Part 1 of Gazette magazine's four-part series on major crimes looks back at a 2007 homicide investigation in Manitoba. The case highlights the benefits of using multiple techniques to help connect the dots.
When a friend found Ivan Radocaj bludgeoned to death in his Inwood, Man., home, it looked like a robbery escalated to murder.
What police soon uncovered was more than a homicide. It was a murder-for-hire plot involving six suspects.
Three months earlier, in 2007, Radocaj had married Melody Sanford, but their relationship soon soured. Sanford moved out and started living with her friend, Rita Cushnie. The two women conspired to pay Cushnie's son Donald Richard and three associates to murder Radocaj.
More than 80 investigators worked on the case and through witness interviews, wiretaps and physical evidence, laid murder charges against all six suspects.
In total, police interviewed more than 100 people throughout the case, interviewing everyone from Radocaj's friends and parents to the waitress who served him hours before his death to establish context for the case.
"Because it was a conspiracy, there were many competing theories we had to chase down," says S/Sgt. Sheldon Hollingworth, who worked in major crimes at the time and was the case's primary investigator.
Early on, investigators interviewed a co-operative Sanford as a witness rather than a suspect. But that changed after Insp. Glenn Sells, then a corporal working major crimes, got a phone call from an RCMP officer at the Lundar, Man., detachment with some new information.
A little bit at a time, Cushnie had told a friend about the murder plot. The concerned friend then called the RCMP with what she learned, implicating Sanford, Cushnie and Richard.
"The witness agreed to co-operate and over the next couple months provided ongoing witness statements to our team that were pivotal to the investigation," says Sells, who worked as a lead investigator on the case.
That information helped police secure authorization to wiretap the principle suspects allowing investigators to dig deeper.
While listening, police learned more about the murder and conducted more interviews triggering more conversations between suspects. They even heard a confession on tape.
"There was a night when they were drinking with music in the background, the music stopped and one started telling another everything that happened," says S/Sgt. Clayton Brown, who reviewed wiretap evidence throughout the case. "It was kind of eerie."
Police established that Sanford, under the guise of a dinner, lured Radocaj away from his home while Richard and his associates broke in and waited for his return. He was beaten with metal bars and left for dead while the suspects stole valuable items.
"They tried to profit from the murder on the side. Instead of destroying that evidence, they tried selling it," says Hollingworth.
A television, computer parts and a unique collectable baseball bat, all stolen the night Radocaj was murdered, were found connected to the suspects. These helped place the group at Radocaj's home the night he was killed.
"In the absence of physical evidence such as DNA and fingerprints, I don't think you can find a better scenario linking an accused and a crime scene," says Hollingworth.
Other evidence, including a hand-drawn map of Radocaj's home and phone records showing co-ordination between Sanford, Cushnie and Richard the night of the murder further implicated the suspects.
"They were leaving too much stuff behind to not get caught," says Brown.
The investigators' work paid off when they made arrests. The evidence was enough to get confessions from multiple suspects. In the end, Melody Sanford, Rita Cushnie and Donald Richard were convicted of first-degree murder and conspiracy charges. Two associates pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and one, the getaway driver, acted as a Crown witness avoiding prosecution.
Police remember the case as one in which teamwork was vital and all investigative strategies paid off.
"We were very fortunate that a large number of the techniques and strategies we used were successful in gathering evidence," says Sells. "Probably more than any other cases I've ever worked on."