Posts Tagged ‘Rene Gunning’


“I thought I was prepared for it. But I’m not.”

January 23, 2012

At the end of 2011, reporters wrote a brief blurb their “favourite” story of 2011. My choice was easy:

It certainly wasn’t a “favourite” in any normal sense.

In May, RCMP’s Project Kare began a search of Henrietta Muir Edwards Park in central Edmonton. They had gotten a tip related to the disappearance of several Edmonton area women of “high risk lifestyles” who had gone missing years earlier.

Rene Gunning, from an RCMP handout

Just over a week later, Grande Prairie RCMP said “human remains” had been discovered. They wouldn’t say what they found, or what they thought.

The “remains” were, in fact, two skulls discovered by campers near Grande Prairie. Somebody in our newsroom knew the campers, who had made the horrible discovery while investigating an unrelated, suspicious smell (a rotting moose carcass, it turned out). It was awful, but soon became worse.

The skulls didn’t belong to high profile missing couple Lyle and Marie McCann, the RCMP told me, but they wouldn’t say more. Through a little sleuthing, I found out: coincidentally, they were the same remains the RCMP had been looking for in Edmonton just weeks before.

One June afternoon, investigators broke the news to Jo Gunning, father of one of two girls who had gone missing while hitchhiking from West Edmonton Mall in 2005. The other skull had yet to be identified.

Hours later, I called Gunning on the phone. It was one of the hardest conversations of my life. Jo talked about the conversation he had dreaded and the grandson he was now raising. He talked about walking through the park investigators had searched, about having a service at the remote spot near Grande Prairie. I was dumbfounded. Struck by his candor. Moved by his grief.

The next day (my day off), reporter Jeanne Armstrong picked up the next part of the story, talking to Krystall Knott’s aunt. Anyway, here’s my blurb about it that appeared in the New Years Eve journal:

EDMONTONIt began with a rotten moose carcass.

On the May long weekend, a group of Grande Prairie campers investigated an odd smell and stumbled upon two human skulls. Over the next two weeks, police and forensic experts zeroed in on the identities of the dead: two teenage girls who had disappeared in February 2005 from West Edmonton Mall, just weeks before 13-year-old Nina Courtepatte was lured from the mall and murdered on a golf course outside the city.

Working the late shift the night of June 9, I couldn’t stop thinking about those 450 kilometres from the mall to the woods.

At about 11 p.m., the phone rang. It was the father of one of the girls, shortly after police told him the news he had expected for six years.

Jo Gunning spoke to me for nearly half an hour. “I thought I was prepared for it,” he said. “But I’m not.”

Neither was I. Never has a story so affected me. Driving home that night, I looked up at a huge, almost-full moon, and vowed to never forget it.