More than three years after Tina Fontaine’s body was pulled from the Red River, and after 12 days of testimony in the trial of Raymond Cormier, police still don’t know how the 15-year-old from Sagkeeng First Nation in Manitoba died.
Her 72-pound body was found near the Alexander Docks on Aug. 17, 2014, wrapped inside a duvet cover and weighted down with rocks.
Cormier, 56, was arrested at the end of 2015 and charged. He has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder. His defence team in the Winnipeg trial, which began Jan. 29, rested its case on Thursday without presenting any evidence.
The Crown and defence will make their closing statements on Tuesday. Chief Justice Glenn Joyal of the Court of Queen’s Bench will then give his instructions to the jury of seven women and four men, as early as Wednesday. A 12th juror was dismissed midway through the trial due to a family emergency.
The Crown gave no physical or eyewitness evidence linking Cormier to the death.
Instead, their case relies heavily on secretly recorded statements made by Cormier, along with testimony from witnesses who said they saw Cormier and Tina together in the days before she disappeared from the Best Western Charterhouse hotel in downtown Winnipeg on Aug. 8, 2014.
What happened to Tina after she left the hotel remains a mystery, but after 12 days of testimony, we know why the Crown believes Cormier is responsible for her death — arguments refuted by his lawyers.
Who was Tina?
On the first day of the trial, the Crown called Tina’s great-aunt, Thelma Favel, as its first witness. Favel said she took four-year-old Tina and her sister in because their parents weren’t able to care for them.
“She was such a happy girl, polite … That’s just the kind of girl she was,” Favel said.
The killing of Tina’s father, Eugene Fontaine, in October 2011 “hurt her bad,” Favel said. “[She didn’t] know how to function without her father.” Two men were later sentenced in his beating death.
In June 2014, Fontaine left Sagkeeng for Winnipeg to reconnect with her birth mother after years apart. Favel didn’t hear from her so became worried and called Child and Family Services (CFS), which took her into their care.
Over the next few weeks, Tina went missing several times.
One social worker for the Southeast Child and Family Services agency said Tina was placed in a hotel, but went “AWOL” almost immediately.
Tina bounced around several locations around the city, sleeping on couches and occasionally returning to CFS care, only to walk away shortly after, jurors heard.
She started dating young Cree man Cody Mason from St. Theresa Point. One night in mid-July, the two were drinking on the street when they met Cormier as he was riding by on a bicycle carrying a car muffler. Cormier told them his name was Sebastian.
Mason testified that Cormier gave them drugs and took them to various houses, including one at 22 Carmen Ave. On Aug. 6, Mason flew back to St. Theresa Point and Tina rode a bicycle to the house, upset that Mason had left.
That night, Cormier and Tina got into an argument. Witnesses said Cormier had been making sexual advances toward the underage girl, and she got angry when she discovered that Cormier had sold her bike for drugs.
She stormed out of the house, screaming at Cormier that she was going to call police about a stolen truck Cormier had at the house. On the first day of the trial, court was played a recording of a 911 call Fontaine made later that night.
“I’d like to report a blue truck that was stolen,” Fontaine says to the 911 dispatcher, who then instructs the caller to report the theft to a different police phone number. “He is my friend and he stole it earlier today.”
The next reported sighting of Fontaine came in the early hours of Aug. 8, when police found her inside a truck they had pulled over on Isabel Street. Unaware that she had been reported missing, they let her go.
Later that morning, she was found sleeping on the ground behind the Helen Betty Osborne Centre on Ellice Avenue. She was taken to Children’s Hospital and discharged into the care of a CFS worker.
While driving in the CFS worker’s car, Fontaine said her friend Sebastian was going to get her a bike.
The worker tried to convince Tina to stay at the Best Western Charter House Hotel, where she had arranged a room for her, but upon arrival, she said she wanted to go to Portage Place to meet some friends. She left around 5:30 p.m., and never returned.
The case against Cormier
After the argument at 22 Carmen Ave., Cormier told a friend, Ernest DeWolfe, that they had talked and “straightened it all out.”
DeWolfe later told the court that he also saw Cormier with the duvet cover at the house on Carmen Avenue.
Police wouldn’t arrest Cormier until Oct. 1, 2014. More than a year later, they charged him in Tina’s death.
The river washed away any DNA evidence that might have been left on her body or the duvet she was wrapped in. A pathologist told court that a cause of death couldn’t be determined, but the method used to dispose of the body was suspicious.
A toxicologist said although she had marijuana and alcohol in her system, it was unlikely that they caused her death.
Police interviewed a woman who said Cormier, known to her as Frenchie, lived in a tent in her backyard on Alexander Avenue. She and her daughter testified that he had the same duvet cover that was found with Tina’s body.
But it was a tip from DeWolfe that led police to the house on Carmen Avenue on Oct. 1. They found Cormier at the house, and Cormier tried to run when the officers arrested him.
Cormier told police he ran simply because he didn’t want to go to jail. Under questioning, Cormier said he had wanted to have sex with Tina when he first met her, before finding out she was under 18.
A police interrogation video played in court shows a long-haired, bearded Cormier initially co-operating with police, but becoming increasingly hostile as the officers press him for details about the stolen truck he had the night he and Tina argued.
“Don’t focus on me … ’cause I didn’t do it,” Cormier tells the officers.
Cormier spent time in prison on unrelated charges and was released in June 2015. Upon his release, police launched an undercover operation to gather more evidence.
The operation, dubbed Project Styx, lasted six months and consisted of undercover officers wearing recording devices engaging Cormier in 62 “scenarios” designed to get reactions from him and elicit information.
They also arranged for him to live in an apartment at 400 Logan Ave., where they placed listening devices inside his suite to record his conversations. These recordings formed a key part of the evidence the Crown presented in court.
In these recordings, Cormier seems obsessed with Tina’s killing, saying he wants to find her killer, but also making statements about her death.
In one conversation with a woman on July 17, 2015, Cormier said: “15-year-old girl f–k. I drew the line and that’s why she got killed. She got killed, I’ll make you a bet. She got killed because we found out, I found out she was 15 years old.”
In another recording from Sept. 25, 2015, Cormier says. “You ever been haunted by something? What happened there really f–king it’s not right. F–k. It’s right on the shore. So what do I do? Threw her in.
“I did Tina, f–kin’ supposed to be legal and only 15. (inaudible) No going back too. The cops said if there would have been DNA and then probably they would’ve had enough evidence to charge, you know that, for the murder of Tina Fontaine.”
Cormier later tells the woman: “I beat two murders.”
Earlier in the same transcript of the same conversation, Cormier says: “I know that I got caught in a f–kin’ situation … I have never murdered anybody ….”
In a recording from Oct. 25, 2015, Cormier tells a woman: “This is how we met … and then we had sex and we f–k. Sure enough … F–k. Tina finds a knife … She got angry and … blah blah blah.”
These statements, the Crown argues, constitute admissions of guilt. They argue Cormier killed Tina because he didn’t want to be known as a “skinner” or pedophile.
Cormier was arrested after the police operation took him to Vancouver in December 2015.
Cormier’s lawyers argue the Crown’s case relies on selective interpretations of statements, made in recordings that are difficult to hear, and that the lack of a cause of death makes it impossible to know that Tina died from an unlawful act.