Merritt police raised red flags over suspect's bail


From Saturday's Globe and Mail

April 12, 2008 at 1:20 AM EDT

VICTORIA — Merritt police last week warned the courts there would be “public outrage” if Allan Dwayne Schoenborn was freed on bail after allegations that he threatened a little girl in a schoolyard.

Three days later, they were hunting for Mr. Schoenborn, the prime suspect in the killing of his three young children.

The warning was included in a checklist faxed to the judicial justice of the peace who released Mr. Schoenborn after an April 3 bail hearing, RCMP spokeswoman Constable Annie Linteau said yesterday.

“The police officer submitted a checklist that covers a variety of conditions. Did he have a criminal record? ‘Yes.' Violent offences? He ticked ‘yes.' Would the public be outraged if released? He ticked ‘yes.' ”

And public outrage is growing after a transcript of the bail hearing, conducted over the telephone, was made public.

“There was a failure to communicate and someone should be held accountable,” said Nina Rivet, president of Families Against Crime & Trauma.

“It's just wrong. It gets me very angry,” New Democratic Party justice critic Mike Farnworth said.

Kathleen Walker, a family lawyer who is organizing a public rally on Monday at the legislature in memory of the Schoenborn children, said the case highlights the need to make child protection a higher priority in the justice system.

“If you make a mistake about a guy who is threatening little kids, what are the consequences? … Why take a chance?”

Mr. Schoenborn was arrested on April 3 and charged with two counts of uttering threats to cause bodily harm after the incident at an elementary school. He told the hearing he yelled at a child who had upset his daughter.

Police asked that Mr. Schoenborn be held in custody until Monday, when he could be brought before a judge in person.

The justice of the peace, Fraser Hodge, said he had “grave reservations” about releasing Mr. Schoenborn, but decided to give him “a break.”

It appears Mr. Hodge was not made aware that Mr. Schoenborn had recently pleaded guilty to violating a protection order that was put in place after he was accused of assaulting Darcie Clarke, the children's mother. He said he'd moved back in with his family just three days earlier.

On April 6, police say, Ms. Clarke left the children – Kaitlynne, 10, Max, 8, and Cordon, 5 – in Mr. Schoenborn's care. When she returned, the children were dead and the father had disappeared.

Police continued to appeal for tips in their manhunt for Mr. Schoenborn yesterday, releasing new pictures of their chief suspect.

One grainy photo shows a slight man, standing hunched over as he is booked on charges stemming from the schoolyard incident.

“We released the photos because a lot of the tips we are getting are in relation to people who are quite tall,” Constable Linteau said yesterday. “We wanted to bring home that he's actually quite short, only 5-foot-4 and 130 pounds; you can see in the photos he is of slight stature.”

Police have now interviewed Ms. Clarke, who is still under guard and is not a suspect, Constable Linteau said.

Mr. Schoenborn's bail hearing was held at the Merritt police detachment, adjudicated with a justice of the peace in Burnaby on the telephone, a system implemented in 2001 as part of a move to centralize court proceedings.

Attorney-General Wally Oppal defended the system, saying it is “a good, fair system designed to give people access to the justice system after hours.”

The Judicial Justice Centre, based in Burnaby, conducts more than 18,000 bail hearings by teleconference each year.

However, B.C.'s top Provincial Court judge promised in an interview this week that bail hearings over the telephone will be phased out. Chief Judge Hugh Stansfield said his review of the bail transcript in the Schoenborn case did not indicate any shortcomings due to the teleconference system.

“Having said that, we are trying to institute a move to a video conference system, so you could assume we think it would be preferable. I do think it would be better.”

Mr. Farnworth said there is no way the teleconference system should continue.

“If Wally thinks the system is fine, I would hate to see it failing,” he said yesterday. “These decisions should not be made by phone.”

Ms. Rivet agreed, adding that she is not satisfied to wait for a coroner's inquest into the deaths of the three children, as Mr. Oppal has suggested.

“It shouldn't take a coroner's inquest to identify the problem,” the victims' rights activist said. “The government should step up and say, ‘yes, it doesn't work, we need to fix it.' ”