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LOVE ON THE RUN
By Shawn Blore


Shannon Murrin

Soon after juror Kathy Macdonald helped acquit Shannon Murrin of a sensational child murder, she followed him to Newfoundland. Now she's cashed in her Kitsilano condo for a trailer in St. John's. They say it's love, but that's not all they want

By Shawn Blore

In St. John's, a road-salt town of twisting, narrow streets, a mint-condition 1970 Monte Carlo is an unusual sight. Add to that a front novelty licence plate reading "Evil, Wicked, Mean & Nasty" and a driver who has shaved his head bald in celebration of his return to Newfoundland, and the result is a stare at every corner.

Not that Shannon Murrin cares. This is his hometown. He's free. So he takes it slow with the window down, pointing out the sights and giving a narrated tour of the city's landmarks. "There's Signal Hill," he says. "That's Quidi Vidi Lake there, where they hold the fireworks."

We come to a tall blue wall topped by a guard tower. "There's Her Majesty's. I spent a few years in there off and on."

Just outside the old downtown we pull into a gas station. Murrin opts for full service, tells the attendant to fill 'er up, then turns to Kathy Macdonald. "Get out the credit card, woman," he says, adding to me, as she digs into her purse, "Soon as the credit card's full, soon as her Visa's expired, that's it. Out she goes." Macdonald gives him a good-natured laugh.

They're a curious couple: a man who's just been through a six-month trial for the sex slaying of eight-year-old Mindy Tran, and a woman who served on the jury that set him free. Even they thought their relationship was odd at first. "When we started going out and that," Murrin recalls, "I says, 'This feels. . . . How does it make you feel?' And she says, 'A bit strange.' And I said, 'Yeah, me too.' So we dealt with that for a while until we realized that what we were doing was really normal."

That's not what a lot of other people thought. When Murrin was found not guilty, his own cries of justice gone wrong - of being the fourth "M" in a series that runs Morin, Marshall, and Milgaard - received little attention. He'd been let off, but a strong whiff of suspicion still hung over him. When it came out that one of the jurors had followed him home to Newfoundland and was now living with him, that got people talking again.

At first, Macdonald protested that her relationship with Murrin was strictly business; the two of them were writing a book together. Sure she was staying with him at his mother's house in St. John's, but that was just down-East hospitality. It was weeks before Macdonald and Murrin admitted what everyone else had already assumed. They were a couple.

This was hardly a reprise of the Gillian Guess saga, however. True, both Guess and Macdonald are from Vancouver. And both are women of a certain age who elected to start relationships with men accused of murder on whose juries they served. But there are important differences. Guess started sleeping with Peter Gill during the trial. Macdonald's relationship with Murrin began only after he'd been acquitted. Guess ran around bragging about her accomplishment and seemed to regard her obstruction-of-justice trial as a springboard to kitschy celebrity. Macdonald has been cautiously circumspect.

Yet to some extent, the question remains the same. Given sanity, intelligence, and free will, why would any woman choose to associate herself with a man police would like to see put away in a small concrete cell?

Even if, in her flakier moments, Macdonald will say she and Murrin were linked from the start - born as they were within three weeks of each other in 1950 - their backgrounds could hardly have been more different.

Murrin was a hellraiser from the get-go, starting his criminal career with small burglaries of summer cottages, always carrying a fishing pole along so he wouldn't look suspicious. But he quickly graduated to bigger things. He's proudest of his bank jobs, including, as he often mentions, "the biggest bank job in the history of Newfoundland." That heist, in 1972, netted Murrin about $70,000, plus some serious time in a federal penitentiary after a former friend ratted him out. Less readily mentioned are his many convictions for fights in bars and gas-station lots. (Absent from his record is any conviction for a crime of a sexual nature.) Murrin also had a respectable trade as an auto-body man, and, plying one skill set or the other, he made his way over the years in and out of a marriage, several prisons, and across the country. It was a spontaneous, unattached existence, but one Murrin says he was happy with. "I wouldn't change one thing I ever done. Not one."

Where Murrin was content to drift, Macdonald took the opposite tack. "I've spent my life trying to fit in," she says, "usually feeling like an oddball." It was true in her family; it was true in the working world. After high school, Macdonald got a job with the Toronto-Dominion Bank in Vancouver, fully expecting within a year or so to be home raising children. A marriage duly followed at the age of twenty-one, but then a divorce ensued two years later.

Eschewing the traditional tel-ler's wicket, Macdonald asked to be placed on the bond desk. Over the course of several years, she became a certified general accountant and picked up a broker's licence, becoming the first female trader hired by Peter Brown, the dean of Vancouver's stock-market scene. She made some money. The high point of her brokerage career occurred when she took a company through a public offering and saw the stock take off. She netted around $250,000. Then the oddball side of her character kicked in once again. Most brokers, after making a pile of money, set out to make more. Macdonald set out to find some meaning in her life.

She travelled to Europe, a thirty-six-year-old woman schlepping around a backpack. She went to Toronto, hung out, and tended bar for a time. She was back out west in Calgary working for the Alberta Stock Exchange when the biological imperative hit with a whump. She latched on to the first likely mate and spent the next two years frantically trying for children.

But 1992 found Macdonald still childless and again single, now persuing a general arts b.a. at the University of British Columbia. As if being a forty-two-year-old undergrad weren't enough, Macdonald liked to reaffirm her outsider status by taking the right-wing Fraser Institute's line during discussions with her classmates in women's-studies courses.

Hellraising, perhaps - though of a safe, academic sort. Nothing that Murrin would have been interested in. What eventually brought the two together was the disappearance, on August 17, 1994, of eight-year-old Mindy Tran.

Murrin's wanderings had by then brought him to Kelowna, B.C., where, having recently been laid off from his auto-body job, he spent that day getting drunk. Sometime before 6 p.m., he wandered back to the duplex on Taylor Road where he was boarding, flopped onto his cot in the living room, and passed out.

By 8:30 that evening he'd come to and was sitting in the carport of a friend's place - a burly ex-Newfoundlander named Bob Holmes - having yet another beer. A police cruiser pulled up to the curb and asked if they'd seen a missing girl named Mindy Tran.

Murrin knew Mindy. She lived just a few doors down. She sometimes came over to the duplex to play with the daughter of his landlord. Murrin said he hadn't seen her, then set out to help search.

Over the next several days, more than 500 volunteers came out to poke into dumpsters and comb through backyards and the nearby Mission Creek Park. It was the largest search operation ever conducted in Canada, and it turned up absolutely nothing.

The police investigation was on a similar scale. Twenty-one officers were first assigned, then thirty a week later. By September 14 there were forty-four detectives working the Tran file. Heading the investigation was Sergeant Gary Tidsbury, a twenty-seven-year veteran of the rcmp, and head of the Kelowna detachment of plainclothes detectives.

On October 10, they finally found Mindy's body, buried in a shallow grave in Mission Creek Park, about two kilometres from where she was last seen.

Within days, police had a scenario. Mindy had last been seen in the vicinity of Murrin's duplex. Her bicycle had been found on its lawn. At some point, she was seen going up his steps. Behind the door was a man with a long criminal record. By late October, Tidsbury had come to the firm conclusion that Murrin was guilty. Now it was just a question of proving it. Murrin wouldn't be charged in the murder for more than two years, and he wouldn't come to trial until 1999, but because of Tidsbury's suspicions he would spend the next five years behind bars.

The call for jury duty in the summer of 1999 caught Kathy Macdonald at a conveniently loose end. Her fling with academia was over, culminating in a degree in classical studies. She'd been wondering what to do next, so when the call came, she thought, "Why not?"

She liked the idea of public service. There were family expectations, too. Her sister, a prison guard, made it clear what she expected of Kathy. "Your job is to give the Tran family closure," she said. And then there was Kathy's unadulterated curiosity.

Josiah Wood, the Crown attorney, was a legal heavyweight, a former appeals-court judge who'd been brought in especially to prosecute the Tran case. The Crown's theory, as outlined during Wood's opening address, was this: Murrin had awoken about the time Mindy came looking for her friend. Murrin let Mindy in, then tried to rape her, in the process strangling the girl. He then stuffed her corpse in a suitcase, ducked out the back door, jumped a few fences, and walked to Mission Creek, which he hopped across on the exposed rocks before burying Mindy in a heavily wooded patch. Then he ran back to his buddy's place in time to be there when the police stopped by.

The problem was the timing. Mindy had been seen alive as late as 6:45 p.m. At least one witness insisted repeatedly that he saw Murrin at Holmes's house at 7 p.m., making it impossible for him to have committed the murder. Later, however, that witness changed his mind about the time. In fact, many of the witnesses at the trial seemed to reconsider testimony they'd initially given police. In every case, the change in testimony favoured the police case against Murrin. Often witnesses' memories seemed to improve after a police officer had paid a visit. Often, that police officer was Gary Tidsbury.

For Macdonald, the most notable thing about the timing testimony was the confusion. "They had him everywhere, all at the same time. He was dragging suitcases along the street, he was dancing across the creek. I'm calling that chapter of my book 'The Ubiquitous Shannon Murrin.' "

There was also a problem with the so-called "suitcase witnesses." Ten people testified that on the night of the disappearance they had seen a man with a suitcase walking on the streets around Taylor Road. Some testified that the suitcase seemed to be very heavy. Others said it was light. Unfortunately for the Crown, weight was hardly the only difference between suitcases. Witnesses recalled seeing soft-cover suitcases, hard-shell suitcases, beige suitcases, navy suitcases, suitcases made of leather, cardboard, and vinyl. So many types and sizes, in fact, that the suitcase witnesses degenerated into a bit of a joke with the jury. When they assembled their own luggage for transportation to the hotel, someone looked at the wide variety of piled-up luggage and joked, "Ah, so there's the suitcase."

The only other bit of humour was provided by the testimony of an informant by the name of Doug Martin. Just forty-three years old in 1995, Martin had in his thirty-year criminal career amassed over 105 convictions, most of them for fraud or deceit; one was for perjury.

Then in prison, Martin had contacted police to offer his services as an informant. After talking with Tidsbury twice, he was placed in a cell with Murrin, and within ninety minutes, Murrin was giving Martin highly incriminating evidence about the very things Tidsbury was most interested in. Or so Martin claimed.

Martin had a remarkable track record, including having been present for the confessions of eight other accused killers. One of those was Thomas Sophonow. In June, 2000, after the Murrin trial was over, Winnipeg police apologized to Soph-onow after dna evidence conclusively proved he had had nothing to do with a killing Martin maintained he'd confessed to.

Even without that information defence counsel Peter Wilson still managed, over the course of a brutal three-day cross-examination, to thoroughly destroy Martin's credibility. At times, Martin got so wrapped up in his own lies that members of the jury seemed to be struggling to hold back laughter. By the end, Macdonald explains, "I wanted to get up and cheer."

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