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Tuesday, June 06, 2000

Who killed Misty Murray?
Donna Laframboise
National Post

Five years ago last week, a 16-year-old girl named Mistie Murray went missing from her home in Goderich, Ont., a town of 7,500 on the shore of Lake Huron. Eleven days ago, a provincial watchdog ordered an independent review of how the police -- who laid an unsuccessful murder charge against Mistie's father -- have handled this case.

When their daughter disappeared, the lives of Anne and Steve Murray plunged into darkness. Frantic with worry, they spent the summer of 1995 searching for her. Every time the phone rang, their hopes rose and fell again.

That September, their nightmare got unbelievably worse. Despite the dozens of people who told police they'd spotted Mistie in nearby communities during the month of June, the investigating officers developed another theory. They said Steve had taken his daughter out on the lake on the last day of May, killed her for no apparent reason and thrown her body overboard.

We can only guess at the police psychology in this matter. One explanation is that it's more glamorous to be pursuing a murderer than tracking down a missing person. Another is that envy played a role. Steve was handsome, popular and successful. He ran one of the town's pubs, owned a speedboat and drove a new Trans Am convertible. Perhaps the temptation to tear down someone who seemed to have it all was too strong.

Whatever the reason, from the moment the handcuffs closed over Steve's wrists, the financial destruction of the Murray family was assured. While most of us prefer not to think about such things, the cost of defending one's self against a serious criminal charge wipes out all but the wealthiest -- no matter how innocent an accused person may be.

Legal bills are only the beginning. After the Murray's boat was impounded, its interior was vandalized in a search for evidence that never materialized. (In what appears to have been a sick ploy intended to fuel the local rumour mill, carpet, anchors and a seat from the boat were brought to the courthouse but never introduced at trial.) Exposed to the elements before being returned to the Murrays 19 months later, the boat had been soaked by rain and snow to the point where interior surfaces were coated with black mildew, and cutlery inside kitchen cupboards was covered with rust. Even after being cleaned up and repaired, it sold for half its former value.

As an accused murderer, Steve found it difficult to find work (the pub, too, was sold at a loss). "I put an ad in the paper to shovel driveways and sidewalks," he told the National Post in his first media interview last year. "I got another job cleaning public mail boxes around town."

When his three-week trial ended in mid-1997, the family's savings had been depleted and a pile of bills remained. The case against Steve was so preposterous the jury took only 45 minutes to throw it out, but that didn't change his financial situation one iota.

If police officers never made mistakes there'd be no need for judges and juries. But the role of such people is to ensure the police case is persuasive. In this instance, the jury unequivocally told the cops to return to the drawing board.

But rather than backing off, the police have spent the three years since Steve's acquittal insisting they're right. In March, CBC television's the fifth estate aired an interview with an Ontario Provincial Police spokesperson.

"Since the disappearance of Mistie Murray, have you found anything that would link her to being at the bottom of Lake Huron?" asked the interviewer.

"No, but we are going to continue to look," came the police response.

When the Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services recently informed Anne, in a rare decision, that her complaints regarding police conduct "raise serious issues which the Commission wishes to have further examined," a small ray of light pierced her family's gloom. For the first time in years, it seems possible to her that police officers aren't just cowboys permitted to pursue their delusions indefinitely.

Anne continues to hope her daughter is alive, out there somewhere, and that they'll be reunited one day.

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