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.

Skin and bones: How Mad Anthony was twice buried

ERIE, Pa.
Pennsylvania loves its war heroes. Oliver Hazard Perry, Alexander Kelly, Nicolas Biddle, dozens of others.

But only one of them had his bones boiled for transport: Mad Anthony Wayne.

mad-anthony-wayne-blockhouse

He wasn’t mad, though, at least not in the Ophelia sense of the word. He just liked things a certain way and had fits of temper when he was defied.

Mad Anthony, who started out as a tanner and land surveyor, was only moderately successful as a commander during the American Revolution. He even called for his own court martial, to clear his name after an especially poor showing at the battle of Brandywine in 1777. Once the war was over, he was set to killing Indians and then signing peace treaties with them. He excelled at this, proving that the word “hero” can be gravely misused. Yet he’ll be remembered for his nickname and for his death more than for his exploits in the theatre of war.

mad-anthony-wayne-rocking-chair

Gout killed him, eventually and painfully, and he was interred in a brass-tacked box in the shadow of the blockhouse at Fort Presque Isle, near what is now Erie.

His family plot was 650 kilometres away in Radnor, Pa. The family wanted him home, but not, you know, right away. It took them 12 years to come get him.

When the box was opened, much to everyone’s surprise it was discovered Mad Anthony hadn’t had the good sense to decompose, and his son couldn’t fit a whole body and coffin on his little sulkie. So they cut Mad Anthony up and put the pieces in a big old kettle to boil his flesh off. The bones were packed for transport. The flesh was put back in the box in the ground.

It is said that the son dropped bones (accidentally, one assumes) along the route and that Mad Anthony haunts the road to Radnor, looking for the lost parts of himself.

anthony-wayne-memorial-plaque

As though the story weren’t creepy enough, the good folks of Erie have rebuilt the blockhouse (it burned to the ground several years after Mad Anthony’s death) and, as part of their educational display, have posed at the top of the winding, narrow staircase a sickly looking mannequin in a white wig with a jaunty hat nearly falling off the narrow cot. Visitors are welcome to read several informative posters if they can take their eyes off the mannequin.

Although our preschooler was comfortable enough to dance at his bedside, our 20-year-old opted to take the stairs back down and wait for us on the ground floor.

anthony-wayne-blockhouse-erie

The Naperville conversation that lasted a lifetime

NAPERVILLE, Il.
I’m seeing love stories everywhere.

Like these two kids. We find them here on the Century Walk as they are making each other’s acquaintance. They are about eight years old and they are in the same Grade 3 class.

It’s funny that they haven’t met yet, since their roots in this town go so deep. Billy’s family established a hardware store in the 1800s, and Jane’s family founded Naperville itself.

Billy will be a high-school basketball star and she’ll be his sweetheart. He’ll become a civil engineer; she’ll found a kindergarten program.

What we are witnessing might be the first time they are having a conversation, but they have decades of conversation ahead of them. They will marry in 15 years, in 1941, and be together for 60 years, till Billy’s death in 2001. Jane, who spent the first eight years of her life without him, will spend the last ten of her life also without him.

They are remembered through local scholarships, and this park bench where maybe, one day, two children will start a conversation that will last a lifetime.

kids-on-bench-naperville

Menomonee and Montrealer: Milwaukee’s first power couple

MILWAUKEE
I spent weeks leading up to this trip telling people excitedly that I was headed to Wisconsin and their response was nearly unanimous: “ … ?”

That’s probably the reaction Solomon Juneau got when he told his fellow Montrealers he was headed to Wisconsin and you know what he did while he was here? Founded a whole damn city, that’s what.

Old Solomo wasn’t the first Quebec fur trader to come to Wisconsin, but he made the deepest imprint. He took over a small trading post by the lake from Jacques Vieaux in the 1830s and transformed it from a pit stop along the Michigan-Mississippi route into what we now call Milwaukee.

History calls him founder, entrepreneur, postmaster, first mayor, and relates that he was widely respected. But the best thing history remembers is his intense love for his young bride, the Métis daughter of Vieaux, Josette.

Josette was the granddaughter of Menomonee Indian Chief Ah-ke-ne-po-way (Standing Earth). She bore 17 children, 13 of whom survived, and was clearly her husband’s partner in all endeavours. A 1916 biography of Solomon, written by their granddaughter Isabella Fox, at first appears to downplay her strengths: “Although young in years at the time of her marriage, she was adept in the art of housekeeping.”

Then the truth comes out: She was also a midwife, nurse, and alongside Solomon a great philanthropist. Her work with the poor would be noted even by Pope Leo XII. She was fluent in French, of course, but also spoke many aboriginal languages, and so served alongside her husband as translator and collaborator.

Together they gave away land and help build churches and entertained the most influential of Wisconsin’s elite. They straddled a world of luxury and simplicity and eventually, together, nearly emptied their coffers with their goodwill.

Josette had had enough of city life anyway, and so they retired to Theresa, a town north of Milwaukee that Solomon had founded and named for his mother, Thérese. They lived only a few quiet years before Josette grew gravely ill and died in 1855. Solomon succumbed to his broken heart soon after.

The Theresa Historical Society says “700 Indians including Chiefs Oshkosh, Corrow, Larriet, and Keshena marched with his funeral bier to the burial grounds at the Keshena reservation.”

Their bodies were eventually moved to Milwaukee, but the location of their final resting place matters less than that they are together still.

Charles Milwaukee Sivyer, an otherwise upstanding Wisconsin businessman, said of Josette a decade after her death, “Had she the education of a white woman, she would have shone as brightly as any of her white sisters. Why all these orators don’t give that good woman more praise, I don’t know.

“Why, the last words of Solomon Juneau were, ‘Dear wife, I come to you’.”

(Posted with extra love on the occasion of the marriage of another power couple, Erin Stropes and Jordan Knoll. Live happily ever after)

The not-quite ghost town of Venosta, Quebec

VENOSTA, Que.
We were inspired to spend a weekend in the municipality of Low when an opinion piece on the importance of saving Quebec’s ghost towns came across my desk. We have gone ghost-town hunting in Pennsylvania and in Texas, but searching in our own back yard had never occurred to us.

Venosta, the ancestral town of the writer, isn’t strictly a ghost town, as many homes are obviously lived in and the lush land is still farmed. Settled primarily by Irish immigrants in the 1800s, this region in the Gatineau Hills about 50 kilometres north of Ottawa is an agricultural and logging area, and so has benefited and suffered from the historic highs and lows of those industries.

We got more than we bargained for with our rented cottage in Low, and a little less than we expected in the ghost town, a collection of picturesque falling-down buildings surrounded by high grass, and fields and trees beyond.

venosta quebec ghost town11

venosta quebec ghost town6

venosta quebec ghost town3

venosta quebec ghost town9

venosta quebec ghost town10venosta quebec ghost town7

venosta quebec ghost town5

venosta quebec ghost town

Intercolonial: The railroad that was almost a jewel in the Crown

AMHERST, N.S.
I’m keen on the railroad, I tell people who ask, because of its role in building Canada, especially here, where Confederation could not have happened without this track being laid.

But it’s more than national pride. It’s a matter of personal history and more than 40 years of stories that touch rail to one degree or another.

I think of riding the train cross-country as an eight-year-old, with a new doll with a plastic head and plush pink body. She had a cord on the back — pull it and her head moved and body wriggled like a real baby.

As older teenagers, Melani and I boxed up our bicycles and took the overnight train to Moncton — the Hub City that is the end of the line and as far as you can go by rail if your destination is Prince Edward Island.

As a 24-year-old, this time with a real baby, four-month-old Trevor, and a deep desire to show him to spread-out family, and introduce him to the most beautiful land I know. Half a year later, he would learn to walk on a train, headed home from the Maritimes again on the Ocean, which was named here as a line on the Intercolonial Railway.

amherst nova scotia rail

Amherst, long a shipbuilding centre and home to four fathers of Confederation, was not built by the railroad, as many Canadian towns were. Yet it owes much of its growth to that technology.

Source: Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2aggmR7
Source: Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2aggmR7

The Intercolonial Railway was dreamed up around 1840. It would be a road linking Nova Scotia and New Brunswick — isolated by land, sea, and  a sliver of Maine — with the Province of Canada, then just Quebec and Ontario. Such a road would take a northern route, smoothing the transport of military supplies in case relations heated with the Americans again, as they had in 1812, and respecting the United States Act during the U.S. Civil War.

In theory it was a genius plan. But it was also a rich plan, and who on earth could pay for it? The four regions started laying track separately and hopefully, waiting for a solution to materialize.

That solution was Confederation itself, with the building of the Intercolonial Railway being inscribed as condition of the union of this eastern half of what is now Canada. It thus became the first major Crown corporation and the biggest infrastructure and transport project of its time.

amherst rail switch

There is debate over the reasons the Intercolonial wiggled and wound its way through Nova Scotia and New Brunswick: Was it to bring the railroad to logging communities and more effectively avoid the United States and their just-ended Civil War, or was it a sign of corruption, and the towns’ foresight in wanting track through their blooming towns?

Whether politically motivated or through the intelligent design of chief engineer Sir Sandford Fleming, a wooden train station was built in Amherst to accommodate the opening of the grand project, which boasted the best quality construction with raised rail beds and iron bridges. It was 1,100 kilometres long when it was deemed ready to roll in the mid-1870s.

The Canadian Guide Book in 1891 gushed, “It is a government road, admirably built and equipped, and most moderate in its charges. It runs through some of the best fishing and shooting districts of the continent and some very beautiful landscapes.”

Amherst was a boom town with the world at its feet. It replaced its little wooden train station with the lovely red sandstone building that stands today, a glory of local supplies and craftsmanship.

All good things come with a price, and for Amherst that marker was called in 1910, when its beautiful station was still fresh stone. The nation experienced a downturn, and of course those are always felt more heavily in the Maritimes. Nine years later, workers called a general strike over worsening conditions and in solidarity with the great strike in Winnipeg at that time.

amherst nova scotia mural

The Intercolonial, which in its prime had swallowed the Grand Trunk Railway, was in turn swallowed by the Canadian National Railway. The tracks were eventually turned over to passenger service Via Rail, which uses them to this day.

But the station is shuttered. Its whitewashed beams show signs of dirt as they must have when steam trains were the most heavily seen traffic. It’s a stop on the route inland, but there is no glory here except in the whisper of ghosts and the imaginings of a train whistle heralding prosperity, so very very long ago.

amherst train station inside
Further reading:
North America Railways Hall of Fame
The Canadian Encyclopedia
Historical map of the Intercolonial Railway