OP-ED: Will Justice be subverted by searching for human remains in a Winnipeg garbage dump?
OP-ED: Will Justice be subverted by searching for human remains in a Winnipeg garbage dump?

In an announcement that shocked the city on December 1, 2022, the Winnipeg Police Service revealed Jeremy Skibicki, a 35-year-old unemployed white man, had been charged with first-degree murder of four indigenous women.

These unfortunate women were 39-year-old Morgan Harris, 26-year Marcedes Myran, 24-year old Rebecca Contois, and a fourth woman who has never been identified.

This revelation was followed by a December 6 news conference where Winnipeg Police Service Chief Danny Smyth said that although it was believed the remains of Harris and Myran were at the Prairie Green Landfill north of the city, the police had made the “very difficult decision” not to excavate the site. He said it wasn’t feasible to do so because of the passage of time and the large volume of material deposited there.

Police had not become aware that the remains were dumped at Prairie Green until 34 days later. At the December 6 briefing, Inspector Cam MacKid said he and his forensics, intelligence and technology department determined that by that point, about 10,000 truckloads of debris were dumped on the same spot they were interested in searching.

MacKid also said the garbage was later compacted with 9,000 tonnes of wet, heavy construction clay.

An additional study, only recently revealed,  supports these assertions. The RCMP concluded in December 2022 that police were not able to deal with the complexities of searching the Winnipeg-area landfill for the slain women’s remains

This decision has always been roundly rejected by Harris and Myran family members, indigenous leaders and activists, and many other supporters.

Seven days after December 6 police press conference, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs (AMC) and other indigenous organizations asked the federal government for money to conduct their own feasibility study.

On February 8, 2023, Marc Miller, the minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, allocated $500,000 to support that effort.

The AMC quickly appointed a Landfill Search Feasibility Study Committee to carry out the feasibility study. Its nine-member Landfill Search Feasibility Study Oversight Committee, a body with unfettered authority to recommend a search, was composed solely of indigenous politicians, representatives for the two affected families, indigenous activists, and elders. Hardly a disinterested body of people.

The objectivity of the study’s Technical Subcommittee can also be questioned. Though it employed two forensic experts, less than two pages of the report reviewed previous forensic searches of landfills. The important and well known 2019 Paulsen and Moran study was given short shrift and saw its warning “A search should not be initiated if more than 60 days had passed between the body entering the landfill and the search being initiated” arbitrarily softened to read “Paulsen and Moran (2019) caution initiating a search when more than 60 days has passed between the body entering the landfill and the search being initiated.”

If “caution” is necessary for a post-60-day search, what should a 10-fold post-600-day search be called, the time that would elapse if a Prairie Green search were initiated in mid-August of this year?

Given these biases and data distortions, it is mall wonder the study concluded in early May that, “Ultimately, after consideration of all the variables outlined in this report, the Technical Subcommittee has determined a search … for remains of Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran is feasible.”

In a July 6 statement Manitoba Premier Heather Stefanson, citing the feasibility study, expressed concern that a search for the women’s remains could negatively affect the court case.

We need to respect the judicial process that this continues to go through. We don’t want to jeopardize that,” she told reporters without elaboration.

A week later, Miller said the Manitoba government’s decision not to support a search based on the feasibility study’s findings was “heartless” and callous and that it had damaged, if not destroyed, the federal government’s ability to help with the search.

In reply, Stefanson added the key issue of questionable feasibility while also arguing that:

What should not happen — must not happen — is the continuing politicization of this awful tragedy. This irresponsible approach can only compound the suffering of the families, inflame wider community issues and threaten matters already before the courts.

Though she has never detailed these legal threats, Stefanson was clearly referencing Skibicki’s trial for the murder of these women scheduled to begin in April 2024.

That Skibicki could benefit from all the turmoil surrounding the search for the remains of these women is both compelling and troubling.

In the interest of objectivity and transparency, the still officially secret feasibility study should have been headed by impartial researchers.

In particular, Skibicki and his lawyer, Leonard Tailleur, must certainly be hoping that the fruitless hunt for these two women goes forward as its angry and frustrated supporters, including Miller, are demanding.

Though the identity of the members of the feasibility study’s Oversight Committee are now known, this only confirms it was made up of people with preconceived notions about the search, a questionable state of affairs which could very well compromise the murder charges against Skibicki. Banning the police and other experienced fact-finding institutions from taking the lead in the feasibility study was highly problematic. The universal principles of natural justice and their application in Canada say that victims or their families and close allies must never be allowed to control any criminal investigation.

Perhaps the most important threat to Skibicki’s successful prosecution is recognition that justice delayed is justice denied. In 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada set hard limits of 30 months from the date charges are laid for these kind of cases to their conclusion.

Skibicki was charged in December 2022. His trial is slated to start next April — 16 months after his charges were laid. It’s unclear how long that trial could take. The feasibility study estimates a search, if it is undertaken, could take 12 to 36 months.

If the Crown were to ask for a stay of proceedings pending the completion of the search, a real possibility given how hard it is to get a murder conviction in the absence of dead body, Stibicki’s could end up walking free.

Whether remains are found or not, his lawyer could also claim that Skibicki’s right to a fair trial had been abrogated by what is nothing short of a vigilante hunt by those closely connected or sympathetic to his alleged victims.

As expected, the Winnipeg Police Service has been very tight lipped about their evidence against Skibicki though it may be surmised they have eye witness and/or forensic evidence implicating him in the murders.

Whether such evidence alone would be sufficient to convict him of the heinous crime of murder beyond a reasonable doubt is questionable given that murders without bodies are very hard to prosecute, especially in Manitoba.

Despite these legal conundrums, social media insights and records of past convictions certainly paint Skibicki in an unflattering light.

Facebook posts viewed by the Winnipeg Free Press are said to contain threats of violence, antisemitic content and references to a white conspiracy theory.

Yet, those who assert that Skibicki hated aboriginals and that his actions — if proven in a court of law — constitute “genocide,” will have to reconcile that with the fact that his two wives were both indigenous women.

Nevertheless, he abused and threatened to kill both of them.

In June 2015, he was convicted of assaulting his common-law wife and spent some two months behind bars. According to a court statement of facts, Skibicki grabbed his pregnant partner’s hair and punched her in the face several times, then tried to strangle her. He told her he would kill her if she called police.

In 2019, Skibicki’s estranged second wife successfully filed for a protection order against him, alleging that she suffered a litany of abuse at his hands and that he threatened to kill her.

Police have said Skibicki and Rebecca Contois, the first murdered woman, knew each other but gave no details.

It is also know that Skibicki preyed on vulnerable indigenous women by frequenting soup kitchens and homeless shelters in Winnipeg’s inner city, meeting women whom he would take home to his apartment, according to numerous sources.

CBC spoke with a friend of Skibicki’s, who spent time with him at the McKay Avenue apartment Skibicki moved into in October 2021, and where he lived until his arrest on May 18, 2022.

During the time Skibicki lived at the apartment, the man saw about half a dozen women he believes were indigenous come and go, though Skibicki told him he’d had at least 30 women stay with him for varying periods of time. 

He also often saw drug paraphernalia in Skibicki’s apartment after the women left.

Jeremy Skibicki is facing four first-degree murder charges. A friend describes Skibicki’s behaviour with vulnerable women as ‘predatory.’ (Jeremy Skibicki/Facebook)

All this indirect evident suggests these four women were likely homeless individuals hopelessly involved in the dangerous streetwalker sex trade to feed their substance addiction. But this in no way excuses their wilful execution: these were heinous crimes regardless of the women’s status, occupation, or life circumstances. These women never deserved to die.

Skibicki has claimed he is innocent of all charges and none of these observations remotely prove that Skibicki murdered four hapless women.

Like any citizen, he deserves to be considered innocent until proven guilty. Conversely, fruitlessly searching for the remains of the two women may result in a guilty man being found innocent.

Hymie Rubenstein is editor of The REAL Indigenous Issues Newsletter and a retired professor of anthropology, University of Manitoba.

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