Calgary Herald


Freedom looms for triple killer

- Sherri Zickefoose is a former Calgary Herald crime reporter and co-author of the national bestseller Runaway Devil: How Forbidden Love Drove a 12-year-old To Murder Her Family.

Freedom is looming for Canada’s youngest triple killer.

It’s been 10 years since a 12-year-old Medicine Hat girl made headlines around the world by committing the most brutal crime known to society — the slaughter of her family.

She recruited a boyfriend twice her age to help her carry out the stabbing deaths of her father, mother and eight-year-old brother by sneaking the boyfriend inside her parents’ home around 5 a.m. on April 23, 2006.

This was no act of retributio­n from an abused child. It was all in a bid for the freedom to keep her illicit romance alive. We also now know what was driving the girl’s anger and passion: serious mental disorders.

Identified only as J.R. under court order, the notorious young offender is now a thriving 22-year-old university student. She is reportedly remorseful. And once again, J.R. is within striking distance of freedom. Her 10-year maximum youth criminal justice system sentence for three counts of first-degree murder expires next month. She spent four years in an Edmonton psychiatri­c institutio­n and 4 1/2 years under conditiona­l supervisio­n in Calgary.

The end of J.R.’s intensive rehabilita­tive custody and supervisio­n is near, but this story is far from over.

This has always felt like a story without an ending.

Covering the Medicine Hat murders was like no other reporting experience I ever had in nearly 20 years in journalism. Hours after the news broke that police were investigat­ing deaths inside a family home, I travelled 300 kilometres southeast from the Calgary Herald newsroom to stand on the sidewalk at the scene with a notebook and endless questions.

Our presumptio­n — callous, but practical to deadline decision-makers in newsrooms everywhere — was that this was possibly a tragic case of domestic violence; a murder-suicide. As the hours ticked past, the real tale began emerging and the story began spilling like liquid from a bottle without a top.

A Grade 7 classmate told me J.R. wasn’t missing, as some people initially believed; rather, she’d run off with her older boyfriend in a grey truck and online she called herself Runaway Devil.

My colleague, Robert Remington, crossed paths with a teenage mom who said she’d left a raucous afternoon house party that day with her newborn baby, after a kissing and giggling couple at the party made her feel uncomforta­ble. The amorous pair was none other than J.R. and her boyfriend, just hours after the murders.

That baby is now a 10-year-old. And, that now grown-up mom says the horrifying Medicine Hat murders sparked a change: “I learned to listen to my gut intuition because I knew something wasn’t right.”

In the decade after the crime, I have to wonder if anything has really changed.

The lives of grieving family members are regrettabl­y still darkened and diminished by the kind of damage that only comes from murder. A little neighbour boy, now a handsome high schooler, lost his innocence after coming to the murdered family’s home that day to play and instead discoverin­g the bloodied bodies of the dead through a window.

On this sad anniversar­y, police officers and other first responders with long memories vow to replace the gore and horror they saw by choosing to think of the family in happier times. If they can.

What’s missing 10 years after the killings is any kind of significan­t national conversati­on about childhood mental illness and supportive resources for parents. Have we learned anything from the nightmare that befell the family? Has anything improved since the desperate Medicine Hat father and mother sought help for a daughter they couldn’t control?

She was always two steps ahead of them, able to manipulate and outsmart any boundaries her parents tried to enforce.

Mental health experts have since said J.R. is afflicted with opposition­al defiant disorder and conduct disorder.

To most, that looks an awful lot like tantrums and disobedien­ce, not uncommon in childhood.

The murders of J.R.’s father, mother and young brother were needless, of course.

Because the courts must protect J.R.’s identity in order to fulfil efforts to rehabilita­te her, the family’s legacy remains shrouded in secrecy. They were, in fact, loving parents who were trying to build a better life for their young family.

The family’s struggle was no secret. The parents told many in their circle of the problems they were having with their daughter. Family therapy wasn’t working. They were fighting hard to rein in their wilful and headstrong daughter in the weeks leading up to the tragedy. Their legacy deserves to reflect that.

And I guess that’s where the rub is. J.R.’s records are sealed, but can anything be learned from her mental health-case? We are left to hope that her case can be used to improve children’s mental health detection and support for parents looking for crucial answers.

The young offender’s future is looking much brighter than that of her former partner-in-crime, Jeremy Allan Steinke. The now 33-year-old was also convicted of three counts of first-degree murder, but is serving a life sentence with no hope of parole for 25 years.

He has recently lost his most devoted supporter: after gaining a new lease on life from a successful double-lung transplant in 2010, his mother died last month.

It’s a safe bet he’d give anything to have his mother back.

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 ?? FILES ?? Investigat­ors had a gruesome scene on their hands on April 23, 2006 — a father, mother and their eight-year-old son brutally stabbed to death.
FILES Investigat­ors had a gruesome scene on their hands on April 23, 2006 — a father, mother and their eight-year-old son brutally stabbed to death.
 ??  ?? Jeremy Allan Steinke
Jeremy Allan Steinke

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