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

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.

The case of the missing dam and the great stick rescue

NEW RUSSIA, N.Y.
The backroads from Plattsburg to West Winfield follow a wide rocky creek called the Bouquet River that appears and vanishes and curls under low bridges and behind tall pines.

My friend Laurie and I had a very loose roadtrip schedule — 24 hours to do a five-hour drive — so we were open to spending some time closer to the water on one of the first hot days of spring.

“Let’s go there!” one of us said with the enthusiasm of a mom set free and desperate for adventure when we passed a sign for Thrall Dam. Except was the last and only Thrall Dam sign we would see. We watched for it, but maybe the whole dam thing was a hallucination. All we wanted was to get closer to the water, and we wanted it five minutes ago, and there was that river coiling just out of our reach like a housecat. We swerved into the first pullout we found and climbed down grass, dirt, and tree roots to get to the Bouquet.

00bouqet river new york waterfall
Upstream were pockets of calm and a picturesque bridge. Downstream, a glassy pool into which a young fisherman wearing khakis and flat sneakers was casting his line, a beagle-shaped dog at his side.

Yet there we were between the two, where the rocks were at their thickest and most uneven and the ice-clear water had to bubble and force its way to tumble loudly down a two-storey-high waterfall.

00bouqet river ny stick1Laurie had taken her sandals off at the top of the embarkment; I let my rubber soles slide over the moss till I found sure footing.

“There’s a walking stick in there,” Laurie said, pointing.

“Huh,” I replied. I had nearly fallen while standing still on a rock. I was mortified. Plus, I wasn’t sure where she was going with this whole walking stick business.

“Or it could be just a stick stick. Look at it.”

I squinted into the blurred brook. There was a good-size stick in there, indeed, that looked smooth and straight, with a slightly pointed tip and what could have been a thicker handhold.

“I’m going to get it,” she announced.

It was smack in the middle of the river, at the head of the waterfall, and so I said (as is my custom), “Don’t kill yourself.”

If she rolled her eyes at me, I didn’t see it, so busy was I staying soberly upright as I attempted to take pictures of the rushing river with my phone. She stepped into the glacial water and set one dainty foot on a large, slippery rock. I was paying attention now — I didn’t know how I’d get my friend from the bottom of the waterfall if she tumbled in.

“Be careful,” I said again, in my best mom voice.

She threw me a look made of humour, annoyance, and self-preservation and stepped back onto the rocky bank.

bouqet river new york rocks
The story should have ended there, but I felt bad. She clearly wanted that stick badly enough to risk a bloody head injury and hypothermia. Plus, you know, I really love it when rocks and water come together to make something beautiful. I kicked off my sandals — nearly falling on my own head again, and stepped ankle-deep into the water.

It was the kind of icy that forces a lump into your throat and sends chills up your sciatic nerve, along your spine, coming to rest somewhere at the base of your neck like a hunk of snow that gets in under your scarf and coat that you know is going to melt and run down your back and make you freeze from the inside out.

I scanned each rock just below the clear surface, planning a path to the stick that avoided stepping into a wild whirlpool between me and it. It wasn’t going to be possible. Doubled over, with each foot on slick stone and fingers castled over rocks that turned their faces to the sun, I did an awkward slippery dance in a half-circle toward our prize. It was almost in reach. One foot was in the vortex, pulling me with more strength that I’d imagined toward the waterfall and the fisherman, who had thrown in the towel and was climbing the embankment with his dog. He either ignored our girlish squeals or couldn’t hear them over the roar of the falls.

I was wibbly-wobbly, but the stick was just there. Laurie was yelling encouragement in the form of hilarious taunts.

I developed this very non-graceful method of sliding my foot down a sharp rock till it found the place where it met another rock, then lifting my other foot to a stone on the opposite side, sliding till I found a similar foothold, all the time bending nearly double to steady myself with other rocks. I spent a good minute in the vortex, trying to plot my next move.

Two stones later, I leaned — closer closer closer — no longer concerned with my numb ankles, or the jagged stone on the soles of my feet.

Closer, till my fingertips like a lover brushed the sweaty tip and it was that gentle touch that renewed my resolve and with one more push forward and down my palm grasped it at the slippery base. Rather than recoiling at its wet and waxy flesh, I held it aloft and yelled something savage and triumphant as Laurie captured the moment digitally.

00new york stick
Aglow, I looked down to check my footing, only to discover one side of my tank top had been yanked down during my passionate dive.

“AH! My boob!” I yelled. “One more without the exposure!”

I posed, and though it didn’t document the exact moment of triumph, the photograph drips with the residue of my joy.

00new york bridge1

That dam stick set the tone for the rest of our journey, which saw Laurie conquer a giant tree stump, the threat of skinny dipping upriver, the crossing of a rickety, rotten bridge for no reason other than to cross it … but never a stop at the mysterious, missing Thrall Dam.

Wolverine’s long stroll along the Saskatchewan River

wolverine saskatoon 11wolverine saskatoon 21SASKATOON — Despite what Hugh Jackman might have you believe, Wolverine is not Australian, or American or whatever that accent has become. He’s Canadian. He’s ours.

So when I saw my favourite pint-sized superhero (he’s 5’3, not counting his hair) from my taxi the night after Halloween, I wasn’t that surprised. There’s no reason he wouldn’t be in Saskatoon.

I thought maybe I’d just being seeing things, what with all the turbulence and time changes I’d just been through, so I went for a walk along the Saskatchewan River the next morning to see whether he was still hanging out.

wolverine saskatoon 31

Not only was he there, looking for all the world like he was out for a blustery stroll, but since it was just after dawn and there was no one around, I got a peek under the mask.

The man wearing the Wolverine costume wasn’t, as you might imagine, James (Logan) Howlett, but rather Denny Carr, a celebrated Saskatonian who made a name for himself by founding the Salvation Army’s Secret Santa program. He looked pretty good in the makeshift superhero outfit.

Wolvie would have approved.

Here’s why nobody walks in L.A.

LOS ANGELES, Calif. — You know those times you set off on a hike in daylight and you end up in a part of town that taxis won’t drive to and it’s long after dark and you’re hungry and there’s a guy creeping on you from across the street?

I’m not entirely sure how I got there, but I think stubbornness played a part.

I was only in Los Angeles for a few days, and the bulk of my time was taken up with a conference, so I had to be very particular about the type of sightseeing I’d do. I settled on the abandoned zoo in Griffith Park, about two miles from the Hollywood sign. With conference sessions ending at 4:30 in the afternoon, I thought I might be able to hit both attractions if I didn’t screw around.

Getting anywhere in L.A. is an exercise in absurdity. The zoo was northeast of my hotel, but to get there I had to take a bus downtown—nearly due east—and then another bus north-northwest in a bizarre sort of two-hour triangle that would try the patience of … someone who is very patient. And since I’m not someone who is very patient, I hopped off the bus one stop early. Just one stop.

The thing is that the sun was due to set at 6:45, and in L.A., sunset is a fleeting thing before full dark drops in a magnificently Hollywood sort of way. So when the bus reached the park at 6:30, I was out the door and on the curb before I realized I’d jumped the gun. The distance between stops was at least a mile. And the road wasn’t exactly pedestrian friendly.

And there was a nearly full moon. By which I mean it was 24 hours before a Supermoon Blood Moon lunar eclipse of the sort we will not see again till 2033. Not that that had anything to do with it.

As I started to lose light, I decided to cut my losses. There was no way I’d be getting good pictures at the zoo and I’d probably scare myself silly thinking about the ghosts of tigers past or somesuch. I thought, “Maybe one of these paths will head up to the Hollywood sign, and then I can see that and then I’ll be that much closer to my hotel and dinner and sweet sweet drinks with my colleagues who were all smart enough to rent cars for their Los Angeles sojourn.”

lonely road in griffiths park

The twisting road along the side of the mountain had a nod to cyclists in the form of a mountain-side shoulder they called a bike path, but pedestrians weren’t welcome on this stretch of avenue. I did my best to keep to the shoulder (you’ll remember that shoulders aren’t a priority for Californians) as I trudged up and then down a big hill about the size of Mount Royal. There were two things I did not see: The abandoned zoo or the Hollywood sign. There was one thing I saw more and more of: the precursor to the Supermoon Blood Moon.

I don’t feel safe in L.A. No one walks, so there’s no safety net of friendly, or at least decent pedestrians. If someone jumps out at you, no one will hear you scream. I’m kind of stupidly bold, so this creeping fear was new and unwelcome and kept me walking at a solid pace till I rounded a bend and there in all its glory was the new L.A. zoo, the one that replaced that abandoned thing I’d set out to see. It was closed, of course, but it represented civilization and I was glad to see it.

los angeles zoo at night

I was talking aloud to myself as I crossed the giant parking lot and a wide street to the front doors of the Autry National Centre, where an event was being held.

There were tons of people at the museum, and any of the security guards would have been delighted to call a cab for me. Did I say I’m stubborn? I turned on the data on my phone for a moment, assured my loved ones that everything was hunky dory, and kept walking.

Then things stopped being hunky dory.

The zoo and museum exist in a bizarre no-man’s land that has Griffith Park as one bookend and absolutely nothing as the other. It was the nothing into which I walked. The next hour was a blur of misadventures.

I followed the road till it ended in a dog park. Backtracking, I climbed a six-foot fence to get onto a bike path, which ran along the Los Angeles River. I had wanted to write about the river, so I was kind of happy to be there, except there were strange bird sounds and flapping and I’m pretty sure I heard a mountain lion.

And then I walked under an overpass and partway through passed a baby stroller and a grocery cart filled with someone’s belongings. Lined up neatly along the barrier were several bleach bottles and other things you use to make meth (I imagine) and I was all alone and it was dark despite the almost-Supermoon.

la bike path ramp closed

The bike path ended in a chained gate. I was locked inside. The fence was taller and grouchier than the last one, but I scaled it anyway, without ripping one item of clothing or wrenching an arm too badly or losing any dignity. That last might be wrong.

It was only 8 p.m. Back home in Montreal, we don’t have this much fun till at least 1 a.m.

I needed to go southwest, but there was only freeway there so I was forced to go northeast. I walked and walked and walked and there were no taxis or bus stops or goodwill. Then—lo!—I came across a thrift shop that was still open.

“Well, this explains everything,” I said to myself. “The universe knows I love thrifting and is rewarding me for being awesome. Yay universe!”

But it was just the setting for my next adventure, in the form of a little man with close-set eyes and an uneven, bristly moustache, with a flat-billed ballcap low on his shallow forehead. He was wiggling his eyebrows at me in a very unironic fashion and very obviously following me. I made like a squirrel, darting about from aisle to aisle before beelining out of the store. I whipped around the corner and there—a bus stop!

I relaxed against the brick wall with my eyes on the road and had a peaceful 10 minutes, till my friend left the thrift stop and found me there. He smiled with all his teeth (fewer than the normal person).

That was about when I turned the data on my phone and called a taxi company. “I’m at Sonora and San Fernando,” I said very clearly.

“You’re in Glendale?” I told him I hadn’t the first clue where I was. “We don’t service Glendale.”

And he hung up. Just like that. I tried the 7-11 across the street. “Do you have the number of a taxi company?” I might have asked if he knew how to defuse a bomb. “Okay, the bus—how often does it come?”

“Every 10 minutes? Maybe every 30 at night? No idea.”

My creep was still at the bus stop. A second cab company refused to enter Glendale. At the third company, a lazy-sounding man asked where I was going, but hadn’t heard of Century City or Avenue of the Stars, let alone Constellation. I felt like an idiot.

“So you’re going to L.A.?”

All this time, I’d thought I was in L.A. Do strangers to Montreal get as frustrated at our boroughs? “Okay, he’ll be there in half an hour or so.”

That was the longest half hour of my summer, and even longer since it stretched to nearly 40 minutes. The cab never showed up, but the bus did and I darted onto it, right after the creep. I didn’t care. I was safe on the bus, I was sitting down and I could figure everything else out later. It was a long ride downtown and I sat straight with my eyes forward and did not make eye contact with the creep, who changed seats twice to try to get into my line of vision.

The architecture in downtown L.A. was strange and attractive in shadow. As I started to recognize street names, my attitude toward the city softened. I waited till we were stopped at 8th before crashing toward the doors. The creep didn’t see me leave.

jesus saves

There were well-dressed people trying to get into clubs called Perch and 801 Hill. There were itinerants setting up tents or bundling into mattresses right on the street. A giant Jesus Saves sign lit up the night and it didn’t phase me. Nobody gave a shit about me, and the creep was long gone. Now all I needed was a ride.

A tall, gangly man who might have been imposing had I not had such a terrifying night already crossed the street catty-corner. He asked another guy for a dollar, was turned down, and turned to me with a big grin. “Have a good night, lady,” he said without asking for anything.

When I smiled back, a cab materialized. It smelled like pee, but I didn’t care.