The city of Brantford is beautifully intertwined with walking trails rich in wildlife and natural beauty, juxtaposed with poverty and those affected by different addictions that make their homes within the trees along the paths, often leaving a stream of refuse on the land surrounding the river.
Once a stop on the underground railway, seen as a safe haven, where those escaping slavery and oppression would find peace and freedom, and yet, an epicentre for indigenous residential schools, whose primary focus was to oppress and eliminate indigenous culture, often forcefully removing children from their families and their homes, removing the freedoms they had known as a people for generations.
Once a bustling and rapidly growing city, earmarked to be the Capital on Ontario, visited by none other than her majesty the Queen and the Queen Consort, now a refuge to those coming from the Capital, looking for housing somewhat more affordable. The birthplace of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and the very first telephone factory in Canada. The heart & home of The Great One, hockey legend Wayne Gretzky and the place cementing the beginning of funny-man Phil Hartman. Who knew that his life would have such a tragic end?
Brantford has had its ups and downs, like every other city, and with its highs also comes its lows. Over the next series of episodes, we will be looking at these different lows suffered by the victims and the city. Some will be historical, going back to confederation day, and some will be recent, but all will be within the Brantford Census metropolitan area. Today we will be recounting the tragic tale of 15-year-old Elisha Mercer.
Elisha was a great listener and a good friend and was blessed with very close friendships. And although she wasn’t terribly excited about school, she was described by her teachers as a bright girl with an inquisitive mind and an incredible artistic talent. Not only was she talented in creative art, but she was also terrific and original with prose and poetry. She was a funny and goofy 15-year-old in the 10th grade at Brantford Collegiate Institute or BCI as the locals call it. Her friends would tell of the time she fell into the bin that held all the basketballs at school and struggled without success to get out. She was very much interested in fashion and interior design, hoping one day to become either an interior designer or fashion designer. She often spent some of her free time making different jewellery with glass beads and wire, frequently incorporating her favourite colour of blue into her designs.
But things weren’t always so rosy for Elisha. In early 2001 she had gone through a hard time, leaving her home to live with a foster family for about 6 months. The reasons leading up to this is are only known by her family and those friends that she had confided in. Elisha was the youngest of the 3 girls. Both her sisters were significantly older than her by about 11 to 13 years and were not living at the family home at the time. By mid to late October 2001, she would be back home once again living with her mother and father in a small brick quaint home on Salisbury Avenue, in the area known as Eagle Place.
But, in just three weeks time, she’d be dead.
On Thursday November 8th, 2001, Elisha would get up in the morning and make her way to school, spending the days within the classrooms and corridors of BCI. BCI is Brantford’s oldest school that has its roots at the turn of the 20th century. Starting off as a school, and briefly transitioning to a hospital for returning veterans during the great wars, complete with tunnels leading from the school to the nearby armoury.
By 2001 those tunnels would be mostly sealed off and some would house the school servers. And the school itself in need of updates and restoration. This in itself reflected the city, albeit likely in better shape than some areas of the City. By the end of the 20ths century and the beginning of the 21st, the city would fall into disarray, a centre for car thefts and a large inhospitable area in the downtown core, with abandoned houses and businesses and the streets filled with the homeless and drug addicted. With its toll being exacted on Colborne street east. Many shops and building were boarded up, which created a perfect location set for a horror movie. In fact, this street would be featured on the psychological horror movie called Silent Hill just a few years later. All sorts of individuals frequented this part of town; high school students, university students, criminals, the druggies, and the down and destitute. And one homeless teen in particular would start sleeping in the unlocked lobby of a university residence.
That section of street was one way, running from west to east, its twin, Dalhousie, also a one-way street running in the opposite direction. It’s in this general area where the Laurier University campus is located. The downtown area is a very short walking distance from Brantford Collegiate, located on Brant Street. Colborne Street East turns into Colborne Street West at the intersection where Colborne street east meets Brant Street. Its at this location where the Armoury is located and the Lorne bridge, which takes you across the Grant River into the West end of the city. The wedge-shaped alcove ender the Lorne bridge is a place where some deviants and some not so deviant as well as many young people would hang out and party.
School would let out for the day around 3PM. Elisha would grab her jacket and put on her backpack and leave school but she wouldn’t go home. Elisha would stay in the downtown area. One of her last confirmed sightings was in the downtown area at 4pm that Thursday. Elisha wouldn’t come home that night, and yet, wasn’t reported missing until the following morning. Perhaps this wasn’t the first time this had happened.
Thursday evening started out like many other evenings in the area. Many university students would go to local bars, and parties would be had in and around Brantford and its surrounding areas. The homeless teen in town that stayed his nights in one of the university residences lobbies, was asking for cigarettes from the local university students of that residence building and was then wandering the streets.
Sometime during the night, a local man was by the swings behind the armoury smoking when he heard noises coming from the direction of the bridge. He didn’t go to investigate.
At around 3 AM on November 9th, some university students left their dorm to search the streets out of worry for a fellow student and friend who had gone to a party and hadn’t returned when expected back. They searched for their friend down Colborne Street East to the park that formed the centre of their campus; they were the only ones on the street. They apprehensively made their way to the Lorne Bridge, which was the prearranged territorial limit of their search. The river embankment around the bridge consists of large stone or rock retaining walls placed in way to easily step or walk down to or up from the river’s bank. It was a dark night, and barely any light by the river, let alone under the around the bottom of the bridge. They made their way down the rocks to the river’s edge. One of the students said he immediately felt the small hairs on the back of his neck raise up, and an uncomfortable feeling of someone bearing ill will staring at them, although he couldn’t prove it. At this point they decided to return to their dorm and wait, turning their heads back as they made their way back up the stone embankment to make sure no one was behind them. They arrived back to their residence at 4:30 AM. Their friend arrived back at residence just after 6 in the morning, upset, having herself escaped an ordeal. After a little while they were able to finally get some sleep.-
The first bell rang at 8:55 am at Brantford Collegiate on Friday, November 9th, but Elisha wasn’t there. And, she still hadn’t been reported missing.
Just a little after the first bell rang, a woman walking along the trail by the Grand River, under the Lorne Bridge, adjacent to the nearby railway tracks, discovered the motionless body of a female in her teens at the bottom of a steep ravine that contains the embankment under the bridge. Law enforcement was called immediately, and the investigation into her death began. It didn’t take long for the discovery of a deceased young female to be reported to the media. Upon hearing this in the local news, Elisha’s mother called the police to report her daughter missing.
She was identified later that day as 15-year-old Elisha Elizabeth Mercer. According to news articles at the time, Elisha was fully dressed and wearing the backpack that she had on the day before.
Elisha had suffered head trauma, but it wasn’t evident on the scene if this is what caused her death. It wouldn’t be until after further investigation or the autopsy that the police would be confident that a fall did not accidentally cause her death. One thing for sure is that they were convinced that she would not have been at this location on her own.
Twenty members of law enforcement would be assigned to work Elisha’s case, painstakingly piecing together her final moments, hoping this would lead them to the answers the city and her family and friends were seeking.
By early afternoon, the university student that had strolled the almost deserted streets that first morning in search of their friend awoke to the need for essential grocery items. He and another roommate left the building to make their way to the grocery store located on the other side of the Grand River, the route taking them across the Lorne Bridge.
Flashing blue and white lights and yellow tape greeted them as they approached the Lorne Bridge. The paths leading down to the river bank were blocked. I imagine a cold chill spreading across them when they found out that a girl’s body was discovered under bridge accompanied by the memory of the unnerving feeling of someone lurking in the dark, staring back at them with ill will.
The day after Elisha’s body was discovered, seven of her friends would solemnly stand by the yellow tape, with tears in their eyes and say goodbye to their friend “Glowey” although they weren’t sure why they called her that. One by one, they each placed a pink carnation as near as they could get to the river bank as a police officer stood guard.
The post-mortem confirmed that Elisha’s death was not accidental, but that she had been murdered. She had been sexually assaulted and beaten. However, they weren’t sure if she had been sexually assaulted before or after her murder.
About a month after Elisha’s murder, the university student and his future wife were walking towards another university residence building when the homeless teen started following them a little too closely. He shouted to them saying, “wait up! Wait up; I want to show you something.” They didn’t want to see, and it appeared as though they didn’t trust him. He let off a scream as they ran away. Complaints were made about the homeless teen that was making his home in and around the university buildings. So, he wasn’t seen as frequently.
Time would pass, and Elisha’s murder would go unsolved. But this didn’t mean that the police didn’t have their suspicions. A Toronto police officer had gone undercover in Brantford sometime in 2003 and befriended a homeless teenager that was a suspect in Elisha’s murder. This homeless teen had told the undercover officer what he had done and where he hid some of her clothing after he had raped and murdered her.
On August 4th, 2003, almost two years after Elisha’s death, the police announced that they had arrested a 17-year-old male on a charge of first-degree murder the day before on August 3rd at 9 am. The youth criminal justice act prevents the police from naming the accused. They did say that he was a suspect early on in the investigation.
A little while after he was arrested, he was remanded to the Brantford Jail, where a friend of the university student’s father was a correctional officer. The CO’s son would sometimes go into his father’s place of work and, on occasion, recognized the homeless teen that used to sleep in the residence building lobby. He asked his dad what that kid had done to be locked up. His dad seemed concerned and asked him how he knew the teen in lock up. He, of course, told his dad. His father would then say to him that the 17-year-old boy had been charged with the murder of Elisha Mercer.
He was tried and convicted of Elisha’s murder. He may be no longer in custody.
The Spectator; Hamilton, Ont. [Hamilton, Ont]12 Nov 2001: A05.
The Spectator; Hamilton, Ont. [Hamilton, Ont]13 Nov 2001: A11.
The Spectator; Hamilton, Ont. [Hamilton, Ont]17 Nov 2001: A10.
The Spectator; Hamilton, Ont. [Hamilton, Ont]22 Nov 2001: A07.
The Spectator; Hamilton, Ont. [Hamilton, Ont]05 Aug 2003: A.09.