Review critical of RCMP

By Alistair Waters
staff reporter

An internal review of the 1994 Mindy Tran murder investigation has slammed the Kelowna RCMP for its handling of the case.

The review, by a team of 14 Alberta RCMP officers led by Insp. Ray Ambler of the southern Alberta major crimes unit, said the investigation lacked a "formal case management system that ensured a quality and a timely investigation through proper management supervision, direction and accountability.

"The review team found that the investigation was not well structured and that lack of a case management system contributed to the loss of the best evidence through time delay and poor technique," states the report.

But while it says the handing of the investigation alone was not enough to put the case against the man accused of the murder in jeopardy, coupled with the actions of some investigators the report says it caused the case to fail.

"There were a few, whose bad judgment, loss of objectivity and a failure to live up to one's duty as a member of the RCMP, contributed to the downfall of this file," says the report.

"The absence of a cohesive team approach, compounded by a lack of an objective overview and a lack of shared vision by (the) detachment and senior management, served to further impede the resolution of the problems unidentified in this review."

The individual officers were not identified in the heavily censored report by the privacy commissioner's office that was released to the media on Tuesday.

Shannon Murrin was acquitted of the murder of eight-year-old Mindy Tran of Rutland in January 2000, five years after the little girl's body was found in a shallow grave in Mission Creek Park.

She disappeared Aug. 17, 1994, sparking a huge search throughout the community.

Murrin, who was first identified by the RCMP as its prime suspect before being charged, was staying at a nearby house at the time of Mindy's disappearance.

Despite the acquittal, the Kelowna RCMP continue to maintain that the right person was charged and say the case is now closed.

On Tuesday, the police took the unusual step of releasing the internal police report to the media, holding a technical briefing and a press conference.

While many parts of the report are deleted, what's left still paints an unflattering picture of an investigation that was found to be poorly handled from the start.

"The downfall of this case was the integrity of the investigation," says the report. "Defense at trial was able to successfully attack the integrity of the investigation and thereby weaken the evidence to the point that the jury arrived at a verdict of not guilty."

One of the biggest problems was the beating of Murrin by three men described by RCMP spokesman Cpl. Grant Learned as controlled by the police. While the trio claimed they were put up to the beating by investigators, subsequent investigations into the incident showed police were not directly involved and no disciplinary or criminal action was ever taken.

The review team said the integrity question centred on the beating and how it was handled by senior officers in Kelowna.

The report says the lead investigator, Sgt. Gary Tidsbury, should have been removed from that position at that time. Tidsbury has since retired from the force and is living in Alberta.

"The action taken by senior management was not adequate. They failed to ensure the integrity of the investigation by dealing quickly and decisively with the issues that the beating raised," the report says.

As a result, says the report, the rift developed within the local RCMP, including among plain-clothes general investigation officers and among uniformed officers. The schism was still observed in April 2000, five years later.

"At a time when team work and cooperation were needed most,the detachment fragmented into acrimonious division," says the review team's report.

It goes on to say that there is also evidence to suggest that actions taken by senior officers in respect to other officers, served to only "further destroy team cohesion, certain individuals and to further intensify the problems."

Neither the individual officers nor the senior officers are identified in uncensored portions of the report released to the media.

While the report is critical of the way the investigation was handled, it says there was no lack of hard work, dedication and investigative skill by some officers involved in the case.

But incidents like the washing of clothing evidence, not taping all critical interviews, not disclosing all information to or seeking input from the Crown prosecutors, and delaying photographic line-ups all impacted on the case.

Despite the report's findings, the current Kelowna detachment commander, Insp. Don Harrison, who was not stationed in Kelowna at the time of the Tran murder investigation, called the report a validation of what was done right in the investigation.

Harrison said he has the highest regard for all the officers associated with the case.

Harrison would not be drawn into criticizing the report's authors for their comments about individuals as opposed to the investigation itself.

Of the report's 23 recommendations, he said all have been adopted by the Kelowna detachment.

However, because of the privacy office censoring of the report, none of the recommendations were made public.

Learned called the Tran murder the "single most demanding challenge faced by officers at the Kelowna detachment."

"As one of the officers put it, we were handed a bomb with the fuse already lit," said Learned.

Both he and Harrison said the public should have confidence in the abilities of the RCMP despite the criticisms contained in the report.

They said the public should recognize the fact the report was made public, albeit in censored form, is evidence the RCMP have learned from this particular investigation and are ready to move on.

Local RCMP spokesman Const. Garth Letcher said the Tran family was informed of the report's findings but declined to comment.