If Helen was alive today, she would be 43. Maybe she would already be a grandmother, with two adult daughters aged 26 and 24. Maybe somehow in the years between 1995 and 2019 she would have gotten the help she desperately needed to set her life on the right track. Maybe she would have gotten her GED, a reliable job and wouldn’t be struggling to just have a roof over her head. What would have happened in Helen’s life, we’ll never know. She was murdered. This blog post is covering Helen’s story,
What little we do know about Helen’s life are gleaned from the early news articles published in the Hamilton Spectator shortly after her death. This podcast did try to reach out to any living family or friends, to tell us about Helen, without success.
So here is what we learned from those early articles:
Helen and her younger sister were born in Kenora, Ontario. Kenora is situated in the north western part of Ontario, about 200kms east of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Kenora Boosts a small population of about 15,000 people in the city proper. There are a few first nation reserves in the Kenora district. It is unknown if Helen and her sister were born into one of the Ojibwa Nations in the area, but we do know that she was of aboriginal decent. Kenora’s historical story is sketchy. Having at one time about six different residential schools, the last one having closed in 1974, just 2 years before Helen was born. The city has a history of violence and racism.
For those of you not familiar with residential schools, here’s a snap shot of what this was:
These were government-sponsored religious schools that started in 1880 in Canada. The whole idea was to assimilate the first Nation peoples into Canadian society. Many of these schools were rife with crime and corruption. As many as 6000 children died in the residential schools across the country. Likely more, as records were not properly kept. Children were taken from their homes & their families, essentially tearing families apart and in many cases, they were forbidden to speak their first language. Everything was in the details. Uniforms were given upon arrival, boys’ hair were cu short, often the first hair cut they were ever given. A lot of time was spent “criticizing and denigrating indigenous spiritual traditions”. (The Canadian Encyclopedia) I will put the link to the articles in the show notes for further reading on this matter.
Although Helen and her sister would not have to be subjected to these residential schools, it could be that member of her community were victims of this. The state of a populace affects all people within that one community.
When Helen was 4, both her and her younger sister were adopted by Wendy & Burt Gillings and raised, along with their biological son, in Sundre, Alberta (about 100 Kms / 60 Miles north of Calgary Alberta). Sundre was a very small town of about 2-3000 people.
This seems like an idyllic place to raise children; calm, fresh air & lots of space. But what it made up for in fresh air & space it lacked in cultural programs, kids’ programs, diversity, and a multitude of other children. It’s unclear what lead to Helen and her younger sister being put up for adoption, but we do know that their biological parents died shortly after the adoption went through.
Her mom spoke to a reporting in 1995, shortly after Helen’s death. She said little about Helen, except to say that in her short & tumultuous times with her, Helen had a great love of Animals and kids and had an artistic talent when it came to drawing. I search for the right words to describe the difficulties Helen encountered in her short life or the reasons or circumstances that led her to the difficult life that she led. Helen was only 4 when she was adopted, and her mother told a reporter after her death that they suspected that Helen had been sexually abused before they met her. According to the American Counselling Association, when a child is sexually abused it can halt or hinder normal social growth and be the cause a variety of psychological problems. At a high level, people who are victims of childhood sexual abuse are more susceptible to be prone to depression, issues with self-destructive behaviour, body and eating disorders, and disassociation. Survivors of sexual abuse commonly have a hard time establishing and maintaining relationships, due to mistrust, fear of intimacy, engaging in compulsive or inappropriate sexual behaviors.
Things seemed to manifest or get worse as Helen turned into a teen. She purportedly started rebelling at around 12, although what that means isn’t described. By 14 she was living on the streets.
Helen’s family didn’t attend her funeral. No reasons were given as to why they didn’t attend. Wendy, her mom, told the Hamilton Spectator in February 1995 that Helen’s move to Ontario in 1991 wasn’t a good situation and something that she didn’t want to get in to.
When Helen turned 16, sometime in 1991, she moved to Toronto, one of the largest cities in Ontario, with no education, no family, and little or no work experience. Leaving behind her parents, grandparents and 2 younger siblings. It was here that she met 21-year-old Jerry Newman. Her and Jerry seemed to have hit it off. Together they moved to Hamilton, Ontario (just a 45 min drive on a good day) in the spring of 1994 just before the birth of their daughter. Things weren’t easier for them there, having no money, no education and no great means of earning a living income and now a child to support. So, while other girls her age were sitting down and watching the latest episodes of 90210 or Friends, writing papers in their first-year psych class, Helen turned to the sex trade. She worked on her own and didn’t have a procurer or pimp.
People had noted seeing the young, petite attractive woman deteriorate before their eyes. One lady, who was interviewed by the Hamilton Spectator in 1995 is quote as saying:
“I watched the kid pass me in the street. I watched her go from a very attractive young woman with the most beautiful hair you ever saw in your life – Just shiny – and her eyes glistened. I could see her going downhill. I could see her deteriorate. I stood behind her in the supermarket store line one morning and I looked at her very carefully, and her hair had started to turn grey.”
In November 1994 Jerry and Helen were evicted from their apartment for failing to pay rent. Subsequently their daughter was taken into custody by the Children’s Aid Society. The Children’s Aid Society can take a child away from parents if they have good reason to believe the child is in need of protection. If the Children’s aid society takes a child it means they do not think your child will be safe in your care. According to the “StepstoJustice” website, a child in need of protection is when a worker believes the child has been harmed or at risk of being harmed, either by abuse or neglect. One example of neglect they specify is not being able to provide adequate shelter.
Helen was approximately 6 months pregnant when she and Jerry were evicted and the Children’s aid society took custody of their daughter. Just two months later she would go into labour and give birth to their second daughter prematurely. Her daughter was born January 26th. Just 3 weeks before Helen died. She would have been release from the hospital between 1-3 days after giving, however her daughter stayed in the hospital until after Helen had died.
The same person who made the comment about Helen’s deterioration also told reporters that 2 weeks before Helen’s death (being 1 week after giving birth to her second daughter) she went into a local apartment building’s lobby to warm up, being the middle of winter and having no real place to go to of her own. The person stated witnessing a man literally throw Helen out of the building with force. Helen landed on her face in the cold and he simply walked around her as though she wasn’t even a person. The witness of this did call the police but it’s uncertain if anything ever happened from this report.
On Wednesday February 15, 1995 Helen headed out to the Straw Hat bar, a seedy bar known to be a hanging place of sex worker, drug users and dealers.
Helen was last seen playing pool with a young man, they left together at around 1:30 AM when the Bar closed. These two were allegedly seen entering the alley way behind the row of apartment & commercial buildings where the bar was located, at the corner of the northwest side of Emerald Street and King Street intersection. This was the last time Helen was seen alive.
I visited this location in to one of the few trips I made in to Hamilton to get a feel for the location and the spot where Helen lost her life. I felt very uncomfortable in this area. The alleyway behind the row of buildings is a parking lot and alleyway combined. There were several overturned sofas in the area and a person approached my car several times while I was there. As I was entering the laneway to take photos, a truck entered from the opposite end and the driver started dumpster diving. The Straw Hat was located on King street and the alley way was directly behind this row of commercial buildings with residential apartments on the second floor.
A composite sketch was done of the man and published in the Hamilton Spectator on Friday Feb 24. In 1995 he was described as being between 20-25 years old, 5’10”, with a slender build, weighing approximately 140 lbs. The article states “He was clean shaven with light-coloured eyes, possibly blue, and a protruding chin. His front teeth are normal, but he has crooked back teeth and over emphasizes Ss in his speech.” A photo of the composite sketch will be on the Instagram, Facebook, and website for this podcast.
The area where Helen frequented and died was a known area where street workers and drug dealers as well as users frequented. This was a seedy part of Hamilton, just a short distance from the downtown core. The current case manager of Helen’s case indicated that the Straw Hat bar, now closed down, was a known location of ill repute.
Helen’s body was discovered on Friday, February 17th at approximately 5PM, more than 24 hrs after her death, by a man living in a second-floor apartment. Helen’s body was completely nude and stuffed under an overturned couch directly under the stairs leading to the second floor. This was in February, and although Hamilton was having a mild winter at the time, the weather dipped to a low of -13C (6.8F) in the early morning of Feb 16. Neighbours had told the Hamilton Spectator that this alley was a well-known gathering place for people engaged in Criminal activity.
I asked the current case manager if Helen had been sexually assaulted, and he responded that the fact of having her completely undressed is in itself a sexual assault, would not comment as to whether or not she had been raped. Remember, Helen had just given birth 3 weeks before and was likely still sore and still bleeding, as you typically bleed between 4-6 weeks after birth.
Helen entered that laneway/alleyway at around 1:30 AM with a young man and never exited. The police had indicated that there was no obvious cause of death when her body had been discovered, however they did notice trauma to the neck but would know more after the pathologist completes the autopsy. The Autopsy was scheduled for the following day, on Feb 18. The current Case Manager confirmed that the cause of death was strangulation, however would not comment on whether it was manual strangulation or if she was strangled with an item, such as a piece of her clothing. I have not been able to confirm if any of her clothing items were found at the crime scene.
Sex workers were scared to be on the street while they plied their trade, but continued to work none the less. The Hamilton Spectator interviewed a sex worker who knew Helen that same February, shortly after her death. She told the reporter that each “trick” paid about $100 therefore she wasn’t out long. She had indicated that around the time that Helen was murdered another sex worker was attacked by a man who “drop-kicked” her in the face and then tried dragging her into an alley.
Meanwhile it was up to Helen’s boyfriend Jerry to confirm her identity at the morgue. The early Spectator news articles indicated that he spoke with tears in his eyes and was furious when people referred to her as a prostitute. He described Helen as a good person and a good mother and “She’s never done any wrong in this world. I miss her a lot.”
After Helen’s death, CAS also took Helen & Jerry’s second daughter, when the hospital released her. Both of their daughters were adopted.
It has been almost 25 years since Helen’s murder and her case remains open, with no recent leads however the current case manager in the major crime unit refuses to label her case as a cold one. By his definition, the person involved as well as any witnesses are still alive and can still come forward. He was a young man on the force when Helen’s murder took place and remembers it and does hope to be able to close her case.
Recently in Canadian history an inquiry into the missing & murdered indigenous women and girls was under way under the Justin Trudeau government, responding to major push from indigenous groups and activists. The RCMP estimated that approximately 1200 (based on an article from 2016) women and girls were missing or murdered between 1980 and 2012. According to a CBC news articles published in 2014 Aboriginal women only represent 4.6 % of the female population in Canada. In 1980, they represented 9% of all female victims, but by 2015 they represented 24% of all female victims. Manitoba was the worst area in Canada, there Aboriginal females made up almost 50% of the female victim homicides. The RCMP released a report on this epidemic that has been long alive in Canada in 2014, prompting calls for a National Inquiry. This same report really showed the disproportion in frequency, as the homicide rates for non-aboriginal women were decreasing while the homicide rate for aboriginal women were increasing. This even went to the United Nations, who, after having a representative stay in Canada and study aboriginal issues in 2013, also called for a National Inquiry. The Inquiry was put into place in 2016. An interim report was published and released in 2017. According to the interim report, indigenous women were 12 times more likely to be murdered or missing than any other women in Canada, and 16 x higher than white women. Saskatchewan and Manitoba were a staggering 19 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than any other women. The final report was released earlier this year. The final report effectively called the situation a genocide. Part of the final report reads:
“This violence equates to race-based genocide of indigenous peoples […], which especially targets women.”. “Colonial violence, as well as racism, sexism […] against indigenous women and girls […] have become embedded in everyday life – whether this is through interpersonal forms of violence, through institutions like the healthcare system or the justice system, or in the laws, policies, and structures of Canadian society. The result has been that many indigenous people have grown up normalized to violence, while Canadian society shows an appalling apathy to addressing the issue. “
A list of all identified names are being identified as part of the initial report and part of this Inquiry. Helen Gillings name has been added to this ever-growing list.
The Hamilton Police Service Board is offering a $10,000.00 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible for Helen’s murder. Anyone with information in encouraged to contact the Homicide Unit at (905) 546-3801 or Crime Stoppers at (905) 522-TIPS (8477).
MMIW CAD Final Report: https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/
Podcast: On location Scene Description & Photos (original content)
Podcast: Interview questions with Case Manager, Hamilton PD (Original Content)
Original News Articles from the Hamilton Spectator (Feb 18-Feb 28, 1995) – Link not available, data at city central library on microfilm