Aside from the miserable rain, Sept. 19, 1987 should have been a regular day for the Hunter family.
Russell had taken wife Leianne to the Preston Zehrs store at 11 a.m. to buy groceries for a future family fishing trip. That’s where any semblance of normal would end.
Leianne’s body was found the next day in Riverbluffs Park at the edge of the Grand River. Her head had been bludgeoned with a heavy object and she appeared to have been sexually assaulted — proven later to be false — as her underwear was lowered and her T-shirt and undergarments pulled up.
Eight years later, Russell was charged with her death when the head of the Waterloo regional police homicide department, Peter Osinga, reopened the case.
During the 1997 trial, new evidence came to light. Crown attorney Mike Murdoch asked for an adjournment to try and tie the new evidence to Russell, but was denied. Murdoch said they had no choice but to end the trial.
Thirty-one years later, Leianne’s killer still hasn’t been brought to justice.
Melanie Hunter was 12 when she last saw her mother, and at age 42, the years have faded many memories of her. She does recall Leianne as a woman devoted to her kids, who worked hard and loved all of her children’s friends.
“Our house was a revolving door,” recalled Melanie, sitting on a bench not far from her mother’s grave in Mountview Cemetery.
But the memories of Sept. 19 have stayed with her forever. She admits she’s had to retell the story so many times, to lawyers, to the press and probably to those with morbid curiosity, that she can recite a general picture without pause.
For her it was a quiet September day. Her mom and dad went to the grocery store and Leianne didn’t come back. They got a phone call that her brother Paul had fallen out of a tree and broke his arm, and it “went chaotic after that.”
Melanie was bitter for a long time. When her father was found not guilty, she wanted the person who killed her mother brought to justice. She insisted the case be reopened 19 years ago, but at the time, the head of the homicide department, Brent Thomlinson, said the police had “compelling evidence” against Russell and had no other leads.
Melanie felt police would have to admit they were wrong, with their sights set only on Russell, and that’s why they wouldn’t reopen the case.
Now, she’s come to terms with those feelings, which have turned more to sadness. She felt bad for her maternal grandparents, who didn’t receive closure for what happened to their daughter. That same sadness passed on to her father, who died in May 2017 in Iroquois Falls, where he moved less than a year after Leianne’s death.
“He just wanted it resolved,” Melanie said of her father.
“He kept asking me for years to go to the police and have it reopened. Most of us were nervous he would be re-arrested. So we just said, ‘yeah, OK, yeah, we will. We’ll talk to the detectives.’ But most of us just wanted to put it in our past. We wanted it resolved but most of us wanted to move forward and move on with our lives.”
In 1993, new evidence led homicide detectives to reopen Leianne’s murder case.
Originally, they believed Leianne was slain while walking home from grocery shopping, having left a note of her intentions in her husband’s truck with the groceries. She was last seen walking on Concession Road, where they lived, at 1:50 p.m.
But neighbours came forward saying they saw Leianne at home at 3:45 p.m., wiping out their theory she was abducted on the way home. In addition, semen found in her body was that of husband Russell, eliminating the belief she was sexually assaulted that day.
In 1995, Russell was charged with second degree murder. The motive — Trudy Legace testified that Leianne spoke to her on the morning that she disappeared, saying she was going to issue Russell an ultimatum about his drinking problem.
The Crown’s theory was he took Leianne in his van to an industrial area near their home, killed her and dumped the body later. However, no blood was found on Russell, in his van or in their home.
Police originally believed they had a time gap, from 3:30 p.m. and 5:50 p.m. — when Russell got to the tree that Paul fell from — that was unaccounted for. That evening, Russell took Paul to Cambridge Memorial Hospital, and then Hamilton.
Going through a chronology of Russell’s day, when he had been seen by witnesses and through phone calls received and made, that time gap had been whittled down to 15 minutes. Police still believed Russell returned home between 3:45 p.m. and 4 p.m., found his wife there and left with her. He then returned home alone.
Defence attorney Murray Ellies pointed out Leianne’s friend, Karen Fieldhouse, talked to Russell on the phone at his home at 4:20 p.m., and five minutes earlier she had talked to her daughter Tara, from the Hunter’s home. Putting Russell at home at 4:15 p.m. The defence argued that 15 minutes wasn’t a long enough time to commit murder and return home.
The trial was an emotional one, with friends and family members testifying at different times that Russell had told them he “killed” Leianne.
Russell, who had an alcohol problem, wasn’t taken seriously in any of the “confessions” because he was inebriated and those who testified took his words as him feeling responsible for what happened.
The trial came to a head when the defence introduced new evidence that two particles found on Leianne’s clothing were matched with those found in the car of Leianne’s brother, Shawn Grenier. Grenier had earlier been cleared by police as a suspect.
White metallic spirals found on Leianne’s underpants and bra matched similar particles in Grenier’s trunk.
Police said they didn’t receive that evidence from the Centre for Forensic Sciences until a week prior.
They also found a red paint chip on Leianne’s jeans that was indistinguishable from a red chip found in Grenier’s trunk.
A forensic chemist at the Centre for Forensic Sciences testified that Leianne’s body was covered in an oily dirt, similar to an oily substance found in Grenier’s trunk.
The Crown asked Justice Paul Philip to grant a lengthy adjournment to try and link Russell to the paint chips, but the judge refused. Assistant Crown attorney Paul McDermott requested the not guilty verdict in light of the new evidence.
Police said, after the trial, Grenier was earlier cleared as a suspect because he and his sister worked at the same place and the paint chips could have easily transferred from her clothing to the trunk.
Melanie looks back at the murder today and sees the effects the tragedy had on her family.
Her cousin Stacey Kirk, who joined Melanie for support at that recent visit to her mother’s grave, said putting Russell on trial, and then not having some resolution after the not-guilty verdict, fractured both sides.
“I was just saying to Mel … it separated and ruined so many relationships, and separated family. It really ruined people’s lives not knowing,” Kirk noted.
While Melanie has come to terms with her feelings, Kirk admits she’s still bitter. Seeing what the lack of closure did to her mother Darlene, Leianne’s sister, prior to her death in 2009.
“I saw with my mom, all of them really, but living so close with her, I saw how it ruined her over the course of the 21 years after. She was a fantastic person, but the longer she went without her the more she longed to be with her, if that makes sense? The more hurt she carried, a lot of the times that was her focus.”
The trial also pitted one side of the family against the other. With Leianne’s side convinced Russell murdered her, and Russell’s side believing his innocence. Melanie said, at one time, she had been caught in the middle.
“I think that over the years, as you get older, I’m more open to one side or the other, and maybe there’s a different scenario,” she said.
“I don’t want to say it in a negative way, but I was really influenced by one side versus the other side of the family, and I listened to a lot of it. Of course you take the negativity from them and say, ‘oh well, it must have been your uncle, because the evidence was there.’ As I’ve gotten older, I’m impartial to all of it. I believe there’s a third story to it; I don’t know.”
She won’t go down the path of pointing fingers at Grenier, as others have.
“I’ve always taken the approach, I don’t want to know information. I don’t ask questions, because once you ask those questions and you get the answers, you can’t take it back.”
Asked point blank if she believed her father killed her mother, she said she never believed he did it.
“I tried to think if it were a possibility, but I lived with my dad, I grew up with my dad and if it was him, then hopefully something will come forward to prove that. But at this point I don’t believe it was my dad.”
She thinks at some point, the person will be revealed.
“I believe we all meet our creator in the end. I think at this point whoever did it, they’ll have to be the one to confess. Hopefully if that person’s still alive they can shed some light on what happened.”
Police haven’t touched the case since Russell was found not guilty. Retired Waterloo regional police deputy chief Brent Thomlison was urged by the family to reopen the case in 1999 when he was head of homicide, but doesn’t see the likelihood of that happening without a new lead.
“Barring either a stone that had been unturned or new information coming in, my quote from ’99 would sort of sum it up,” he said when he reached by the Times.
“Speaking more broadly … there were a number of cold cases that were unsolved, as I’m sure there still are today. Then the resources were put to either active cases, recent cases, that sort of thing. When the investigators were to have time on their hands to look at other cases, that’s when they would go back through the books so to speak and open up a case and basically look at it again.”
Made aware Russell, Ellies and others involved in the case have passed on, and that most of the police force at that time have retired, he said the perpetrator will be even harder to find.
“(When) people who were involved, be it the investigation or the prosecution or the defence or whatever, start passing on or memories fade I can only imagine how much more challenging that would be to solve a case.”
Waterloo regional police Insp. Mike Haffner said the investigation into Leianne’s murder is still active. Asked if whether advanced DNA testing might be able to assert a suspect, Haffner said he’s not sure it would make a difference.
“I am unaware what DNA would be available (i.e. seized at time, etc.) that could be tested,” Haffner said in an email to the Times.
“In addition, what would be available after 31 years … as well on the body of Leianne.”
When asked if investigators would exhume the body to get DNA evidence, Haffner said, “I am unaware investigators are at that stage at this time.”
Melanie said she isn’t in favour of exhuming her mother’s body. It would likely just bring false hope, as investigations more than 20 years prior were just as fruitless.
She said police looked at a neighbour whom her mom feared and would hide from when he came over. Then there was a murder in Kitchener in the 1970s where a girl died in the same way, according to Melanie, and the police went an interviewed a person of interest that might have connected the cases. The person moved and they lost track of him, she claims.
In trial, it also was submitted into evidence that Leianne had received obscene phone calls leading up to the days of her disappearance. Melanie didn’t know if that had any connection to the phone call her grandmother received at their home on June 8, 1988, when a man asked for her. She was at her baseball game.
The next morning, Russell had the kids packed up and moved to Iroquois Falls. She doesn’t know who was on the other end of the line.
While she doesn’t hold on to closure as she once did, she said a resolution would finally allow everyone to move on.
“We’re all at a point where we just want to enjoy our kids and move on. We can’t go into the past. We can’t hold on to that anger. I don’t want our kids to be in that generation of turmoil and anger.”
“We’ve worked very hard for our kids not to be part of that. We wanted to stop it with our generation. Some day it may be resolved, but I don’t want our kids to carry that burden.”
Anyone with information should call Waterloo Regional Police at .
with files from Metroland