On June 9, 1959, 14-year-old Steven Truscott and 12-year-old Lynne Harper took the most infamous bike ride in Canadian history. Truscott arrived home; Harper did not. What happened that evening shocked a nation and remains a subject of debate.
The Death of Lynne Harper
They left their respective homes on the Royal Canadian Air Force Base near Clinton, Ontario, in the early evening. Lynne Harper had a minor argument with her parents about swimming in the Base pool, where children required adult supervision. Truscott left his parents after supper, around 6:30. He returned two hours later.
According to Truscott, he met Harper by chance in the schoolyard. She wanted a ride to Highway 8. Supposedly, she intended to visit a home there which had ponies. He claims that he drove her to the highway and left her to walk the rest of the way. He said that she planned to hitchhike and that he looked back to see a gray car, possibly a 1959 Chevrolet, pick her up shortly after he dropped her off.
Many children saw the pair leave the schoolyard and confirmed that Steven returned a short time later. No one noticed anything unusual about his behavior. Children playing further along the route testified that they watched Truscott drive Harper in the direction of the highway and then return alone.
When Harper did not return home, her parents contacted police. The body was found two days later in a woodlot—- "Lawson's Bush"—- located along the county road, between the schoolyard and Highway 8. She had been strangled with her own blouse and sexually assaulted (though not necessarily penetrated)1.
Police arrested Steven Truscott the next day and announced that they had solved the crime.
The Trial of Steven Truscott
The investigation was spectacularly short, and the trial moved with equal speed. Police charged Truscott on June 12; he was found guilty on September 30.
Gord Logan, then 12, was one of two youngsters who testified that they saw Truscott and Harper heading north towards the highway over a bridge located some distance past the site where her body was found. The Crown argued that Logan would have been too far away to clearly identify them. No one appears to have tested the site at the time of the trial. A 1966 police trial, however, indicates that an observer would have had no problem identifying them from his location. A nine-year old girl, Karen Daum, also claimed to have passed the pair on the road, at a point close to the highway.
A classmate of Truscott's, Jocelyne Gaudet, claimed that she had arranged to meet the boy for a secret date that night at Lawson’s Bush where Harper's body was found. She varied her account over the course of the investigation and trial, but her testimony was an important part of the Crown’s case. Truscott has denied that they ever planned to meet.
Arnold George, an acquaintance of Truscott's stated that Truscott had asked him to lie about the events of that evening.
Truscott had some minor scratches, but none of these could be specifically attributed to a struggle with another person. Police reports refer to lesions or abrasions on his penis, which he said he’d had for some time. These were described in court as a possible consequence of forced penetration. The jailhouse doctor who examined him, however, found no unusual injuries "with special reference to his penis." This contradiction has never been resolved. The jailhouse doctor was not called to testify.2
Most damning was the testimony of pathologist Dr. John Penistan, who put the time of Harper’s death between 7:00 and 7:45 pm the evening of June 9: roughly the same time that Truscott gave her a lift on his bicycle.
The court sentenced him to death. Throughout, Truscott maintained his innocence, and many who thought him guilty were shocked by the sentence. The Canadian government later commuted that sentence to life in prison. Truscott's case influenced the national debate that led to the banning of capital punishment in Canada.
Truscott proved a model prisoner. As the 1960s progressed, the belief that a rush to judgment had led to a wrongful conviction grew. In 1966, two events bolstered that opinion. Isabel LeBourdais published the first book on the topic. In The Trial of Steven Truscott LeBourdais argued for Truscott’s innocence, and brought problems with the case to the public’s attention. More significantly, Dr. Penistan, whose testimony regarding Harper’s time of death had been instrumental in convicting Truscott, reconsidered his findings and determined that she might have died hours later, perhaps even the following day. Legal appeals, however, did not overturn the original verdict.
Ten years after the killing, Truscott was paroled. He took on a new name and moved to Guelph, Ontario. He worked as a millwright, started a family, and lived a quiet life.
In 2000, now a grandfather and an established member of his community, Truscott revealed himself to the media, and began a campaign to clear his name. By that point, a number of problems with the original case had been raised, and Truscott has received widespread popular support for his appeal. In 2002, federal justice minister Irwin Coulter reviewed the original case. Acknowledging that a "miscarriage of justice" may have occurred, he referred the case to the Ontario Court of Appeal.
Testimony against Truscott has been called into question. Arnold George has stated that he fabricated his story. Jocelyne Gaudet, now in ill health, has refused to comment on the case. Two acquaintances from her days as a student nurse, however, have given testimony and sworn affidavits that she told them she had perjured herself, and that her date with Truscott had never been arranged.
Bob Lawson, owner of "Lawson’s Bush," reported to police that he saw an unidentified car near the property the night Harper disappeared. They did not follow up on this lead. He also has testified that Gaudet approached him in 1959 and asked him to alter his testimony to support statements she made.
Another witness, however, no longer supports Truscott’s account as clearly as she did in 1959. Karen Jusi (née Daum), the girl who passed Truscott and Harper along the road, originally said that she saw the pair some distance past Lawson’s Bush. She now claims she passed them at Lawson’s Bush.
The most significant new evidence involves the time of death. Dr. Penistan, as previously noted, disputed his own findings some years after the trial. Several pathologists have told the Court of Appeal that Penistan’s methods could not have identified the time of death with anything like the accuracy he claimed in court. Modern methods would be hard-pressed to narrow it so precisely. Some have gone further, stating the evidence suggests the girl died hours later, likely the next morning. It also appears that Penistan's uncertainty about the time of death pre-dates his 1966 admission. Unknown to the defense and the jury, he gave at least three estimates, and a note written during the investigation gives the probable time of death as the following morning-- when Steven Truscott was in school.
At the very least, the evidence suggests that the original investigation should have been more thorough, and other suspects, excluded on the basis of Penistan's conclusion, examined.
A number of other suspects have been suggested.
Alexander Kalichuk, an Air Force sergeant, often gets named as a suspect. He had past convictions for indecent exposure, and had been charged with attempting to lure a ten-year-old girl into his car. He was acquitted days before Lynne Harper’s disappearance and never questioned in connection with this case. He later became a suspect in similar attempts to lure young girls into his car. It should be noted that the car he owned at the time was not a gray Chevrolet. Kalichuk died in 1975. We likely will never know if he had any involvement with her death.
An electrician who worked on the Air Force Base and knew the Harpers had a past conviction for sexual assault. Police never considered him a suspect, and never spoke with him during their investigation.
Two other men working in the area at the time of the killing were later convicted of armed robbery. One would identify the other as the killer of Lynne Harper. The veracity of his statement remains uncertain. He may have been trying to curry favour, and officials did not give his statement much credence. It is worth noting that in 1967 a court official identified both of these men as pedophiles.
A Half-Century Later
On August 28, 2007, the Ontario Court of Appeals overturned Truscott's conviction. Nearly a year later, on July 7, 2008, the Ontario government agreed to pay Truscott more than six million dollars compensation.
The case has long been a popular one. Books have been written on the subject, including Isabel LeBourdais' The Trial of Steven Truscott (1966), Bill Trent’s The Steven Truscott Story (1971), and Julian Sher's Until You are Dead (2001). All three authors conclude that the evidence does not support Truscott’s guilt.
Ann-Marie MacDonald’s fictional novel The Way the Crow Flies (2003) was inspired by this case.
The band Blue Rodeo wrote and recorded a song "Truscott" in 2000.
1. Most accounts refer to Harper’s rape and, while the attack clearly appears to be sexual in nature, the forensic evidence does not conclusively indicate penetration.
2. One could imagine reasons for abrasions on a 14-year-old boy’s penis unconnected to an involvement with an assault and murder.
Tim Cumming. "Author of Truscott Book Returns to Site of Trial." Goderich Signal-Star.
"Indepth: Steven Truscott: The Search for Justice." CBC News Online. October, 28, 2004.
Keith Leslie and Mike Oliveira. "Truscott leaves hearing hopeful." The London Free Press June 20, 2006. A1: 1, 2.
Kelly Patrick. "Truscott bears no ill will to former OPP investigator." The National Post. June 23, 2006. http://www.canada.com/nationalpost/news/story.html?id=d14cc87f-03b9-408c-bb6e-9e2102778e0d&k=1632
Julian Sher. Until You Are Dead: Steven Truscott’s Long Ride Into History.
"The Steven Truscott Story." The Fifth Estate. March 2000. CBC.
Linda Stratmann. "Last Seen with the Deceased." Linda’s Crime Notes.. http://www.parmaq.com/truecrime/LastSeenWith.htm
Tracy Tyler. "Prof. Alan Young Sees Positive Sign for Steven Truscott." The Toronto Star Friday October 29, 2004: A1.