The family of Christine Harron, an Ontario teenager who vanished 19 years ago today, recently learned of a string of police errors that allowed the proceedings against a man who confessed to assaulting and killing the teenage girl to be permanently stayed.
The 15-year-old was last seen on May 18, 1993. Christine stayed home from school in the morning because she wasn’t feeling well, and watched television with mother Mary Ann Russwurm at their home in Hanover, Ont. After a school truancy officer called, Christine left for school after lunch.
"She walked down the other side of the street and around the corner, and that was the last I've seen of her," Russwurm told documentary filmmaker David Ridgen, who showed the missing girl's family court documents that had previously been covered by a publication ban.
"I did know before the night was over she was dead, though," Russwurm said. "Call it mother's intuition, or whatever, I knew she was gone."
Body never found
Christine's body has never been found, and the family still doesn’t know what happened to the girl who loved reading and going for walks.
The case was initially handled by Hanover police, but in 1999 the Ontario Provincial Police took over the case. The OPP undertook their own extensive investigation, re-interviewing several people. Eleven years after Christine’s disappearance, an unexpected confession took everyone by surprise.
In August 2004, a local man named Anthony Edward Ringel, then 36, told his relatives and later that night, the OPP, that he had killed Christine.
The confession, which Ringel offered up on Aug. 22, 2004, after having about five beers at a party in Elmwood, Ont., led to his arrest for murder later that night.
Neither the OPP nor Hanover Police departments would speak on the record about the case, despite repeated requests. But information contained in court documents that had been subject to a publication ban that is no longer in effect shed some light on the investigation and how key statements and evidence gathered by OPP was deemed inadmissible by Superior Court Justice R.M. Thompson because of a series of police blunders.
The OPP officer who arrested Ringel the night he confessed drove him to the nearby Walkerton police detachment, advised him of his right to counsel and contacted Legal Aid on his behalf. The officer also notified his superiors, making a call that brought in several OPP investigators, including veteran Det.-Insp. Mark Wright.
After his arrest, Ringel spoke to a lawyer by phone on three occasions and repeatedly told police variations on the theme that he had no comment to offer.
According to pretrial documents from the case, under Det.-Insp. Wright's command, police proceeded to interview Ringel several times, each time eliciting statements. During the interviews, officers did not always read Ringel his rights, and in some cases officers did not take notes or record interviews with audio or video, which is required by the courts.
Late on the evening of Aug. 23, the OPP — led by Wright — took Ringel to Hanover to look for Christine's body where he had reportedly claimed to have left the girl, even after Ringel told police that a lawyer had advised him not to go, pretrial documents show.
Ringel led the officers through a thickly forested, swampy stretch of private property across the Saugeen River from Hanover's public park. But when it got too dark to see and Ringel couldn’t find the location on the floodplain on the river where he said he allegedly left Christine’s body, they abandoned the trip and returned to Walkerton. Officers took scant notes and made no recordings of the trip, the documents indicate.
Rights trampled, judge says
In a pretrial ruling dated Sept. 26, 2006, Justice Thompson threw out all statements made by Ringel from the time Det.-Insp. Wright arrived to interview him, including any evidence from the search for Christine's remains.
The judge said about Det.-Insp. Wright: "The subsequent actions of detective-inspector Wright are difficult to understand. Either he had no knowledge or understanding of the Charter of Rights (despite his high rank in the OPP), or he deliberately chose to trample all over Mr. Ringel's rights as a Canadian citizen in defiance of the law. What he hoped to accomplish would be pure speculation, but what is known is that his improvident actions will undoubtedly hinder any attempt to prosecute Mr. Ringel."
After spending more than 22 months in prison awaiting trial, Ringel was freed after Crown prosecutor Michael Martin stayed the proceedings against him. Stayed charges can be "brought back to life" within one year of the day they are stayed. With no new evidence brought forward, the proceedings weren't resurrected within 12 months.
Mary Ann Russwurm and her husband Shawn, Christine's stepfather, said the OPP told them that they had made a mistake.
"They didn't have a lawyer present for [Ringel] at the time and that's why his testimony got thrown out," Christine's mother said. "So they did admit to that."
But the pair still feel anger at how the case was handled.
"I've got more anger towards the OPP and the town cops than I do Ringel," said Christine's mother, who has never received answers to her questions about what happened the day her daughter disappeared.
Nearly two decades after Christine's disappearance, Russwurm and her husband tried to get some answers from the one man they thought could tell them the most about what happened – Ringel.
Ringel refused to speak to Mary Ann, but he did speak with filmmaker Ridgen on another occasion.
In that conversation with Ridgen, Ringel denied seeing Christine at the park the day she went missing and said he did not kill the girl.
When asked to explain why he confessed to killing her in 2004, he said, "I can’t answer that question," and added that he was "just kinda putting that all behind me."
The missing girl's mother, meanwhile, said she still hopes to get justice for her daughter.
"You learn how to deal with it on your own so that you can move on," she said. "But it never goes away. Today is the same as it was that day. For me, it's still there, you just deal with it a different way."