On Wednesday, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s flagship evening newscast dedicated 15-and-a-half minutes to a single jaw-dropping story. It is the story of a horror that a woman said she witnessed 58 years ago and spent decades trying to get someone to care.
Three years ago, my church pastor called to say he knew a woman who desperately needed a journalist to help her. The pastor said her story might seem to be outlandish and unbelievable, but asked me to give the woman a chance. He believed her, he said, beyond the shadow of a doubt. In more than 40 years of working in journalism I have come to understand that the most unbelievable stories can be true and when they are, they can be blockbusters.
So I sat down with Glenna Mae Breckenridge, who lives in Ontario during the summers and, like lots of Canadians, lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, during the winters. Breckenridge told me that in July 1955, somebody killed three Aboriginal teenage boys on a farm an hour north of Toronto. I asked her how she knew. She said she witnessed the murders herself when she was a young girl. She said she knew the killer and she knew where the bodies were. She told she had not been able to get authorities to believe her.
Breckenridge needed a journalist who would help her. Somebody who knew the Canadian legal and police system, somebody who could tell the story to the world, somebody who had the resources to stay on the story for however long it took to find the truth.
I called CBC correspondent Paul Hunter, who is one of the best journalists I know. Hunter is at home in war zones and earthquake debris. He travels the world reporting on the biggest stories and the worst of human misery. And yet, even in the worst situations, I have always noticed his reporting reveals a heart that has not hardened.
“Cold case stories are almost always inherently fascinating,” Hunter told me. “The very idea something could go unresolved for so long, while a key player in it had insisted for years that an answer was there for the finding is, in my books, journalistically irresistible. I also felt personally for Breckenridge. She seemed broken by her many years of not being heard. I thought spending a little time looking into it (largely on my own time) was the least I could do, given her sincerity and level of despair.”
For three years, he chipped away at the story between covering wars and politics and disasters. Paul Hunter and a producer, Ghazala Malik, combed government records, even found a video deposition from 1996 when Breckenridge, after years of therapy, was able to recall enough details that she told police her story of the killings.
“His first call when you directed me to him, my gut told me he was listening and hearing what I was saying,” Breckenridge told me about her first call from Hunter. “And there was a form of empathy that helped me relax and thus show some trust-not easy for me — but he never challenged me or pushed me beyond what I needed to say or what he apparently felt was enough for the moment. He kept the conversation short and I knew he had heard all. For me, I usually was very careful when talking to a man especially a man in a powerful position. He said very little, and I knew he knew what I was saying.”
Hunter said Breckenridge told him the same shocking story she had told me. She told him, on camera, that her father was the killer. And that her father buried the teens below the floor of a pig pen inside of what is now a large barn on the family farm. Breckenridge told the CBC the story of how, she said, her father had repeatedly sexually abused her and that during one attack a teenaged farm hand saw one of the assaults and tried to intervene. Breckenridge said her father killed the boy with a pitchfork.
She told Hunter that the next day, two more teens came looking for their friend and her father killed both boys with a shotgun. But claims are one thing, proving the claims would be much more difficult, maybe impossible.
Hunter explained the mountain of problems that he faced: “The incident in question happened in 1955. No bodies were found by police. No boys were ever reported missing. There was only one witness [Breckenridge] and a father [now deceased] who had denied everything to police. Her family had sided with the father and was no help to us. Police we spoke with acknowledged their difficulties in the initial investigation, underlining a truth about police work in general – not all crimes can be solved. As well, access to the farm where it all happened was complicated. The family had sold it to a new owner who had no interest in Glenna Mae coming by and — potentially — discovering human remains on his land. For the longest time he refused to allow us on. At the point where I was beginning to suggest to Glenna Mae that she should prepare herself to abandon hope for finding answers, we made one last pitch to the current property owner and, long story short, he agreed to let us on, for a day.”
For that one and only chance to examine that barn floor, the CBC hired a ground-penetrating-radar operator to come to the pig barn. The operator, Hunter said was considered to be a world-class expert. With Hunter by her side, she directed the GPR operator to the exact location where she said she witnessed the burials.
Breckenridge told me that after all these years, Paul Hunter was her only hope of finding the truth. “After 58 years of trying to be heard – no. It just didn’t seem to happen with all other avenues that I have tried. You guys listened and I knew I was being heard. A refreshing experience for me! You never showed aghast, you just asked more questions. It made me feel that I had the right to tell you my information that I had held secret for so long. Both you and Paul treated me as an intelligent, normal woman instead of being frowned upon as a dirty, little girl with a secret. Always respectful and that was new for me.”
After an hour of scanning the hard floor with his x-ray machine, the operator said he had found “three anomalies” about 5 feet in length a few feet below the floor. The images were consistent with human remains, the operator told Hunter. The anomalies showed up at exactly the location and depth Breckenridge insisted they would be. The images showed something where nothing but dirt should have been beneath that pig-pen floor. But while that’s compelling, it still leaves room for doubt.
“Did we find the truth? I think Glenna Mae found her truth,” Hunter told me. “As I underline in the piece, to be 100 percent certain there’d have to be a dig and DNA testing, and we didn’t do that. We felt we should report what we’ve found and, at least for now, leave it at that.”
Paul Hunter could have thrown up his hands years ago. But he told me early on he often found the best stories from the most unlikely witnesses that others ignored. This story, he said, taught even a veteran journalist like him lessons, “Don’t give up! Diligence pays! And a good story is a good story is a good story. And as well, it was a reminder that it pays to be upfront and fully transparent with people when it’s a long-term project. I give Glenna Mae credit for being patient with our logistical challenges and as well with the long-term nature of investigative pieces. It can be difficult explaining to those outside the industry why you can’t always ‘get it on tonight’ but the truth about process (boring as it may be to some!) has a funny way of easing the anxiety for those we involve in our stories. It was also instructive in finding ways to tell stories that are outside one’s comfort zone. This piece wasn’t so much about a potential crime, as it was about the idea of memory and truth.”
We don’t know if the police will ever reopen an investigation. Breckenridge’s father died five years ago. But when the CBC dedicates so much airtime and effort to gather and tell a story on the CBC’s main evening newscast, there could be enough attention on this case that the case cannot sit unresolved even if nobody could be held accountable if those anomalies are bodies beneath that floor. Since there were no missing person reports, and the new owner of the farm doesn’t want the disturbance of having his barn dug up, this story may be at an end.
But within minutes of the story airing, viewers took to Facebook demanding action.
“This story cannot end like this,” a reader wrote CBC News’ Facebook page. “I was utterly shocked, and appalled at the way this story ended,” another said. “Thank you to Paul Hunter for the respectful reporting of the story,” wrote another.
Within 24 hours of the story airing, police told Paul Hunter they wanted to see the CBC’s evidence and reminded Hunter that unsolved homicide cases are never closed. And, police insisted, they did take Breckenridge’s original report in the 1990s seriously. They generated a thick case file and police did search the farm and found no evidence of buried bodies. But they did not use ground x-ray.
Police asked Hunter for his evidence to compare it to where they looked years ago and “decide what steps to take.” Hunter said police told him that if they look at the x-ray evidence and become convinced the data shows bodies, they may restart their investigation. And, of course, there is still the chance the x-rays picked up soundings of something else, not human remains.
In his follow-up report, Paul Hunter said Aboriginal leaders responded to the story by issuing a recall for families and community leaders to “think hard” about old tales from decades ago about boys who may have disappeared in 1955 and “were never heard from again.” Hunter reminds viewers that it may be difficult to know for sure if there were missing teens because there were many stories from the 1950s about runaways from residential schools and often there were no records of their disappearance.
Despite the ambiguous ending, Breckenridge told me she got what she wanted. “I wanted this story told, first for the boys who were murdered, so that other people who have witnessed a murder like I did can be strong enough to tell their story too. My biggest reason is I want people to know that those of us that have been abused can talk about it and get help. In this fast moving world, with all it’s horrors, I wonder if my story can make a change. I was always told in teaching that if you can change the life of one child, it is worth it. I felt a deep sense of relief and let out a breath ‘finally.’ I finally knew that my voice had been heard for the boys. Thank God.”