Book excerpt: How DNA solved a Port Alberni murder

In April 1977, Port Alberni was shaken by the abduction and murder of 12-year-old Carolyn Lee as she walked home from dance class. A massive manhunt failed to turn up enough evidence to support an arrest, and the case went cold. Twelve years later, following advances in the field of forensic DNA, the Lee case was reopened and became the first in Canada to go to trial based on historic DNA evidence, leading to the conviction of Gurmit Singh Dhillon in 1998. The story is highlighted in Shayne Morrow’s The Bulldog and Helix: DNA and the Pursuit of Justice in a Frontier Town.

While the case against Gurmit Dhillon had evolved into a full-fledged technical marathon involving an entire team of forensic specialists and investigators, it was an ordinary street cop who effectively turned the tide.

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By the summer of 1994, the crime-scene samples and Dhillon’s consent sample continued to pass through a succession of laboratories as investigators sought to achieve that one-in-millions match. Seventeen years after the fact, the evidence against Dhillon in the murder of Carolyn Lee amounted to a set of tire tracks, two acquittals on unrelated sexual-assault charges, and the recollections of an ex-wife, recorded six years after the crime. While the DNA match was gradually confirming Dhillon as one contributor to those degraded crime-scene samples, that factor, in and of itself, could not be included in the equation. What the investigators needed was one solid piece of evidence, such as a witness who could connect the suspect to the crime. Then it happened.

Const. Bruce Nicholson arrived in Port Alberni in January of 1987, just two years after beginning his RCMP training at the Depot in Regina, Sask. Nicholson and a classmate, Const. Craig Andrychuk, set up in a rented house in Cameron Heights, overlooking the harbour. There, the single young Mounties met Janet Lazorko, who lived just a few doors away with her mother, Alice.

Nicholson and Andrychuk struck up a social relationship with Janet Lazorko, who was in her early 20s.

“We became very good friends,” Nicholson recalled. “Periodically, they would invite me over for dinner — taking pity on the poor single guy. Through the years after that, Janet and I stayed friends, and whenever Alice saw me, she would call me ‘son.’ ”

In July of 1994, while biologist Richard Guerrieri was completing his DNA report at Roche Biomedical Labs in North Carolina, Alice Lazorko made the decision to break her silence on what she had seen on the day of the Carolyn Lee disappearance. There was only one person in authority she could bring herself to trust.

“I hadn’t heard from the Lazorkos for a few years,” Nicholson recalled, “and I was at work when I got a call from Alice.” At first, his former neighbour sounded very reluctant to say what was on her mind and why she had called him at work.

“She was very aloof, saying she had something that was really bothering her. I said: ‘Alice, you can tell me anything. Tell me what’s bothering you.’ There followed a long silence.

“She said: ‘I’m scared, Nick. I’m scared.’ I asked her if she had done something wrong. She said: ‘I haven’t done anything wrong, but I’m scared to talk to you about this.’ ”

Nicholson instinctively knew this was something she wasn’t able to talk about over the phone. The two made plans to sit down, face to face. Alice arrived, accompanied by her daughter, Janet.

“As soon as she saw me, [Alice] broke down. She blubbered and bawled. I realized something serious was about to happen here.”

“She asked me if I knew about the Carolyn Lee murder case,” he said. “I told her I knew it was a cold case, but we weren’t really privy to what they [the General Investigation Section] worked on.” As Nicholson listened and took notes, Lazorko gave him a detailed and emotional account of a chance meeting between two vehicles at Third Avenue and Ship Creek Road on April 14, 1977. Twenty-two years later, Nicholson recounted her statement to me, sketching out the route on paper.

“She was leaving Cameron Heights, driving down Motion Drive and turning onto Third Avenue. She said there was a large SUV coming south on Third. She was by herself. Just as that vehicle turned onto Ship Creek, she passed it. I’m not sure if she told me it was baby blue.

“She said there was an Indo-Canadian male driving, and as she got parallel to that vehicle, she saw a little Asian girl who appeared to be crying [Nicholson gestured, banging his fists as if against a window], up against the window as if she was screaming for help. She said she saw a blond man pull the little girl down in the SUV. The vehicle went up Ship Creek, and Lazorko continued on her way.

“The next day, she heard on the news that Carolyn Lee had gone missing. She told me, when she found that out, it ripped her guts out. She lived with that image in her head for many years, but she was too afraid to tell anybody. She lived with that for [17] years.”

But there continues to be a nagging discrepancy in Lazorko’s version of the sighting on Third Avenue. At the trial, Lazorko said her first impression was that the girl in the car was 15 or 16 years old, and she couldn’t figure out why a complete stranger was yelling at her. The image that registered was of a snarky 16-year-old instead of a terrified 12-year-old. When, the next day, she heard that a 12-year-old Chinese girl had been murdered near Cox Lake, she said she did not make the connection, and pushed the entire incident, uneasily, into the back of her mind.

But one day, many years later, Lazorko recalled the blond man and came to a sudden realization: His eyes had bulged when he’d looked at Lazorko because he’d thought she was a cop. When he realized that she was driving a decommissioned police car, he started to laugh.

Nicholson said that whatever recollection Alice Lazorko brought to court in December 1998, she had initially told him that, early on, she realized the girl was Carolyn Lee.

“From my knowledge, she told me it was a younger girl,” he said, noting that her visual estimate at the time was of a girl from nine to 12 years of age. “That’s what she told me.”

Nicholson said he immediately relayed this information to Dan Smith. At that point, he had no idea that Lazorko’s description of both the driver and the vehicle matched that of longtime suspect Gurmit Dhillon.

“I had heard rumours that Dan was in the forefront of ‘the DNA tool’ for police in Canada, but I still didn’t know anything about it.”

Nicholson told me he hadn’t realized that Lazorko’s statement to police would provide substantial grounds for the critical DNA warrant and for Dhillon’s subsequent arrest. Looking back, he does not believe Lazorko intentionally withheld information, but rather that she was suffering from internal stresses, compounded by guilt after the fact, which prevented her from acknowledging what she had witnessed.

“My understanding was she sat on it all those years because she was fearful.” Dan Smith agrees. He remembers her as “a very valuable witness. She came across as absolutely forthright and honest. There was no guile there at all. I have no doubt what she testified to was to the best of her recollection,” he said. “She was very forthcoming. I got the impression that she felt guilty for not phoning sooner.”

With Lazorko’s witness statement at hand, Smith bumped the information up the ladder. “I took the statement from her and that became part of the investigational file. Dale [Djos] was made well aware of that as my supervisor. Ultimately, all of this got forwarded to Darrill Prevett,” the regional Crown counsel who would become the go-to prosecutor for DNA cases in the province. The statement was earmarked as part of the overall objective of obtaining a DNA warrant.

The Lazorko statement was not a magic bullet, but it was one more link in the chain of evidence. Smith said: “I was certainly aware of the significance of it. But it wasn’t in and of itself enough for a DNA warrant. It just formed part of the totality of the circumstances. There were also some things that I had to overcome — to explain in the DNA warrant.” He explained that, when drafting a warrant, the investigator cannot simply cherry-pick the information that goes into the application. “You have to put in the bad with the good. You have to include things that would tend to exonerate the accused as well as to implicate him.”

By the time of her statement, Lazorko had become aware that an Indo-Canadian male by the name of Gurmit Dhillon was the prime suspect. That potentially damaging fact had to be included in the warrant application. Dhillon had previously taken a polygraph test and, in the opinion of the polygrapher, passed it. A second polygraph, conducted in 1984, proved less conclusive. Based on that, he had been removed from suspicion and was no longer a viable suspect in the eyes of the investigation team of the day.

Nevertheless, Alice Lazorko’s statement “formed part of our grounds for the DNA warrant,” says Smith. “And the DNA evidence was the single most important piece of evidence in convicting Mr. Dhillon.”

Alice Lazorko passed away on June 17, 2012.

All are invited to attend the book launch for The Bulldog and the Helix on Thursday, May 23, at 7 p.m. at the Echo Centre, 4255 Wallace St., Port Alberni.

Excerpted from The Bulldog and the Helix: DNA and the Pursuit of Justice in a Frontier Town,

© Shayne Morrow, Heritage House 2019

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