Leads in slaying went cold with suspect's suicide

Undercover work amassed enough proof for charge in 1983 strangling

Who: Donna Mitchell, 31

What: Homicide; strangled to death

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When: Last seen near The Empress hotel on June 2, 1983.

Where: Body found near Beacon Hill Park on Nov. 15, 1983.

Sometimes an unsolved murder remains unsolved because the main suspect dies.

That's the story in the case of Donna Mitchell, a 31-year-old Victoria woman who went missing June 3, 1983.

Her common-law husband Dave Robertson called police, worried, when she failed to show up for her daughter Natasha's seventh birthday party that day.

Police retraced her steps. She was a recreational drug user, Robertson admitted, and she had a doctor's appointment the morning before she disappeared because of some sort of internal bleeding.

Later that night, a waiter at the old King's Hotel on Yates Street spotted her enjoying drinks with a group of friends.

She was last seen outside Romeo's Place, near The Empress hotel.

After that, the trail went cold and would stay that way for five and a half months.

On Nov. 15, police found a woman's badly decomposed body lying in a bushy area near the Southgate Street entrance of Beacon Hill Park.

The body had been covered with dirt and remained unnoticed for about five months, just metres away from a well-travelled trail littered with discarded cups, wrappers and a school book.

Forensic tests determined it was Mitchell. She'd been strangled to death.

Victoria police Sgt. Ross Swanton started working the case with his partner Sgt. Paul Awalt.

Mitchell had been killed somewhere else in the city and her body dumped at the park.

Even without a crime scene, and little physical evidence, investigators quickly made progress in the case by probing her background and friends, said Swanton, who is now retired.

"We had a suspect that we were going to arrest," he said. "We did a workup on this person and had all the evidence and everything pointed to this person."

Swanton went to Vancouver to interview the man, a transvestite prostitute who had been in Victoria at the time.

Police started an undercover investigation, and within months of Mitchell's death, Crown counsel said police had enough evidence to arrest the man for murder, said Swanton.

But before officers could travel to the mainland to snap the handcuffs on him, Vancouver police phoned with bad news.

"Our suspect we figure did it, hung himself," said Swanton.

"We had all the evidence and everything else, but we couldn't finish it off. ... I think he must have known we were on to him."

The motive remains vague -- some sort of friction between Mitchell and the suspect that exploded into violence. Although news reports at the time indicate Mitchell herself was believed to be a prostitute, Swanton said he could never confirm that, and didn't know if the dispute was of a sexual nature. "Something just got out of hand," said Swanton.

The case remained open but the leads dried up.

For a time, Awalt swapped notes with Seattle detectives investigating the Green River Killer, Gary Ridgway, who admitted to being responsible for the deaths of 48 young women in the United States. Ultimately, Awalt said the two cases were unrelated.

Awalt passed away this year. Swanton, now 62, retired from the Victoria Police Department in 1996.

The Mitchell case was recently reviewed by a retired officer the Victoria police has hired as a consultant for cold cases, said spokesman Sgt. Grant Hamilton.

The officer has taken the case in other directions, said Hamilton, and police aren't willing to definitively say Swanton's suspect committed the crime.

Still, for Swanton, that's merely a technicality.

"As far as everybody else is concerned, it's still a cold case," he said.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's solved."

Rob Shaw can be reached at 250-380-5350 or rfshaw@tc.canwest.com.

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