Photo: Diana Nethercott, Special to The Spectator
Chris McCullough remains behind prison wire in British Columbia, convicted of a murder all evidence suggests he did not commit.
Chris McCullough has served eight years of a life sentence for the brutal murder of schoolteacher Beverley Perrin. But in a special six-part investigative series beginning today, evidence will show that McCullough is innocent. Reporters Barbara Brown and Paul Benedetti spent three months poring over volumes of wiretap transcripts, forensic evidence and court testimony to piece together what appears to be a gross miscarriage of justice.
Chris McCullough and Nick Nossey had sat for three months in the prisoner's box waiting for this moment.The foreman stood to deliver the jury's verdict. The courtroom went silent.
McCullough and Nossey were on trial for the most serious offence in the Criminal Code — first-degree murder.
McCullough was 22. Nossey, 21. In a moment they would find out whether they would walk out as free men, or spend the next 25 years in prison.
After weeks of difficult and disturbing testimony, the six men and six women of the jury had taken 12 hours to make their decision. From late October to mid-December 1991, they had listened to evidence of how a 55-year-old woman named Beverley Perrin was abducted, sexually assaulted, beaten and strangled.
Perrin was a mother of five children, a well-liked and respected public school teacher who had taught thousands of children to count and read and write during her 23 years in the classroom.
On the night of her death — Feb. 13, 1989 — Perrin was heading home from hospital after visiting her husband, Eugene, who was dying of cancer. Perrin dropped her daughter off at night school, and then about 6:30 p.m. drove to the A&P on Barton Street East at Centennial Parkway. She was tired, but wanted to make sure she had Valentine's Day treats the next day for her kids at Tapleytown School. Carrying a bag of groceries, Perrin walked across the parking lot and disappeared. Two days later, her frozen body was found by a man and his son in a farm field in upper Stoney Creek.
The day after that, her 1986 Mercury Marquis, jacked up and missing its back tires, was discovered in a parking garage on Grandville Avenue, a few blocks from where she was last seen. Those were the incontrovertible facts of Beverley Perrin's murder.
One year after her death, police had little else to go on. Months of useless tips and hundreds of dead-end interviews had left homicide detectives frustrated. They were feeling pressure from a community upset by Perrin's death and demanding answers. Then, in early 1990, police jumped on a promising lead. Inside six months, they would have the case wrapped up and three men charged with first-degree murder.
The key to resolving the investigation was provided by one man — Steven Wayne Clarke, a 37-year-old drifter and petty criminal. Clarke would tell police he and the three other men abducted and killed Perrin. In exchange for his testimony, the Crown allowed Clarke to plead guilty to less serious charges. He would be sentenced to four years in prison. Two of the men Clarke named - McCullough and Nossey - stood trial together. A judge ruled that the third man, Terry Pearce, would be tried separately at a later date.
It was Clarke's version of events the Crown presented to the jury in its opening remarks at the 1991 murder trial.
The defence offered a dramatically different story - that Clarke alone abducted Perrin from the parking lot after she stumbled across him robbing her car, drove her to a deserted field, tied a rope around her neck, and choked her to death.
Almost two years after that night, the foreman was rising to announce which story the jury had accepted. His words tore the room in half. Nick Nossey: Not guilty. Chris McCullough: Not guilty as charged, but guilty of second-degree murder. McCullough's mother, Rossi McCullough, stood and cried out "they're making a mistake."
She was right. Her son was also innocent.
Rossi McCullough's son has now spent eight years in prison since the day he was arrested.
She talks to him on the phone long distance from British Columbia two or three times a week. She says Chris has been on edge lately, and so has she. They are both anxious about the appeal of his case coming up on Sept. 8. His lawyer, the high-profile Brian Greenspan, is calling for a new trial based on fresh evidence - that a key Crown witness says her testimony at McCullough's trial was an utter fabrication.
Tammy Waltham told the Court of Appeal last November that the story she told about McCullough being in a car with Perrin and three other men was completely made up. Her admission gives McCullough a chance to prove his innocence. McCullough, who maintained from the start he had nothing to do with the murder, says he has confidence in Greenspan's ability to "get the job done . . . and prove that I am an innocent man, just like I claimed from day one."
McCullough has filled his days learning about west coast aboriginal art and carving from his native cellmates. He plays first base on the inmate baseball team, has acted in a prison stage play, and has completed his high school diploma. But fighting the reality of a life sentence has been hard.
"Knowing I'm an innocent person has helped a lot. I can't say I haven't had days where I am completely frustrated. But my mom has helped me maintain," McCullough said by phone from prison. "She has kept me remembering that there is hope."
Rossi McCullough, 50, is an intelligent, plain-speaking woman who works in a food processing factory in east Hamilton. She raised her son alone, with a lot of support from a large, close-knit family. When Chris was transferred from Millhaven Penitentiary to a prison in B.C., she was so worried about his safety and emotional health she arranged a leave from work to be near him. Living in a friend's home, she journeyed back and forth to the prison to visit Chris.
"I also had a couple of trailer visits and a couple of socials that I went to at the institution. I met one of the other inmates that he chummed with. The guy seemed pretty decent and he was keeping an eye out for Chris and that made me feel a little better," she says. Though the McCulloughs are optimistic the appeal court will overturn Chris' conviction, they realize his is a difficult case, complicated by a number of issues.
McCullough admitted at trial that he talked to an undercover police officer posing as a hitman about having Clarke killed. Another hurdle was Pearce's confession and 1992 guilty plea to manslaughter in the Beverley Perrin murder case. It appeared then the police and the Crown had the case nailed shut. But appearances, as it turned out, were misleading.
This is a complex story about what the evidence points to as a gross miscarriage of justice.
The fourth 'M'
Like the cases of Donald Marshall, David Milgaard and Guy Paul Morin, the wrongful conviction of Chris McCullough - whom his family calls the Fourth "M" - is a twisted, almost unbelievable tale. (See sidebar for these cases)
It is a story of questionable investigative techniques, the failure of police to take into account forensic evidence, the dangerous and discredited use of jailhouse informants and, finally, tunnel vision by police and Crown prosecutors. Hamilton-Wentworth police Deputy Chief Bruce Elwood still defends how the case was handled. "I strongly support our officers in the investigation of the murder of Beverley Perrin, in all aspects of that investigation," he says. Rossi McCullough still believes strongly in her son's innocence. This case is far from over, she says. "I cry myself to sleep more times than I care to admit. I haven't had a Christmas tree in eight years because that was always Chris' job, putting up the Christmas tree," she says. "He'll put the next one up."
The Cast of Characters
Beverley Ann Perrin, a 55-year-old wife and mother of five, was last seen the evening of Feb. 13, 1989, at an east-Hamilton shopping mall. The well-liked school teacher was buying Valentine's day candies for her grade 1 and 2 pupils. Her body was found two days later in a farm field on Tapleytown Road. She had been strangled.
Staff Sergeant Gary Clue (now retired) headed the Perrin homicide team that interviewed more than 1,000 people during a 15-month investigation.
Sergeant Steven Hrab, who has since been promoted to staff sergeant, defended the deal with Clarke as the only means to break down "the wall of silence" surrounding the case. At the trial Hrab testified: "In my 18 years of experience, I think those admissions made Mr. Clarke one of the lowest human beings in the world."
Sergeant Mike Hanmer was involved in interviewing many of the key witnesses and suspects. He escorted Clarke from Stony Mountain Institution outside Winnipeg to Hamilton to testify at the trial.
Sergeant Bruce Graham was a former member of the Joint Forces Unit, which surveilled organized crime in the Golden Horseshoe. Graham monitored evidence from wiretaps and electronic listening devices used in the Perrin case.
"The Lone Killer"
Steven Wayne Clarke, now 44, was born in Cobourg, Ont. At the time of the murder, Clarke was staying in an apartment at 40 Grandville Avenue, down the street from where Perrin's car was abandoned. He pleaded guilty to forcible confinement and accessory after the fact of murder on Dec. 19, 1990. Clarke was sentenced to four years in prison. He never applied for parole, served the full term, and was released. His whereabouts today are unknown.
The Wrongfully Accused - victims?
Terry Kenneth Pearce, now 30, lived on Delawana Drive at the time of the murder. Perrin's car was found just down the street from his house. Pearce had a criminal record, was on welfare and living with 16-year-old Tammy Waltham, who was pregnant with their first child. Pearce pled guilty to manslaughter on June 1, 1992. He now maintains his false confession was the result of high-pressure tactics used by the police. Pearce is now on parole and doing volunteer work in the community.
Christopher Gordon McCullough, now 29, was convicted of second-degree murder on Dec. 18, 1991. McCullough has always maintained his innocence. At the time of Perrin's murder, he had a Young Offender record and was working installing kitchen cabinets. He has spent the last eight years in prison.
Nicholas Nossey, now 28, was acquitted on Dec. 18, 1991. Nossey told court he survived 19 months in jail, waiting to have his innocence established beyond any doubt, by reading the Bible.
Tammy Jean Waltham, now 25, says she fabricated her witness statements in an effort to corroborate her common-law husband Pearce's false confession and save him from being arrested for first-degree murder. Waltham separated from Pearce and in 1995 moved to British Columbia. She returned to Ontario last November to testify before the Ontario Court of Appeal. Waltham continues to stand by her recantation.