Showing posts with label mary fernando. Show all posts
Showing posts with label mary fernando. Show all posts

09 June 2024

Punishment For the Rich and Powerful: How Do we Stop Them?

Mary Fernando

As a society we think - or at least hope - that punishment for a crime serves as a deterrent for others but will also deter offenders from re-offending.

A recent high profile case that’s all over the news suggests that convictions may serve to embolden, anger and worsen behaviour, making the person more dangerous. 

A Canadian case illustrates how the powerful are hard to stop: Peter Demeter, who was rich and vengeful, became more dangerous after his conviction.

In 1973, Canadian real estate developer, Peter Demeter, hired a hitman to kill his wife and mother of his three-year-old child, but this horrifically violent murder was just the start of Demeter’s spree of hiring people to commit crimes for him. 

Demeter had a rocky marriage, a mistress and had just taken out a one million dollar life insurance policy on his wife. However, he also had an airtight alibi. Once it was discovered that he hired a hitman to kill his wife, Demeter was sentenced to life in prison on Dec. 6, 1974. 


Prison only increased his anger and need for vengeance. In 1983, Peter was paroled and that same year hired and paid another former inmate, Tony Preston, $8,000 to burn down his house. And he was sentenced for plotting to murder his cousin’s teenage son (the cousin had taken custody of Demeter’s daughter after he murdered her mother.). Peter plotted to have his nephew kidnapped in order to collect the ransom and then have the nephew killed. He was handed two new life sentences.

This was not the end of Demeter’s vengeance. In 1985, while in prison, he was tried for yet another murder-for-hire scheme, this time for conspiring to kidnap and kill the daughter of his lawyer. 

As the judge noted, Peter has shown he has a capacity for some truly dangerous behaviour, regardless of his status as an inmate or a free man.

He was eventually clinically labelled as a psychopath, diagnosed with narcissistic and antisocial features and deemed an indefinite risk to the public.

In 2019, at the age of 85, Demeter attempted to get parole and parole was denied:

“Your history of counselling others to seek revenge for you makes you more of a risk of recidivism than your age and physical ability to harm others would suggest.

It is the Board’s opinion that you will present an undue risk to society if released.”

Despite a heart attack, stroke and several bouts with cancer, all while behind bars, he continues to live and is now in his 90s. 

The Demeter story illustrates how anger, mixed with a need for vengeance, served on a bed of immorality, is a dangerous combination. It also shows how the rich and powerful can bypass prison bars and hire people to do their dirty work. Or, if they have political power, they can attempt to inspire people to hurt or kill others. 

So, punishment for a crime may inadvertently end up hurting or killing innocent people and I wonder how one stops the rich, powerful and immoral among us. 

If someone writes a novel - or even a true story - about how to stop crimes by the powerful with punishment, that’s the story we need today. At this point, I’m at a loss. 

14 April 2024

Kinsey Millhone: a fantasy character with fantasies.

Recently my six-month-old Bouvier puppy mistook one of my Sue Grafton books for a chew toy. I apologize to anyone who is squeamish about crime scene photos, but this is what I had to deal with.

During her life and since her death, I cannot count the number of conversations I’ve had about Sue Grafton and her character, Kinsey Millhone.

Women detectives in novels get me every time. My bookshelf and bank account concur. Like any love affair - I’m committed, invested and have opinions.

After I taped the cover of the book, I looked at Sue Grafton’s site and found a quote from N Is for Noose about Kinsey, that reveals why she is so compelling as a character:

“Get close to someone and the next thing you know, you've given them the power to wound, betray, irritate, abandon you, or bore you senseless. My general policy is to keep my distance, thus avoiding a lot of unruly emotion. In psychiatric circles, there are names for people like me.”

It is followed by this explanation: 

“Those are sentiments that hit home for Grafton's readers. And she has said that Kinsey is herself, only younger, smarter, and thinner. But are they an apt description of Kinsey's creator? Well, she's been married to Steve Humphrey for more than thirty-five years and has three children, four granddaughters, and one great grandson.  She loves cats, gardens, and good cuisine—not quite the nature-hating, fast-food loving Millhone. So: readers and reviewers beware. Never assume the author is the character in the book. Sue…is only in her imagination Kinsey Millhone—but what a splendid imagination it is.”

There’s an old adage that writers should write what they know because readers have a nose for  inauthentic writing and there’s nothing inauthentic about Kinsey. Every woman can agree that people can wound, betray and bore you senseless. It reads as authentic and passes the sniff test. So, I argue that Sue Grafton knew Kinsey well enough to write about her. Kinsey’s rant about people didn’t even fit with the way her character lived because one of the staples of the series is her close relationship with Henry, her elderly neighbour and landlord. She even likes Rosie, who runs the local restaurant and bar, despite her serving odd and often repulsive food. If Kinsey Millhone is Sue Grafton’s alter ego, then Kinsey Millhone has her own alter ego and this is why readers felt her to be such a credible character. 

Just as writers write what they know, I suspect readers read what they know as well. I simply cannot read certain books. If a female detective (again, big fan) shows herself to be incapable of forming relationships and lacking in empathy on any page in the book, that’s the page I stop reading. This isn’t a judgement thing. It’s about reality. I have known many women as friends, as patients, heck, I even raised a woman, and I have never met one who doesn't form relationships and has no empathy. Not one. So when I read about tough women detectives (again big fan of tough women) who have no empathy, I can’t relate. Can’t read. They don’t seem real. 

Yes, there are people with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) commonly known as psychopaths or sociopaths, but they account for 0.2% to 3.3% of the population. People overestimate their numbers in part because so many crime novels feature them and also because it has become in vogue to diagnose those one dislikes as a one of these. Kinsey has many dimensions but she does not fulfil the criteria of antisocial personality disorder. As I said, I have opinions and this is one of them.

Why Kinsey is so loved as a character is that she, like many of us, has fantasies. Sue Grafton’s readers understand this. I’m fiercely protective of my husband of over 30 years and have also, when annoyed, politely asked him to find me my book of poisons so I can make him dinner. If the former weren’t true, the latter wouldn’t be funny.

Kinsey as a character is so authentic that she, like all of us, has fantasies of being something worse than she is and then, she comes to her senses and hangs out with Henry or eats Rosie’s vile food without complaint. I can relate. No matter how annoyed I have been, I have never actually added poison to my husband's food and he eats the meal I prepare with gusto because he knows this. He does occasionally feign a near death experience while eating and it's hilarious, because it's all fantasy. 

10 March 2024

Why Backstories Matter Today More Than Ever.

In mystery books, many of us consider backstories of perpetrators and the victims of crimes the meat of the book. Apropos of exactly that, lately I’ve written about the rise of hate speech against many vulnerable groups because this is the backstory to hate crimes. Doctors like me always tout preventive medicine and, as a person, it’s my core belief that crime prevention is better than crime investigations.

This month brought to light the terrible consequence of a fetid backstory that’s been gaining ground. I’ll reference events in Canada because that’s what I know best, but this has been a problem in the United States and other countries around the world. So, although the backstory is Canadian, the crime occurred in America.


In June, 2023, a professor and two students were stabbed at a gender studies lecture at the University of Waterloo and the police cited the motivation as “hate related to gender expression and gender identity.”

By August, 2023, many universities removed class locations and instructor names from the public domain to protect those teaching gender studies. The president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, which represents 17,000 university faculty and academic librarians, said “racist, anti-feminist, anti-LGBTQ and other hate-motivated online extremism is being seen on university campuses and classes that explore social and gender issues.”

Despite the proof that anti-LGBTQ hate speech results in violence, in September we saw Marches against LGBTQ Canadians. I wrote about this in On our Streets and referenced these marches with the Orwellian name “Leave our kids alone” that actually targeted LGBTQ children. These marchers claimed that children were too young to hear about our LGBTQ community but what they really didn’t want is teaching our children the facts: some people are gay, trans or binary and that’s OK because Canadian laws protect them. One video of these marches showed a child claiming that LGBTQ Canadians are“disgusting” so, apparently, they weren’t too young to hear about the LGBTQ community, talk about them or insult them. They were just too young to hear that being LGBTQ is OK.


In February, 2024, Nex Benedict, a 16-year-old Oklahoma high school sophomore, who identified as transgender and non-binary, had her head smashed repeatedly against the bathroom floor by fellow students and she died from her injuries.

Many people I’ve spoken with justify their silence on attacks against LGBTQ by saying they don’t really understand the issue. Surely, killing a child by bashing their head against a bathroom floor because they claim to be transgender and non-binary requires no complex understanding of sexual development to know this is wrong and a grotesque crime.

Our collective backstory:

Hate speech is a crime in Canada. Less so in the United States. Regardless of the legal status, hate speech is the backstory to an increasing number of vicious attacks against innocent people. Another crucial backstory is silence.

When I post on social media about many types of hate speech, more recently about antisemitic hate speech, I get some very ugly pushback. This is why many people are increasingly silent on hate speech related issues. It’s difficult to speak up.

Martin Luther King’s haunting line applies to this silence: “The ultimate tragedy, is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

So, if we are writing a fulsome backstory of bigoted physical attacks on people whether they be Asian, Jewish, LGBTQ or any other group - the silence of the many would be part of that.

How do we speak up?

Here on SleuthSayers, I’ve been so fortunate that Leigh Lundin and Robert Lopresti have been kind enough to allow me to indulge my penchant for writing crime backstories. On social media, I have followers who are incredibly decent and decry hate speech and hate crimes – and this makes it easier to handle the rude pushback.

Ultimately, it is the fact – and it is a fact – that we write the backstories for others daily and this should make us eschew silence. These are dangerous days for the rise of hate. In my decades of living, I’ve never felt so worried as I am now. If you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention.

This rise of hate against so many groups worldwide isn't just organic. Many reports from intelligence agencies show it's funded by foreign countries to sow dissent within our democracies, as well as by Neo-nazi movements, funded by ardent believers, some of whom have a great deal of money. It often feels like those of us speaking out are playing checkers with chess players who have moves, money and motives that we don't understand. It's all so infuriating. And depressing. I hope that writing backstories will help people connect the dots and maybe that will matter. 

UPDATE: Do new autopsy results clarify what happened to Nex? I give you the summary by a child paediatrician - because, of course, there are many who do not want this to be murder, but Dr. O'Brien clarifies the cause.

14 January 2024

"Hate is as old as man and doubtless as durable."

It is with great regret that I’m writing a follow-up article to last month’s Peace and Order, where I looked at the hate laws in Canada and stated: “This dramatic rise in hate motivated crime is testing our laws, our police response, legal system and things may have to change to meet the challenge.

Well, things have certainly changed over the last month but in a most unwelcome way. We have increasing attacks on Jewish Canadian schools, businesses and homes, so much so that it’s making international news. 

To this international audience, our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, said, “We’re seeing right now a rise in antisemitism that is terrifying.” 

On the same news video, Rabbi Saul Emanuel adds, “It has become accepted that you can go after any Jewish target” 

Why has it become acceptable to some people to go after Jewish Canadians? If you watch the video it is clear that the business set on fire has “Free Palestine” written on their window. There is no doubt that a segment of the protesters are using the tragedy of mounting deaths in Palestine to mount attacks against Jewish Canadians. 

That said, many reasonable non-antisemitic Canadians are also decrying the deaths of innocents in Palestine. It’s a complicated situation but what is a clear, uncontested fact is that some of these protesters are using the situation to engage in antisemitic hate crimes. Rather than argue this point, a picture is worth a thousand words and here is one of targeted arson at a Jewish-owned deli in Toronto.  The owner is a Jewish Canadian and no one who is sensible can argue firebombing his business will change anything in Palestine. It is pure antisemitic hate. 

On social media, a photo of a poster put up in a Jewish neighbourhood depicts the scale of the problem and where it can lead, so let’s break it down. 

The poster graphic looks old-school, like something you would find in a history book on the rise of antisemitism before WWII. The words harken to something more modern and warrant an analysis. 

“Imagine being so vile, sneaky and disgusting that laws have to be created to keep normal people from hating or condemning you.”

Certainly the cliche trope of the ‘vile, sneaky and disgusting’ Jew is old and a way that bigots have long justified their bigotry by suggesting it is the victim not the aggressor that is responsible. It is as absurd as robbing a store at gunpoint and claiming the store deserved to be robbed. 

The part referencing “the laws created to keep people from hating or condemning you” refers to hate laws in Canada, referenced in my previous article. They are laws that keep all Canadians safe. They also keep our democracy safe because a democracy is, by definition, a society where all can vote and participate - any attempt to sideline groups from full rights and safety is, by its nature, antidemocratic. We know that historically and in the present day, authoritarian governments attack certain groups, sideline them or murder them, on their way into power and continue to do so in power to underline that only a select few get to make decisions about that country. Targeting any group is a blatant attack on the democratic rights of all Canadians. 

Canadian hate laws, born from a 1965 Special Committee on Hate Propaganda chaired by Judge Maxwell Cohen, have been expanded to recently include online hate speech. Hate laws were created to protect all Canadians, including Jewish Canadians.

In words that are as applicable today as they were then, Cohen said, "On the one hand, there was a new emphasis on individual freedom. On the other side, there was a growing recognition that these very liberties could be dangerously abused.”

“The preface to the 1965 report warns, "Hate is as old as man and doubtless as durable." It also contains a warning that could as easily refer to the current spread of anti-Asian slurs through social media as to the anti-Semitic pamphlets and slogans that emerged in Cohen's day.

Ours is "a world aware of the perils of falsehood disguised as fact and of conspirators eroding the community's integrity through pretending that conspiracies from elsewhere now justify verbal assaults," Cohen wrote. He called them "the non-facts and the non-truths of prejudice and slander.” 

By attacking Jewish Canadians and the laws of Canada, this poster highlights the dangers we face as a nation. 

Someone with a better mind than I will have to sift through many of these issues. How do we ensure the right to protest - a crucial democratic right - while protecting Canadians who are targeted by some of the protesters? It’s complicated. What is not complicated is this: Jewish Canadians are protected by the same laws that protect us all and there is no justification for any attacks on them. None.  

10 December 2023

Peace and Order

At a dinner party I was once told by an American, that while Americans strive for 'Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’, Canadians get the very unsexy ‘Peace, Order and Good Government’.

At the risk of sounding dull as dishwater, I’m a big fan of peace, order and good government. It’s reassuring. Although peace and order in the Constitution Act of 1867 refers to large issues, most of us understand it as it’s exemplified in everyday life. The quiet way we line up to take our turn or stop our cars at a crosswalk to let children cross. The peace of quiet walks and stopping at a favourite store and getting some food. The way all my neighbours wave and chat.

Since the October 7th Hamas attack against Israel, we are hearing more and more about Canadians being shouted at on the subway by mobs, shootings at schools and defaced places of worship. The places we shop owned by Jews and Muslims are being targeted by mobs and vandalized. Many Canadians are frightened by how the peace and order of everyday life has been shattered by violence and disorder.

People are saying that they simply aren’t safe anymore and where is the legal punishment for this? 

There are three separate hatred-related offences in Canada: advocating genocide, publicly inciting hatred, and willfully promoting hatred.

For all three offences, there is no minimum punishment. Imprisonment, probation, or fines are possible. 

However, a provision in the Criminal Code addresses crimes motivated by hatred and allows increased penalties when an offender is sentenced for any criminal offence “if there is evidence that the offence was motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on race, national or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.” So theoretically, these crimes should carry harsher punishments. 

Interestingly, and applicable to today’s crises, “In 2009, the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism was established by major federal political parties to investigate and combat antisemitism - particularly what is referred to as the new antisemitism. It is argued that this form of hate targets Israel, consisting of and fed by allegations of Israeli "war crimes" and similar claims. Anti-Israel actions that led to the formation of a Parliamentary Coalition included boycott campaigns on university campuses and in some churches, spilling over into attacks on synagogues, Jewish institutions and individuals.”

So, how is this playing out? Police forces are asking people to come forward and report, and many are increasing the officers dedicated to hate crimes. In Toronto, Chief Myron Demkiw said there has been a "staggering" increase in hate crimes since the Hamas October seventh attack,  most of the hate crimes - 40% of them - are antisemitic hate crimes and “the force's hate crime unit has been expanded from a team of six to 32. And that since Oct. 7th, the unit has made 22 arrests and laid 58 charges.” This type of communication with the public, encouraging reporting as well as communicating that arrests and charges have occurred, goes a long way to making people feel safer and it needs to be communicated more. 

Perhaps part of the problem is that many hate crimes are shared on social media but without follow-up, so there appears to be no accountability. A widely shared video showed an Indigo store with posters and red paint, the posters depicting an image of the company’s Jewish CEO Heather Reisman and accusing her of “Funding Genocide.” There were, however, consequences for those involved. So far, eleven people have been arrested, charged and the investigation remains open. We have yet to hear what their punishment will be and if there will be jail time.

This dramatic rise in hate motivated crime is testing our laws, our police response, legal system and things may have to change to meet the challenge. We haven’t seen this level of hate crimes before and just like police forces are adding officers trained to deal with hate crimes, perhaps we need to finally ask if our legal system can properly charge those involved? Will the punishment serve as a deterrent to others who might want to embark on similar hate crimes? Will the police response to arrest people be swift enough to make people feel safe or are more tools needed?  Do we need strict minimum sentences to serve as a future deterrent? 

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions – just a fan of peace, order and good government who is very worried.

12 November 2023

October 7th

I listened to an interview with Rachel Maddow, host of the MSNBC The Rachel Maddow Show on her research on the rise of antisemitism and she explained this:

When people tell you that a minority group are evil and they’re the reason things are bad, they are saying that some people among us are dangerous and these people shouldn’t be part of our democracy with rights to vote. We need someone to protect us from these people. So, its not just about telling us who to hate, it’s about undoing democracy and Maddow says we shouldn’t stand for it. It’s a powerful video.

This certainly fits with what we’ve seen with Anti-Asian hate and LGBTQ-hate – there are many narratives explaining why they’re ‘dangerous’ and shouldn’t have the same rights as everyone. Essentially, they shouldn’t be part of our democracy.

Now we’re seeing the rise of antisemitism and the same narrative holds. This topic is large, the events unfolding in the Middle East complicated and well beyond the scope of my small article. Further, I lack the expertise to talk about the history and lack the military expertise to talk about the war. I will write about only one thing: the October 7th slaughter in Israel.

Over three thousand young people gathered to dance at the Supernova Sukkot in the desert, approximately 5 km from the Gaza Strip and near Kibbutz Re’im with a population of around 430.

The rave was billed as a celebration of "friends, love and infinite freedom” and attendees were prohibited from bringing weapons including guns and sharp objects. Sound like the kind of thing many young people we know, including our own children, would attend.

In the morning, Hamas came at the attendees from all directions, killing at least 260 people and abducting dozens as hostages. The massacre and hostage taking continued at nearby Kibbutz Re’im and in the end, over one thousand were slaughtered and hundreds taken hostage.

Hamas insurgents recorded their own deeds with GoPro cameras and that, combined with surveillance footage, has been aired to many including seasoned journalists who found the footage so gruesome that many had to leave.

"The worst part was the glee," Sabrina Maddeaux, a political columnist for the National Post, wrote in a piece published Monday, describing the apparent joy Hamas fighters took in their rampage across communities and at a music festival in southern Israel last month. Reporters described seeing images of burned babies and children, along with other indescribably graphic scenes.

There are still over 200 hostages in the hands of Hamas. We have seen a woman hostage naked and beaten on a truck paraded through Gaza. The terrorists have a baby who is 10 months old.

We have seen videos of people denying that these events happened and we’ve seen photos of the kidnapped torn down as ‘propaganda’. For those who wonder how people can deny the Holocaust, we’re seeing the denial in real time today.

There will also be people who may not deny these events but only want to talk about the ‘lead up’ to them and the war that followed them. There is no ‘lead up’ to justify this brutality, nor can you justify brutality by referring to any actions that followed it that were unknown at the time.

As Maddow said, this is identifying some minority as bad, dangerous and unfit to have democratic rights – human rights – whether it’s citizens of Israel or Jewish citizens of other countries.

On this Memorial Day 2023, when we honour those who fought for and preserved our democracy, I wanted to write a small article about the big events of October 7th, 2023. In a democracy, all of us are equal, can vote and participate in the shaping our society and our world. If we exclude certain groups from these universal human rights whether it be those far away in Israel or Jewish citizens at home, we demolish the foundation of our democracy.

08 October 2023

On Our Streets

We have a rise in hate crimes in Ottawa which, while being the capital city of Canada, has always felt like a quiet place.

With a 23.5 per cent increase in hate incidents in 2023, Ottawa Police Chief Eric Stubbs said, “Across North America and really the world, we’ve seen this trend of hate crimes on the rise.” One of the targeted groups was the LGBTQ community.

This gave me pause because many of us have been talking amongst ourselves about the shocking changes we are seeing. Canada has had a history of supporting LGBTQ rights by decriminalizing being gay as early as 1969, legalizing same sex adoption in 1995, legalizing same sex marriage in 2005 and making LGBTQ discrimination illegal in 2017.

Recently, however, in Canada we’ve had marches called, “Leave our kids alone”. Under the guise of protecting children against learning too much about sex, they actually want them to learn nothing good about the LGBTQ community. So, in reality, we had anti-LGBTQ marches on our streets. Some of the hateful things said left many of us reeling. 

What is also worrisome was the fact that they went to great lengths to look like a bunch of concerned parents, organizing organically at the local level. However, in reality they were supported by a big tent of far-right groups aligned with groups holding these “Leave our kids alone” marches in the United States.

In typical Canadian fashion, many people came to show strong support for the LGBTQ community as well. What was heartwarming about the support was most of it was from neighbours, friends and family of people who happen to be LGBTQ simply saying to them: we know you, respect you, care for you and will stand up for you. 

But make no mistake, this has shaken us. Canada has always been a tolerant country, largely insulated from the far right hateful shouting elsewhere. To have these same slogans – at times screamed out by children – was horrifyingly unCanadian. Many I spoke with were tearful at the thought of LGBTQ children hearing this vileness in a country where many had worked so hard to make them feel respected. For LGBTQ adults who had seen grimmer days of intolerance recede and lived in hope one day it would be gone, this rise of hate is disheartening. 

Ottawa Police Chief Eric Stubbs talked about the hate seeping in from our southern neighbours, but some is homegrown or brought in from people who now call Canada home, but were raised in a hateful environment elsewhere.  It was a warning to us that we are not immune. It is literally on the street where we live. 

What is uniquely Canadian is a history of calm and civility. Americans sometimes make fun of the ‘nice’ Canadian, suggesting we are prone to naiveté and cluelessness. They misunderstand. It’s actually a steely determination not to get caught up in anger and drama but to choose, instead, to chat with people as we meet them. It’s not soft. Nothing is stronger, more adult, than refusing to engage in childish shouting, drama and anger -  this is the fodder for extremism and hate. These are the things we have tried to have a steely resolve to avoid. That’s the backbone of who we are and I hope, the civility will once again win. We have always had intolerance within our borders and knocking on the doors of our borders. We conquered it with civility.

My parents came to Canada when brown-skinned people were few and far between, particularly in small town Waterloo. Many, who had never met anyone who looked like my parents, chose to chat as they met in the neighbourhood and, more often than not, extend an invitation for coffee. At school, children hung out on the playground, invited me to their homes and some became lifelong friends. This is why civility is highly underrated. It allows everyone to meet and talk.

What we saw on these marches was the antithesis of civility. 

The far right extremism may seem big, well-funded and so loud that they will drown us. We must fight them in big ways - online, through enforcing hate laws, increasing rules in workplaces - but one way to drown them out is to chat. Quietly. In a friendly way. Being the quintessential nice Canadian, with a spine of steel, who is civil to anyone we meet on our streets. 

Those of you who have read some of my previous articles know that I strongly champion empathy in all its forms.  To the shouty and the angry, to the political and crass, I may seem like a naive fluffy person. In response to that caricature, I would like to tout my credentials - after much more than a quarter of a century of studying and clinically practicing in the area of mental health as a physican -  what allows for normalcy, decreases violence and prevents mental illness is my lane. I can say with utter certainty that empathy is crucial for a highly functioning person and a highly functional society. 

We need to get back to empathy and civility. On our streets. 

10 September 2023

Grift, Misinformation and the Long Arm of the Law

We often hear about the long arm of the law, suggesting that the justice system has far-reaching power. There is one place that the justice system doesn’t appear to be reaching: grifters who put people’s lives at risk.

These ‘influencers’ spread misinformation about snake oil cures for everything from diabetes to cancer. People die. No one pays the price. 

So, we’re learning that lying and killing people with lies isn’t a punishable crime. 

Mystery readers like myself have an innate need for justice to done. We want the arm of the law to be long enough to reach those who harm people, particularly if they kill them.

We’ve seen the rise of anti-vaccine misinformation reach so far into people’s psyche that not only are they eschewing COVID vaccines but also all vaccines - children are now dying of vaccine preventable disease like measles. For goodness sake, the news recently cited pet owners who are refusing vaccines, including rabies, for their pets because of autism fears.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has focused on the educational aspects and points out that, using various methods, 850,000 YouTube videos with harmful or misleading COVID-19 misinformation videos have been removed. However, this is a drop in an ever filling bucket. 

The WHO has joined various organizations asking for legal polices to stop misinformation but stop at outlining these policies - because it’s complicated. 

Legislators in various countries have made many attempts to rein in dangerous misinformation through regulation of tech giants. There have been suggestions of legal interventions that, “criminalize the dissemination of medical fake news”  The latter is so fraught with definitional problems that it’s not a good option, but certainly speaks to the increasing concern about putting people’s lives at risk.

So indulge me while I spitball some legal ideas with no legal training at all but with a strong sense of ‘what the heck can we do’? 

What if we start very small? What if there were some cases where people were harmed and they then sue? A few of those might make a dent in the growing rise of grifters. Nothing like fear and case law to stop wrong doing. 

Here’s a sample grift and my fantasy. The grift is real, you can find it here.

picture of scam message

Now, this may seem like a small problem compared to many other forms of misinformation and certainly, the reach of this is much smaller. But starting small makes it easier.

This woman claims to cure eyesight, so what if someone was ‘cured’ and then got into an accident driving? What if they sued her for damages? 

One small victory against grift might start a snowball effect. It’s a simple grift - eyesight cure - and a simple test - either eyesight is better or it’s not. I’m a fan of starting simple. 

It also is the extension of existing laws protecting people. If a doctor gives medical advice or therapy in the form of pills etc. and a patent is harmed, that doctor not only risks the loss of their medical license, but also jail time. So why not extend this to all medical therapies? 

While I’m spitballing and fantasizing, here’s another one: drugs for every disease need to follow rigorous testing guidelines. What is stopping legislators from demanding this from all ‘cures’ for all diseases? Then the grifters could be held legally liable for damages or even sued for putting their ‘cures’ in the public domain. This simple levelling of the playing field for all cures is fair, understandable by the public and simply extends existing laws around medical interventions. legal and regulatory measures.

I know this seems simple – nay, simplistic – but there may be a place for simple, clear solutions that start small, alongside looking at large scale changes to social media content. There is less support for stopping misinformation when it is an abstract concept and just the word ‘information’ gives an opening for demands for freedom of speech. To be clear, medical intervention is not covered under free speech protection, nor are drug manufactures able to claim free speech regarding the claims they make for their drugs. This also fits a justice model we are familiar with: if someone causes harm or death to another by any means, they are criminally responsible. This is one small way that the long arm of the law can extend its reach. 

13 August 2023

Fodder for Great Crime Stories: Amateur scuba divers

Recently, stories have appeared in the news about amateur scuba divers helping solve missing persons cold cases. 

In Florida, the team of Ken Fleming and Doug Bishop found 60 submerged cars statewide. Also, the controversial Youtube sensation, Jared Leisek, an Oregon entrepreneur who heads Adventures with Purpose, works with volunteer salvage divers to help families find their loved ones. 

Amateur scuba divers solving cold cases has all the makings of a new series of crime novels. I wish someone would write these because they’ve been bouncing around in my fantasies for decades.

About thirty years ago my husband talked me into learning scuba diving. He was trained by an army scuba diver, so he’s extremely competent and also has a great deal of talent. I got trained at a resort, and that, along with my lack of natural talent, made me a competent but not even close to excellent diver. When the children came along, they got the scuba diving fever and certified at eleven and twelve. They have their father’s talent and scuba diving became our family sport.

Over the years, we’ve had wonderful dive adventures and often, as I putter behind my elegant family of divers, I’ve fantasied about helping solve cold cases by discovering guns and bodies by diving expertly to places other divers haven’t gone. This is exactly what I do when watching gymnasts, where I picture elegant tumbling moves while trudging to the kitchen to get more popcorn.

A childhood friend and English teacher recently bemoaned her lack of writing skills by saying, “Those who can do, those who can’t, teach.”. This quote by Bernard Bernard Shaw from his 1905 stage play Man and Superman is often taken out of context and wasn’t meant to demean teachers per se. In fact, as a daughter of scientists - even though I loved Shaw in my teenage years - I also knew this quote is inaccurately used when applied to teachers, because the best scientists, the most competent researchers, taught.

I do think that, for me and maybe me alone, a riff on this quote would be accurate: Those who can do, those who can’t, write about it.

With the pandemic, we haven’t been diving in years, but one of our last dive trips set off a fantasy of a perfect crime, fostered by my fury. We were diving in the Bahamas where, I learned afterwards, they were also feeding sharks. So, when we all innocently did a back roll water entry, an entry where you sit at the edge of the boat with your back against the water, with your regulator in your mouth, held in place with your left hand while your right hand holds the back of your head to prevent your skull from smacking into the first stage regulator when you hit the water. Then, point your chin toward your chest and gently fall backwards. You do a little somersault, pop right back up but it is a tad disorienting.

We headed down into the water and when we were about 30 feet down, I turned to check with my designated ‘buddy’, my son, and saw a shark between us. I looked up, and there were sharks, I looked below and there were sharks. It was simply awful.

We have seen sharks previously, but they keep their distance and leave quickly. Never have we had sharks surround us for a dive. When I got back on the dive boat, I was not just frightened, I was perplexed by the unusual behaviour of the sharks. When I asked about it, our dive master – who looked about twelve years old - explained cheerfully that they feed the sharks to teach divers how friendly they are and, by making friends with sharks, it helps with their conservation.

I was raised by a biologist father who took me on many field trips and he and his colleagues spoke often about conservation. It made me not just an animal lover but also a conservationist. To truly protect animals, you need to also listen to the experts studying them and not anthropomorphize them. Sharks deserve to be protected and can be best protected by not misunderstanding them. A shark is not your friend when they are swimming beside you in hopes of food. It takes one woman on her period or one inadvertent coral cut to put blood int the water and turn you into prey. I’m not a biologist, so I’ll use a term I hope is also used by experts to describe this behaviour: it’s nuts.

As we headed back to shore on the dive boat, my fury gave rise to a plot: chum the waters near a cheerful, far too young dive master (who might be an heiress to millions), and you have a perfect crime.

As I said, those who do, do, those who can’t write – or in my case – fantasize.

On our next dive trip I ensured that the country we went scuba diving banned shark feedings – many of them have – and we had lovely dives where sharks kept their distance.

So, from solving cold cases to creating a perfect murder scenes, amateur scuba diving provides a wealth of story ideas. I’m sure I’ll think of more stories the next time I putter behind my elegant family, pretending I am them.

09 July 2023

Synopsis and Poisons

No conversation about submissions to literary agents is complete without a discussion about writing a synopsis. There are many professional and calm articles about this topic but this article is neither for one very important reason: I’m married and have children.

The many excellent articles explain how to write a synopsis in simple terms. Summarize the novel’s plot (status quo, inciting incident, rising action, crisis and resolution) main subplots, characters and none of this should read like a dry summary. It should include characters’ emotions and reactions to what’s happening. All of this should be done in 500 - 800 words (preferably 500).

Most of these articles are written in a way that encourages writers to tackle this task with confidence. They explain how this is a doable task and would even help identify any plot holes. I appreciated all this help and encouragement.

So, armed with the criteria, I started writing a synopsis. I ended up with a synopsis of a couple thousand words that barely touched the surface of my over 80K word book. So, I needed to cut the word count and make it more thorough at the same time.

No problem, I thought. I can do this. So, working hard I got rid of about 1,000 words and still had too many words and now also had a very dry synopsis.

I went from being delighted with all the advice, to resenting the encouragement about a task that’s clearly impossible. Increasingly, my mood became foul and my language became fouler. This is where my marital status and family enters the story.

My husband, trying to be helpful, told me that I’m a good writer, he’s sure I can do this and would do a great job. He sounded like the encouraging articles. There are moments in a marriage where your partner says all the wrong things. This was that moment. Sometimes I can shrug it off, mostly because the children are very fond of my husband and would miss him if anything happened to him. However, determined to fulfil his role as my support, my husband went on. And on. When he stopped to catch his breath, before he launched into more encouraging statements, I asked him if he could please help. He was delighted to be asked. I requested that he find my book of poisons - I hadn’t seen it in years - while I get a shovel. He said he’d look later because he needed to take the dogs for a walk first.

I went back to work with no more encouraging interruptions.

The upshot is that my synopsis is now down to 500 words. It needs work but it’s mostly there. Better than that, writing it did help me identify a plot hole and helped me be much more focused on plot when editing my manuscript for the trillionth time. I do think writing a synopsis is actually useful.

At this point, you probably don’t care about the synopsis at all and are asking different questions. Did my husband ever locate the book of poisons? Is that really gardening I’m doing in the backyard? When was my husband last seen? How are the children?

I actually did buy a book for writers on poisons many years ago. I cheerfully showed it to my husband who was uncharacteristically quiet. Oddly, I must have misplaced it because I have not seen it since. I didn’t even get to read it. My husband has looked for it diligently and cannot find it.

My husband is walking the dogs right now. All the neighbours can see him. The children are fine. My garden remains woefully untended but I have some herbs, thanks for asking.

I highly recommend writing a synopsis. Don’t be fooled by the encouraging articles. I doubt I’m the only one who was frustrated with the task and baffled why I was the only one incapable of doing it. It’s not an easy task. It’s very hard. It’s also worth it if you get someone wise to hide the book of poisons before you begin. Think about the children.

11 June 2023

The Last 300 words: A Query Letter

I wrote a 80,000 word book that got shortlisted for the Arthur Ellis Award for unpublished novels and then, decided it needed work so, I did what any sane person would do and wrote a whole new 80,000 word book. 

I’ve done my final edits and my editor will do her grim reaper work on it and then it’ll be done. 

Writing the book is the best part - it’s full of long mornings getting up before the sun and quietly writing. Even when I’m not writing and, perhaps sitting for lunch with my family, a part of the book comes up that I need to add to or edit, I replay it in a few different ways and often slip away to write it. Sometimes things are maligned by saying they’re child’s play but writing is child’s play in all the best ways - it is the total immersion into a world of your creation that’s so real that the real world can sometime pale in comparison.

Now I’ve hit the next step: the query letter.

The purpose of query letter is to seduce an agent into reading your book. An agent can’t read every book sent to them so a short letter is how they choose what to invest time into and what to reject. However, the whole process of writing a query letter has my heart racing, my mouth dry and in this state I couldn’t seduce my own husband let alone a complete stranger. But sure, let’s be seductive.

Did I explain that there are sections? Yes, sections. In 300 words.

I can barely say hello to an old friend in less that 300 words and that’s with no sections. 

First, there is a warm greeting to the agent and an explanation of why you want to work with them. For the agents I want to work with, I would need the whole 300 words to explain why they’re amazing, it would be an honour to work with them and why a future of having tea and chatting about books is both of us living our best lives.

Ok, maybe just me living my best life. 

Then I need a hook to get them interested in my book. A hook is a sentence or two to make them want - nay need - to dive into my book even if it means neglecting their children, pets or dinner in the process. This is the ultimate seduction and I’m not sure I’m up for that.

Can I beg off with a headache? 

Then I need to summarize my book. Summarizing a 80,000 word novel would take me (checks notes) 80,000 words.

That’s why I wrote the darn thing in the first place. 

Then there’s a little bit about me. I am down with that part and can do it in a few words. It’s the rest of it that’s driving me around the bend.

I have always loved reading. I can’t remember even a day in my life where I wasn’t immersed in a book and, whenever I finish all the books by an author I love its almost as bad as a death in the family. These constant companions of mine, writers, have always been my heroes who create worlds from nothing but ink. I have a new found respect for authors because they also they managed to wrangle this dreadful beast called a query letter. It is no small feat and may well be a bigger feat than writing their books in the first place.

This leads me to my next problem: should I write the query letter or just write another book instead? As an escape from the anxiety of the query letter, I’ve already mapped out another book and it’ll take less time and be less stressful than writing a query.

A summary of my writing experience is this: the first 80,000 words are a delight to write but the last 300 words are hell.

09 April 2023

Koalas and Crime Scenes

During my late-night-I-just-cannot-sleep internet wanderings I stumbled upon a surprising fact: koalas have fingerprints.

Well, that changed everything. I went from cannot-sleep to must-not-sleep. My childhood stuffy was a koala so I have a special attachment to these adorably cute fur-balls and, although my stuffy is long gone, this exactly how I picture her.

Armed with my trusty computer, I started grilling the internet for information. Here is how that conversation went:

Why do koalas have fingerprints?

The answer appeared to be, ‘back up a bit, Mary, because we first need to ask why do any animals - including humans - have fingerprints?’ “what would make fingerprints useful from an evolutionary standpoint?…while fingerprints may not build friction on their own, they may help maintain grip by working in conjunction with sweat glands… And fingerprints may also provide crucial sensitivity in our fingertips.”

So why are koalas the only non-primate with fingerprints?

“Koalas are famously picky eaters who seek out eucalyptus leaves of a specific age… koala fingerprints must have originated as an adaptation to this task…the friction and sensitivity fingerprints afford may help them simultaneously hang onto trees and do the delicate work of picking particular leaves and discarding others—but hopefully not near a crime scene.” 

This led me to an intriguing question: can koala prints mess up a crime scene?

“Oddly enough, the fingerprints of koalas are nearly identical to human beings, and even under a microscope, they are basically impossible to tell apart. The shape, size and ridge patterns are bizarrely identical, even moreso than the similarities between primate and human fingerprints. However, while human beings have “dermal ridges” on their entire fingers and across their palms, koalas only have fingerprints on the tips of their fingers, where the majority of their gripping force occurs.”

A visual on that: 

I simply couldn’t believe that they can be mistaken for human even on close inspection. But the internet continued relentlessly on this path:

“The loopy whirling ridges on koala fingers can not be distinguished from humans, even after a detailed microscope analysis. Koala fingerprints resemblance is even closer than the fingerprints of close human relatives such as chimps and gorillas.”

I remained unrepentantly sceptical and searched till I found this from Chantel Tattoli, a freelance journalist researching fingerprinting.

“In her research, she came across media reports of koala prints fooling Australian crime scene investigators. However, a NSW fingerprint expert told her the reports had been exaggerated.

"Anybody who is really a specialist in fingerprints can read the difference," Tattoli said.”

Since this is the only mention I found of koala fingerprints not being able to fool experts, I was sceptical of this as well.

What about primates? Their fingerprints aren’t as close to human as koalas, but are they similar?

“Gathering dust in police files is a dossier containing the fingerprints of the most unlikely criminal gang - half a dozen chimpanzees and a pair of orang-utans.

Their dabs were taken during police raids at the Ape House at London Zoo and at Twycross Zoo in Leicestershire. The operation, by fingerprint experts from Hertfordshire police, took place in 1975 at a time when there was growing concern over unsolved crimes. It concluded that chimp dabs looked exactly the same as ours, but did not link them to any specific offence.”

My late night conversations with the internet led to another conversation with my imagination - and hopefully yours as well: is there anything useful in this for a mystery writer? Maybe fingerprints at a crime scene of a koala or even a primate that baffle investigators? More believable if they’re partials? The problem is why would a koala be at a crime scene in the first place, because they’re law-abiding and not prone to fits of murderous rage? This character analysis comes from a close relationship with my childhood stuffy. Let’s assume the koala is innocent. Please. Maybe if the story is set in Australia or in a zoo, koala fingerprints could be found at the crime scene.

12 March 2023

Art theft: Churchill and Zelensky

Around December 2021 the famous Yousuf Karsh 1941 photograph of Winston Churchill was stolen from the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa and replaced by a forgery. The heist was about 2 months before Russia invaded Ukraine. The Russian invasion is not related to the photograph but also, very related.

The photograph is perhaps one of the most widely reproduced photos of all time. Prime Minister Churchill's belligerent expression exemplified the British resolve to win against Hitler, who many believed to be invincible.

Karsh at that time lived in the Chateau Laurier and was a friend of the Prime Minister of Canada - William Lyon Mackenzie King - and this is how he was able to take the photograph and why it was hanging in the Chateau Laurier.

The photograph is aptly titled ‘The Roaring Lion’. The roar behind the photograph has a story, some parts moving and some parts simply hilarious. Just prior to the photograph being taken, Prime Minister Churchill had given a rousing and defiant speech to the Parliament of Canada. In fact, if you look closely at the photograph you can see the speech peeking out of his pocket. It was a speech to an ally in Parliament but Churchill knew it was a speech that would be shared with the world. I picture him writing the speech by reaching deep within himself into places where hope and belligerence met.

After this speech, and probably carrying the mood of the speech with him, Churchill was brought into the Speaker’s Chamber. Here he found Karsh waiting, with his camera and lighting equipment. The Prime Minister of Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie King, hadn't told Churchill he was to be photographed so Churchill roared, "Why was I not told?” I suspect that the look captured on Churchill’s face was present at that moment. Churchill gave Karsh two minutes to take the photograph and this is how Karsh described the two minutes:

“Churchill’s cigar was ever present. I held out an ashtray, but he would not dispose of it. I went back to my camera and made sure that everything was all right technically. I waited; he continued to chomp vigorously at his cigar. I waited. Then I stepped toward him and, without premeditation, but ever so respectfully, I said, “Forgive me, sir,” and plucked the cigar out of his mouth. By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me. It was at that instant that I took the photograph.”

The title of the photograph came, inadvertently, from Churchill himself, who told Karsh, “You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.” So Karsh named the photograph 'The Roaring Lion'.

This photograph, as much as Churchill’s speech, helped bolster the resolve to continue fighting during those difficult days.

Almost 80 years – perhaps even to the day – after Karsh took this photograph, it was stolen. Then two months later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

Russia believed it would win the war quickly because it was a much more powerful nation than Ukraine. It felt invincible, just like Hitler did. However, Russia faced two potent forces: history and Zelensky.

History taught Europe and North America that appeasement doesn’t work and the only thing to do when one country attacks a sovereign country is to fight. Churchill’s photograph embodies this fight.

After the 1938 Munich Conference, then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared his appeasement of Hitler had obtained “peace for our time.” When Chamberlain resigned in disgrace, Churchill - who had argued against appeasement - became the Prime Minister, outlined a bold plan of British resistance and declared Britain would “never surrender.”

When Russia invaded Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky turned down an offer from the United States of evacuation from the capital city Kyiv, by famously stating, "The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride," and with that statement, Zelensky became a wartime leader and, his own ‘Roaring Lion’.

This is because human stories of history never stay in books about the past - they are relived by every generation.

Listening to Churchill’s 1941 speech in that Parliament of Canada and then, Zelensky’s 2022 speech to the Parliament of Canada - although they are very different - one can hear similar themes: both spoke to the courage of their people and the brutality of their opponent. Both were unbowed and pugnacious in their resolve. Leaders give speeches for their allies, for their enemies but, most of all, for their own people because of the personal costs of war. We see that now in videos of Ukraine. We know that more from stories of WWII. My mother-in-law told me half of the young boys she grew up with were killed in the war. I think of that incomprehensible loss when I see videos of the devastation in Ukraine. During wartime, leaders must be roaring lions to keep up the spirit of their people and play down the invincibility of their enemy.

Even though the original stolen photo, The Roaring Lion, has never been recovered, there are copies of this elsewhere, to remind us of a time back then and how easily back then becomes now. History never stays in books - as long as there are people, history is relived by each generation. Apparently, art continues to be stolen by each generation as well.

11 December 2022

Justice delayed but not denied:
Investigative genetic genealogy

It’s that time of year when people think about interesting presents to give and you might have hit on a unique idea: DNA testing. Perhaps you want family and friends to find out about health risks. Perhaps you saw an advertisement and thought this saves you from going into crowded malls or because someone you know is a history buff and this is what they want. Whatever the reason, by getting DNA tests on yourself or others, you’ve joined millions of people around the world who send off a swab of their cheek or a saliva sample and get information using their DNA.

With your DNA test you’ve done something that you probably never thought you’d do: help catch criminals by solving cold cases. 

In December 1983, Sean McCowan and his brother stayed overnight at the apartment of his sister, 22-year-old Erin Gilmour, "She … would do that frequently, we would sort of go over there and spend the night and just hang out with her and then we'd all climb into bed together and watch movies and eat popcorn," said Sean McCowan, who was 13 years old when his sister was killed. "It was five days before Christmas, and so … we all woke up the next morning. Erin drove my brother Kaelin back … to my mom's house. And I ... went out actually to do some Christmas shopping. And we said our goodbyes and that was the last time I saw her.” 

That evening, Erin was brutally raped and murdered in the same apartment where she and her brothers watched movies and ate popcorn the night before.

Four months earlier, in August of 1983, Susan Tice, 45, was also brutally raped and murdered in her Toronto home.

”My mom was supposed to have dinner with my aunt and uncle and when she didn't show up, he went to the house to find out where she was," said her daughter, Christian Tice, who was 16 at the time. "We had like the best family… we were very, very close… we did everything together. We were one of those houses where everybody else's friends were always over… And everyone called my mom Mrs. T or Ma.” 

In 2000, DNA technology showed that one person was responsible for both crimes but police were still unable to identify the man.

In November 2022, almost four decades later, Joseph George Sutherland was arrested and charged with these two brutal crimes. 

How were they able to identify and arrest Sutherland? 

“In 2019, police began using a technique called "investigative genetic genealogy” to identify the suspect's family group. The process involves cross-referencing DNA found at crime scenes with DNA samples voluntarily submitted to services like 23andMe or and then uploaded to open-source databases.”

Essentially, this arrest was made possible by the millions of people who got DNA tests for many reasons but none of them to finally jail a brutal rapist and murderer.

So, when you buy a DNA test for yourself or someone you care about, you’re not only finding out interesting things about health and family history. You are helping find criminals who would otherwise have walked free. 

Det.-Sgt. Steve Smith, lead investigator on the cold case, “called the investigation the "most complex" case he's worked in his 25 years on the force and credited the recent development to genetic genealogy. He said that Sutherland had never previously been a person of interest in the killings. "If we hadn't utilized this technology, we never would have came to his name.”

There have been many valid privacy concerns about the DNA databases of companies that provide these tests. However, the use of these data bases to catch criminals, in my opinion, is not merely fair but also just. Sutherland has walked freely among us for over four decades while those who loved his two victims have had justice denied to them. Using databases to finally arrest and try Sutherland is fair and just to his victims and their families.

The most powerful argument to support using these databases in this way, are the pictures of Sutherland’s victims. These photos are over 40 years old. Both Erin Gilmour and  Susan Tice should have had many more photos taken of them since 1983, when they became frozen in time because they were brutally murdered.

13 November 2022

What happens in Gatineau doesn't stay in Gatineau

"By day he worked for the Canadian government as an IT specialist.

By night, he worked as a drug trafficker and becomes a federal government employee  hacker, extorting companies and others around the world as a part of a criminal ransomware gang, amassing millions of dollars in bitcoin by threatening to expose the private digital information of victims who didn't pay up.”

For those who don’t know Gatineau, its a rather sleepy community in Quebec, so near the capital of Canada, Ottawa, that many federal civil servants live there because it’s lovely, nestled in nature, and much cheaper than Ottawa. Who would have thought that an international criminal in ransomware - masquerading as a 33-year-old simple bureaucrat - lived there? He has an addiction to making money and is very dangerous.

What is ransomware? It’s a form of malicious software that blocks access to a computer or computers until a ransom payment is made.  The ransomware criminals hold sensitive information on the locked computer and threaten to release the information publicly if the payment is not made. How much? Millions of dollars. In bitcoin that can’t be traced.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Fifth Estate, it’s an amazing CBC investigative journalism program. Here is the link:

My summary:

The hacker, User ID 128, has a name: Vachon-Desjardins. He doesn’t live big, he lives in a small home in a sleepy community. He just wants more money. And then, even more.

He attacked universities and health institutions during COVID-19, their most vulnerable time, to extort millions. He threatened them with losing their valuable data and releasing personal information on patients. Why? For money. “He told me … he was having an addiction to money. He always wanted more and more and more. He [didn’t] know where to stop,”

Vachon was charged in Canada and, after the FBI got involved via the ransomware attacks in the United States, he was extradited and charged there too. “I think that a lot of individuals who commit these crimes don’t think that they’ll ever stand trial in the United States. I think that the 20-year sentence was a very good deterrence piece to prevent others who might consider committing this type of conduct, that maybe they should think twice.”

Vachon-Desjardins remains in Pinellas County Jail in Clearwater, Fla., as he awaits his next hearing set for January, when restitution for his victims will be decided. He will then be assigned to a federal prison.”

Does crime pay for those who need more and more money? At first, it sure looked like it, “When police raided Vachon-Desjardins’ Gatineau home and arrested him on Jan. 27, 2021, they seized $742,840 and 719 Bitcoin, valued at approximately $21,849,087 at the time and $14,463,993 as of today.”

Today, he’s in a federal prison in the United States, serving a 20 year sentence.

What happens in a small home, in a sleepy community like Gatineau Canada? A lot apparently. And what happens in Gatineau never stays in Gatineau. It isn’t Las Vegas. Thank goodness.

Threatening institutions in Canada and the United States during COVID-19 should have a price — 20 years seems hardly enough.

11 September 2022

Medicine and Mysteries: Justice Served

Medicine and mystery novels have much in common and this pandemic has highlighted one commonality in a very tragic way.

Many doctors I know are mystery readers. Many mystery writers the world knows are doctors, from Arthur Conan Doyle to Josephine Bell, Daniel Kalla and Tess Gerritsen.

Readers of mysteries are often greeted with a person facing a serious situation, or a tragedy, often from the first page or shortly thereafter. The rest of the book is all about unraveling the complexities of this story – the pain, the fears and, often with many clues – finally finding out whodunnit.

In medicine a person comes carrying a serious story and through listening to the story, unraveling the complexities of their story, their pains, their fears, we often add some tests and hopefully lift the burden of their story with a treatment once we’ve identified the disease or - in mystery terms - whodunnit.

The focus on the story, the complexities of people and the determination to find whodunnit: this is what mystery readers (and writers) and doctors share.

There’s something else they have in common: a sense of moral beliefs and justice being satisfied – as much as they can be – is part of this commonality.

Physicians go into medicine to help people – to deliver just and fair care to patients. Oddly, one can look on medicine as a means (within limits of science) to rectify the wrongs of disease. It is an attempt to give back the patient the best life they can have for as long as they can have it.

Readers approach mystery novels with a sense of righting wrongs and a sense of of justice delivered.

Imagine a mystery book where everyone throws up their hands and claims that they will never find a murderer because they don’t care or can’t be bothered. Where not even a smidgen of justice is served and the smirking murderer goes free. Now, of  course this may make an interesting plot but, let’s face it, it’s not the normal fare served by a mystery novel. In fact, I would argue, that seeing evil get their comeuppance is part of the satisfaction of reading a good mystery. Yes, we must often tolerate suffering of the innocent but suffering of the many innocents while detectives shrug their shoulders is certainly not the norm and would leave readers disappointed.

Now, imagine being a doctor during the pandemic. At first, physicians were swamped with patents they could not help because COVID-19 was a new disease. Not only did we lack vaccines and treatments, but we were woefully short of the knowledge and supplies to use masks. Then, vaccines came in, and when one waned, we had more vaccines and the promise (now fulfilled) of better vaccines. We had good quality research to show that masks work to prevent infection and even ample supplies of good masks, not just to protect healthcare workers but also the public. We now have rapid antigen tests - although they aren’t perfect, they give an indication of who is infected, allowing them to isolate and prevent further infections.

All of this good stuff should make being a doctor better than it was at the beginning of the pandemic. So, why are many doctors burning out, quitting their jobs or suffering from various mental health problems, including depression?

Part of it stems from the behaviour of the public. Many are eschewing updating their vaccines – or refusing vaccines altogether – and refusing to wear masks. If they get infected and hospitalized – there are some treatments. However, putting a COVID19 patient in a hospital bed may mean that a cancer patient doesn’t get their surgery or a patent in pain doesn’t get a hip replacement. The doctors caring for cancer patients who can’t get a hospital bed, can’t offer them optimal treatment and watch the unnecessary deterioration of their patients. As we add more patients with COVID19 and LongCovid, and lose doctors, physicians at times cannot get their patients access to the help they need for specialist care. Some physicians have been subjected to abuse – verbal and physical – from increasingly frustrated patients. 

The Canadian Medical Association has identified moral injury as a serious and growing problem during the pandemic:

“In the context of health care, when physicians are unable to uphold the oath they took to deliver the best care and put the needs of their patients first, they can experience moral injury. Moral injury is not considered a mental illness; however, those who experience moral injuries often develop negative thoughts about themselves and others, and these symptoms can lead to the development of mental health conditions.”

Moral injury is not a new problem for physicians, but it has increased during this pandemic. A pre-pandemic paper described the dilemma accurately:

“Moral injury describes the challenge of simultaneously knowing what care patients need but being unable to provide it due to constraints that are beyond our control.”

To not be able to properly care for patients is like a lousy ending to a mystery novel – except it’s worse. Much worse. These are real people. With lives, loves and people who love them. To not be able to help a patient because medical science is not up to the task is always sad. However, to not be able to access the care we have and allowing patients to suffer is immoral and unjust.

14 August 2022

Fingerprints: Not So Elementary

Can a character in a mystery and crime novel have no fingerprints or altered fingerprints? This would make for a fascinating plot twist.

Fingerprints are used to identify people because each one is unique. Formed during pregnancy, fingerprints remain the same throughout life.

Fingerprints are also usually a durable identifier. In one famous case, a gangster in the 1930s, John Dillinger, tried to destroy his fingerprints by burning his fingertips with fire and acid. In the end, his skin regrew and his fingerprints were still intact.

However, details on fingerprints can be temporally changed

Some jobs, such as bricklayers, dishwashers and those who work with chemicals such as calcium oxide, may lose some details in their fingerprints but the ridges grow back once these activities stop.

Some medical conditions can impact fingerprints temporarily. Skin diseases such as eczema or psoriasis may cause temporary changes to the fingerprints, but upon healing the fingerprints will return to their original pattern.

Other medical conditions can leave people with no fingerprints at all.

A genetic disorder, adermatoglyphia, causes a person to have no fingerprints. Scleroderma is a disease associated with changes in skin elasticity, hardness, and thickness and eventually make a patient with scleroderma a “fingerprintless person”.

Some people treated for breast or colon cancer with the chemotherapy drug capecitabine may have a side effect called “hand-foot syndrome,” which sometimes can lead to loss of fingerprints.


What about a criminal who wants to change their fingerprints? One interesting option is surgical, “using plastic surgery (changing the skin completely, causing change in pattern – portions of skin are removed from a finger and grafted back in different positions, like rotation or “Z” cuts, transplantations of an area from other parts of the body like other fingers, palms, toes, soles.”

There’s an interesting case proving this actually works. A woman used this surgical method, “skin from her thumbs and index fingers were reportedly removed and then grafted on to the ends of fingers on the opposite hand. As a result, Rong's identity was not detected when she re-entered Japan illegally.”

Maybe we are entering a whole new era where we now have the knowledge that fingerprints aren’t as reliable as they once were, can even be changed and we now could have new plots twists.