The last best hope | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

The last best hope

Tom Martin is a legendary cop obsessed with solving Halifax’s increasing number of unsolved murders.“There’s nothing cold about these cases,” he says. “They just haven’t yet been solved.”

photo Scott Munn

Tom Martin wasn’t “full.” Not yet. He could still remember what Frank Hoskins, Sr., the legendary Halifax cop, used to tell the younger guys: No matter how much you love this job, he’d say, one day you’re gonna wake up and know you’re full. The first time Frank had said that, Martin was just a fresh-faced recruit himself; he didn’t have a clue what Hoskins was talking about. It was now the middle of the night in the middle of August 2005, and Tom Martin understood exactly what Hoskins had meant. But he wasn’t full. Not yet.

Kenny Kilby had been full. Kilby was another cop’s cop, one of Martin’s detective mentors. In 1995, Kilby was supposed to be the lead investigator on Martin’s first major homicide as a detective, the murder of a young fisheries inspector who’d been stabbed 11 times and then set on fire. Kilby was known as a wizard in the box, which is what cops call the room where they interview suspects. “You’d bring in the worst pedophile and everyone else is wondering how this guy is even allowed to live,” Martin marvels. “But Kenny’d take him into the box and be his best buddy. He’d start talking to him and, pretty soon, the guy’d be spilling his guts. I learned a lot just by watching Kenny.” But by the time of the murder of the fisheries inspector, Kilby had had too many years on the street. His hips were killing him. “You know what, Tom,” he’d said just after the investigation began, “I’m full.” Kilby retired soon after, leaving the case to Martin to figure out.

Was it his turn now? It couldn’t be. There was still the Kimberly McAndrew case to conclude. She’d been missing 16 years this month. Anniversaries were always catch-in-the-throat reminders of jobs unfinished. But they represented opportunities too, one more chance to tweak the public’s memory, to convince someone to finally get past their fears, or their apathy, or whatever it was that kept them from telling the police everything they knew. And, of course, there were still more people he could re-interview one more time, some more new-old leads to follow up.

And then there was Jason MacCullough. Could it really have been August 28, 1999—a hot, wet summer night—when MacCullough was shot in the head, point blank, in a Dartmouth park? Years of knowing whodunit and not being able to put them away, not being able to give Jason’s family the answers they deserved.

Tom Martin was not ready to be full.

But the shooting, holy-shit pain in his shoulder and chest had returned with a vengeance. He was sweating like a pig. And cold. Not to forget that goddamned ache in his leg. They’d told him it wasn’t broken, but that didn’t stop it from hurting like a son of a bitch. He’d tried to wish the pains away. This afternoon, when he felt the first sharp poker of pain careening through his shoulder, he’d dismissed his wife’s urging to call the doctor. Just a muscle ache, he told her. He’d been working too hard in the barn. That’s all. I’ll be fine. But now it was the middle of the night and he wasn’t fine. This was no fucking muscle ache. Tom Martin, age 49, was having a heart attack, his second of the day.

He finally let his family call 9-1-1. The ambulance was on its way.

“We are as far from there as you can possibly get,” Tom Martin explains as he leads me on a walking tour of his small farm somewhere outside Halifax. He doesn’t want me to be any more specific about its location. “There are still guys out there….” He leaves the rest unsaid.

Although he grew up on Pepperell Street in central Halifax, his father, a professional photographer, kept a small farm-cottage in the country. The family spent their summers there, and Martin got hooked on the idea he’d like to try farming someday. He bought this place just a month before his heart attack last August, thinking retirement… long-term…down-the-road…someday. Now he’s on long-term disability, wanting desperately to find a way back into the job he loves, and fearing he might not.

On this sunny spring day, though, he is a farmer, the laird of all he surveys. The barn is filled with a Noah’s ark of farm animals—two cows, four sheep, a goat, some laying hens, meat birds, ducks, geese, pheasants. Two horses are grazing in a nearby paddock. Sam, the family “rotty,” is barking from its fenced-in pen near the house.

In a clearing behind the barn, Martin’s wife Christina—also a detective, she took Martin’s spot in the major crimes division after his heart attack—and his father-in-law are constructing a new henhouse. Martin stops to answer their questions about how he wants it built. These days, he can only supervise. He’s tried to do more but, after a few minutes, he breaks out in a sweat, his heart races and he wonders if this will be the one. In fact, he had another full blown attack last November. So he isn’t keen to press his luck now.

We walk slowly back toward the bungalow, slowly because Martin’s still wearing a brace to support his leg. Doctors finally discovered there was a broken bone when he underwent an MRI for his heart problems. They won’t operate on it until they get his heart fixed.

Inside the house—“Don’t bother taking off your shoes; this is a farm”—Martin settles into a rocker in a corner of the living room across from the TV and patiently answers my questions.

“I’ve got time,” he laughs. “Time…that’s all I’ve got.”

Including time to think about those too-many cases that remain “unsolved open homicides.” Don’t call them cold cases. “I hate that term,” he says. “It’s insulting to the families; it minimizes what’s happened. There’s nothing cold about these cases. They just haven’t yet been solved.”

The already overtaken-by-events Halifax Regional Police website lists 28 unsolved murder cases dating back 50 years—from “Resk, Michael Leo, December 9, 1955” to “Kidston, Naomi Wendy, June 7, 2005”—but more than two-thirds of those killings have occurred in the 20 years since 1985. Martin, who figures he has worked on just about every one of those cases at one time or another, says the increase in unsolved crime coincides “with the arrival of cocaine in the city,” which transformed the city’s criminal—and civic—culture.

In most of those unsolved cases, the police believe they know who did the deed but still don’t have the last key missing piece of the puzzle—most often a statement from a witness—that will allow them to lay charges.

As Martin explains it, there are only three ways you can solve a crime: get a confession from the person who did the deed, use the physical evidence you gather and analyze to identify the culprit, and/or find someone who saw what happened.

“If you’ve exhausted all the evidence you have and there is no confession,” he explains, “all you have left is witnesses.”

The problem in far too many cases is that witnesses won’t tell the police what they know. Why not? “For some it’s fear, or apathy, or, ‘he ain’t my brother….’” Martin says. “We’ve gotten a little bit of the big-city syndrome. Whether it’s drugs, or gangs, or intimidation, or indifference, people have different value systems now.” Whatever the reason, it’s frustrating. “In a lot of cases, we can know in our own minds what happened but still not be able to lay charges because the people in the community who can help won’t come forward.”

So Tom Martin presses on, looking for that one overlooked dot that will connect all the pieces. “My cases are never far from me,” he says, and means it. Literally. He reaches over to the table beside his chair and picks up a thick bundle of papers. “McAndrew,” he says simply. In a home office down the hall, he keeps copies of his notes from every case he’s worked on since 1994. When he has nothing else to do, which is far too often these days, he hauls them out, re-reads them, then re-reads them again.

He even re-reads Shrubsall. Shrubsall was Martin’s greatest triumph as a detective, the case that helped earn him Police Officer of the Year honours in 2001.

It began almost accidentally on June 22, 1998, when Martin went to the Sigma Chi frat house in the south end of the city looking for evidence in connection with an alleged sexual assault at the fraternity the night before. In one of the dorm rooms, he noticed an Athlete’s World bag at the foot of the bed and crouched down to look inside. It contained a purse and a wallet. Martin casually flipped open the wallet to see if it contained ID—and froze. The driver’s license in the wallet belonged to Tamara Donnison, a young woman who’d been viciously assaulted with a baseball bat four months before. Until that moment, the police had had no luck in solving the crime.

“As an investigator, you’ll have thousands of different theories, possibilities about a case, but none of them resonates and then… it’s like nothing I can compare it to in this life. In a few seconds, you come to the point of what happened. One statement, one thing, one realization and, just like that, everything fits instantly.”

Opening Tamara Donnison’s wallet was such a moment. The man who rented the room was a mysterious 19-year-old sometime student named Ian Thor Greene. Greene was really William Shrubsall, a 27-year-old convicted killer and sexual abuser from Niagara Falls, New York. In 1988, the night before he was to deliver the valedictory speech at his high school graduation, Shrubsall had beaten his mother to death, also with a baseball bat. Eight years later, after closing arguments during his trial in the US on sex assault charges, he disappeared and didn’t resurface again until two years later when he turned up in Halifax as Ian Thor Greene.

Since the man who claimed to be Greene refused to say who he really was —Martin quickly discovered there was no Ian Thor Greene—Martin eventually got permission to release Greene’s photo to the media. The next morning, he got a call at home from the Niagara Falls cop who’d investigated Shrubsall for killing his mother and who’d seen his face again on Canadian TV news the night before.

“You got dat fuckin’ guy,” the cop began without preamble in a New York accent so stereotypical Martin thought one of his buddies was playing a joke on him. “Don’t turn yer back on dat fucking guy. Dat fucking guy’ll fucking kill ya.”

Dat fuckin’ guy, of course, was Shrubsall. (Reading the transcripts and re-watching tapes of his own initial interviews with Shrubsall later, Martin says now, he discovered some clues he’d initially missed: Shrubsall’s use of the American “soda” when he asked for a drink, for example, and the way his right foot tapped involuntarily whenever questions turned to his mother, whom he claimed had died of natural causes in the Yukon. “If I’d noticed then the way his right foot tapped, I would have focused more on the mother,” Martin says, adding: “That’s why you keep going back to those things—to learn how to do it better next time.”)

Discovering Shrubsall’s identity, however, was only the beginning of what turned into an all-consuming three-year investigation that would take Martin to Niagara Falls twice and also to Philadelphia, where Shrubsall went to university, interviewing and re-interviewing neighbours, ex-girlfriends and even the pawn shop owner to whom Shrubsall had sold his valedictory medal. Along the way, Martin filled 25 banker’s boxes worth of notes, statements, videos and other assorted evidence.

When it was over, Shrubsall had not only been convicted of assaulting and robbing Donnison and sexually assaulting three other Halifax women, but he’d also—thanks largely to Martin’s dogged detective work—been officially labelled a “dangerous offender” and sentenced to prison for an indefinite period.

Martin’s work on Shrubsall was only one of the reasons he was nominated by his fellow officers as top cop for 2001. That same year, he’d also helped make arrests in two murders, an attempted murder and a kidnapping.

But if it’s the unsolved cases that keep him reading and re-reading those files, I can’t help but wonder why Martin still goes back and studies his notes on a case that’s officially been closed for five years? He smiles. He tells me he’s still trying “to fill in what happened” during the time Shrubsall was on the lam before he surfaced in Halifax.

“If you’re passionate about this type of work,” he says, “you can spend years on a case.”

There was something else Frank Hoskins used to tell the young cops. Once you do this kind of work, he would say, you’re no good for anything else.

Tom Martin never wanted to be a cop. After graduating from high school—“I wasn’t a scholar by any means”—he’d kicked around for a few years, working in a warehouse and then a funeral home. He was halfway through an embalming course when he realized this wasn’t the way he wanted to spend the rest of his life. A high school friend who’d become a Halifax cop suggested he apply to join the force. Martin applied to both the city police and the RCMP. He got called in for follow-up interviews from both but chose the local force because “I’m a hometown boy.”

His first night on the job he walked a beat on Gottingen Street. “I was this skinny kid walking around in a uniform and suddenly I realized people were looking at me as an authority figure. I thought, ‘Holy shit, what do I do now?’” He learned, and quickly discovered he liked the job. “After the first year on the street, I knew this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.” He not only enjoyed the work, but the camaraderie. “We partied together. You’d go out at night and you had to watch each other’s backs. It almost felt like being part of a sports team.” There was a price to pay, of course. Martin’s first marriage, which produced his two grown children, ended in divorce. Until he married fellow-detective Christina four years ago, he concedes he was mostly married to the job.

He spent most of his first decade working the downtown drunks-and-fights bar scene where the job was often simply to convince belligerents they couldn’t win. “‘You may be 800 pounds of muscle and think you can beat the world,’” Martin says, instantly reverting to the street cop he once was, “‘but, listen, bud, you’re going to go. We can stand up, walk out of here right now and no one will be the wiser. Or we can turn this into a battle royale. You might beat me up. You might even beat up the next six of us who come after me, but we’ll win in the end. We always do. Because there’s more of us. So what’s it gonna be?’”

Martin pauses. “Those were probably some of my best years as a cop.”

After eight years on the street, Martin applied to “come upstairs” to the Criminal Investigation Division, which at the time included the soup to nuts of major crimes: homicide, fraud, drugs, vice.

He spent three years on the drug squad (“I had long hair halfway down my back and a full beard, and spent a lot of time hanging out in bars”) and then got assigned to fraud. “Fraud was torture,” he says now. “You were like a hamster on a wheel. Everything from bounced cheques to gypsy gangs. On a good day, there’d be three new files on your desk. On the bad days, there’d be 10.”

But fraud taught him how to organize both his files and his time, valuable skills at a time when the courts’ and the public’s expectations of police work were changing dramatically. “You have to be more structured,” Martin allows, “because the courts won’t tolerate sloppy work anymore.”

Martin learned that lesson the hard way. In 1991 when he was still on the drug squad, he got a tip that a provincial government employee was dealing drugs out of his office. He and another cop went to the man’s office, arrested and searched him. They found hash, scales, cash and a list of debts. Later, the man even signed a confession. But the judge threw out the charges, saying the word of an informant alone wasn’t enough for the cops to believe the man was carrying the drugs, which made the search “a flagrant abuse of the accused’s charter rights.” Case dismissed.

Perhaps surprisingly, Martin doesn’t blame too-liberal judges for making his job more difficult. “I hear complaints about the judges,” he allows, “but the judges aren’t the problem. The problem is trying to take cases into court that are not a good package. My job as an investigator is to get to a threshold that’s beyond ‘reasonable doubt.’ When I’m working a case, I have to set the standard higher—beyond any doubt. I have to make damn sure I have all the proof in the world because the last thing I want to do is send somebody to jail who didn’t do it.”

But that, of course, doesn’t make knowing who did do it and still not being able to put them away any easier to take.

Martin says he tries not to distinguish among murder victims, even though it’s clear many were killed as a result of their own “risky behaviour. Murder,” he says simply, “is never excusable. Even if you’re taking a risk, you’re no less a victim.” Still, it’s hard not to become more obsessed with cases involving those Martin refers to as “pure victims,” people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

People like Kimberly McAndrew, a 19-year-old cashier at the Canadian Tire store on Quinpool Road, who left work early at 4:20 on the afternoon of August 12, 1989, went into a parking lot crowded with Saturday shoppers—and vanished.

Even though he was on the drug squad at the time McAndrew disappeared, Martin has since made the case his own. He’s followed every lead; personally re-interviewed dozens of those who gave statements early on to see if they remembered something else; talked with the retired cops who worked the case in the beginning; met with psychics; followed dead-end rumours that Kimberly had been forced into prostitution in Toronto or even—as recently as two years ago—a rumour that she was alive and well and living in upstate New York; interrogated a Halifax man serving time in a British Columbia prison as a dangerous sexual offender; questioned other inmates who claimed to know where her body was buried; scoured Sir Sandford Flemming Park for three days on one tip; even, pursuing another lead, donned a hard hat and rubber boots and climbed six metres down a dirty wet well shaft in Point Pleasant Park so he could scoop up some tiny bone fragments that turned out not be McAndrew’s.

Martin believes he knows what happened to McAndrew. “Call it an educated theory, based on her victimology, geography, the timing, the activities of a particular person. But…” He stops, considers. “You want to solve it for the families. I’ve always tried to be involved with the families of the victims. It’s hardest for them, dealing with the void. You want to give them peace, some closure even if it’s only learning what happened…. It’s hardest for me when the families are nice to you, when they’re appreciative of what you’re trying to do, thankful for keeping them informed. Like the McAndrews. And the MacCulloughs.”

Jason MacCullough, a 19-year-old community volunteer who shovelled snow for the elderly, is another of Martin’s pure victims. Shortly after one o’clock on the morning of August 28, 1999—now seven years ago this week—MacCullough was walking along a secluded path through Dartmouth’s Pine Hill Park on his way home after visiting friends in nearby Highfield Park when he was shot in the back of the head from close range. The park—like the Canadian Tire parking lot on the afternoon Kimberly disappeared—was full of people.

But, like McAndrew again, nobody saw anything or, if they did, they won’t tell the police what they saw, or, even if they do talk to the police, they won’t testify in court.

Martin has conducted more than 100 interviews, made thousands of phone calls, visited the crime scene more times than he can count, and filled more than 20 file boxes in the still-unfinished process of bring Jason’s killer to justice. He describes the MacCullough case as the most frustrating of his career. Although police quickly zeroed in on a core group of suspects—who may have been in the middle of a drug deal Jason accidentally witnessed—none of the people in the park that night would say what they saw. At one point, the police even released detailed composite sketches of each of the five individuals they believed had been present at the time of the shooting in hopes someone could come forward and connect them to what happened to Jason. It didn’t work. To complicate matters—“the worst part,” Martin says—someone who wasn’t even involved in the murder started “‘chumping,’ bragging to his friends that he’d killed Jason, trying to prove, ‘I’m a real bad guy….’” Martin shakes his head. “So not only do I have to prove who did it, I have to prove who fucking didn’t do it.”

He eventually did do that, but Martin says eliminating the wrong guy wasted valuable time that should have been spent putting Jason’s real killers behind bars.

And time, Martin knows today, is no longer on his side.

June 23, 2006. The feeling this time was “just as oh-my-Jesus painful,” but somehow not the same either. “Guys,” Tom Martin tried to reassure his concerned wife and son Ben, “it’s not a heart attack.”

And it wasn’t.

But that didn’t make it—or him—any better.

Two months ago, Martin was rushed to the hospital by ambulance again where doctors discovered a clot the size of a baseball inside his left lung, probably the end result of some complications he’d had the week before with an angiogram. Now he’s back home, “on strong meds” and waiting for the clot to dissolve so the doctors can get back to treating his heart problems again, probably sometime in September, and, oh, yes, eventually operate on his still-broken leg. “It’s at the bottom of the list,” he says, looking down at the brace he wears to protect it. He laughs. It’s a short, resigned laugh. “I was never sick before. And now… I know all the docs and nurses by their first names. I’ve learned so goddamned much about this medical stuff. I don’t want to learn any more.”

He doesn’t have a choice, of course. Just as it’s no longer in his power to determine when—or if—he’ll be able to work again. After using up his leftover overtime and vacation time, the clock on his long-term disability insurance began ticking earlier this year. Essentially, he has two years to get back to work, or the insurance company changes his long-term designation to permanent.

“Maybe teaching,” he suggests without much enthusiasm. Martin is a popular, in-demand instructor at law enforcement professional development workshops and courses, and it might be a less stressful way to continue to be a cop. He’s also already had job offers from private security companies who’d love to have his name and reputation on their letterhead. But he’d have to get better first, and besides, there’s no job he’d rather have than the one he had before.

This summer, he has had to follow the rash of murder and mayhem in Spryfield on TV. “In the past when the big cases would happen, I’d never see them on TV until days later, if at all. I was the one being called out. I was working them.” And now? “My wife is the one getting called out in the middle of the night, and I’m the one sitting at home, worrying…. The first few times, it was weird, but then you get used to it. Miss it? Yeah, I do, I miss it. But I miss the ones I was working on even more.”

This week’s upcoming anniversary of the MacCullough case will be especially difficult. “Last year I was too sick to notice.”

Jason’s father has called to see how he’s feeling and wish him well in his recovery. “We never talked about Jason, which was weird too,” Martin says now. “I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of calls with Allan and Carolyn and we always talked about Jason.”

Jason’s case still troubles him, both because “Jason could have been anybody’s son,” and also because of what the case says about us and how Halifax has changed since he was a young cop. “Even in the ’80s, the armed robbery of a bank or someplace like that was high profile. It would completely empty out the office. Now armed robberies are like break-and-enters used to be. Murders have become so frequent—not commonplace but almost—that citizens will hear about one and say, ‘Oh, another murder in Halifax last night.’”

Would Jason’s murder have been solved if it had happened in that earlier era? Martin considers. “We would have had more community involvement,” he says, pausing again, considering some more. “I’d lean toward saying we would have the case before the courts if it had happened back then…but you can never go back.”

In Jason’s case, where “the only thing missing is for someone to come forward, for someone to really and truly give a shit,” the real frustration is that “I know who the people are who can tell us what we need. And the people responsible know I know.” Before his heart attack, Martin had made it a point of showing up whenever one of those guys would get arrested for something else. “Just to let them know I ain’t going away,” he says.

Despite his own delicate and precarious prognosis, Tom Martin insists he still isn’t going away. “I know this case. I can get this case before the courts. This case is do-able.”

Tom Martin isn’t full.

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