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.

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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.

A walk in the park: Île Ste. Hélène/Parc Jean Drapeau

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

ÎLE STE. HÉLÈNE – I went for a stroll through time last weekend, but I didn’t gather stories of long-dead grifters or tragic railway men. The history I went tramping through was my own.

From my last year in high school through my failed career as a college student, Île Ste. Hélène was my refuge as much as it was a breeding ground for youthful melodrama. I’m not a native Montrealer, so the little island-just-off-the-island, home to Expo 67, wasn’t on my radar until my mid-teens, when I met a freckled, gap-toothed redhead who taught me the finer points of playing hooky. (I’d eventually marry that girl, of course.)

We spent an entire spring forgoing Friday classes. Those Fridays found us at the Westmount tree or greenhouse, or wandering the myriad tangled paths of Île Ste. Hélène, being silly and talking about important things like boys and V. We climbed trees and rocks and swam in water so cold I’m still chilled, 27 years later.

When we left high school, we shared our special island to our next generation of friends, instituting (using the power of Dawson Sci-Fi and BBSes) Fireworks GTs. These drama-filled get-togethers were fraught with romance, comedy and other theatrics: The Summer I Prayed He’d Notice Me. The Summer He Did. The Summer It All Fell Apart.

An afternoon in the park stretched into nighttime on the Jacques Cartier Bridge watching the International Fireworks Competition, then the long slow stroll back to the métro. Too-loud giggles. Frantic whispers. Stolen kisses. Aching hearts.

Île Ste. Hélène had a hand in raising me, in shaping my history and awkwardly directing my future. There’s a little bit of me in every particle of soil here.

two wheelsNostalgia aside, Parc Jean Drapeau gets two stroller wheels. My instinct was to give it only one, but there are a ton of family-friendly things to do here, like the Biosphere, La Ronde, a spectacular playground and seasonal favourites like the Shriner’s Circus and Féte des Neiges. There is always some sort of activity or event going on on the island.

But because of those many things and because it’s just a small island, it’s impossible to lose yourself here as you might on the mountain or even Angrignon Park. The buzz of the city is always there and walking trails bump into roads at nearly every turn.

Thanks to big events like Piknic Electronik, Heavy Montreal and Osheaga, it’s also dirty and litter-filled. I took a shortcut through the brush in a couple of places and stepped over beer bottles, empty energy drink containers, red disposable cups and all sorts of other detritus. This is not the sort of place you can safely wander off the path.

I hope it finds a way to clean up its act, so maybe my daughter can live out a few dramas here one day.

A walk in the park: Îles de Boucherville

The first in an occasional series exploring North America’s national, provincial and state parks.

tree on iles de boucherville

ÎLES DES BOUCHERVILLES, Que.—Days later, I found a burr in my shoelaces, which touched the little girl inside me who was forever picking burrs out of clothes and hair.

It was late April and though the landscape was still mostly brown and gray, the grass was beginning to remember it’s supposed to be green, so we drove the 15 kilometres from downtown Montreal (excluding the bits where we got lost) to the provincial park at Îles des Boucherville.

The park is in the middle of the St. Lawrence River, close enough to the city that you get sweet views of the skyline, including my favourite piece of architecture, the Big O.

There are more than 25 kilometres of hiking and biking trails on the island—we did about five of them over an hour and a half. The trails we chose ranged from tame to moderately tame—even away from the packed-gravel bike paths we had little trouble manoeuvring the stroller over dirt and grass trails.

Path at Iles de Boucherville

There’s tons of wildlife, including deer, but of course we didn’t see much, what with our Jeep of Strollers and a toddler finding her voice. A couple of kayakers had braved the chill water and we came across a few birders. We had hoped for more bush and less-travelled trails, but we had fun enough that there were burrs in my shoelaces.

Îles de Boucherville is like that cute dude you meet a couple of drinks into a night out: So much fun at the time, mostly forgotten the next morning.

two wheelsWe give Îles de Boucherville 2 stroller wheels out of 5 (my new rating system—nifty, huh?). It’s $6.50 per person to enter the park (bike rentals, camping, etc. are extra — see the website) or buy a Quebec parks pass for $58.50.

The Renault Cinq: You always remember your first

A Renault Cinq just like mine. Photo by Charles01, Wikimedia Commons.

My first car was a Renault Cinq. I was in my early 20s, young and fresh, but the car had already had a hard life. I remember paying $300 for it, but Melani insists I talked the woman down to $200.

What I do remember clearly is meeting the woman on a dusty Montreal road overlooking the Decarie Expressway. She opened the hood for me, as though I’d recognize anything but the oil dipstick. It was dark and greasy in there and didn’t smell so hot.

“I just had an oil spray done,” she told me earnestly. “It’s regular maintenance for an older car.”

My dad had never sprayed the guts of any of our old beaters with oil. He mostly took care of them with a magical combination of Clorets gum, a little duct tape and a healthy amount of prayer. And we always had a bottle of water in the trunk, for topping up the rad. Because often our cars overheated and sometimes there was a little fire.

She asked to see my license before we went on a test drive, and I told her I was getting it the next day. “You’ll need it before I can sign the car over to you,” she said. I made a mental note: Get off your ass and get a learner’s permit. Tomorrow. She drove the car for the test drive. It seemed to me she was a little hard on the stick and that maybe the Cinq was making some painful noises when she shifted. She probably just wasn’t a very good driver. I’d be fine.

I got my learner’s the next day, and bought the car. I learned to be hard on the stick, too, because the Cinq didn’t like shifting. The poor design and my short legs meant that with the seat pulled far enough ahead for me to reach the pedals, I had to shove it into second, bumping the corner of the seat. But it worked. It went forward. Often it went backward. The smell from the “regular maintenance oil bath” burned off pretty quickly. The speedometer didn’t work, but I knew I was going about the limit if I was cruising in third gear.

Since my driving it wasn’t completely legal – I had the learner’s but wasn’t in a hurry to get my full license – I drove it about eight kilometres every day, just to and from work along straight, flat St. Antoine and St. Jacques Sts. from St. Henri into Old Montreal.

Our relationship dragged on long after it ended one cold December night after the office Christmas party. The heater didn’t work and my hands were like ice on the steering wheel. Melani was shivering beside me. A light turned green. Clunk. Clunk. Nothing. I know now the Cinq’s transmission had given up the ghost, but all I knew then was that my little metal box Would Not Go.

We were four or five blocks from Melani’s apartment; I threw it in neutral and she started to push. Gods know how long it would have taken her to push it home (she refused to take a turn behind the wheel), but thankfully a Jeep came out of nowhere and pushed us home. Then all Melani had to do was push me as I parallel parked. I was a poor parker back then.

With CAA Plus, you get three free tows. I had the Cinq towed home to St. Henri. On snow-clearing day, I had it towed to the other side of the street. After the next snowfall, my roommate, Stanley, bribed a city worker $20 to not ticket or tow it. Someone offered me $50 for parts. I said no. I don’t know why. Near the end of winter, I shovelled it out and had it towed to the alley behind my apartment.

“It’s performance art,” I told people. “Only it doesn’t perform.”

It lived there about as long as I did. I don’t remember who took it. It was like the bad boyfriend who eventually moves away – a relief, and let him be some other girl’s problem.

But you never forget your first.

The Dance of the Yellow Cabs

You never know what you'll see on the road to New York City.

We usually vacation the last three weeks in August. For various reasons, Road Trip 2010 started just a couple of days ago. Our destination: Atlanta, Ga.

NEW YORK – People are often shocked when they learn I drive in Manhattan. They call me brave, or certifiably nutty.

But driving in New York City is a breeze. There are streetlights on damn near every corner, which eliminates two of my biggest Montreal-driver peeves: Uncertainty (Is it my turn? Did I get here first? Does the other guy care?) and insanity (The guy in front of me stopped. If I just stick to his bumper, it’s like I stopped, too).

Bonus: In New York, you can watch The Dance of the Yellow Cabs in your rearview mirror.

This on-and-off-Broadway production features daring maneuvers and  near-misses and is set to the music of curse words in a variety of languages and the occasional horn.

Seatbelts: Arrive alive

There are some places you just don’t go, like the bad part of town or a gated army base, or the highway entrance from de l’Eglise Ave. toward the Decarie in Verdun.

The merge lane is deathly short and truck traffic headed across the island stays in the right lane. Traffic slows in the merge, but you have to gun it once there’s a brief opening. It’s not safe and so I avoid it.

Except for that one time in early June, when I was late for a funeral. Part of the lady’s family was with me, including her grandson, and I was worried about the time.

The entrance is a long, blind curve and I took it slowly because, as I’d suspected, traffic was stopped in the short merge. I was almost at a standstill when I looked into my rearview mirror and locked eyes for the briefest of moments with the driver of the white pickup truck behind me.

He was going at least 50 kilometres an hour and I saw his face the moment he realized he should have been more cautious. A fraction of a second later, he was crushing my trunk and I was instinctively steering into the cement barrier, away from the fast-moving traffic in the right lane.

We missed the funeral, but the most serious injury was whiplash that took a couple of weeks to heal. Seatbelts. Without seatbelts, gods know how bad it might have been.

Buckle up. I’m serious about this one.