Police walk away from the scene of a homicide on King George Terrace in September 2007.

Investigating homicides a race against time

It was a crime so gruesome and disturbing that details have never been publicly released.

It was a crime so gruesome and disturbing that details have never been publicly released.

A few years ago, a woman was killed and dismembered in a Sooke area home. Victoria police Sgt. Brad Fraser was one of the officers who responded to the bloody scene.

Although he had 16 years of policing in Victoria under his belt, this time was different. Fraser was now a member of the Vancouver Island Integrated Major Crime Unit (VIMCU), tasked with investigating the grisly crime. He was still learning the ropes of how the unit functioned, watching closely as the investigation began to unfold.

“It’s really a team approach. You go in and you’re with a big group. You’re there with a team of detectives, so you’re not barring the weight of the whole thing yourself,” said Fraser, who joined VIMCU in 2011.

“For me, it’s the science of what happened. We can not put the pieces back together. We can follow the evidence and that’s what you do. You understand it’s a very tragic and horrible event that has taken place…It’s difficult to do, but it’s not something you can really let a lot of your emotions get attached to.”

As soon as Fraser receives the call about a homicide, a number of questions start swirling through through his mind. How many witnesses are there? Is there a public risk? Has a suspect been identified? Is the evidence secured?

By the time Fraser arrives at the scene, patrol officers have already taped off the area to preserve any evidence, move people away and identify witnesses. Dressed in white jump suits, the forensics team is also usually there collecting evidence.

The homicide detectives pick up where front-line officers left off, setting up a command triangle — made up of a primary investigator, file coordinator and team commander —  to follow the evidence in a race against time.

“There’s so much to do and there’s so much energy in the room…A lot of evidence is very perishable. The clock is never your friend,” said Fraser, who’s worked 18 hours a day, several days in a row for some investigations. The first 48 hours are crucial in order for detectives to get in front of the investigation before it gets in front of them.

“You can slow down as much as you want, but there comes a point in a lot of the investigations where you’ve got to release that scene back to whatever it is. When you’re there, you’re there to work. Sleep, you fit it in whenever you can.”

VIMCU is made up of 12 police officers — three from Saanich, six from Victoria and 12 from the RCMP. The unit investigates homicides throughout the Island (aside from a few locations like Nanaimo) along with missing persons where foul play is suspected and deaths that have unusual circumstances. Victoria and Esquimalt average zero to three homicides a year.

When it comes to catching a killer, no file is the same. Some homicide investigations are open and shut, while others wait years for the missing piece of the puzzle. Advances in science have helped detectives move many cases forward. Fraser never loses faith a homicide won’t eventually be solved.

“The forensic work that’s done by some of our identification specialists, they quite often bring you that nugget, that piece of information where you think, where are we ever going to catch that break?” Fraser said.

If there’s no forensic evidence at the crime scene, Victoria police and VIMCU Detective Kevin Nystedt moves on to alternative means, such as searching through phone records or other electronic devices to find out more about the victim and any potential suspects.

Finding a suspect is one thing, getting them to talk is another. Nystedt has spent three hours interviewing one suspect in what he calls a “truth seeking situation.”

“We want truth, so the whole time we have to be able to go in with the mentality we are simply looking for truth. Being able to rule somebody out as a suspect is just as important, if not more important than including them in a suspect pool,” said Nystedt, adding it can be difficult to tell when someone is lying.

“You have to trust your instinct. People will tell you things that they feel comfortable with telling you and they’ll edit other things out, whether it’s out of fear or on purpose.”

Despite their years of experience, both Nystedt and Fraser admit one of the most difficult parts of the job is telling a family their loved one is never coming home. Sometimes detectives can deliver the news an arrest has already been made. Other times there isn’t much to tell.

Nonetheless, the detectives stay in contact with the victim’s family, carrying the investigation with them from the day it starts to the day it ends. Finding an explanation of what led to someone’s death is what keeps them going in the hunt for the killer.

“It’s truly devastating. As a person who has to deliver the news (to the family), you can prepare yourself for what you have to say, but you can never prepare yourself for the reaction you’re going to get. You go in with your eyes wide open and try to be as professional and understanding and supportive as you possibly can,” said Fraser. “The family, they keep living it…I don’t know if they ever truly get closure.”