National Post (Latest Edition)
SYLVESTER NOT SUSPECT UNTIL HE CONFESSED
Police were focusingon victim’s boyfriend
It was 34 days after Alicia Ross disappeared when York Regional Police paid a second visit to Daniel Sylvester, the reclusive 31-year-old who lived next to Ms. Ross on a leafy suburban street in Thornhill with his elderly mother.
The first visit was 36 hours after Ms. Ross disappeared, which was later described in court by police as routine questioning of a neighbour.
In that first interview, Sylvester admitted being awake when Ms. Ross was last seen alive at about midnight, saying goodnight to her boyfriend Sean Hine. Their homes are separated by a narrow grassy laneway, but Sylvester said he did not hear anything suspicious.
However, he offered up a lot of personal information to police, which apparently did not arouse suspicion. The investigation was already focused almost entirely on Mr. Hine, who came across as self-absorbed and somewhat obsessive in nature.
Sylvester, 33, disclosed that he had not worked in 12 years, had received treatment for depression, was “jittery” around people and quit attending a lo- cal adult learning centre to complete his high school diploma because students were required to participate in group projects. As well, he normally stayed up very late watching television and went for a drive at about 5 a.m. on the morning Ms. Ross disappeared.
Sylvester had lived next door to the sprawling home of Ms. Ross, her parents and her siblings for seven years, yet he told police he knew very little about the family.
Police thanked Sylvester for his co-operation and when they returned nearly five weeks later to repeat a request that he take a lie detector test, they said it was to tie up loose ends in their investigation.
“You’re not a suspect,” said Detective John Braybrook. “We want to be able to close the door on Dan Sylvester.”
The purpose of the lie detector test was to show that other people had been investigated and cleared, to stymie any alternate suspect theories by a defence lawyer once someone was arrested and prosecuted, explained the detective.
Sylvester had already consulted with lawyer David Hobson and was reluctant to take the test.
What police did not know is Sylvester believed the skull of Ms. Ross had fallen onto the road when he moved her body two weeks earlier from a remote spot about 80 kilometres northeast of his home to another location close to his family cottage near the town of Coboconk. And despite a number of attempts, he was unable to find a bag of bloody clothes with his wallet and identification inside a pair of jeans, which he hid the night he killed his neighbour.
The very next day — Sept. 20, 2005 — Sylvester went with his lawyer to the police station and confessed to killing Alicia Ross five weeks earlier, saying he went into a frenzy after she called him a “loser,” but did not mean to kill her.
What Sylvester did not know is that he was indeed not a suspect. Det. Braybrook had been telling him the truth.
“The main person we were investigating at the time was Mr. Sean Hine by virtue of the way he was acting,” Det. Braybrook testified during the trial of Sylvester.
One of the most unusual things about the Sylvester prosecution was that virtually all of the Crown’s case came from information supplied by the defendant.
Sylvester re-enacted the fatal beating four times in a cramped police interrogation room during the first three-hour interview with Detective Rick McVeity. He revealed where he hid the body and other pieces of evidence. He also accompanied police to locations to help them find the body and clothes that would solidify the prosecution.
His decision to confess was very fortunate for police and Mr. Hine. It also brought a tragic end to the agonizing uncertainty Ms. Ross’s family had been forced to endure for more than a month.
But the exact reason Sylvester decided to confess is one of a number of questions that his criminal trial was not required to answer and which may never be known.
Mr. Hobson suggested his client surrendered as a result of his conscience and after speaking to his priest. The defence lawyer described Sylvester as someone with “courage” who was prepared to “take his medicine like a man,” in the closing address to the jury last week.
In response, prosecutor Kelly Wright argued that the confession by Sylvester was more strategic, because he believed he was about to be arrested for the death of Ms. Ross.
She also played down the significance of any feelings of remorse. “Even if he was feeling badly, that does not mean he did not intend to kill Alicia said the prosecutor.
A psychiatrist testifying for the defence repeatedly described Sylvester as “highly dysfunctional,” and suggested he was someone who has not been able to cope in society since a very young age. Dr. Mark Ben-Aron concluded in his assessment that Sylvester did not intentionally kill Ms. Ross. But the jury heard about the forensic psychiatrist’s notes, in which he wrote that Sylvester had been a peeping Tom since he was a teenager, had rape fantasies in his early 20s and visited the site where he initially hid the body of Ms. Ross 10 times before he moved her remains.
Despite his emotional difficulties, there was never a problem of financial instability for Sylvester.
His father was Grant Sylvester, a successful financial advisor and best-selling author who founded the Canadian branch of the financial planning company Money Concepts in 1984.
His father died in 1999 and his brother and sister are several years older so Sylvester lived alone with his mother at their home in Thornhill.
Apart from some clerical work at his father’s company when Sylvester was 19, he said he never held a job as an adult.
The jury heard his mother, Olga Sylvester, described as the emotional and financial lifeline for her son.
She attended nearly every day of the trial, sitting a few metres away from the prisoner’s box in the courtroom and on the opposite side of the public gallery from Sharon Fortis, Alicia’s mother.