Thirty years have passed since they last saw her alive, but friends and family of Kerrie Ann Brown, who was 15 years old when she went missing Oct. 16, 1986, her body found two days later near the horse stables north of Thompson, have relived that day over and over and over again in their minds.
“We've been obsessing about this for 11,000 nights,” says Trevor Brown, who was in Grade 11, one year ahead of his sister, when she disappeared after a party and was sexually assaulted and then killed, a murder that remains unsolved. “It's rented space every day in my mind for 30 years and it won't go away until I get answers.”
Kerrie’s mother died in 2002 without ever receiving those answers.
“She never got through this,” says Trevor. “She died deeply depressed and that would've been 16 years after my sister's death. She was still in deep depression for my sister's loss.”
Kerrie’s father James, now 76, is still haunted by his daughter’s killing, too.
“He'll tell you he hasn't had a good night's sleep in 30 years because he thinks about her constantly,” says Trevor, who moved back to Thompson a couple of years ago to help care for his father.
For Nicole Zahorodny, who was good friends with Kerrie and one of the last people, besides her killer, to see her alive, the passage of time hasn’t made things easier. The two were leaving a party and Zahorodny went back inside, coming out a few minutes later to find that her friend was gone.
“I have relived that night for 30 years,” Zahorodny said. “It doesn't get easier as they say, it gets different. I remember it vividly as the images flash through my head at lightning speed. I see myself sitting in the basement with her on my lap. Standing outside and feeling the snowflakes hitting my face. Finding her gone minutes later and walking the streets calling her name. Crying and wanting desperately to find her and nothing. Walking the streets, putting up posters and going door-to-door the next day. Being dragged home because a body was found. Hearing the phone ring and my mom say, ‘No’ and begin to cry. Knowing what that meant. Laying lifeless in my basement hoping to wake from the nightmare. Waking every morning and thinking it was a dream and realizing time after time it was reality. Standing at the front of the church and speaking about someone you had intended to walk through life with and share your journey.”
RCMP Const. Janna Amirault, one of seven investigators with Manitoba’s historical homicide unit, which is responsible for killings that haven’t resulted in charges being laid after five years, has been the lead investigator on Kerrie Ann Brown’s murder for about five years and says the difference between life and death for the 15-year-old girl who had lived in Thompson since 1974 boils down to a very brief window.
“She was with a friend getting ready to leave and the friend just went back to let somebody else know where they were going and then during that time – and from what we know it wasn't a very long period of time – Kerrie for whatever reason decided to go outside and we don’t know exactly what happened from there,” Amirault says. “She had people around her that cared about her and cared about her safety and that's what makes it tough. It really could have happened to anybody and it was a big shock to the community when it did happen and I think that a lot of people still remember it because it was such a big shock.”
Trevor says it wasn’t until the day after party – Oct. 17, 1986, a Friday with no school in session – that Kerrie’s friends and family realized she was missing.
“We started freaking out around lunch time on Friday when her friends were calling and we’re saying she's at Nicole [Zahorodny's] last night,” he says. When Zahorodny called looking for Kerrie, they realized no one knew where Kerrie was “She made some phone calls and then she called us back and said Kerrie's lost, we don’t know where Kerrie is. It was at that point my parents called the cops, let them know what was going on. They came over, got a picture of Kerrie, created a flyer really quick. Within a couple of hours they had a bunch of flyers made and then we started distributing them across the city. I was at home answering the phone, talking to people that were calling. Once people had started learning that she was missing, that we were looking for her, people wanted to help look for her so they did. Lots of people were out looking for her all over the city. No one found her that day. We didn't sleep that night.”
The following day, around 2 p.m., two friends of Kerrie’s showed up at the Brown family’s front door and told Trevor that a body had been found out near the horse stables. At almost the same time, he remembers, the phone rang.
“I hear my dad upstairs on the phone and all I hear is, ‘Yep. Yep. Yep.’ It was just very solemn and, ‘OK,’ and he hangs up the phone and then he comes to the top of our stairs in our townhouse and he says, ‘Trev, that was the police. They need me to come down to the hospital to identify a body.’ And then he said, ‘That's my little girl.’”
Kerrie Ann Brown’s murder differs from some historical homicides, sometimes referred to as cold cases, in that a suspect was arrested within a week of Kerrie’s killing and it seemed that justice would be done swiftly. But in February 1987, after a three-day preliminary hearing, provincial court Judge Charles Newcombe dismissed the first-degree murder charge, saying that evidence did not support it.*
Trevor said his father believes today that the man who was arrested did not have anything to do with Kerrie’s murder but those involved with the case believe that there must be someone who knows something but hasn’t come forward.
“I've always said that there are people that know who did this that weren't involved and are unwilling to come forward,” Trevor says.
“I personally think that there's still people out there that have information that can help us lay charges in this investigation,” says Amirault, noting information can be reported to CrimeStoppers or any RCMP detachment. “Eventually the information will get filtered to me.”
In the three decades that have passed since she died of head wounds resulting from being beaten, Kerrie Ann Brown has become, for many, just one name among a list of people in Thompson whose murders have yet to be solved. But for her brother and for Zahorodny, at whose family’s fly-in fishing lodge near South Indian Lake Kerrie spent many summer days, her identity has more dimensions.
“Kerrie was a beautiful, fun, sweet, kind, loving 15-year-old girl,” Zahorodny says. “She may be just a name and a face to some on the news but to us she was the most wonderful soul. Her laugh, her smile and many other memories remain constant. It is what has gotten me to this day 30 years later. I see us skipping down the road arm-in-arm, laughing like carefree young girls, not knowing what the night would bring.”
Trevor remembers her as a prankster, with one particular trick she played on him standing out.
“I used to sit in her room with her and listen to Motley Crue,” he recalls. “I loved “Home Sweet Home” from Theatre of Pain. She had a microphone plug-in on the side of the turntable so I plugged in the mic and I was singing through the mic because my parents weren't home. Behind my back she's on the phone, literally picking up her phone, she's calling one of her girlfriends and just quietly saying, ‘Listen,’ and I had my back to her and she'd be letting them listen to me singing on the bloody microphone. They'd come up to me in school on Monday or something, ‘Hey Trev, pretty good singing there. I didn't know you loved Motley Crue so much.’ I'm like, ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘I heard you singing on the phone the other day. Your sister was behind your back with the phone, letting us listen.’ She called like two or three of her friends while I was singing a five- or six-minute song and said, ‘Hey, check this out.’”
Kerrie’s room used to be filled with all her possessions, including her collection of stuffed animals, but over the years, the collection grew smaller and smaller as friends and families took mementoes to remember her by. Today, there’s only one stuffed bear named Coco left.
“Her room at one time was like a shrine,” says Trevor, who lives with his father in the same townhouse where they lived when Kerrie was murdered. “Slowly everything was taken by friends. Today it's just a normal bedroom.”
Despite the passage of time – police have been seeking her killer for twice as long as Kerrie was alive – those who knew her don’t think that she’s been forgotten and still remember the effect her murder had on Thompson.
“Kerrie's rape and murder stopped time,” says Zahorodny. “All of Thompson stopped and listened. It was one of those moments when the tragedy is so incomprehensible that every person remembers where they were that day.”
“After Kerrie was murdered it got quiet, eerily quiet,” remembers Trevor. “The city was on edge just because of the brutal crime that happened. No one had been caught and they knew maybe they're still here, are they going to do it again, that kind of thing. People got freaked out about letting their kids go outside especially if they were girls. It changed Thompson. It put a dark pall over the city. You could feel it. It was heavy. I don’t think there had been anything like that here before. Thompson was only born 30 years earlier so there had been murders here, obviously, over the years and some terrible ones but this one shocked Thompson just because she was so young and just the circumstances surrounding it.”
Even now, however, people remember his sister.
“She's definitely not forgotten,” Trevor says. “People that know us ask us. ‘Anything new with your sister?’”
Amirault says Kerrie Ann Brown’s murder isn’t like some cases in which the flow of information to police slows to a trickle and then stops.
“We still get information in on this investigation frequently actually,” she says, urging people who have any information related to Kerrie’s last day to come forward. “The general public can't assume that we know what they know in regards to the investigation so it's good that we still have tips and information coming in.”
If there is someone who knows what happened to his sister, Trevor hopes that they will find the courage to reveal it.
“That's all we seek is justice for Kerrie and some answers for our family and Kerrie's extended family and her friends,” he says. “She has so many supporters and so many people that just miss her so much today. She's deeply missed and she deserves justice.”
Zahorodny, who said in a recent posting in the Justice for Kerrie Ann Brown Facebook group that she hasn’t spoken publicly about her memories of the night her friend disappeared until now, understands that anyone who knows what happened might be afraid to come forward, especially since they know the sort of violence that Kerrie’s killer is capable of. But she says she also knows that fear can be overcome.
“Someone will get tired and have the courage to be that voice for a little girl who had none,” she said. “I imagine it would be the hardest thing they do in life and it would be hard for us to hear but living in silence is torture. For us, not knowing where she went and how she ended up lifeless, beaten and alone on the ground has caused an obsession for the answers. Someone has those answers and they can finish her story ... I wait for that day.”
The RCMP marked the 30th anniversary of Kerrie Ann Brown’s death with a series of tweets about her final day alive on the Manitoba RCMP’s Twitter accounts, which have more than 20,000 followers.
“All Canadians will know about her last day that she was alive and about her going to school and what she had for dinner that day, what she was like, her personality and it'll be sent out at the approximate times that the events happened on the last day she was alive exactly 30 years ago,” says Amirault. “It's our hope in doing that that it'll create a strong emotional response in people and that someone who's in Thompson or who knows something about what happened will come forward.”
“I believe in my heart of hearts that we're going to catch these guys and it won't be much longer down the line here,” says Trevor. “I see a light at the end of the tunnel and, believe it or not, I didn't for a very long time. It's about time. They need to go to prison. They haven't had to for 30 years.”
* This sentence was changed from the original to remove inaccurate information from a March 2, 1987 article regarding the preliminary hearing.