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Re-opening the Sophonow Inquiry

CBC's The Fifth Estate launched a vile attack on former Crown Attorney George Dangerfield this weekend.

It's biased, single-minded assault on a respected civil servant was so egregious it deserves, and will get, a separate evisceration of its own.

In the meantime, though, we'll use the opportunity to take a close look at The Fifth Estate's chief prosecution witness---Tom Sophonow.

* Thomas Sophonow was the first winner of the Manitoba NDP's Reward-a-Convicted-Killer Prize.

He collected $2.6 million after the Winnipeg police abruptly declared in 2000 that he was innocent of the 1981 murder for which two juries convicted him. The reason provided obliquely to the people who had to watch him saunter off with their money was that police had discovered the real killer.

It turns out the "evidence" for the exoneration was compiled by an amateur, wannabe profiler whose conclusions are so farcical they deserve a separate examination (which we'll provide tomorrow).

* To appease the public, the NDP held a charade they called a 'public inquiry' at which the lies Sophonow told juries under oath were declared to be the truth and truths were declared to be lies.

And through it all, the mainstream media placidly regurgitated the Alice-In-Wonderland proceedings as if they reflected objective fact.

Imagine our surprise, then, when we got a tip that the transcripts of the Sophonow Inquiry had surfaced!

* Unlike the Driskell Inquiry or the Taman Inquiry where transcripts were available freely on the Internet, the record of the Sophonow Inquiry disappeared for years into some backroom closet where it was recently discovered under a dusty pile of Ethics for Auditor Generals pamphlets.

How accurately had the proceedings that turned a twice-convicted murder suspect into a millionaire been reported?

Start with the twine.

* You remember the twine, surely. Ex-Judge Peter Cory, the ringmaster of the Sophonow Charade, made it a centerpiece of his final report.

Cory concluded that the police botched the investigation into the murder of sixteen-year-old Barbara Stoppel when they traced the twine used to strangle her to British Columbia and consequently zeroed in on Vancouver resident Thomas Sophonow as the prime suspect.

But, thundered Cory in his final report, the twine was actually manufactured in Manitoba at a plant in Portage la Prairie.

If only the police had spent $100 for a chemical test they would have known that and spared Sophonow years of agony. And, by not revealing to the defence that they knew the Manitoba plant made twine like that used to kill Stoppel the prosecutors were responsible for a miscarriage of justice.

The only thing wrong with that conclusion is that every word is false.

Cory, sticking to the script, carefully avoided the real reason Sophonow became a suspect.

* The day after the murder of Barbara Stoppel in Winnipeg, Sophonow arrived in Hope, B.C. He had driven non-stop from Manitoba to British Columbia. He testified that in Hope he spotted a poster for a missing girl named something like Berkley. The girl looked a lot like a girl Sophonow knew in Winnipeg, a girl who lived on Mayfair Avenue, where Sophonow had visited (or stayed---his story changed) when he was in Winnipeg on the day of the murder. He phoned RCMP and they interviewed him.

Mayfair, for those who don't know, is a hop and a skip north of the donut shop where Stoppel was killed, just over the Norwood Bridge. Her killer was followed to the bridge where he was confronted by a witness and where he was seen to throw a box off the bridge.

Winnipeg police chased down every lead, every tip they got on Stoppel's murder. And they got a lot, particularly after a composite drawing of the suspect was released that had him wearing a cowboy hat. At one point they swore they interviewed everyone in the city who owned or ever wore a cowboy hat.

But their investigation turned up nothing concrete, so they widened their net, working with what they knew, which at that point included the fact that the twine used in the murder was likely made specifically for B.C. Hydro. They asked other police jurisdictions if they had anything of potential interest that could help jump-start the Stoppel case.

And that's how Sophonow's name came up.

He was in Winnipeg the day of the murder. He drove 23 hours straight to B.C. starting the night Barbara Stoppel was killed. He knew a girl who lived near the Dominion Shopping Centre where the murder happened. Hey, why don't we ask him a few more questions?

But, but, but…didn't they get it wrong? Wasn't the twine really made in Manitoba?

In a word----NO.

* Police canvassed the immediate area of the murder and several square blocks around it for a source of the twine. When nothing turned up, they started questioning local businesses that used or distributed twine. More than one suggested they speak to Berkley & Co. Canada Ltd. in Portage la Prairie, a local twine manufacturer.

They phoned Berkley's general sales manager who had been with the company the longest of almost anyone. "…he advised that at no time does he recall making twine of that colour." But he suggested the company could do a chemical analysis to determine if the twine the police had was from Berkley's plant.

Winnipeg police drove out to Portage la Prairie and showed a sample of their twine to a company rep. He pulled it apart and said "it was not their product because their product had 9 individual fibres in each strand and the sample that we provided apparently had 20."

The police search eventually lead them to British Columbia where B.C. Hydro used a lot of twine just like that recovered by Winnipeg police for pulling wires through conduits in hydro installations.

And, guess what? They were advised by B.C. Hydro to check with Berkley & Co. in Portage la Prairie, one of their suppliers.

So, they did, for the third time. And once again they were told "it's not ours." Police records even contain a Berkley internal memorandum that says "they never made a 1/8 inch rope with that colour confirmation (sic)."

By then, however, police had spoken with Power Twines Ltd. of Washington. The manager there said that "his company were the manufacturers of this twine." A company spokesman confirmed that it was No. 8 B.C. Hydro twine which was "made specifically in those colour combinations for B.C. Hydro."

And millions of feet were discarded each year after use. Further investigation showed that B.C. Hydro had an area office on Boundary Road in Vancouver.

Thomas Sophonow lived on Boundary Road.

* Is that the end of the story? Hell, no. Remember that no chemical test had been performed on the twine that Berkley managers said they never made.

Here's what Cory had to say:

"Mr. Brodsky, Defence Counsel in the second and third trials, assumed that the testing had been done.
In any event, at the second and third trials, Mr. Brodsky agreed to having the evidence with regard to the twine emanating from British Columbia read into the record.
The failure to disclose this information undoubtedly led the Defence to accept and to agree that the origin of the twine was British Columbia. The disclosure would have ensured the testing of the twine. This, in turn, would have resulted in the elimination of this as evidence linking Thomas Sophonow to the crime."

Here's what the evidence said:

Greg Brodsky was Sophonow's defence lawyer at the second trial which started Feb. 21, 1983. The "public inquiry" was told that in February, 1983, spoke with a representative of Berkley & Co. and confirmed they sold rope like the twine in question to B.C. firms. But he was also told "this rope of theirs was marketed in B.C. but that the rope which police officers had definitely did not come from their factory."

It wasn't made by Berkely Twine in Portage la Prairie. They didn't make twine of that colour, of that fibre count, or with that number of picks per foot (cross-threads that hold the twine together). It "definitely" didn't come from their factory and Greg Brodsky knew that before the second trial started.

So, how was he misled, exactly?

Oh, right, because the twine wasn't chemically tested. And a chemical test (or was it an atomic absorption test?) of the twine used in the murder matched the twine made by Berkley, according to the Cory Inquiry:

"The results of that test showed that the twine that was used to strangle Barbara Stoppel contained lithium zirconate in the ratio of 1 to 7.5 that would include an analytical error of a ratio of 1 to 6.6 which was the content of the lithium zirconate tracer in Berkley twine and its further agreed that Berkley &Co. of Portage la Prairie and Berkley in the United States in Iowa were the only companies at the time that used a chemical tracer in their plastics. And finally its agreed that the twine that was manufactured by Powers Twines in Washington did not contain chemical tracer at the relevant time."

Not one MSM reporter asked the obvious question---was the chemical test wrong?

And if it wasn't, how could it say a green twine of a kind not made by the company in Canada was made by the company in Canada which didn't make green twine like that?

Alice-in-Wonderland, indeed.

* There was so much not reported about Thomas Sophonow.

He worked as a bouncer/doorman at the Lougheed Hotel in Vancouver. Three days before leaving for Winnipeg, he broke the little finger on his left hand in a fight.

He came to Winnipeg two days before Christmas to see his daughter, who lived here with her mother. He brought Christmas presents for her. The problem, he didn't know where she was. Oh, and his ex-wife didn't want anything to do with him; she was afraid, afraid he would take his daughter with him.

Sophonow thought the thing to do was to drive two hours to Fisher Branch to the home of his ex-wife's father and drop in unannounced. He started, but decided to phone ahead first. He learned his ex was not there. So he phoned her sister in Winnipeg.

His ex got his message and called him (at a payphone on Main Street). The conversation did not end well. She agreed to let him see his daughter---in a public place (a McDonald's restaurant), but only for 15 minutes. He was furious and refused to limit his visit to those conditions. He drove to his sister-in-law's home and left the presents for his daughter with her, along with a note for his ex-wife which read something along the lines:

"Make sure Kimberly gets this or I will get you, so help me, I will get you."

* Sophonow said he had arranged to stay in Winnipeg with a girl who had been a babysitter for his girlfriend, who he had taken up with following the break-up of his four-month marriage.

Her drove to her apartment on Mayfair after arriving in Winnipeg, but the place was empty. He stayed anyway, catching up on some sleep before starting to drive to Fisher Branch.

At one of his trials, he learned that his then-ex-girlfriend was going to be called as a witness. He was worried she would testify about a certain incident involving this babysitter. He even wrote a note about his concern. (We've excised the names.)

"The phone call that I was wondering about during the trial was one of which I had with (the ex-girlfriend.) C.S. owed me $35.00, and I told her (the ex-girlfriend) if she doesn't pay me back I would kill her. That is what I was worried about."

Cory dismissed the incident as a joke made by Sophonow and understood as such by his ex-girlfriend. But Sophonow didn't treat it as a joke.

As late as the year 2000 Sophonow denied to police (who were preparing his exoneration) that had ever made such a comment. He recanted less than a week before he testified at the inquiry.

But police were aware of the threats to his ex-wife and to C.S. when they interviewed him in Vancouver prior to his being charged with the murder of Barbara Stoppel. They saw a 6'5", 200 pound man who would lash out at females who crossed him, and considered him a good suspect.

* By his own account he spent the day driving all around Winnipeg---St. Boniface, the North End, Polo Park, Fort Garry. "I cruised around Winnipeg. I went to a few people's places that I knew that weren't there…I went to some other people's places that weren't there."

He snacked alone at restaurants, was rebuffed by his ex-wife and her father, and even mechanical objects fought him. He wanted to install fog lights, but didn't have the proper tools. His car broke down; he had to wait in line for a quick repair. And the weather was frightful; a storm, if not a blizzard, blew in. So near to Christmas, when people huddle closer with their families, he was alone, frustrated, tired and angry.

* When the police finally came calling, Sophonow had a stockingful of alibis. He had an alibi for every occasion, a new one every time the evidence changed.

At his first trial he said he was on the phone long-distance to his mother in Vancouver and could never have driven across town through the snowstorm in time to commit the murder.

The murder happened later than the prosecution first thought? No problem. He was delivering Christmas stockings to shut-in children at Winnipeg Hospitals, he said. Why, he remembered clearly meeting a security guard at Victoria Hospital who told them they didn't have a sick children's ward and directed him to other hospitals.

There was no security guard at the Vic? But a nurse remembers a man delivering Christmas stockings? Oh, yeah. Sophonow's memory got sharper and he recalled clearly meeting a nurse at the Victoria Hospital, not a security guard.

But it turned out he didn't need his best alibi of all.

After a long night of dropping off candy-filled Christmas stockings at hospitals all about town, Sophonow pulled out of Winnipeg and headed west. He drove without stopping, in the dead of winter, most of the time in darkness, until he arrived in B.C.

Q. Do you remember anything about the trip back?
A. I remember hearing something on the radio of an assault on a girl at a donut shop. And I got into Saskatchewan. I had a flat tire. I got into B.C. I called my sister and asked her if the police were looking for me."

Q. Why did you make that call?
A. "Because I though that the donut shop that I was at is the donut shop where, you know, the assault happened."
"So, I said something to the effect that if the police were looking for me, because of the two boys that were outside the donut shop, they seen me, and she said no, and I just sort of, like, you know---she asked me why and everything like that. I said, you know, like "Don't worry about it. It's nothing."

So, Sophonow did visit a donut shop the night Barbara Stoppel was killed in a donut shop.

Only, he says, it was a Tim Horton's on Portage Avenue.

And he had witnesses--two boys riding their bicycles in the dead of a Winnipeg winter who might remember him for some reason.

And that worried him enough to ask "are the police looking for me?" ??

He was so worried in fact that he lied about it at his trial. Or, not exactly lied, just, well, did his best to dodge the question.

At trial, Crown attorney George Dangerfield asked Sophonow about a phone call.
The prosecution believed it was a call made by Sophonow to his mother in B.C. The theory was, as the inquiry counsel put it, "that Sophonow was calling back to Vancouver to basically see if the police were looking for him."

Only now we see that their tip was right but their facts were wrong. Sophonow didn't phone Vancouver from Winnipeg; he phoned Winnipeg from B.C. And he didn't call his mother, he called his sister.

But the police were dead on about the purpose of the call---to learn if the police were on his trail.

The Sophonow Inquiry had a handwritten memo from Sophonow to his lawyer Greg Brodsky regarding the incident.

"The phone calls are what Dangerfield says. When I was leaving Winnipeg I heard on the radio that Barbara Stoppel was attacked by a man matching the killer's description…"

Brodsky was asked about that memo, an exchange that never made the mainstream news.

"And in fact, Mr. Dangerfield in cross-examination of Mr. Sophonow asked him that specifically."
"He did."

"Mr. Sophonow denied that specifically."


"And, in fact, then after the fact, revealed to you that Mr. Dangerfield was correct."


"And that he had, in fact, not been truthful on the stand."

"Not been accurate on the stand."

Not truthful or not accurate?
You say po-tay-to, I say po-tah-to.

We'll have much more to say about this in the days ahead.

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