By Casey Lessard Similar to the crowd at a Sunday Mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel church, familiar faces fill the rows of seats at today’s gathering. I see Steve Dietrich, Pat and Marion Sullivan, Marty and Teresa Larkin, Don O’Rourke, and many Regiers. Instead of seeing Father Ray Lawhead at the front of this room, though, he is among the many. Family friends fill the seats house left, with Carlos Rivera’s family at the front. The Regiers occupy the entire house right side. Altogether, the court seats about 100. We, the media, number 20 and have the privileged position of occupying the jury boxes on either side of the court.
It is now several minutes past ten o’clock on October 27, 2008, and we are waiting for Jesse Norman Imeson’s murder trial to begin. Unlike the Riveras, who used the front entrance, the Regier family was able to avoid the throng of reporters and photographers by using the back entrance. Their sober faces bely the fact that they must wonder what the lawyers at the front have to chuckle about. Perhaps today’s proceedings will bring good news. Hopefully those in attendance will leave with a lighter load than they carried in.
At 10:10 a.m., Imeson’s defense lawyer Don Crawford comes to speak with the reporter ahead of me, Peter Edwards of the Toronto Star (he wrote the book One Dead Indian about the Ipperwash crisis). “We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” Crawford says. “Is this what it takes to get you out of Toronto and into the sticks?”
My stomach growls. Knowing the courthouse would be full, I left home at 6:30 to ensure a seat. Normally I would be fine after a few hours without food, but the tension in the room makes my gut constrict. It is quiet, with only a spattering of whispers here, then there. The audience is still, staring forward. The court reporter fidgets, police stand on guard, and lawyers chat among themselves.
It’s 10:20, and the bailiff looks over her shoulder at the judge’s door. No action yet. “Go ahead and bring him out,” a voice crackles through an intercom behind the door to my right. Chains rattle beside me and the door opens. Police offices guide Jesse Imeson behind me and to the prisoner’s box in the middle of the court room.
“All rise.” Imeson stands and his face wrinkles. His chains restrict him from scratching his nose. “Let me apologize for the delay,” says Superior Court Justice Roland Haines. “I realize this will e an emotional morning, but I ask you to please restrain yourself from any outbursts during the proceedings.” Crown Attorney Robert Morris reads the charges against Imeson. He will be pleading not guilty to first degree murder charges, but guilty to three counts of second degree murder. Morris tells the court that a guilty plea carries an automatic life sentence, with no parole for at least 10 years and up to 25. The lawyers have agreed that Imeson will serve concurrent life sentences with no parole for 15 years for the murder of Carlos Rivera, and no parole for 25 years for the murders of Bill and Helene Regier. Morris notes this is the maximum sentence available according to Canadian law, and is the same as a first degree sentence. Because he has killed more than one person, he is not eligible to reduce his sentence after 15 years.
I have an odd vantage point. Jesse Imeson’s prisoner’s box is directly in my line of sight over Morris’ shoulder. We stare at each other, and it is an odd feeling to know he is helpless. This court controls his fate as he controlled the fate of his victims.
Imeson stares at the bailiff as she reads the charges. As she tells him that he is charged with killing Bill Regier, his head drops. When she tells him of the charge regarding Helene Regier, he stares ahead. When she is finished, she asks how he wishes to plea. This is the first time I hear his voice. “Not guilty as charged, your honour,” he says the first of three times. “Guilty to the included offence of second degree murder.” His eyes widen as he finishes, and he stares at the judge. “Do you understand that by pleading guilty,” Justice Haines asks, “that by pleading guilty that you by your unlawful acts caused the deaths of Carlos Rivera, Bill Regier and Helene Regier?” He nods. “Yes, your honour.”
Crown attorney presents the evidence of the case, and it’s shocking to hear the details of the deaths. Regier granddaughter Nicole Denomy’s audible wail breaks the silence when Morris recounts how Bill Regier was tied in a crucifixion pose while Helene was tied on the floor before being shot to death in the basement of their home. These are details I’ve never heard before this day, and it’s impossible to believe the crown did not have a case to find Imeson guilty of first degree murder.
The court takes a break and returns to hear victim impact statements. The Riveras – Carlos’ mother and father and two brothers (one brother was unable to attend) – had intended to present their own statements, but are too overcome with emotion to speak. Their lawyer Jennifer Holmes presents on their behalf, and tells the court that Carlos’ mother, Maria, is unable to work, and is financially and physically insecure. “I’m a different person now. I cry constantly. I walk around in a daze thinking about him. At night, the thought of Carlos invades my mind. I have thoughts of taking my life. “Carlos was everything to me. This murderer killed Carlos’ dreams and my dreams as well.” Carlos’ father, Carlos Sr., wonders: “Did (Carlos) ask for help, or did he try to defend himself?” Carlos’ brother, Javier, would speak to Carlos every day after work. “Sometimes I come home and wait for the phone call that never comes.” The words of Alvero Rivera make Holmes break down. “He took me under his wing and made me into a man. He loved taking care of me. I love you. I miss you.” “Carlos helped take a demon out of society,” Hugo Rivera writes. Imeson reacts with a toothless grin, and it’s hard to tell whether he wants to laugh or growl. Clearly uneasy at this point, Imeson appears infuriated to have to listen to their testimony.
The Regier family is next to speak, and they choose to face the killer directly. Daughter Carol Denomy speaks first: “Our lives are changed forever. In everything we do at work and at home, we see them. “We can no longer go to Mass with them, and sit on the front porch to watch the sunset. Our conversations with Mom and Dad kept us stable and rooted, always reminding us of what was important in life. “We will never forget this deep sorrow. It was sudden, violent, undeserved, and defenseless. The pain is sharp, raw, intense. “Violence is foreign to us. Our hearts are wrenched between an emotional torment of evil, grief, sadness, and fear. Breaking into the sanctuary of one’s home is a bizarre and barbaric act. “We carry on our lives because that is what our parents would have wanted us to do. “We are consumed by their absence.” Brother Paul Regier: “On that night, Bill and Helene looked evil in the eye. This tragic event has opened wounds of despair. We work obsessively to dull the pain of that warm summer’s evening when this cowardly act changed us forever. “There is no justice… neither sentence nor compensation will euthanize our sense of loss and anger. Although this tragedy has shattered the peace and tranquility in our families and community, for our own health we are all trying in our own ways to graft on to the wound in our family’s tree a healthy memory of happier times.” Granddaughter Nicole Denomy: “We have all become more skeptical of how safe we really are in our homes. Moving out on my own has been postponed because every night I am reminded of how my grandparents were taken from this earth. “It is ironic that two selfless people who lived their entire lives for everyone around them were taken at the expense of one person’s incredible selfishness. Grandma and Grandpa would have given him a chance if only he had done the same for them. “Our family is tired of associating Grandma and Grandpa’s wonderful life with the wickedness of this man.” Granddaughter Kelli Rathwell: “Our Grandpa had said in a conversation a couple weeks before his and Grandma’s heinous death, ‘This world is changing, you just watch.’ “I believe that when a person is at their very worst, it is because no one is around. “Please know that you have done our family no favours on this day. But always remember, although you did not listen to the plea of our beautiful grandparents for their life, their family has listened to yours.”
Accepting the crown’s evidence, Don Crawford says the DNA stands for itself, but tells the court that Imeson did not go to the Regier farm with the intention of killing anybody. “Things,” he says, “unfortunately got out of hand.” Defending the plea bargain, Crawford tells the court that the families “have been spared the anguish of having to testify at a preliminary inquiry and a subsequent trial. “I can’t imagine the amount of money that would have been spent,” he reminds the judge. While Imeson chooses not to apologize in the courtroom, he has given his lawyer a statement to read. “I will be an old man when I am released, if ever. I am truly sorry. Please forgive me.” The judge’s reaction seems more honest. “It is apparent they were extraordinary people,” Justice Haines says. “I would like to express my sympathy and extend my condolences.”
After finalizing the details, the judge sends Imeson to serve his sentence at a federal facility outside of Ontario. We get one last look at Imeson, and I am the last person he sees before he leaves the court. We stare at each other as we have done many times this day. Feeling no fear, I hold my stare with an emotionless face. I now know the depth of his transgression. He breaks and looks to his left. Is this one moment of true embarrassment? The door closes. “This court is closed for the day,” the bailiff says.