The Killing of Kindness – The Elizabeth Lafantaisie Murder Investigation – Part I – “The Tragedy”
It was a murder that shocked the City.
A seventy-three (73) year old grandmother abducted from the safety of her apartment building and killed by an unrepentant predator driven by urges far too dark for anyone to comprehend.
The victim was identified as Elizabeth Lafantaisie, born June 21, 1937, a gentle, religious, loving woman treasured by her family. A hardworking mother of four (4) and grandmother to nine (9) who was known for being an exceptional cook and a selfless care provider. Her death was an indescribable loss to those who loved her.
The responsibility to lead the investigation into her death fell on my shoulders.
On February 24, 2011 at 4:00 p.m., Winnipeg Police Service Missing Persons Unit Sergeant Chris Puhach stepped into my office to tell me Elizabeth’s body had been discovered in the trunk of her car a few blocks from the Osborne Village Hotel at 160 Osborne Street.
Up til then, Puhach had been running a missing persons investigation into Elizabeth’s troubling disappearance. The truth was, Puhach had grave concerns for Elizabeth’s wellbeing right from the start. Those concerns intensified on Monday, February 21, the day her purse and contents were located by a witness in a parking garage at 77 University Crescent.
The purse was void of cash despite the fact Elizabeth had been paid $75 for a house-cleaning job she did on Friday, February 18. Missing Persons Unit investigators learned newspapers delivered to her suite after February 18 remained in her hallway and were later picked up by a neighbor. Investigators also learned Elizabeth failed to show up for a cleaning job on February 21. (A highly unusual occurrence.)
Investigators determined Elizabeth was last seen alive by a house cleaning client located on Yorkwood Drive, Friday, February 18, at approximately 10:30 a.m.
The case, at this stage of the investigation, was all about building a time line to determine where Elizabeth met her killer. Was it at her apartment building at 100 Adamar Rd, at 77 University Cres where her purse was recovered, was it somewhere near Yorkwood Drive where she was housecleaning?
It was a mystery that had to be solved, and solved fast. A killer capable of unspeakable acts was “out there” and had to be stopped.
At 5:15 pm, I conducted the first of many briefings we’d have on this case. Present were a total of nine (9) Homicide and four (4) Missing Person’s Unit investigators. Known details of the investigation were discussed and assignments were delegated.
Assignments such as;
- Checking bank records
- Identifying locations where video evidence might be secured
- Checking garbage bins
- Conducting a thorough Police canvass
- Checking parking access card data
- Conducting family and witness interviews
- Conducting crime analysis
- Identifying parolees and sex offenders in the area
- Establishing a victim profile & routine
- Securing Elizabeth’s vehicle and body
- Liaising with CSI investigators
- Dispatching CSI to search 77 University Cres to check for a potential crime scene
Before the investigation could gain any traction the first potential suspect came into play.
Luigi Deangelis was a well-known high-risk sex offender with a horrific violent sexual assault history. A violent sex offender who just happened to be at the Osborne Street Hotel over the weekend Elizabeth went missing. That put him within a few blocks of the location where her body was recovered.
With news coming from the Crime Lab that Elizabeth’s killer had removed her pants, the high-risk sex offender scenario was extremely popular with investigators. With this offender came one of the great perils that often derail homicide investigations – tunnel vision.
Tunnel vision can be a real problem in an emotional case like this. As a supervisor leading this kind of investigation, it’s extremely important to keep an open mind and stay “alert” to all possibilities. Although I “liked” the high-risk sex offender scenario, my experience told me other possibilities must be considered.
The task of including or excluding Deangelis was assigned to Detective Sergeant Daryl “DK” Kostiuk and his partner, Detective Jared “JR” Reid, two hard-working, detail oriented investigators.
Kostiuk had several years experience in Major Crime investigation and Homicide. He was a meticulous, slow-moving investigator who always made sure every “t” was crossed and every “i” was dotted. He was famous for his love of making bets and creating caveats that almost ensured it was impossible for him to lose. I would watch and listen in amazement when he would persuade seemingly intelligent police detectives to accept the terms he attached to his wagers.
Detective Reid was an upstart of sorts, a rookie homicide investigator who cut his teeth working in a Detective Office in the largest District in the City. He was a respected investigator with a fierce work ethic and keen investigative skills. In his life before Police he worked for a local radio station as a sports reporter.
If Deangelis was responsible for this crime, I was confident these guys would get me the evidence I needed to make a charge stick.
By 7:00 pm, I was learning disturbing information about the condition of Elizabeth’s body and other evidence.
Information such as;
- Her body had been wrapped in a blue tarp
- She had heavy bruising on her wrists and forearms
- She had bruising on the side of her face
- Her left ear appeared to have a bite mark
- She had an unknown liquid poured all over the lower part of her body
- Her under garments had been removed
- The front of her pants had been torn from the zipper down to the knee
- A struggle appeared to have occurred in the rear seat of her car
- Her vehicle had been sprayed with a pressure washer
- The door handles on her vehicle appeared to have been wiped down
After reviewing the troubling evidence it was clear this was the work of a sexual predator. The case had all the markings of an experienced offender who was conscious of the need to destroy forensic evidence. All signs pointed to an offender with historical involvement in sex crimes.
Around this time in the investigation I found myself alone with my thoughts, sitting in silence at my desk in the Homicide Office. As I pondered the investigation, I suddenly started to feel overwhelmed by the intensity of the case. This was a complex investigation with many moving parts. Additionally, there was elevated internal & external pressure to solve it, not to mention the outrage being expressed by members of the community and police officers alike.
Doubt began to enter my mind, “Can you really handle this?’ The question posed by that little voice inside my mind. That little voice that resides in the depths of our minds, that little voice that surfaces at the most inconvenient times. I started to experience the involuntary physiological changes that come over us when confronted with such doubt. Increased body temperature, profuse sweating, flushed face & that uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.
These were feelings I rarely experienced, at least, not in my role as supervisor in the Homicide Unit.
These were feelings I had to quickly overcome.
I had to promptly reject the little voice. I told myself I was up to the task and remembered I was surrounded by dedicated experienced professionals who could be relied upon for support. I was part of a highly motivated, successful team and it would be that culture of teamwork I could rely on to solve the horrific case.
Regardless, I’d put in my time; I had as much experience as anyone who was still in the game.
I convinced myself I was up to the task, took a deep breath, had a glass of cold water and got my head back in the game.
Homicide investigators were getting excited about the possibility the case might be solved quickly. Everything was pointing to Deangelis who had two (2) previous convictions for sex crimes in the immediate area.
To elevate interest, investigators learned he met with his parole officer on Monday, February 21 during which time he was noted to be highly emotional and crying. The Parole Officer described the offender’s behaviour as being “out of the ordinary.”
The plot thickened.
At 10:13 p.m., investigators contacted me advising three (3) studio brand cigarette butts had been located at the crime scene at 77 University Cres. Two (2) of these cigarettes were broken, one (1) was intact. The Detective also observed a plastic 1 litre container of 10W30 oil and surmised this was the previously unknown liquid poured over the lower part of Elizabeth’s body.
The information regarding the cigarettes was provided to Kostiuk & Reid who were now on a mission to determine what cigarette brand Deangelis smoked.
Around midnight I learned the last time registered on Elizabeth’s garage access card was 7:53 a.m. on Friday, February 18, 2011. After that, there was no further activity on the card. This information led me to believe Elizabeth left her garage that morning, went to the Yorkwood Dr address to do house cleaning and never returned to her apartment building.
So where did Elizabeth encounter her killer?
That remained the million-dollar question.
We retired from duty at 1:00 am marking the end of an eighteen (18) hour day, which meant most of us would get around four (4) hours sleep before returning to duty. For me it would be much less.
I recall getting home, taking a shower and laying in bed finding it impossible to sleep. Thoughts of Elizabeth permeated my mind, the unsettling feeling associated with having a deviant killer on the loose was paralyzing. The pressure was immense, there was no calming down and no way to stifle the thoughts running wild in my head.
The magnitude of the case intensified the anxiety I was experiencing.
The innocence of the victim and the horrific nature of the crime disturbed me. The fact Elizabeth Lafantaisie was a loving mother and grandmother only heightened the sense of tragedy.
Thoughts of the heinous crime, the innocent victim and sense of loss troubled me deeply.
It caused me to do something I’d never done in any prior homicide case.
I made a promise.
A promise to Elizabeth Lafantaisie that I would never rest until we brought her killer to justice.
To be continued…..
“A mother is always the beginning. She is how things begin.” Amy Tan
Written by James G Jewell – Sergeant – Winnipeg Police Service – Retired
Editor’s Note – this article was originally published on The Police Insider website on February 17, 2016.