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'Looking over our shoulders': A killing looms large in a little B.C. town

Darpan News Desk The Canadian Press, 23 May, 2024 11:47 AM
  • 'Looking over our shoulders': A killing looms large in a little B.C. town

Something has shifted in the pretty little village of Lumby, B.C. 

It's subtle, say residents of the community of 2,000 people, nestled in the hills of the North Okanagan in B.C.'s Interior.

Few people now gather outside coffee shops on the main street along Highway 6. Posters on the school doors require visitors to check in or call the office to be let in. Heart-shaped stickers saying "Justice for Tatjana" are plastered on storefronts and car windows.

It used to be the sort of place where parents let their kids roam free or play in the local creek, where shopkeepers let children have ice cream on the promise to pay later, said Tawnya Ferris, a store owner and mother of three.

But everything changed when Tatjana Stefanski vanished.

"The town went hush," Ferris said. "I've always told everybody we're safe, not thinking that something would happen."

RCMP say Stefanski, 44, was last seen on April 13 with her ex-husband before "departing unexpectedly" with him in a black Audi.

Stefanski's partner of four years, Jason Gaudreault, says he watched grainy CCTV footage of those moments at the end of the driveway to their house.

"I can see him on the video surveillance and I see him standing beside his vehicle that had the passenger door open," Gaudreault said in an interview. 

Stefanski's nine-year-old son walks down the driveway as his mother approaches the vehicle. Then, said Gaudreault, Stefanski is gone.

The impact on the town was immediate. Ferris said her business slowed down for about 10 days after Stefanski's disappearance "because not a lot of people want to leave the house."

"The schools and businesses, and the whole community is — just, you just feel it. It's just eerie. The fog hasn't lifted yet," Ferris said.

On April 14, police announced that Stefanski's body was found in a rural area outside town and a man "believed to be involved in this death was arrested in the general vicinity."

But the suspect was freed with conditions, police say. Gaudreault doesn't understand why, and Lumby's residents also wonder why charges have not been laid.

Gaudreault doesn't blame police, but said not enough was being done to protect them, or other families who are victims of crime, and laws surrounding victims need to change.

Gaudreault feared that he or Stefanski's son or 16-year-old daughter could be next, so the family went into hiding. 

They were not alone in their concerns. 

Lumby Mayor Kevin Acton said "panic set in right when people found out the suspect wasn't detained."

He said the town, which is typically "like Pleasantville," remains on "high alert" more than a month later.

"Something like this really catches us by surprise because you realize that even though you're a small community, you're not immune to such horrible or horrific things," he said.

"It just is hard to believe that the family can't feel safe in their own community in this day and age. Surely we can do better."

B.C. RCMP said in a statement to The Canadian Press last week that the "investigation is in its infancy," and the threshold for charge approval was "not insignificant." They did not confirm the identity of the person arrested.

The Canadian Press reached Stefanski’s ex-husband for comment by phone. He confirmed his identity when he answered, but immediately hung up when told he was speaking to a reporter. 

Jen De Bourcier, a Lumby mother of three, said she helped organize a candlelight vigil in Stefanski’s honour on April 26 at the town's Oval Park.

"It was a really strange thing to know this family was going through this, but yet they were really isolated, so the community really needed a way to show our sadness and grief, and to show our support for the family," she said.

She said about 120 people, including Gaudreault and Stefanski's daughter, were in attendance. She expected more.

"People were afraid to come out to the vigil because this person is still out; he's still free," De Bourcier said.

"So there were a lot of people that said they really wanted to come and show their support and remember Tatjana, but they were afraid because they didn't — we don't — know what this person is capable of."

'I KNEW INSTANTLY SOMETHING HAPPENED'

Gaudreault said he met Stefanski on a Facebook dating app four years ago.

His first date with Stefanski, who moved to Canada from Germany about 12 years ago, was a walk together. On their second date, he showed her his motorcycle. She posed for pictures with it on an impromptu photoshoot.

"We just connected, and I think it was my motorcycle that caught her," he said. "She always wanted to get her motorcycle licence."

After a year of dating, he invited her and her children to live with him at his home, a rambling property with chickens running around the driveway, alongside Highway 6 just outside Lumby. Gaudreault still calls them Stefanski's chickens, as he shoos them away from the deck.

"She was just always so full of light and just love and care," he said.

Gaudreault said Stefanski and her ex-husband's relationship broke down and he left her about five years ago. Her ex, Gaudreault said, thought that after he got a good job "she was going to come running back to him."

Instead, she met Gaudreault a year after the split.

They met via Facebook, but he says she didn't spend much time on social media. Instead, it was Gaudreault, phone in hand, documenting their relationship. "You're so beautiful," Gaudreault coos to her in a singsong voice in multiple videos, making Stefanski smile shyly as she poses next to a waterfall or skates backwards on an ice rink.

Her ex, who was estranged from the former couple's teenage daughter but shared custody of their son, remained an uncomfortable presence. 

Gaudreault said he made her promise to never be alone with him. 

"But she's stubborn, and she trusts way too much," he said.

On April 13, Gaudreault was in his home workshop when he got a Facebook message from Stefanski at 7:57 a.m., saying her ex had arrived and wanted to see their son. The man was giving the boy "his stuff" and saying goodbye before he moved away, said the message, which Gaudreault showed on his phone.

Gaudreault responded by asking where he was going, adding that the man would need to give Stefanski full guardianship of their kids in writing. 

A few minutes later, Gaudreault said he went to the house and found his and Stefanski's sons going through a "small carry-on suitcase" of the man's belongings, including his passport. 

He asked Stefanski's son where his mother was, to which the boy responded that she was on the driveway talking to his dad.

"Right there, my guts were right up in my throat," he said. 

Gaudreault hadn't seen anyone on the driveway on his way to the house.

"My heart was pounding hard. I threw my shoes back on I ran outside and I ran all the way up the driveway — they were gone," he said. "As I was running up there, I knew instantly something happened." 

Gaudreault began driving around the town, looking for the man's black Audi. He sent Stefanski a series of increasingly desperate Facebook messages. "Seriously where did you go???? You need to tell me if you leave with him," he wrote in one of the messages at 8:16 a.m. "I don't trust him."

He said he informed police and they joined the search within 90 minutes.

Gaudreault said he knew the owner of a neighbouring storage facility had video surveillance that captured the top of the driveway, so he asked if he could sift through that footage. The grainy images of Stefanski would be the last time he saw her alive.

After the video was turned over to RCMP, they notified the public that Stefanski was missing around 7:30 p.m. They said in a news release she was last seen around 8:05 a.m. while speaking with her ex-husband "before departing unexpectedly with him" in his 2007 black Audi.

That night, Gaudreault said he watched about 25 SWAT trucks speed past his house and head toward Mable Lake, north of Lumby. 

The next day, police helped him tell Stefanski's children that their mother had been found dead.

Mounties said in a news release that a woman's body had been found, that foul play was suspected and a man "believed to be involved in this death was arrested in the general vicinity." But it said he was released from police custody with "a series of conditions to abide by."

That is the extent of what police have told Gaudreault and the public about the case.

"He's walking free (and) from that point forward, we've been kind of on the run," Gaudreault said.

He said the family had been in and out of hiding for weeks, staying at Airbnbs after he was granted temporary guardianship of Stefanski's children. 

"We haven't been able to grieve yet, not fully," he said. "We're scared for our lives. Nobody should have to live like this."

Gaudreault said police told him the suspect was re-arrested about 2 1/2 hours after his release, when he was found near the house. Again, Gaudreault said, the man was released. 

"Suspicious death investigations are complex and can take time for the police to gather all the relevant evidence and submit a report to Crown counsel," RCMP Staff Sgt. Kris Clark said in a statement to The Canadian Press.

He said the Crown would review the evidence and the report before deciding whether or not to charge. He said the Supreme Court of Canada's Jordan rule, which sets a time limit from a charge being laid to the end of a trial, "is not currently a factor in the Lumby suspicious death" case.

"I have seen the concerns expressed by individuals on social media about the suspect’s release/lack of charges and while I can understand those concerns, the threshold for charge approval is not insignificant," Clark said. 

"Further, the police do not have the authority to hold someone indefinitely until the investigation is complete."

He said in the statement that there are circumstances where police may place conditions on a person to mitigate potential risk to the public. 

"In cases where a person fails to abide by their conditions, additional measures may be sought through the courts."

'ALWAYS LOOKING OVER OUR SHOULDERS'

Gaudreault said the family's plight shows the province isn't doing enough to protect victims' families. 

He said victim services were insufficient and did not help ensure their safety. He also suggested there should be some mechanism, such as a tracking device, that could help ensure a suspect doesn't come into contact with victims or their families.

"Things need to be changed," he said. "We're never going to feel safe until we know that he's behind bars."

Stefanski’s 16-year-old daughter agreed, saying she has had nightmares every night since her mother's death and remains "on edge," especially when at home.

"They seem to take the side of the criminal and not the side of the victims," she said, referring to the justice system. "I think it's unfair that we're the ones who have to change our everyday lives, while (the suspect) gets to walk out and just kind of do whatever he wants." 

Mayor Acton also pointed to the lack of communication from authorities as a reason for widespread concern, not only for Lumby but for the larger region. 

"You still see some chatter going on in Facebook … and I think it's curiosity — sort of self-preservation curiosity, not morbid curiosity. People just want to know that this is being handled," he said. 

He said he had never been directly contacted by authorities about the killing.

Asked about the case in the B.C. legislature last month, B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the government was "working with police and communities to identify the tools and the changes in terms of laws that need to happen to ensure that police are able to do their job."

B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma said the province was working to address the issue of repeat violent offenders, citing bail reform and the introduction of 12 hubs across the province that consist of police, dedicated prosecutors, and probation officers focused on tackling repeat violent offenders. 

In the meantime, residents are finding their own ways to cope.

Sarah Draht, a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu with a background in security, began offering free women-only self-defence workshops in nearby Vernon in Stefanski's honour. 

"Self-defence isn't that normalized, because it's such a fragile topic," Draht said. "The goal is to prevent this on any level from happening to another female."

She said the response was "overwhelming" — two 75-minute sessions for 40 participants each were filled. Women aged 17 to 70 took part.

De Bourcier helped set up a Facebook group titled "Justice For Tatjana" that aims to act as a community information hub for the case, saying every day without an arrest is "deflating and alarming."

The group, which has more than 3,000 members, highlights community events, such as a Mother's Day BBQ fundraiser for Stefanski's family and a sign-up for people to prepare food for her grieving family. 

"Justice for Tatjana" stickers and shirts are available at Ferris's store, the Okanagan Outpost, with proceeds going to the family. 

The clothing store in Lumby is displaying paper hearts with messages of support for the family. "I hope your family finds justice and can heal from this horrifying event. Your mother and girlfriend was an amazing woman," reads one.

Gaudreault is also thinking of ways to honour Stefanski's memory.

He's thinking about creating advocacy centres in her name to help other victims' families navigate life after tragedy. He also hopes her death ignites some legislative change to better protect families who fall victim to crime, saying he doesn't blame police for the family's situation.

"It’s not the RCMP who’s at fault. It’s the system," he wrote in a May 15 Facebook post. "I want it changed and I hope you all do too. I never want anyone to have to walk in my shoes or to have to feel the way the children and I do. Always looking over our shoulders."

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