Johnathan Townsend’s family knew he was a danger. Nobody listened
George Townsend’s phone rang as he was driving from Toronto to his home in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. It was August 8, 2013. The call was from Karen Upper, George’s ex-wife. “I think Johnny’s had a meltdown,” she said, referring to their son. She was at the hospital with him and found him distant and listless, which is usually how he behaved after an outburst of violence. She asked George to visit Johnathan’s apartment to check if everything was okay. George, who then was about threeand-a-half hours away, said he would look in when he got to town.
Both Upper and her ex-husband were used to such episodes. Three years earlier, Johnathan had been identified as having Asperger’s, now considered autism spectrum disorder. It was a diagnosis that increasingly puzzled his parents: there is no link between ASD and violence, but their son was prone to fits of anger that often resulted in broken computer screens, smashed doors, punched walls, and overturned tables. In March, Townsend had hit Upper with a chair, breaking her glasses. It was then, just four months shy of Townsend’s eighteenth birthday, that she had finally kicked him out of the house. Upper continued to see him regularly, though, because she still believed she could help him.
On the morning of August 8, Upper had picked up Townsend at Algoma University, where he often went to use the free Wi-fi, and had taken him to an orthodontist appointment. On the way, Townsend asked about getting help for his condition. He even volunteered to be committed — the first time he’d ever done so. After the orthodontist, they went straight to the Sault Ste. Marie Group Health Centre, and Townsend was soon transferred to Sault Area Hospital. Upper was relieved. After ten years, maybe he’d finally get the treatment he needed. She was worried, though, that he had trashed his apartment.
At 7:25 that evening, George unlocked the door to Townsend’s tiny ground-floor apartment in Sault Ste. Marie’s east end. Taking a few steps in, he saw pools of blood near the door and in the front room. He also saw a pair of knee-high white patentleather boots splattered with blood. Turning his head, he saw the body of a woman in the bathtub, crouched face down. She wore a patterned camisole, white shorts, striped green socks, and a string of pearls. Her feet blocked the drain, so the tub was filled with several inches of blood.
“Are you okay?” George said. He touched her wrist. There was no pulse, the skin cold and hard.
George had feared this day would come. For years, he and Upper had tried to get help for Johnathan. When it didn’t come, and as they watched Townsend get sicker, they warned social workers, counsellors, doctors, and hospital administrators what he was capable of. George stood above the dead body in his son’s bathtub. “You finally did it, you finally did it,” he said out loud. He left the apartment, locked the door, and dialed 911.
Her name was Corellie Bonhomme. She was forty-two years old. Hers was Sault Ste. Marie’s sole homicide of 2013.
Initial media reports about the murder said Bonhomme had no fixed address and that she and Townsend were acquaintances. Rumours spread. She was an escort who picked the wrong client. She was crazy. She was on drugs. Her death, while tragic, was a consequence of how she lived.
Actually, Bonhomme was many things: a daughter who had been largely separated from her mother until her twenties, a model who had travelled the world, a mother who had her children taken away from her and spent much of her life trying to get them back, a woman who danced at Studio 10, Sault Ste. Marie’s lone strip club. She had a beautiful smile and a small, angular face framed by dark curly hair. Some of her modelling pictures evoke a young Diana Ross — all boots, eyes, and attitude.
The official story, the one entered into evidence at Townsend’s first-degree murder trial, had Bonhomme and Townsend first meeting on the doorstep of his apartment. It was 5:30 a.m. on July 16, four days after Townsend’s birthday. Bonhomme was asleep by the communal mailboxes. Townsend said he practically tripped over her as he went for his mail. They spoke briefly, and he invited her in. Over the course of the next few weeks, they hung around, often walking the streets of Sault Ste. Marie together. They slept in the same bed and showered together. Bonhomme was the first woman Townsend ever saw naked. Though separated by twenty-four years, they quickly bonded. He claimed he loved her.
But the official story prompts more questions than answers. How did Bonhomme end up in front of his completely unremarkable apartment five kilometres from Studio 10? Why did Townsend, who, like many diagnosed with ASD, craves order and routine, let this stranger into his apartment in the middle of the night? Why kill someone you profess to love?
There’s another important question: Could Bonhomme’s death have been prevented? For almost a decade, Karen Upper had been contacting family agencies in her area, and Townsend had several stints in Sault Area Hospital following meltdowns of ever-increasing intensity. Upper often found herself calling the police as a last resort. Townsend, she was told, was either too young, too old, too smart, too sick, or not sick enough to qualify for help. He languished on waiting lists and was sent home from the hospital. What’s more, the limited support he did receive vanished almost completely once he turned eighteen.
None of this is particularly surprising. In 2013, the University of Toronto published a survey of 480 individuals with ASD. The survey called Ontario’s approach to autism care “uncoordinated, severely lacking limited services and supports.” The report found that families are left to navigate a long list of government agencies that barely communicated with one another. “They keep saying that Johnathan fell through the cracks,” Upper says. “He didn’t fall. He was pushed.”
Nor would addressing his ASD have been enough. Though Townsend was diagnosed with that condition in 2011, it would take another year before he was diagnosed with conduct disorder—and a year after that before his parents even learned about this second diagnosis. A behavioural and emotional disorder affecting children and teens, conduct disorder is often considered to be a precursor to anti-social personality disorder; typical symptoms include chronic spates of violence, cruelty to people or animals, and a lack of remorse.
In February 2013, six months before Bonhomme’s murder, a psychiatrist who had examined Townsend wrote a report warning Townsend’s family to take “extreme precautions.” About a month later, after Townsend attacked his mother with a chair, his parents tried again to have him institutionalized. Sault Area Hospital discharged him less than four hours after the police brought him in. George remembers telling his ex-wife at the time: “They aren’t going to take this seriously until he actually kills somebody.”
Acorrectional officer opens a heavy door and Johnathan Townsend walks into the booth. Sitting down, he picks up the receiver and wipes off the earpiece with the collar of his orange prison jumpsuit.
“Hello,” he says. I say hello back.
From August 11, 2013, when he was arrested at Sault Area Hospital, until just after he was sentenced for murder in June 2017, Townsend was housed at the Algoma Treatment and Remand Centre, a low-slung building on the northern outskirts of Sault Ste. Marie. While in jail, he’s been found guilty of uttering threats to a prison guard and for sending a threatening letter to Thomas Armstrong, the Sault Ste. Marie sergeant detective who investigated Bonhomme’s murder. He’s also written two unpublished sci-fi novels. A couple years ago, he became frustrated and stabbed himself in the neck with a pencil.
He has spent much of this time in solitary confinement, usually at his own request. It’s among the first things I ask him: What was it like to live in solitary for more than three years? “Um, I don’t know. I guess it was just life. It’s not that big a change, really,” he says. “It would be different if I’d been going to parties when I wasn’t in jail, but mostly, I went to school. Besides such prior obligations, I’d stay locked in a dark room with no lights.”
In the months I spent researching Townsend’s story, I came to realize there were two versions of him. One was a violent, temperamental, and narcissistic monster who assaulted his mother and killed a woman in cold blood. The other was a shy kid who downplayed three-anda-half years in solitary confinement and who has a tendency to speak softly and haltingly, the ends of his sentences bending upwards so that they sound like questions. I read about the former but only ever saw the latter.
Townsend was George and Upper’s third child. From the start, he was rambunctious to the point of being hyperactive. The parents figured it was part of raising a boy. By 2005, as Townsend was about to turn eleven, he started throwing and breaking things. He’d push doors so violently that they’d snap off their hinges. He smashed the doorknob to his sister’s room with an iron because she’d locked herself in to get away from him. His behaviour escalated when his parents divorced. He’d punch walls and destroy toys, his anger rising like a diabetic spike, disappearing as quickly as it had come. Confronted with his behaviour, he’d look at his mother, confused. He didn’t understand what he had done, or why he’d done it. In one case, furious after being told to turn off his Gamecube, he broke apart the toy ramp his mother had just set up. “After he had calmed down, he didn’t remember tearing it apart. We discovered that in his rage, he is not even aware of his actions,” Upper wrote in her diary at the time.
Upper began to see a pattern in Townsend’s meltdowns. He would be relatively well-behaved at school only to lose it once he got home. These meltdowns, in which Upper and her daughters would become the de facto targets of Townsend’s rage, were distressing for another reason: it was nearly impossible for Upper to convince teachers, counsellors, and psychiatrists that there was anything wrong with her son.
Chloe Halpenny got to know Townsend at Korah Collegiate and Vocational School, where they attended high school. She remembers a short kid with long hair. Other students called him “Johnny Pants” because he kept his pants hiked up. They’d talk to him, then laugh at his response, just to show how different he was. Even worse, Halpenny says, because of his condition, Townsend himself never clued into how he was the butt of their jokes. “It bothered me to see that happening, and I thought maybe he was someone who needed someone to sit with at lunch,” Halpenny says. So she hung out with him. He showed her a video game he’d worked on. They saw the movie Super 8 together. They messaged over Facebook.
In 2010, as Townsend was finishing grade nine, his mother received a call from a guidance counsellor at the school. “I think Johnathan has Asperger’s,” the counsellor said. Individuals with Asperger’s, Upper was told, typically have some of the symptoms associated with autism, including repetitive behaviours and difficulty reading facial expressions and other social cues. Yet they don’t have delays in speech or cognitive development. For a parent, learning that their child has a developmental disorder can be a painful discovery. Upper nearly broke into tears of joy. Her son would finally get the help he needed. Townsend was officially diagnosed with Asperger’s by a child psychologist the following year, when he was in grade ten.
At home, Townsend’s meltdowns were becoming more violent. He’d spend hours on online forums dedicated to anime. He hated being disagreed with, online or off. When it happened, he’d smash something. His laptop was often the first victim. Other times, he’d throw things at his sisters and at his mother. She was working at Sears while trying to go to various meetings with Community Living Algoma (CL A), an organization designed to help guide autistic youth through the school system, and Algoma Family Services (AFS), which offered specialized programs dealing with mental health. Neither agency, Upper claims, had much experience with Asperger’s. (Both agencies declined to comment.) One CLA case worker told her that she was learning about the disorder by watching The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom about a group of nerdy oddballs living in Pasadena, California. (This also happened to be Townsend’s favourite show.)
As Townsend’s behaviour got worse, his mother was forced into retreat. At one point, he set fire to the carpet in her room. “At times, I was scared of him, yeah,” Upper says. “Not afraid of Johnny but of the mental illness that they didn’t see and they wouldn’t help with.” It was becoming clearer that the Asperger’s diagnosis alone didn’t explain his violent outbursts. In 2016, an article in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry reviewed the literature on ASD and violence published from 1943 to 2014. It found that while there is no conclusive evidence that individuals with ASD are more violent than those without, other associated mental health disorders could be a trigger. “I knew he was getting sicker and sicker and that there was more than just Asperger’s,” Upper said.
A psychiatrist told Townsend’s mother that she and her daughters should sleep with their doors locked and their cellphones on them at all times.
In August 2011, Townsend won an award for a video game he had created, earning him a $2,500 scholarship to Algoma University as well as a visit to the Montreal offices of the gaming company Ubisoft. Shortly after he left for Montreal, Townsend’s sister Katie heard Keisha, her cat, meowing in distress from somewhere in the house. She followed the noise to the freezer in the basement. Opening the door, she saw a brown box wrapped in green tape. Keisha was inside. Katie figured the cat had been in the freezer for a couple hours.
Katie phoned her mother and told her what she’d found. Upper realized how serious this was; she knew immediately that Townsend was responsible and was worried about how he might react if he were to come home and find the cat still alive. Since Upper was out of town at the time, she called Townsend’s father and devised a plan. George would pick Townsend up from the airport and bring him to a hotel for the night.
The following Monday, Townsend had an appointment with his family doctor, in part to discuss the episode with the cat. Upper, who was back in Sault Ste. Marie at that point, picked Townsend up from the hospital. As they drove home, she could hear Townsend muttering from the back seat.
“I’m a complete failure, it didn’t work. It was supposed to be practice,” Upper heard him say.
She looked in the rear-view mirror. Townsend was sitting behind her. “Practice for what?” she asked.
“To kill you,” he said.
George Townsend is a computer science professor at Algoma University. I spoke to him for a few hours in his office, which he shares with his wife, also a computer science professor, in the basement of Algoma’s main building. His bald pate, big beard, and oval glasses give him an owlish look; his considered monotone is largely bereft of emotion, regardless of the subject.
After Townsend threatened his mother’s life in the car following the cat incident, he was admitted to the psych ward at Sault Area Hospital and was then transferred to North Bay Regional Health Centre’s
campus in Sudbury. Upper was worried for her life and the well-being of her son. The doctors thought it was a big misunderstanding. In fact, George remembers Townsend’s doctors laughing at how Townsend had put the family cat in the freezer.
“There was a teleconference,” George says. “The doctors were talking about what they’d decided, and one of them was kind of joking about it, saying there’s no homicidal plot or something. They said, ‘We think Johnny just got mad at the cat because the cat scratched him.’”
After about a month, Townsend was discharged and sent home. He spent hours on end on his computer, hardly sleeping, his mother too afraid of the consequences if she asked him to go to bed. She called the police to the house after one of his meltdowns. When the officers arrived, Upper says, they couldn’t believe she couldn’t get Townsend into counselling. “One of the cops asked his boss if he could take time out of his schedule the next day, and he and I went to talk to a Community Living Algoma counsellor. He spent two hours with her and got nowhere.”
In the spring of 2012, Sault Ste. Marie police arrested Townsend after he attempted to poison a classmate. He had dissolved seventeen tablets of clonidine, a medication used to treat anxiety, in her coffee. He later claimed the classmate was the daughter of the devil and that the poisoning was a test, because the devil would never let his daughter die. As a result of the incident, Townsend was admitted to the psychiatric ward at Sault Area Hospital, where he spent nearly a month. Anna Rogers, an adult psychiatrist at the hospital, examined him. “Johnathon [ sic] is now presenting as a risk to others,” she wrote in a report dated April 3, 2012. Because she wasn’t a child psychiatrist, Rogers referred Townsend to Pablo Sanhueza, a psychiatrist at North Bay Regional Health Centre.
Sanhueza’s resulting three reports, written in the eighteen months before Bonhomme’s murder, spell out the extent to which Townsend was a danger to others. Sanhueza describes a teenager with “a very cold frame of mind” whose propensity to veer from social withdrawal to violence had created a climate of fear for other members of his family. Moreover, “his subsequent explanations,” according to Sanhueza’s report, “reveal no insight into the wrongness of his actions.” He further affirms that by ignoring or minimizing Townsend’s symptoms, the system effectively enabled his disorders.
Though Townsend’s social awkwardness and idiosyncratic thought processes were classic hallmarks of ASD, “Asperger is not a sufficient explanation for his violent behaviour, cruelty and criminal offences,” Sanhueza wrote. Something else had grown out of Townsend’s illness, Sanhueza believed. Townsend’s anger, left unchecked for so long, had metastasized into barely containable rage. “I am left with the impression that his antisocial trend is relatively new and has seriously worsen[ed] in the course of the last few years,” Sanhueza wrote.
Sanhueza diagnosed Townsend with conduct disorder and concluded his October 2012 report with prophetic flourish: “every public service has in a way turned its back on his needs and the needs of the family.” In his final report, from March 2013, Sanhueza wrote, “No treatment or clinical intervention could modify” Townsend’s behaviour and “[he] represents a serious and predictable imminent danger to the physical integrity” of the family. Sanhueza later told Upper that it was inappropriate for Townsend to live in the family home. When Upper explained that Townsend had nowhere to go, Sanhueza told her and her daughters to sleep with their doors locked and their cellphones on them at all times.
Townsend’s psychiatric reports became part of his patient record, meaning they would have been accessible to any physician in his circle of care. Read together, they make it difficult to understand how the various agencies tasked with Townsend’s treatment let him stay in the family home, let alone move out into his own apartment to live unsupervised. Yet Sanhueza’s reports disappeared into the bureaucratic ether. Neither the CLA nor AFS appear to have been aware of their contents. Nor did Sault Area Hospital staff make note of Sanhueza’s findings or Townsend’s dual diagnosis in Townsend’s intake report on March 4, 2013, after he’d attacked his mother with a chair — staff, in fact, let him go even though he was brought in by police, threw a table against a wall while under observation, and his mother said she was too scared to be in the same room with him. Townsend himself only learned of his dual diagnosis in 2014, while he was in jail awaiting trial for Bonhomme’s murder.
It took a lawyer and several months for George Townsend to get his hands on the reports. He finally received them in May 2013, by which time Johnathan had been kicked out of his mother’s house. Johnathan was now on his own, and his parents had even less power over him than they did before.
Afew hours before she was murdered, Bonhomme posted a video on Google Plus. Entitled “A Beautiful Life,” it shows her standing on a Georgian Bay beach, in pearls and cowboy boots, talking to the camera for eight minutes about her life. The “beach monologue,” as she called it, had been filmed in May, and Bjorn Mueller, her boyfriend of only a few months with a family cottage in the area, can be seen in the reflection of her sunglasses. At one point, Mueller freezes the camera on her. Blue sky and windblown hair frame her smiling face.
Bonhomme was born in 1970 to unmarried parents, a social stigma in rural Quebec. Her maternal grandparents had refused to even recognize her existence, much less visit her. After three years, her mother, Lise Bilodeau, made the difficult decision to hand the child over to Bonhomme’s father, who lived in the United States. Bilodeau eventually lost touch with her daughter. Nineteen years later, Bonhomme looked her mother up in the phone book. We have a lot to speak about, she said.
But they could hardly have a conversation. Bilodeau didn’t speak English; her daughter, raised in the United States, didn’t speak French. They exchanged letters they couldn’t read, and their phone conversations were well-meaning but, given the language divide, fraught. In the following years, Bonhomme wrote more letters — dozens of them, often undated, from far-flung places. They are written in about as many handwriting styles — printed, cursive, block letters, frenzied scribbles, and girlish twirls.
Those letters tell the story of an adult life marked by chaos and sorrow. Bonhomme had her four children taken from her because of mental instability. In 1994, two years after moving to London, England, for a modelling gig, she gave birth to her first child, Ryan, and in 2003, while living
in Scotland, she gave birth to a boy named Christopher. (The names of Bonhomme’s children have been changed.) Both Ryan and Christopher were taken away from her by UK authorities soon after they were born. Scottish officials also removed her third child, Layla, born in 2005. The following year, the sheriff overruled the original order and granted Bonhomme custody of Layla.
In 2008, she was detained in Scotland for overstaying her visa and eventually deported back to Canada. Her daughter Layla, then nearly three years old, arrived separately from her mother and was taken into care by child protection services in British Columbia. Bonhomme later moved to Ottawa and gave birth to another child, Merida, on May 28, 2010. Immediately after the birth, doctors committed Bonhomme to the hospital for seventy-two hours. She tried to flee the hospital with the placenta still attached. Merida was subsequently taken from her as well.
The last several months of Bonhomme’s life were largely dedicated to retrieving paperwork from child protection services in BC and Ontario. Bonhomme was convinced that, within those pages, there was proof of how the social workers, lawyers, judges, and law-enforcement officers involved in her cases had consistently lied about her mental state and parenting abilities. The documents, which she wrapped in a garbage bag and carried with her everywhere, were going to get her kids back and make those who did her wrong face justice. “They are going to be arrested,” she told Mueller on the beach.
In truth, the file spells out in clinical language the depth of her mental illness and the lengths she went to either hide it or deny its existence. “[V]olatile, aggressive paranoia, delusional thoughts, extreme accusations, racist/homophobic comments and repeated erratic behaviours against authorities” is how Bonhomme’s interactions with social workers were characterized in a 2010 judgment making Merida a Crown ward for adoption purposes. A social worker in charge of Bonhomme’s case put it this way: “Severe mental health concerns with delusions/hallucinations. She is highly intelligent and can present well.”
Over the years, Bonhomme filled her Facebook page with meandering thoughts and idle threats, usually written in capital letters. Social workers and judges assigned to her case were often targets of her rage. She posted videos on Youtube that were similar to her Facebook posts. They lurch from wild accusations to heartfelt whispered messages to her children, who she was convinced were watching. Ryan, Christopher, Layla, Merida and she would be together again, she said. “As most children who are taken away illegally or falsely adopted, they tend to come back to the nest,” she said in one of the last Youtube videos she made.
For weeks during the summer they met, Bonhomme would shuttle between Georgian Bay and her new job at Studio 10, a 1,200 kilometre round trip. On August 5, after another weekend together, Mueller put Bonhomme on a bus to Sault Ste. Marie for the last time. She packed a wheeled suitcase full of makeup, clothes, and a pair of knee-high white patent-leather boots, along with her case file from an Ontario court.
When Bonhomme didn’t respond to emails or texts in the following days, Mueller figured she’d found someone else or gotten busted for something stupid. She’ll contact me eventually, he thought. Weeks went by without a word from her. When he didn’t hear anything on September 11, her birthday, Mueller googled her name and read about the murder. He wrote a threepage letter to Lise Bilodeau explaining who he was and how he’d met her daughter. He ended it with the following line: “The irony! She wanted nothing better than to be with her stolen children. She [got] murdered by a child.”
In April 2013, George found Townsend an apartment in Sault Ste. Marie’s east end. His parents paid the $350 monthly rent and brought over groceries every week. Child and Community Resources (CCR ) sent over an applied behaviour analysis (ABA) counsellor to help Townsend improve his communication and social skills. Though he’d exhibited repeated instances of dangerous and threatening behaviour and had been kicked out from his mother’s house after he’d assaulted her, the ABA counsellor, according to Upper, chose to concentrate on employment skills — something that irks her to this day. He didn’t need employment skills, she says. “Employment was a pipe dream. Johnny needed treatment.” (CCR executive director Sherry Fournier refused to comment on Townsend’s case, citing confidentiality restrictions.)
Still, Upper tried to look at things positively. Townsend always wanted to be independent, and he was nearly eighteen anyway. Maybe having his own apartment would force him to adapt to the world.
Instead, Townsend spent much of the time in the apartment with the lights off, often sitting with his laptop near one of the windows, where he could best pick up Wi-fi. On May 6, Townsend met someone who used the screen name Darkwolfgirl35 on an online forum. They exchanged the basics: Townsend — known as Zebepets — was a seventeen-year-old who had just moved out of his mother’s place. She was a twelve-year-old girl who lived with her grandmother in a small Indiana town. (She can’t be identified due to a publication ban; her screen name has been changed.) Though they’d never met in person and didn’t yet know each other’s real names, they declared themselves to be dating within a few days.
Over the next three months, Zebepets and Darkwolfgirl35 exchanged 10,563 messages over Skype instant messenger. On July 16, Townsend described how, unable to sleep, he had gone to check his mail at 5:30 a.m., and there had been a woman asleep in the entrance of his apartment building. She had told him she was from out of town, dancing at Studio 10. They’d messed up her paycheque, and she couldn’t get a hotel room. That night, he claims, they had slept in the same bed.
Over the next few days, Darkwolfgirl35 sounded more and more jealous of “the stripper,” as Zebepets referred to Bonhomme.
Zebepets: Oh, God, did you think I was going to dump you for her?
Bonhomme looked at the knife in Townsend’s hand; he backed out of the bathroom and threw it away.
left Corellie Bonhomme was a model, a dancer, and a mother.