Interview: Lee Mellor, Author of “Cold North Killers: Canadian Serial Murder”on March 3, 2012 in Interviews, Serial Killers by Brian Combs
Today, a book on Canadian serial killers was published. Cold North Killers: Canadian Serial Murder profiles over sixty cases of serial homicide in Canada. Lee Mellor is a musician and writer of alt country from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Lee was kind enough to answer a number of questions I had. Note: Heather Whitney contributed to these questions.
Brian Combs: Ok, how does one go from alt country music to writing true crime?
Lee Mellor: Quite easily, fortunately. Both originated in a natural ability for creative writing I have possessed as far back as I can remember. I suppose I began writing songs and performing because it was a more social activity and I lacked the attention span as a young man to commit to a book. Lyrics were always the most important part of the songwriting process for me, and I’ve always enjoyed singing from the viewpoint of different characters. If you look at songwriters that place an emphasis on storytelling – your Bruce Springsteens, Steve Earles and Bob Dylans – you’ll notice that they often touch on dark themes, especially free will and criminality. Whether it’s their influence, or a natural predisposition which led me towards that type of music, I often do the same in my lyrics. After several years of playing music live, I realized that the big record deal in the sky didn’t exist anymore, so I decided to take some time off to work on a book. I continue to pursue music, but it doesn’t dominate my time anymore, and as a result, I get more enjoyment from it.
BC: Why did you decide to do a book on Canadian killers?
LM: In 2009, I had originally decided to write a fictional mystery novel about a criminal profiler for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but about 100 pages in, realized that I didn’t know more than three or four Canadian serial killers. As I didn’t want to inadvertantly replicate an actual Canadian serial murderer in my fictional work, I decided that I had better do some research. Though I was already familiar with the names “Clifford Olson”, “Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka”, and “Robert Pickton”, I soon became acquainted with lesser known killers such as “William Fyfe”, “Serge Archambault”, “Leopold Dion”, “Wayne Boden” and “Peter Woodcock”. Noticing that there was no single source from which to obtain information about Canadian serial murder, I started debating whether I would rather write this book than the fictional one. After all, there seemed to be a space available for it in the market. The next thing I knew, Colonel Russell Williams was all over the headlines for murdering two women. The first, Marie-France Comeau, had actually been killed in my own town while I sat in my house researching! At this point, I decided to commit myself fully to the book, Cold North Killers, and eventually wrote about 75 cases, though we only included 60 due to spatial constraints. The majority of the cases that were cut were those where the presence of a serial murderer was suspected, but never confirmed. I should also point out that not all of the killers in the book were born in Canada. Cold North Killers also includes Americans who have crossed the border to claim victims. Some of the names are familiar (Earle Nelson) while others are more obscure (William Dean Christensen). There are also many Canadians who committed all or the bulk of their crimes in the United States (Edward Rulloff, Joseph LaPage, Theo Durrant, Gordon Northcott, Keith Jesperson etc.)
BC: Do you think your research on serial killers will cross over to your music writing? I can think of lots of songs about serial killers written by metal, goth or punk artists, but I can’t think of any by a country artist.
There’s got to be a country song in the Robert Pickton-pig farmer story. 🙂
LM: The crossover has already occurred. “Nowhere, Manitoba” from my 2007 album Ghost Town Heart, is about a Cree girl who disappears hitchhiking in rural Manitoba. At the time, I knew there was an epidemic of missing Native women in British Columbia and certain parts of Alberta, but for various creative reasons I decided to set the song in Manitoba instead. I wasn’t worried about misrepresentation, as I suspected that such disappearances were also happening in central Canada. Low and behold, three years later when I was researching my book, I learned that there was a suspected serial killer preying chiefly on Aboriginal women in Winnipeg. Unfortunately, the case had to be cut from my book in editing due to spatial constraints, though I am hoping to explore the issue more in future works. More recently, I wrote a song from the perspective of an imaginary survivor of the Texarkana Moonlight Murderer. I’m sure more serial and mass murderers will appear in future songs, however I’m consciously trying to avoid overusing the subject matter.
BC: From the perspective of an outsider, at least, it seems that Canada isn’t as interested in serial murder as other western countries, especially the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. In fact, at times it appears that Canada is embarrassed by them. Is that perception accurate? And if so, how did it impact the creation of your book?
By the way, it does occur to me that it’s very possible that the Yanks, the Brits and the Aussies may be way too interested in serial murder, but that’s another issue. 🙂
LM: That’s a very astute observation, and I won’t pretend to know THE answer to that question. However, I’ll present you with some possible explanations, which I personally find satisfactory. First of all, having lived in the United Kingdom and visited the United States on a number of occasions, it is my experience that Canadians tend to be more “politically correct”, and far less confrontational than the British, Americans, and Australians I have encountered. The results are both positive and negative: there is a greater cultural sensitivity here, but at the same time, a propensity for people to bury their heads in the sand. Canada’s self image is also one of a peaceful, reasonable nation. This might explain the embarrassment you have perceived.
To my knowledge, the Canadian court system is also more closed than the other countries you mentioned, especially the United States, where high profile trials can be viewed on television. Likely you’ve noticed that the only images of Canadian serial killers on trial are illustrations – that’s a legal issue. Court ordered publication bans in Canada are pretty much standard. What does this add up to? It means that, barring special cases like Bernardo, Pickton, or Russ Williams; Canadians receive a lot more information and exposure to American serial killers than homegrown ones. This gives the false impression that serial murders are a freak occurrence here, and endemic south of the border. This misconception, along with my natural interest in the subject, drove me to write Cold North Killers. For what it’s worth, I actually prefer the openness of the American court system, as I see judicial transparency as a fundamental component of democracy. Apparently, I am not the only Canadian who thinks our system is in need of fundamental reform. Daniel Henry outlines many of the problems, and does a lot better job of articulating my grievances than I personally could.
BC: Does Canada have as much interest in crime fiction television as the US does? Does your legal system suffer from the so called “CSI Effect” as we do here?
LM: I would say that the interest is comparable. It’s difficult to assess the degree to which Canadian justice suffers from the “CSI Effect” because of the transparency issues I discussed earlier. I can’t imagine there is enough cultural difference between the two countries to have the “CSI effect” apply to one, and not the other.
BC: My understanding is that life imprisonment in Canada can mean an actual sentence of just 25 years. Have there been any cases where a serial killer was released after completing his or her sentence (not including Homolka, who pled down to lesser charges)? If not, is this a legitimate concern?
LM: Though I do not support capital punishment, the Canadian justice system is far too lenient when it comes to dealing with sexual murderers. My book is a testament to this. A Canadian parole board released “The Boozing Barber” Gilbert Paul Jordan, even though he was implicated in the deaths of as many as ten women. Jordan broke parole, and was found at a hotel halfway across the country, seemingly looking for another victim. We also allowed known serial killers Peter Woodcock and Paul Cecil Gillis out on day passes. In both cases, their chaperones were other convicted schizophrenic murderers. Even before leaving the grounds of the psychiatric hospital, Woodcock killed and engaged in post-mortem sex with fellow patient Dennis Kerr. Gillis raped, sodomized and attempted to murder a teenage girl by throwing her over a bridge. Luckily, she survived. Woodcock and Gillis had each committed three murders prior to their day passes being issued.
Two serial killers, Henry Williams and Donald Armstrong, were almost clandestinely released without public knowledge – that is, until their surviving victims or family of the deceased caught word, and went to speak at their parole hearings. There are a further six cases that come to mind where a convicted murderer was released, who then went on to become a serial killer. I propose that in 4/6 cases it was abundantly clear that the perpetrator should have never been loosed on society.
The Canadian prison system also allowed two extremely dangerous murderers, Allan Legere and Wayne Boden, to escape custody. Legere went on to kill an additional four people in a five month reign of terror. Boden was apprehended lurking suspiciously around a local bar. Recently, it also made the inept decision to allow “The Homicidal Drifter” Michael McGray to have a cellmate. To give this some context, McGray was so bloodthirsty that he had previously attempted to shank his own lawyer. The end result was that he strangled his cellmate with his bedsheets, making him victim number seventeen. That the system didn’t see this coming is inexcusable.
Thankfully, while life actually means a 25 year minimum, we do have a “dangerous offender” designation which can be assigned to a convict who is judged too much of a risk to ever be freed. As of March 2010, there were 331 men on this list. Since then, I believe we have added our first woman to the list. The United Kingdom has less than forty “never to be released”, so in that regard, I think we are doing better. It is my opinion that anybody who commits a series of sexual homicides should automatically qualify for “dangerous offender” status. Strangely, this is not the case. The former colonel, Russell Williams, is a prime example of one such murderer who deserves this designation, but has somehow escaped it.
BC: Since you do not believe in capital punishment and gave many examples on how the Canadian court system has failed in the cases involving serial killers, what do you believe will help to improve the system?
LM: I think the solution is actually fairly simple – any convicted killer who shows characteristics of sexual sadism at any point during a murder (pre, ante, or post mortem) should automatically qualify for the Dangerous Offender designation, without exception, and be incarcerated for life. Had this law been applied, the Canadian serial killers Allan Sweeney, Paul Gillis, Gilbert Paul Jordan, Peter Woodcock, and Melvin Stanton would not have been released to claim further victims. Russell Williams filmed a bound woman suffocating to death with duct tape – probably because he wanted to masturbate while watching the video of her dying. You don’t have to be a genius to detect the sexually sadistic quality of that murder. The fact that despite this he has not been given Dangerous Offender status is, to my mind, irresponsible. This law should not be something that attorneys or plea bargains could be allowed to circumvent. It would be non-negotiable. Even if he wants to, a sexual sadist who has graduated to the point of murder to gratify his urges is highly unlikely to be able to reverse engineer his psychosexual development. Identifying the problem and containing it indefinitely is the most reasonable solution. Escape attempts could be easily thwarted by modern technology (tracking chip implants, electric shock devices attached to the body), as long as we don’t make silly mistakes like allowing such predators to go out on day passes. I must reiterate though, that the measures I have advocated should only be used for convicted sexually sadistic murderers, and serial killers, including those who are motivated by ideology (Joseph Franklin) or profit (Dorothea Puente ).
BC: Do you believe that there should be more strict limitations on which courses prisoners/ serial killers can take in school? For example, Karla Homolka took psychology from Queens despite her known involvement with Paul Bernardo and manslaughter charge?
LM: The only problem I have with Karla Homolka getting a psychology degree is that, to my understanding, she got to attend university for free because she participated in the rape and murder of three girls. Meanwhile, I’m still up to my ears in debt for my B.A. in History because I’m a decent person. If higher education is free for convicts, it should be for the general public as well. I don’t believe a psychology degree would make Karla more or less dangerous, if that’s what you’re getting at. To be honest, I’m not really sure what the point of her going into that field was in the first place. If I walked in to see a shrink and saw it was Karla Homolka, I’d probably laugh in her face and ask her to switch seats.
One last thing: the taxpayer shouldn’t be funding the education of people who will never be released. Education in prisons is aimed at providing the inmate with discipline and a set of skills that they can use to adjust more easily to society. If they’re never re-entering society, what’s the point?
BC: Do you believe that because of Canada’s disinterest in serial killers that the police force in Canada is less likely admit that there is a serial killer?
LM: I don’t believe Canadians are any less interested in serial killers than any other occidental people, though they certainly might try to convince themselves they are. That said, I have perceived that Canadian police are more reluctant to admit the presence of a serial killer, but that’s more to do with internal policies and their relationship with the media, than a lack of public interest. In the States you have shows like Nancy Grace that are particularly geared to aggressively hypothesizing about and analyzing the latest murders and disappearances. The USA has ten times our population, so the audience for such programs is larger, and therefore the budget is bigger. In Canada, everything occurs on a smaller scale, and we have a much more difficult time exporting our television programs to the USA than you do to us. This is owing to two factors: 1) America is a notoriously insular country. What interests most Americans is typically American content. A good example of this are shows such as Pop Idol and The Office, which were originally British in origin. Rather than watching the British programming, American versions were made to replace them. Why? Because Americans like American stuff; 2) Canadian programming generally looks comparitively cheap and tacky because we lack the budget to give it any razzle dazzle. It doesn’t mean the content is poorer, but it is just less immediately palatable.
So how does this relate to your question? I think that, in the United States, because there is such aggressive media coverage of homicide, that the police are under more scrutiny when it comes to the possible presence of a serial killer. Potential links between crimes are harder to dismiss with a “no comment” or “we don’t know” when the investigators are being constantly bombarded with questions from well financed and popular journalists and pundits.
BC: How are Canadian serial killers different than ones from other countries?
LM: They aren’t really. One thing that stood out was that I couldn’t find a single Canadian serial killer who claimed to have cannibalized any of their victims. We do have two cannibal spree killers who I will be writing about in my next book Rampage: Canadian Mass Murder and Spree Killing, scheduled to be published in the spring of 2013. Though I haven’t run the statistics, it seems to me that, despite the size of both countries, Canadian serial killers tend to be less geographically transient than Americans. This is something they share with European serial killers, according to a study by Eric Hickey. There appear to be less Canadian serial murderers who exclusively target elderly victims. Finally, we only have one known Black Widow serial killer: Melissa Ann Friedrich.
BC: What Canadian serial killer do you find the most interesting, and why?
LM: I apologize in advance for not playing by the rules of the question, but I really think I need to elaborate on two cases, as I find them equally compelling for separate reasons.
The first is Colonel Russell Williams. I was four months into writing my book when he killed Marie-France Comeau in Brighton, a small town where I was living. The disappearance of his second victim two months later, Jessica Lloyd, happened in Belleville: the nearest city. Jessica’s disappearance was much more high profile, and though it was obvious that she had been murdered, I would not allow myself to consider the possibility of a serial killer. I figured I would have only arrived at that conclusion because I was writing about the subject, and that there was no rational basis to suspect it. So when Russell Williams, commander of Canada’s most important air force base, was arrested, and the depraved details of his crimes began leaking out, it was surreal to say the least. Canada’s most infamous serial killer since Robert Pickton had actually appeared right under my nose, as I sat writing the first book on the subject. A coincidence, surely, but an eerie one. This has provoked a certain fascination with Williams.
From a behavioural and developmental point of view, Peter Woodcock, a 17-year-old Toronto boy who had murdered three children in rapid succession from 1956-57, particularly grabbed my attention. The author Mark Bourrie wrote an excellent account of Woodcock’s life called By Reason of Insanity, and I also studied the crime scene photos in Peter Vronsky’s Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Murderers. What enthralled me about Woodcock’s case was simply how bizarre he had been since birth – in fact, in Cold North Killers I parallel his childhood behaviour with that of Arthur Shawcross’s. The infantile way in which he committed his murders, scattering change and paper clips at the crime scene, coupled with the naive nature of the sexual assaults, left a very distinct impression of the young killer in my mind. The fact that he would murder again over thirty years later makes his story even more compelling.
And then there’s David Snow… a truly bizarre sexual sadist. He gets a lot of space in my book.
BC: What Canadian serial killer would you least like to run into in a dark alley?
LM: Easiest question you’ve asked me so far! Michael Wayne McGray. He is so driven by blood lust that he can hardly contain it. I see my chances of withstanding a sudden violent knife attack by McGray at about 5%. He’s comparable to the American drifter Tommy Lynn Sells – men, women, and children were all fair game. Studying the subject of serial murder has certainly made me more vigilant when it comes to predators who use ruses like Randy Kraft or John Wayne Gacy to gain control over other men, but Michael McGray could just overwhelm me with a sudden ferocious blitz. With somebody that unhinged, harbouring that much rage, I have a hard time convincing myself I’d be able to gain the upper hand physically.
That said, if I was a woman I would have chosen Paul Bernardo, and the late Clifford Olson if I was a child. In my opinion, prolonged torture is probably the worst thing somebody can experience.