How giving a lift to a stranger led me to a murder

This story was first published in the Montreal Gazette and is republished here by permission.

___

The best tales are the stories within stories.

One starts: “I’m trying to get to Heywood and quite frankly I have no idea where I am.”

The other, more ominously: “You don’t want my love. You don’t love me.”

___

He was almost in the middle of the road. A tall man on the far edge of middle age, he was leaning on a thick cane and squinting through the freezing rain. He had dark skin and was hatless, but had a scarf wrapped loosely around his neck and shoulders. He held one hand up and I ground the truck to a halt. It was a late January afternoon and there were few other fool drivers in this slushy mess with its hidden slippery patches.

“I’m trying to get to Heywood and quite frankly I have no idea where I am,” he said into my open window last week. A delicious whiff of smoke blew in.

I twisted my head around. “Damn. I’m new to the area, so — it’s that way, I think?”

“Yeah, it’s over there. I think I have to get to those buildings. But there’s a fence in the way. The guy just left me here.”

I didn’t ask about the guy. Cabbie? Uber? Bus driver? “Are you trying to get to the hospital that’s around here? I had to go there once and I got so lost. It’s a bitch to find.”

“Nope. Kildare and …”

Kildare? I grabbed my phone and thumbed to Google Maps. I was still stopped in the middle of the road, which isn’t the sort of place I generally like to be, so I said, “You want to get in?”

His eyebrows raised, like that wasn’t the response he was expecting. I shoved the evidence of my recent bargain-retailer shopping spree in the back and he folded himself into the passenger seat, shoulders filling most of the space, head nearly touching the roof of the little truck. He gave me an address on Côte-St-Luc Rd.

“That’s in the opposite direction! No way you could have walked all that way in this,” I said, and we were off into the murk of worsening weather.

___

Almost exactly 32 years ago, on January 16, 1985, the sky was clear and there was nine centimetres of snow on the ground. It was far colder than the day I stopped on a Montreal street in the rain, minus-21 Celsius, and the drama that was playing out on a road not far from here was ever so much darker.

Pastor Raymond Steele had determined that his secretary — the young woman who was helping him locate his wife and son — was a witch. Moustachioed, with straight brown hair and thick eyebrows accenting a pale face, he looked her in the eye and said, “You don’t want my love. You don’t love me.”

Linda Quinn’s five-hour nightmare started then.

Steele, ordained by the Universal Life Church of Enlightened Reason sect, set out to ritually rid her of Satan. Forensics and the testimony of a former friend, who was there throughout the ordeal, paint a bloody, horrific picture.

Steele hung her with chains from a pipe in his basement. He let his dogs bite her 50 times. He stabbed her over and over. For five hours. When she died of blood loss, he poured boiling water over her corpse and packed her into a three-foot-long steamer trunk — she was five-foot-five — in the garage attached to his home.

When her sister came looking for her, he held her captive, rambling, all night, till she was able to escape to call police from a neighbour’s home.

___

My guest had the sort of English Montreal accent one hears from Lachine natives or Wagar High School graduates. Self-assured, comfortable, delivered with the entertaining sort of conviction that listeners will believe every story. Of course.

We want to believe.

He was a filmmaker, he told me, though he started out videotaping brises — “of Sephardic Jews,” he specified twice for some reason — and now he had a meeting with someone to secure funding for something new. “And if that doesn’t work out, I have another guy near here who’s my No. 2 choice. And if that doesn’t work out —” he rattled off the name of a guy who owns a string of successful car dealerships.

A who’s-who of Montreal names poured out of him then. People he’d worked with. His mother worked with. They owned clubs or they were musicians, but the only name I recognized for sure was Biddle.

“You’re pretty Montreal deep,” I said, so he’d know I was listening.

“I think you’ve gone too far.”

“No, it should be just up there.”

“I think you’re going the wrong way. Cavendish is back there.”

“Yeah, where I picked you up … you want Cavendish?” I eased into the left lane. “You’re lucky you found someone who likes to drive. And who likes an adventure.”

I spun a slippery U-turn as he said in his big voice, “You want adventure? You’re gonna have to stick with me. I have adventures for you.” Now that he’d tossed his cigarette, I could make out the barest remnants of wine with lunch. “Have you heard of Raymond Steele? Back in 1985 in Huntingdon. How about the Universal Life Church of Enlightened Reason?”

___

During the trial, it was revealed that Linda Quinn, who was engaged to a Huntingdon man, was eight weeks pregnant. It was also discovered that Steele had called police just before he started exorcising the devil from her. He told the dispatcher that he was a clairvoyant, and that five hours hence the Sûreté du Québec would torture a young woman to death.

The trial took less than two weeks. The evidence was damning, especially in the face of the friend’s testimony. Steele fired his lawyers and represented himself. He admitted to the killing.

When the sentence came down — life in prison — the Montreal Gazette reported that the courtroom cheered: “Bravo! Bravo!”

___

His phone rang. “Hey. I’m almost there. Yeah. I got turned around, but then I was picked up by this gorgeous lady.” I had overshot the building and had to spin another U-turn. The rain was harder, tinnier as the sun went down, taking the temperature with it. Then I pulled into the wrong apartment complex and turned tightly in the courtyard. He was gleeful.

“Oh man,” he half-shouted into the phone. “She’s gorgeous and she’s a wild one. She’s got one of those big cars with four-wheel-drive and she’s driving over sidewalks and everything.” I rolled my eyes and bumped over the edge of the curb.

My new friend told me he’d been a real-estate agent. He pointed out houses along the way that he’d sold. So when he said a girl had been killed in the basement of his house in Huntingdon, I wondered whether he meant it was his home, or a home he’d sold, or just a story to make the hairs on one’s forearm lift. Steele’s house was damaged by suspected arson while the trial was going on, and the Gazette reported that it was owned by Steele “and another man.”

“The Universal Life Church of Enlightened Reason. You have to look up all the words or you won’t find it.” He was halfway out of my truck, one hand on his cane, the other on my door frame. “Being involved in that is a black mark on my name.

“The only one.”

Raymond Steele successfully appealed his conviction, but pleaded guilty to a lesser charge. He was granted day parole in February 2016, and full parole Oct. 26, 2016.

Through the blinds: Once-removed from motel theatre

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y.
The drama played out in muffled sounds across the smooth black parking lot of the motel.

Knocking first. Insistent. Hollow. Without echo, although the long low brick was mirrored on our side.

We lifted our second-storey blinds enough to spy on a blond woman pacing on the asphalt, phone in hand, periodically banging on the door, circling a car that was black but for the orange “city taxi” sign on top. The other side of the motel was mostly low-income housing, monthly rentals in front of which were colourful plastic chairs and swept-clean walkways. The curtains were drawn on all but two: through those windows we could see a large TV flickering; another had a fox skin on one wall and at least three taxidermied heads on the opposite wall. 

We didn’t want to get involved in the theatre downstairs, but I was in the midst of an allergy attack and my meds were in the car. Melani took her time and reported back, Benadryl in hand.

“I think the person inside called her, and she’s worried about whatever she heard.” The idea gave the flat thumping a more ominous tone, made this feel like something other than a lovers’ tiff.

There were words exchanged between the woman and the cab-driver, and the woman and a man who was sitting nearby, in front of his own motel unit. We couldn’t make out individual words.

A pattern emerged, more frantic with each repetition: knock, say a few words to the man, or the cabbie, pace, knock again. Melani was dying to help, because she’s like that. I was dying for her to, because I can’t stand not knowing the story. It seemed impossible that this one could have a positive ending. We hunkered down and hoped it wouldn’t escalate dangerously, peeking out the blinds less and less often.

“There’s an ambulance there now,” Melani hissed some time later, and my stomach flipped. The cab was gone, and the paramedics were pulling on gloves, leaving their doors open as they spoke briefly with the woman. The man who had been sitting on his front stoop got up, stood closer to her. There were people on the upper balcony — but not on our side, which was made up more of transient weekend visitors, not long-term residents as across the lot.

A paramedic banged on the door and waited. From across the way and through the dark, we could see the woman’s panic rising. The paramedic looked over his shoulder at his partner, but we couldn’t read his expression. A police car pulled up and parked behind the ambulance with its lights off. The cop got out of the car slowly, and he seemed perfectly relaxed. He hung back, staying out of the paramedics’ way, but within sight of the other players in the drama.

The paramedic put a hand on the window, looked back at his partner again. He did the one thing the woman, in her fear and excitement, hadn’t thought of: He pushed the window open. He leaned his head inside and yelled something — a name we couldn’t make out. He yelled again, then stepped back.

The entire complex was still but for the carnival lights of the ambulance.

The door cracked open and then, a breath later, was pulled all the way open by an elderly woman with a cane. The paramedic said something to her, and she must have answered him, because he poked his head into the room, then turned away and shrugged at his partner. They each stripped off their white gloves and returned the ambulance.

We put the blinds down for a few minutes — spying was fully indecent now that we knew there was no danger. Still, the next time we peeked, there was a pile of things on the walkway in front of the woman’s room. Residents were in motion, too — the blond woman with the phone, the man who had been sitting to watch, someone else from an upper floor. They rushed up and down the central stairs, heads together, into and out of a different room. The taxi was back. The driver didn’t get out this time, though he popped open the trunk. The blond and the man had a brief, intense conversation that ended with a hug.

When the taxi pulled away with the blond inside, every door closed and most lights flipped off.

The motel was silent, as though nothing had happened at all.

Tantramar FM hosts a community over radio waves

AMHERST, N.S.
The word eclectic is in their mission statement, so it’s no wonder I got a kick out of Tantramar FM.

The sign on the side of their building caught my eye as we drove through Amherst on our first day in the area. I like to know what’s up with local news and weather, so I flipped the truck radio to 107.9 FM, and it stayed there — and on the cottage radio — for a week.

The characters on the radio became my new friends, surprising me with classic rock on the way to the beach, hillbilly tunes while preparing dinner, then a little light jazz over cocktails (by “cocktails,” you understand, I mean a local beer while I barbecued). I was by turns bemused, taken aback, and reduced to delighted giggles.

CFTA 107.9 FM became such a fun part of our trip that Trevor and I stopped to take pictures of the building on our way out of town.

Trev urged me to go inside to talk to them, but I was, as always, overcome with shyness. The best I could do was tell a guy standing outside the station that I was just a fan of the station and not being creepy wandering around taking pictures. I felt kind of creepy, though, so I took some shoddy, badly framed pictures and dodged back to the car. I had just started pulling away when he came up to the driver’s side window.

“You want to come in?” he asked with a giant Nova Scotia smile. “I could give you a little tour if you wanted. Yeah, just park that car again and come on in.”

His name was Mike. He had eyes the colour of the sky just after the clouds clear, and he was wearing a tweed newsboy cap and white button-down shirt. He had the barest of Maritime accents and was clearly passionate about music. Though he’d sounded almost dismissive when I’d asked if he worked here, it became clear within seconds that the station is a big part of his life. He turned on tour-guide mode, waving broadly at the vinyl-sided building.

“This was originally a Dairy Queen,” he began. “Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Then for a long time it was a restaurant — you can see part of a sign right there — and back then it was just one storey. We built on the extra floor just really recently. We have all the windows and doors open right now to get some air through, so we might have to be real quiet when we go in.”

He led us confidently inside and introduced us to the ladies at the front desk before ushering us toward the sound booth. He never stopped giving us information and anecdotes, though in hushed tones, and pointed to screens in the sound booth to explain how the announcer knew he had two minutes and eight seconds before he was back on air.

amherst cfta tantramar fm stage

“There’s an antique bingo machine,” he said, pointing into another small sound booth. “That’s for radio bingo.” Then through to a recording studio and two other little rooms, one for archiving, and the tour of the lower floor was almost done. As he led us back down the hallway, he tapped the red light outside the main sound booth.

“That thing goes on when he’s on air,” he said. “We’ve been wanting one of those outside the washroom, too.”

Mike got more excited as he took us upstairs. He’d helped build this extension and he was clearly proud. It was clean and open and bright up there, with a large rectangular table under a wall painted with “Music is life. That’s why our hearts have beats.” The small green stage on the street end of the extension came from their old building, and it looked like it was dusted with the sounds of a thousand stories.

I think Mike would have told us half those stories if he’d known where to start.

One of the first nights we listened, I was enchanted by an announcer who had a personal connection with every song he introduced: “And this one is by a close personal friend who played often throughout …” and “This was recorded by so-and-so, who also played with my friend such-and-such …”

CFTA’s head of sales, Beverlee Estabrooks, told me over the phone that it was probably Wilson Moore (“He breathes bluegrass”) or Randy Geddes, who just bought a church where local bands can play. His son’s part of the music scene, too, Bev told me.

We listened to a wonderful and strange travel show recorded while the hosts were on the road. Knowing dead air is death for radio, the hosts did their best to narrate during a slow drive through Minudie: “Oh, look over there. A Saint-Bernard is pooping on the grass.” We weren’t able to squeeze in a trip to Minudie despite the sights.

I grinned every time I heard my favourite signoff, which came at the end of the weather and tide reports: “It’s 2:36 in Amherst. If you’re listening on the Internet, I don’t know what time it is, because I don’t know where you are.”

Tantramar FM is just five years old, but was the result of five years of planning. During a major ice storm, Bev said, a former announcer from another local station tuned in to find out what was going on and what sort of services he could get. But that station was fully automated, leaving him quite literally cold. He and two colleagues set out soon after to start a truly community radio station that would broadcast important information during power outages, storms and other emergencies.

The rest of the time “we just have a lot of fun,” Bev said.

There are only four employees, so volunteers fill 60 hours of on-air time. “You think about the couple of hours they put in at home before they even get in here,” she said proudly. “They’re the inside heart of it.”

The station is non-profit and teams up as often as it can with church groups, the cadets, Lions, local artisans, and other groups. It extends its to hand to community members who want to try out radio to see how it fits. Some record at home, others come in to test-drive the recording studio. A group of students is working hard on a series of ghost stories, Bev said, that will include the mystery of Esther Cox — a story I was going to tell you. But I’ll wait and leave it to the kids.

It’s 12:44 p.m. where I’m at. If you’re reading this on the Internet, I don’t know what time it is, because I don’t know where you are.

If you have a photo from when the building was a Dairy Queen, I’d love to see it. You can shoot me an email at luanshya@yahoo.com

The boxer who was feeling his age

HORSESHOE BAY, B.C.
“Man, am I feeling my age today,” the boxer said, tossing his skipping rope on the floor in front of the windows.

horseshoe bay ferry terminal bc 31His hair was short and neat, flecked with grey, and his face was the sort of tan you get from spending time outside, living — an almost rusty colour with paler lines at the corners of his eyes and mouth and running across his forehead, where crinkles weren’t touched by the sun.

The ferry hadn’t launched, but he had a sea-sway, standing in front of the big windows trying to decide whether to talk to me or the bay. He had a milk bottle of the sort you pick up in gas stations, but I don’t think there was milk in it.

I looked up from my book about body language and I guess my palms were open or my eyebrows lifted slightly, because he kept talking.

“I was boxing last night. You know, at this new place. Guy got me right here.” His hand was against his side, on his lower ribs, and there was a bit of wince left in him. “I just smiled, you know? I didn’t want him to think he got one on me. He was 22. You know.”

I had opened my box lunch and was eating, not making much eye contact. I wanted to hear the end of the story, but I didn’t want to make friends. He went off on a rant about boxing matches being fixed and I thought, “Ah, so you lost, then.”

“It was a new promoter, you know, so usually I get paid in cash, but this guy gave me a cheque for $45. I woke up this morning and it was gone. I lost it.”

This time I know my eyebrows lifted, and he assured it was going to be okay, that a cheque is a lot easier to replace than cash. But I was just surprised the going rate for being punched in the ribs is $45.

“My dad owned a boxing club,” he went on, and I could tell his drink was almost done by the way he tilted it up to try to get the last bit at the end of each sentence. “He taught me how to fight right, no cheating bullshit. He retired when he was 51.”

He put the milk bottle on a chair two seats away from me and started rifling through his pockets, pulling out a $10 bill and a dime bag of pot. He shoved the money back into the pocket. “You smoke marijuana?”

My “nope” was the first thing I’d said to him, but I said it with a smile. He shrugged, scooped up his rope and swayed on back to the smoking area just as the ferry’s horn announced we were set to sail.

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The Bessborough Hotel and the man in the grey suit

saskatoon bessborough hotel 2

SASKATOON — There is a man in a grey suit who smiles freely and greets guests on the banquet level some late evenings. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting him, but there’s time yet.

He and I are at the Bessborough in Saskatoon, one of the last of Canada’s grand railway hotels.

The nation’s tradition of rail hotels began in Montreal, the home of Canadian Pacific Railway president William Cornelius Van Horne. The Windsor went up in 1878 and the CPR and other companies followed with the Hotel Vancouver, the Banff Springs Hotel, Quebec City’s extraordinary Château Frontenac, and other beasts of brick and stone along thousands of kilometres of rail. Fourteen hotels later, Regina saw the rise of the Hotel Saskatchewan in 1927.

It’s not like Regina didn’t deserve a grand hotel. It was a vibrant, growing city that had been built by the railway. But so was Saskatoon, and this city wanted one, too.

saskatoon rail bridge 2

The CPR went through Saskatoon, 300 kilometres north of Regina, and had since 1908. The city boasted an elegantly long and tall rail bridge with a pedestrian walkway as well as a sleek little railway station.

The earl and countess of Bessborough.Called the Hub City, Saskatoon also hosted track for Canadian National Railway and the Grand Truck Railway. All it was missing was a grand hotel, and CNR stepped in to make that happen. 

So within a year, ground was broken for the 10-storey Bavarian castle-inspired building that overlooks Saskatchewan River. Designed by Montreal architects, it integrated turrets, heraldry, gargoyles and other stonemasonry under a copper roof. Sir Vere Ponsonby, the ninth earl of Bessborough and 14th governor-general of Canada, consented to have it named in his honour.

It was 1932 when building was completed, and the Depression was hitting the Prairies hard. The doors of The Bez wouldn’t officially open for another three years.

It has aged elegantly. The gardens with their ironwork gates and heart-shaped flower gardens lure lovers and the river just beyond keeps the castle separate from the rest of the world and dampens the noise of traffic and passersby.

bessborough hotel garden gate1

Bellmen rush to open doors before a guest has the chance to reach out their chilled hands. In the wide hallways, carpets muffle the sound of dress shoes and high heels. Chambermaids stop what they’re doing to say hello and ask after one’s day.

The high-ceilinged banquet area features palatial windows with luxurious curtains, dark wood accents and chandeliers. It was once a quiet space for gentlemen to sit and sip coffee, read their newspapers and gossip, as men do.

bessborough stairsHere is where one might see the man in the grey suit. He is an older gentleman, and he is wearing a fedora.

His countenance is so still and friendly that people who meet him often don’t realize till after they’ve returned his greeting that he isn’t there at all.

No one knows who he is or when he was.

A legend that sticks is that of a hotel employee who was tasked with asking a group of guests to settle down one evening. Two men at the party did not take kindly to the admonishment and threw the employee over a railing. He fell several storeys to his death.

That tragedy is marked by a crack in the ballroom floor. And perhaps by a man in a grey suit and fedora.

A walk in the park: Mount Lee in Griffith Park

Part of an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

Hollywood Sign LA02

LOS ANGELES — I don’t understand the sky in L.A. It’s that shade of unbelievable blue you see in movies — maybe only Hollywood believes in that blue.

It is cloudless and lustrous and optimistic. Yet if your eyes wander toward the horizon, to the mountains that are the only thing hampering the sprawl of this ridiculous city, a choking haze softens their edges and blurs their lines. Look straight up and it’s blue as day, look sideways and it’s grey with pollution.

And the heat. How can one live here and think blue indicates cool? It’s the scorching colour at the base of a flame.

Hollywood Sign LA15

We — two fellow Montrealers and I, visiting L.A. for a conference — thought we would avoid the worst of that heat by starting our hike to the Hollywood sign early in the day. Even then, we checked and double-checked with each other that attempting this walk was something we all wanted to do.

“You’re both okay with it?” one of the party asked, not for the first time (nor for the third).

“Of course she is,” her husband said, somewhere between a chuckle and a guffaw, gesturing toward me. “She’s —“

“Stubborn?” I finished for him, chuckling myself. My tale of getting lost and not asking for help was hours fresh. But it wasn’t about being stubborn. It was about the story (it’s always about the story).

* * *

Hollywood Sign LA05

It was the fastest divorce granted in L.A., back in 1903. He had shot her in the head, after all.

Let’s back up a minute, to 20 years earlier, when a rough, uneducated Welsh immigrant arrived in North America determined to find his fortune.

Griffith Jenkins Griffith became a reporter, then a mining correspondent. Eventually he began consulting for mining companies, and that under-the-table side job was very lucrative.

Griffith Jenkins Griffith began to dress flamboyantly, strut about town and generally spread pompousness wherever he went. He became known for his arrogance, for being a bit of a shit, and because he couldn’t stop making money. He had a bevy of unwed socialites to choose from, and he chose poor Christina Mesmer, or Tina, who was as rich as she was elegant.

Puffed up with pride with his lovely bride and his situation in general, Griffith Jenkins Griffith bestowed gifts onto his adopted city of Los Angeles, including the 3,000 acres that would become Griffith Park.

Hollywood Sign LA03

And then he started to crumble. He secretly drank and was said to be paranoid, claiming while on holiday in Santa Monica that people were trying to poison him.

According to the Griffith Park History Project, “Christina Griffith was addressing a few last postcards and beginning to gather her things. Her husband (who was certain she had been conspiring against him with the pope), entered the room with a prayer book in one hand and a revolver in the other. Unfortunately, he handed her the prayer book.”

She was shot in the head, but Tina, later called “the socialite who would not die,” survived when she fell or jumped through a window and landed on the roof below, though she was disfigured and half-blind.

Griffith Jenkins Griffith was sentenced to just two years in prison, thanks in part to his unique plea: “alcohol insanity.” Tina was granted a divorce in a legal proceeding that lasted four and a half minutes.

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As part of his penance after leaving San Quentin in 1912, Griffith Jenkins Griffith tried to give Los Angeles $100,000 to build an observatory on Mount Griffith, claiming he wanted to repay his debt to society by “opening the heavens to the common people.” While he’d been put away, the city had renamed the hill Mount Hollywood, and they turned their noses up at his scandal-tainted money.

But Griffith Jenkins Griffith had the last word, leaving the money and explicit instructions in his will to build the observatory. It was completed in 1935, 16 years after his death.

two wheels

I’m giving Griffith Park 2½ stroller wheels out of a completely arbitrary five, with these caveats: I only did the Hollywood Sign Trail and spent some time getting lost after dark. On a personal level, the sign trail rates much higher because I was with fun people hiking to the kitschiest of the kitsch.

Hollywood Sign LA06

Public transit to the park is kind of crappy, especially since it’s in the middle of the city (but parking is free if you drive there). The scenery is spectacular, but there are no trail makers whatsoever, making one wonder whether the city of Los Angeles is just trying to pick off tourists.

We hiked Mount Lee (from which you can see the observatory) on a trail that was clean and smooth. It took us about two hours, though we stopped just short of the sign itself. At 521 metres, the hill is nearly twice as high as Mount Royal. We also took some time to check out Bronson Caves, a filming location for the Batcave and one of the most beautiful places in North America.

I wouldn’t attempt this hike with young children, though I did see (very fit) people with strollers and carriers. Bring lots of sunscreen and water and keep going till you hit those rare spaces where the mountain itself provides a foot and a half of shade. Have a snack at the top and marvel at how beautiful brown and blue can be, whether you understand the sky or not.

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