Toronto Star

November 5, 1999

Vera Tugwell, please call me ASAP - collect

by Dale Brazao
Toronto Star
VERA TUGWELL, where are you?

I sure hope you haven't faked your death again.

You remember the last time you did that, don't you? Christmas, 1984. Remember how you were found at a bus stop in Orlando, and after bailing you out of a south Florida jail I brought you home for a happy reunion with your family?

Of all the stories I've done for The Star, yours - in a weird way - is the one that sticks in my mind.

You'll recall the day we met, in your cell at the Orange County Jail? How you tried to hoodwink me into believing you weren't really Vera Tugwell of Penetanguishene, but Cathy Hanson, a domestic from California? Remember my answer?

``You can be Cathy Hanson, and the police are going to ship you to Miami for an immigration hearing and in the end you will be deported back to Canada. Or you can be Vera Tugwell - and you are - and we'll be on the 4:30 flight to Toronto, and I can write a nice happy Christmas story.''

I'm glad you saw the light. In exchange for your confession, I got you out of jail.

Remember, Vera? How the Orlando police detectives handed me a piece of paper at the airport saying they were releasing you into my custody, and if you were to run, I was to call the nearest FBI office?

After all, you had given these guys such a scare when you staged your own murder. Because of the high U.S. murder rate, your thinking went, nobody would care about your death. That would leave you free to start a new life and get on with your new job as a live-in domestic for that rich old lady in Winter Park, Fla.

Quite the opposite happened. The Orlando police launched a full-scale investigation. The murder of a Canadian tourist is big news down there, and bad for attendance at Walt Disney World. The local cops called in the FBI, who promptly issued a nation-wide alert for your supposed killer.

And I was sent to Florida to do a story about your demise - but you were very much alive.

You made police think you'd been murdered by a serial killer when you sent them your blood-splattered dress and the alleged weapon, a knife. Your note, the one saying Vera Tugwell was sleeping with the fishes, was a brilliant touch:

``Executioner, hear my story. This is not the first. She won't be the last, now find her, and the others if you can.''

You almost pulled it off, but you made one mistake.

You fell for that ex-convict at the $45-a-week hostel where you stayed before your disappearance, the guy who was freaking everybody out by showing off the bullet holes in his stomach from a firefight with police.

You were unaware that police were looking for you until you surfaced for a rendezvous with him, brandishing a birthday cake and a bottle of champagne.

That was when the meter maid spotted you at the bus stop, and phoned the homicide squad to report you were a dead ringer for the picture on the front page of the Orlando Sentinel about the murdered Canadian.

I just happened to be there, interviewing the detectives. So we all rushed out. I was there when they placed you under arrest and took you back to the station for questioning.

That's when you concocted this incredible story about being Cathy Hanson. Then I persuaded the cops that if I could get you to confess to the hoax, they would drop all charges and let you go back to Canada with me.

We came home. We hid you at the Harbour Castle hotel to keep you away from the competition - The Sun, CFTO, CityTV and all the rest.

The next day, Dec. 23, I drove you to Penetanguishene for what looked to be a happy reunion with your dad Leonard and your mom Vera.

A couple of weeks later, when I called to see how you were doing, your dad said sadly, ``She's gone again.''

And nobody has heard from you since.

Your mother, you might want to know, died several years ago, and your dad followed her three years ago.

Your brother Ed would just like to know that you're safe, somewhere. So would I.



Dale Brazao (dbrazao@thestar.ca) is an investigative reporter at The Star

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