reeking of cigarette smoke that Ms. Martin had to turn away. Ms Cece, her hands behind her back, said, "We're stuck. We're stranded," and begged for a lift. Ms. Martin refused, and moments later, drove away unscathed.

The two women had already boosted a butcher's knife, which, the jury has been told, Ms. Cece was carrying tucked at the back of her shorts; it seems likely it was there when she leaned in Ms. Martin's window.

Did the two women consider, for an instant, using the knife? Were they not yet sufficiently snackered on the crack cocaine they'd been using off and on all day?

Ms. Cece's diary, found near the crime scene in the women's abandoned bags and introduced into evidence yesterday, may hold a clue.

Her lawyers seemed not unhappy at the diary becoming evidence; after all, Ms. Cece's scribblings arguably show her, in the days just before the killing, as they maintain she was -- drug-addled, depressed beyond bearing, longing for a real home in the country and pets and peace, talking of suicide (she referred to overdosing on "heroine") and reasonably articulate.

But the diary also contains several references to Ms. Taylor working as a prostitute. "Mary has gone off on a date with an older guy," she wrote from the park where they were camped out. Later, she wrote, "What's she doing with this old man date?" Another entry reads, "I hate my Mary going out with guys. It tears me up."

On the seventh page, Ms. Cece concluded, "I hate this city and the lifestyle and the way my womyn [sic] works."

Her womyn, spelled in the Rambo-fembo manner. Rose Cece and Barbara Ann Taylor didn't know Billy Hancox was a cop. Could they have chosen him because he was a man?

No wonder his widow smiles so rarely.

Christie Blatchford can be contacted at cblatchford@nationalpost.com

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