Saturday, September 12, 2009

Murder Mystery Haunts Vermont Detective

Oh this is terrific, and I'd never heard of this case. And it's got everything: a border murder near Quebec, police apathy, and an SQ detective named Luc Gregoire?:

CANAAN, Vt. — Nobody missed her.

No grieving mother or father. No anguished sibling or grandparent ever came forward to claim her remains. Even the townspeople in this tiny border community forgot her.

To the Vermont State Police, she was simply Canaan Jane Doe, a young woman whose badly decomposed body was found in a Canaan ravine in 1988. She had lain there for nearly a year.

But one detective didn't forget her. Now she has an identity and a history. She was Chantal Sauriol, a 16-year-old runaway who spent her adolescence on the streets of Montreal, sleeping between parked cars or under bridges, doing drugs and selling her body.

Police still don't know who killed her, or how she ended up dead in a ravine off Route 114 a few hundred yards from the Canadian border. But because of the clues left by her life, her violent end seemed inevitable.

The clues lead to Montreal's Ste. Catherine Street, a seedy drug supermarket where teenage prostitutes beckon from street corners and sex shows fill the stores. Where children sleep on park benches and back alleys they regard as homes. Where hunger's a given, and violence, hard drugs and disease are the stuff of everyday life.

This was Chantal's world.

Chantal had long planned on running away from the Maison Notre Dame youth detention center in the Montreal suburb of Laval. She wanted to escape the rules and restrictions and ultimately escape Montreal.

On a Saturday in May 1987, she finally got her chance. She slipped away during a group outing and never came back.

"The last time I was with her before she ran, she was all nervous, paranoid, a package of nerves," said a friend who was with Chantal in the center and the streets. She spoke to a reporter on condition her real name not be published. Instead, she asked to be called "Chat," French for cat.

Now a 26-year-old mother of three, Chat only learned last month that the remains found in the ravine were those of her friend.

"At first I was shocked. Then I cried," said Chat, speaking through an interpreter. She and Chantal were like sisters, she said. "Everything she did, I did."

They had known each other on the streets and at the youth center, a converted convent that shelters young runaways from Quebec. A way station for troubled children on the road to adulthood, it isn't a jail. Only one locked door separates the children from the streets.

In the girls' section, each resident is given a small cubicle to decorate as she wants. Some are plastered with sexually provocative ads for jeans or rock stars such as Toni Braxton. Others are decorated with colorful drawings of Mickey Mouse.

When it comes to solving murders, the Vermont State Police has one of the highest success rates in the nation. But before police could begin their search for Canaan Jane Doe's killer, they had to find out who she was.

They started with a skull, found by a fisherman on May 15, 1988, a day short of a year after Chantal walked away from the outing. The skull, found near Leach Stream just off Route 114, told police how she died: Her head had been smashed repeatedly with a blunt object.

Investigators spent hours on their hands and knees with garden trowels and rakes, in a grid laid out for them by forensic anthropologists.

The mosquitoes were terrible.

They didn't find all the pieces, just enough for the medical examiner to determine they belonged to a woman in her late teens or early 20s, about 5 feet 2, with light hair and a pronounced overbite. At the time they estimated the remains could have been there up to six years.

They made a composite of her face and posted the case on the National Crime Information Center computer. They filed a similar request with the Canadian Royal Mounted Police and scoured the area for someone who might know where Canaan Jane Doe had come from.

Canaan is located where Vermont, New Hampshire and Quebec come together. It's Vermont's most remote community, but it's on the main route between Montreal and the Maine coast, a popular destination for Canadian tourists.

It might be small, but Canaan has its intrigue. Countless small paths lead smugglers across the border. Cigarettes and liquor go north into Canada. People, for the most part, head south.

About two miles east of the spot where Chantal's skull was discovered is Wallace Pond, a small lake that straddles the border. The Canadian side is lined with summer camps.

Experts determined that Canaan Jane Doe had been killed during the warm months, probably when Wallace Pond buzzed with activity.

The locals knew nothing of the girl.

At the youth center in Laval, workers are saddened but not surprised to learn of Chantal's death.

It's not unique. Several years ago a girl from the center was found shot to death in a nearby park. Her killer was just recently convicted. Last year a girl out on a pass to attend a baptism was killed in a drive-by shooting in Montreal. Her companion had been the target.

Chantal was reported missing on May 19, 1987, three days after she disappeared. By that time, she was back on the streets of Montreal.

Her father, Gilles, still lives near Montreal, along with Chantal's brothers and a sister. But Gilles refuses to discuss his dead daughter.

The state police will say little about what they know about Chantal. A photo her family gave police shows a squatting teenager with a round face surrounded by cascading curls. In the photo she expressionlessly holds up a V for victory symbol with her right hand.

Her police file in Canada lists her as an alcoholic and a drug abuser. Police say her mother is dead, but they don't know how old Chantal was when her mother died.

The details of Chantal's life come from Chat. She was with Chantal at Notre Dame and knew of her plans to run away. Chat stayed at the center throughout 1987 and didn't know what Chantal did that summer before she died.

They used to sleep under park benches, bridges, between parked cars, anywhere. When asked how they managed in the winter, she said it was easier than the summer.

"We'd find some rich man with a warm bed," Chat said.

But it was an even darker side of Chantal that probably got her killed, Chat said. Chantal worked as a drug courier for one of Montreal's notoriously violent motorcycle gangs.

Chantal would carry the drugs from the dealer to the buyer. Chat and Chantal moved stolen property, prostituted themselves; they'd try anything.

She also had a big mouth. "She used to stick her nose in business that didn't concern her," Chat said.

"She was scared most of the time, but she wouldn't show it," Chat said.

Terrified of the gangs, even a decade later, Chat wouldn't discuss the details of the work, nor would she be more specific about the people they worked for.

Chantal had a dream. It's a dream shared by many Montreal street children: "She said she wanted to go away from Montreal and never be found again." That's why Chat didn't find it unusual when Chantal disappeared.

On the one hand, Chat laughs as she remembers running from police, climbing statues in Montreal's St. Louis Square messed up on drugs and screaming at passersby.

"The best time I spent with her was here," Chat said standing on the edge of the square. "We were free."

Detective Sgt. Roland Prairie of the Vermont State Police was one of the cops who scoured the Canaan ravine in 1988. Even when he moved on to new cases, he never forgot about the unidentified girl from the ravine.

"The case was on my mind all the time," Prairie said recently. "This was somebody's kid. Somebody out there knows who did this."

After the Canaan Jane Doe case was posted on the NCIC computer, the state police got hundreds of calls from across North America. Most were easy to discard, but others weren't;investigators spent countless hours answering those queries. Nothing matched.

The Vermont State Police work closely with their counterparts across the border in Canada. Last summer Prairie was talking with Noel Bolduc, an investigator with the Quebec provincial police, known along the border by its French name, Surete du Quebec, or SQ.

Prairie recited the facts of the Jane Doe case off the top of his head. Bolduc took the case to Luc Gregoire, the head of the SQ's major crimes division for the area.

Combing the missing-person files they narrowed the possibilities down to a handful.

In September Bolduc gave Prairie Chantal's dental records. Two weeks later a dentist working for the Vermont Medical Examiner's office found they matched. Her name was made public in January.

There is no explanation why her file didn't surface in 1988 when the trail to her killer was fresh.

"I have no idea why we came up with the possibilities and they didn't in 1988," said Bolduc. "I wasn't here in 1988."

The state police believe they can trace Chantal's movements in the summer of 1987 and eventually find out who killed her.

"We have homicides that are much older than this one," said state police Lt. Ronald DeVincenzi, who at one time oversaw the investigation. "We will go forth and actively pursue this."

Police won't tell everything they know about the case. They won't speculate if she was killed in Canaan or if her body was thrown into the ravine on Cole Hill.

"If you guess, you guess wrong," Prairie said.

Still, no one has claimed Chantal's remains, which sit in a box at the medical examiner's office in Burlington. There is no law in Vermont governing how to dispose of remains that are identified but unclaimed.

DeVincenzi said the state police would be happy to deliver Chantal to her family, but they haven't been asked to do so.

Margaret Douek, the head of the protection division for the Quebec agency that had custody of Chantal when she ran away, said it bothered her that no one had claimed her body. "I don't have the authority to pick up the remains," she said.

It's up to her family.

Douek said she would reach out to Chantal's father to let him know she needed to go home.

Meanwhile, her bones lie in the box, waiting.


  1. If this isn't the saddest story I've ever read, then it must be right next to it.
    Unwanted in life.
    Unwanted in death.
    You can't get much sadder than that.

  2. You said it Bill... and totally forgotten. For all the points that could have been potential hits in ALL that I've looked it in Quebec crime, I never knew of this one. Not that I would know every QC cold case, but given the border murders angle I figured I would have caught it.