Ten years since the first sudden death in the Harrison family home and more than a year after a triple-murder trial, authorities have offered no public explanation for how a father, mother and son died years apart, under suspicious circumstances, before police concluded a killer was targeting them.
Peel Regional Police did not treat the 2009 death of Bill Harrison or the 2010 death of Bridget Harrison as homicides until their son, Caleb Harrison, was murdered on Aug. 23, 2013.
After a jury returned guilty verdicts in two of the three homicide cases last year, relatives of the Harrison family alleged that police and coroners failed to adequately investigate the first two deaths and called for an independent public inquiry. In response, Peel police chief Jennifer Evans, who has since retired, and Dr. Dirk Huyer, Ontario’s chief coroner, launched internal reviews of the death investigations and promised to make their findings public.
Instead of an independent inquiry, the family has been forced to accept a mixed bag of internal reviews — conducted by the same authorities whose mistakes devastated their family — that have dragged out their quest for a full explanation by an additional year and a half, with no end in sight.
“By the time these isolated reports are released, months, years will have gone by,” said Wanda Jamieson, a close family friend who has been working with the Harrisons on the ongoing reviews. “And neither the family nor the public will have a fully factual account of what went wrong, why, and what corrective, systemic action is needed in death investigations.
“This is very frustrating and worrying for us, as there is nothing to prevent something similar from happening to another family.”
Police, coroners and pathologists completed their internal reviews of the original death investigations months ago, but now say they will not make their reports public while other reviews and investigations are in progress.
A Peel police spokesperson said the force cannot discuss its review because of an ongoing investigation by the Office of the Independent Police Review Director, which is probing the conduct of Peel officers and Evans in response to a complaint from the Harrison family.
The OIPRD is an independent government agency that reviews public complaints against police and decides whether to investigate. After the OIPRD launched the probe last summer, a spokesperson said it aims to complete investigations within 120 days, but has up to six months under rules of the Police Services Act. Ten months later, it is still not finished.
The OIPRD does not comment on individual cases. A spokesperson confirmed the Harrison complaint investigation remains active, but said the agency could say no more due to privacy requirements. The Harrison family has been told that because it is a complex case the OIPRD cannot give a timeline for completion, Jamieson said.
Members of the Harrison family have seen a copy of the internal police review but signed a confidentiality agreement as a condition of reviewing the report, Jamieson said.
Staff Sgt. Adrian Adore, a spokesperson for Peel police, said that “a determination will be made regarding the public release of the report,” after the OIPRD investigation is completed
Together, the Office of Ontario’s Chief Coroner and the Ontario Forensic Pathology Service have finished their own internal review, but that report can’t be made public yet either, said Cheryl Mahyr, issues manager for the two agencies. Why? Because it is under review by the Death Investigation Oversight Council, which oversees the work of the province’s coroners and pathologists.
The oversight council, created as a result of the Goudge Inquiry into pediatric forensic pathology, is addressing concerns from the family, Mahyr said.
John McBeth, the council’s senior manager, said the council is “engaged with the Harrison family” but cannot publicly discuss the report. “There are a number of reviews underway that are looking into these cases,” including the council’s review, McBeth said in a statement. “It would be inappropriate for us to make any comment that might influence these reviews.”
Jamieson said the family is encouraged that the oversight council invited their input, but they remain frustrated by the pace of the justice system, the lack of independence in the police and coroners’ reviews, and that years have passed without the red flags they have identified in the death investigations being addressed.
“We strongly believe that until a thorough, independent and public inquiry of the Harrison death investigations is undertaken, no one will have a full understanding of all of the missteps,” Jamieson said.
All three members of the Harrison family died in their Mississauga home on Pitch Pine Cres. between 2009 and 2013. A 2018 Star investigation documented the failures of Peel police, coroners and pathologists in the first two death probes.
Caleb’s ex-wife, Melissa Merritt, and her common-law spouse, Christopher Fattore, were convicted in January 2018 of first-degree murder in his death. Fattore was also found guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Bridget Harrison, while Merritt’s charge in her former mother-in-law’s murder resulted in a hung jury.
Fattore alone was tried for the second-degree murder of Bill Harrison, whose 2009 death was deemed natural and not reinvestigated until years later, long after he’d been cremated. Fattore was acquitted on that charge.
Merritt and Fattore have filed appeals.
The convictions followed a three-month criminal trial in which prosecutors argued the Harrisons were murdered at trial moments in a bitter custody battle over Merritt and Caleb’s two children. The trial raised troubling questions about investigative missteps in the first two death investigations.
Evans, a longtime Peel cop who became chief in 2012 after four years as deputy chief, was criticized after the trial for delays and silence surrounding the internal review meant to examine what went wrong in the investigations. Her conduct is also being investigated as part of the OIPRD probe.
Evans launched the internal review in February 2018, suspended it in March, then reinstated it after a backlash. The chief said the suspension was meant to ensure the review did not interfere with the criminal appeals.
At a Peel Police Services Board hearing last June, Bill Harrison’s sister expressed concern about the “secretive” internal review and made an emotional appeal for the board to champion the family’s request for an independent and transparent examination.
“Neither Bill nor Bridget’s deaths were thoroughly investigated, and limited evidence was collected,” said Elizabeth Gallant. “We now want to know: what happened? What went wrong? … What needs to be fixed so no other family has to endure what we’ve been through?
“Why should we — in fact, anyone, including the board — put faith in an in-house review conducted by fellow police officers, when the Peel police failed us so badly?”
Evans later apologized to the Harrison family for leaving relatives with the impression that she had been “avoiding dealing with this,” and vowed to make the internal review findings public. She retired in January.
So far, the Peel Police Services Board has not backed the family’s request for an independent review. Executive director Robert Serpe said the board can’t comment on the case due to the OIPRD investigation. A police spokesperson declined to grant an interview with interim chief Chris McCord, saying it would be “inappropriate” for police to comment — again, due to the OIPRD investigation.
One outcome of the internal reviews into the Harrison family murders that has been made public is a 20-page report by Dr. Michael Pollanen, the province’s chief forensic pathologist.
The report on “secret” homicides — or homicides that police and medical death investigators mistakenly identified as accidental or natural — was filed as an exhibit last year at the Wettlaufer public inquiry into nursing-home care, which followed the conviction of nurse Elizabeth Wettlaufer on eight counts of first-degree murder after she confessed to killing residents in her care. Pollanen’s report describes 17 case studies of deaths not initially detected as homicides, including the Harrisons and the 1990 case of Tammy Homolka, victim of serial killer Paul Bernardo.
Pollanen’s report concluded that “the involvement of forensic pathologists in the death investigations was an important tool to detect homicides that would have otherwise remained hidden,” and said further research is needed.
Amy Dempsey is a reporter and feature writer based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @amydempsey