This past October, in Abbotsford, British Columbia, a young woman named Kelly Ellard, serving a life sentence for murder, went before the Parole Board of Canada to request prison release. In the small room, Ellard told the board members that she was eight months pregnant, and her impending motherhood changed her, allowing her to "see the world with different eyes." For those born in the 90s, the name Kelly Ellard might not be familiar. Yet, the woman, dubbed "Killer Kelly" by the media, was once a staple of breaking news updates and newspaper front pages. Her part in a vicious, unfathomable murder sparked an intense media frenzy, drawing reporters from GQ, The New York Times, and Dateline to her hometown on Vancouver Island, Canada. Her case became the subject of artwork, poems, plays, academic essays, documentaries, and my book, Under The Bridge. Now, twenty years later, the crime, often called a "national tragedy," continues to fascinate and disturb. The story has been distilled into poetry in the recent Griffin Prize nominated book Tell, discussed on true-crime podcasts, and studied in high school, college, and law school classrooms.
In 1997, Kelly Ellard seemed an unlikely candidate for such attention and infamy. She lived in View Royal, a town one passes on the highway to Victoria, a picturesque tourist destination, full of manicured gardens and quaint tearooms. In 1997, Ellard was 15; she wore her hair in a short brown bob and a stud in her nose.
In the months before the murder, Ellard was in the throes of an intense, fervent friendship with a blonde, delicate girl named Josephine Bell.* Of the two, Bell was the more charismatic, confident one. Both girls shared an unsentimental interest in gangster rap, serial killers, and ruthless men like the former Mafia boss, John Gotti. Bell boasted of stealing cars and dating Crips. Moving to New York and joining the mob was here dream. I'll become the first female hit man, she told an older boy, Colin Jones, who thought she was cute but a "twisted, little troublemaker." In her locker, her best friend Ellard kept the sketches she'd drawn in her schoolbooks: gangsters shooting cops, line drawings of disembodied heads, and severed hands.
In the autumn of 1997, when the island skies were relentlessly gray, the two friends turned vengeful. It might have seemed to them that their fantasies of violence could at last turn real, that they could assert themselves as tough. Their unfortunate target was Reena Virk—a shy, yearning, 14-year-old South Asian girl with broad shoulders and uneasy eyes. She chafed against the rules of her home (her parents were Jehovah's Witnesses) and admired the carefree swagger and freedom of Bell. She painted her nails blue and listened to The Notorious B.I.G. and Puff Daddy in her uncle's car. She was vulnerable and tender and daring. One day, she took Bell's notebook and called some boys in it, telling them Bell wasn't as beautiful as she thought, that she had AIDS and that her eyebrows were fake.
This act of mischief enraged Bell. She hatched a plan for revenge, calling girls on the Songhees Indian Reserve, telling them to meet her at Shoreline School on Friday for a beatdown. A few days before the murder, her mother overheard her on the phone with Ellard, talking about digging a grave and burying a girl. The plan was messy, inchoate, and seemed, like all the girls' violence thus far, more desire than threat.
On a Friday night in November, a Russian satellite broke apart in the sky. Fifty or 60 teenagers gathered—as they always had—on the field behind Shoreline School. On these nights, all the cliques would mingle: the skater boys, the pretty girls, the boys who threw up gang signs and wore baggy pants and poured their parents' rum into 7-Eleven slurpees. Nearly all of them were unaware of Ellard and Bell's plan. Most of them hadn't met Virk before and had no idea of her peril, so they just hung out on the field and watched the sudden, beautiful lights in the sky, wondering if the strange shimmers were stars or UFOs.
When the police showed up at Shoreline to break up the party, the group of teens moved under the bridge. There it was dank and cramped, with graffiti on concrete, and the ground sloping down to a saltwater inlet known as the Gorge. The fight broke out suddenly. Bell put a lit cigarette out on Virk's forehead. When Virk cried out and swung back, Ellard punched her with a closed fist. Soon six girls joined in the fight, as did one boy, Warren Glowatski.
But most of the teenagers ran away from the fight, and they watched horrified, as their friends turned savage, kicking and punching Virk, who lay in the mud, begging them to stop. Finally, one girl, Laila*, an Egyptian kickboxer, told everyone to stop. The crowd dispersed. Some of the Shoreline kids saw Virk in the mud, bleeding and crying. No one offered to help her. Some watched, a little later, as Virk staggered, on the bridge, heading home. She would not return home, and eight days later, police divers would retrieve her badly bruised body from the cold, dark waters.
During those eight days, rumors spread through the schools, fields, and bedrooms of View Royal. In 1997, before the advent of social media, the teenagers existed in a world in which their thoughts and movements were not liked, shared, or tracked. Without Facebook or texts, the teenagers were able to observe and protect a kind of teenage omerta. While they whispered in bedrooms and school parking lots about what happened to Virk. Parents, teachers, and police remained oblivious. "Everyone was saying keep it on the down low," a boy would later tell me.
On November 24, ten days after Virk went missing, Dr. Laurel Gray, a solemn, soft-spoken coroner with cropped gray hair and gold-rimmed glasses, conducted an autopsy. She noted the extensive damage to the young girl's body. "Multiple blows sustained in the abdominal area. A crush convulsion injury, as often seen in car crash victims. Extensive bruising under the skin of her face. A bruise in the shape of a sneaker print is on the back of the brain." In Virk's lungs, she found 18 pebbles. The presence of so many small stones led to her conclusion that the girl had been alive when she was in the water. Death by drowning, she concluded.
In a packed news conference, Crown prosecutor Don Morrison revealed the facts that would stun the community and seasoned crime reporters. Unlike the crimes portrayed in popular culture, in Twin Peaks or in countless horror movies, and unlike the well-known murders by serial killers Clifford Olson or the Green River killer Gary Ridgway, Virk's killer was neither family member, nor vicious, older psychopath. Instead, eight teenagers had been arrested. Six girls, including Bell, were charged with aggravated assault for the first attack under the bridge. Two other teenagers, he told startled reporters, had followed Virk over the bridge, beat her again, then dragged her body into the Gorge where she was forcibly drowned. Because of the severity of the crime, the two teenagers would be charged as adults, which meant Morrison could release their names. Whereas the six girls, youth offenders, could not be identified. The names, he announced with a trace of disgust, were Kelly Ellard and Warren Glowatski.
Of all the teenagers arrested, it was Glowatski who fit most closely to societal assumptions about of who was a criminal. The 16-year-old boy was slight and short, with doe eyes, and a pouf of dark curls; he had the androgynous good looks of a teenage heartthrob. His life was, in the parlance of stereotypes, "troubled." His mother, an alcoholic, had not been around for years. With his father, a welder had moved constantly, most recently, in a trailer park in View Royal. In the months before the murder, he'd been living at his friend Chris's house, after his father left him to live in California with a woman he'd met in a Vegas casino. Glowatski was fond of sagging white jeans, the rapper Too $hort, and he often boasted that he was a Crip.
Though he'd never met Virk before, and though he was not part of Bell and Ellard's plan, he'd kicked Virk ferociously under the bridge, and the next day showed up at his girlfriend Syreeta's home, asking her to bleach the blood out of his pants. On his knees, as she told police, he'd confessed that he'd followed Virk, with Ellard, and "something happened… Ellard did something to her." Based on his girlfriend's statement, the police arrested Glowatski and interrogated him for hours without a lawyer or parent by his side. They scoffed at his admission that he'd stood by helplessly while Ellard dragged and drowned Virk. Presciently, they warned him: "You're the guy in this case… you're going down big time." The justice system also had little sympathy for "the guy in the case." In the spring of 1999, in a swift trial without a jury, Judge Malcolm MacAulay declared Glowatski's testimony "incomplete and improbable," and sentenced him to life in Matsqui—a notoriously tough prison surrounded by fog and sheep farms. Outside the courthouse, his mother, drunk, tearfully told reporters, "There's just no way that he killed that girl."
In her interviews and at her trial, Ellard offered a very different version of events than Glowatski. When first interviewed by Sergeant Krista Hobday, a family friend, Ellard said, blithely, that she had "no doubt" that Virk's killer "could have been Bell. She always says sick stuff—just weird, demented stuff. She wanted to bury someone. Bell thinks it's considered cool if you hurt people, and it's not. It makes you seem like a thug." Drawing on stereotypes she'd always defied, she insisted that "ladies don't do that kind of stuff." In a later interview, she painted herself as a scapegoat, a strategy her lawyers would later deftly employ. Though police had found a black nylon Calvin Klein jacket in her closet, the arms stained with salt water consistent with samples taken from the Gorge, she insisted that this was from another day when she went swimming in the chilling water. When confronted with the fact that, over time, an increasing number of teenagers offered damning statements and evidence against her, including recollections of her boasting that she "finished her off" and "held a girl's head under water," she retorted, vehemently, "This is high school! It's just rumors, rumors, rumors."
Bell was a more willing and loyal suspect. She refused to testify against Ellard, she refused to incriminate her best friend. ("Do I look like I have a tail," she asked her mom.) When police played her tapes of Ellard blaming her for the murder, she remained unfazed and feigned naivete. "We don't talk about murder," she told detectives. "We just talk about cigarettes and makeup. We don't talk about violence."
Like the justice system, the media and community were bewildered by the behavior of the teenagers in View Royal. Before the Slenderman stabbings, before the Columbine massacre, the Reena Virk case created a moral panic about bullying and teen violence. In a cover story entitled, "Bad Girls," the stodgy Canadian newsweekly Maclean's warned of a surging wave of rage-filled girls, "desperate to be mated," possessed of "the fever [that] seems to rise because of boys." As the fear of female aggression flourished on radio and TV talk shows, one expert on youth violence reassured the public that "the vast majority of young girls are doing what young girls have always done: attend school, pursue hobbies, and flirt."
In many ways, the unease and willful ignorance about teenage girls' lives, their violent impulses, and their unsentimental desires, contributed to the unprecedented and often bizarre legal drama surrounding Ellard. She would ultimately have three trials, and it would take nearly a decade for her to be convicted. In her first trial, she presented herself as a demure schoolgirl, speaking in a hushed voice with faint traces of a British accent. Her extended, attractive family attended the trial daily, filling the first row. While Glowatski had been represented by a public defender who specialized in DUIs, Ellard's family obtained the counsel of one of Canada's most distinguished lawyers, Adrian Brooks, to represent the daughter they believed was unfairly accused. Before the jury, he pointed out, accurately, that the "Crown has given you no DNA, no fingerprints, and no bloodied clothing. Rumor plus rumor still equals zero."
After a jury found her guilty in 2000, Judge Nancy Morrison praised Ellard's "overwhelming love of animals," and handed down the lightest sentence possible, praising the convicted killer as "young, intelligent," and from "a wonderful family." In 2001, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned her conviction on grounds that she'd been improperly questioned. In 2004, during her second trial, prosecutor Catherine Murray, a tanned, athletic blonde, nicknamed "California Cathy" by friends for her cheerful manner, relentlessly challenged Ellard in a courtroom battle royale. A different side of Ellard emerged. She rolled her eyes and spoke with sarcasm. "I am not a monster," she screamed. "I will still say I did not kill Reena Virk until the day I die!" A mistrial was declared when the jurors deadlocked 11-1. In her third trial, in 2005, again with Murray, Ellard was found guilty, and further appeals were denied.
In prison, Ellard and Glowatski would also take different paths. Glowatski avoided trouble, kept to himself, and volunteered to speak to at-risk youth. He became involved in restorative justice programs, which seek to facilitate reconciliation between victims and offenders. He met privately with Virk's parents. In an extraordinary act of forgiveness, they accepted his apology and supported his request for full parole (which he received in 2010). "Of all the accused in this whole process," Suman Virk told reporters, Glowatski was "the only one who has taken responsibility for his actions."
By contrast, Ellard continued to insist on her innocence and behaved in a manner erratic and menacing. Prison records reveal numerous infractions. She was found hoarding dozens of toothbrushes, seemingly for makeshift shanks, and she confessed to a year-long binge on contraband crystal meth. Soon after she turned thirty, Ellard quit drugs and took a job in the prison library where she became pen pals with a 41-year-old man named Darwin. In October 2016, Vancouver Sun crime reporter Kim Bolan broke the story that Ellard, now 33, was eight-months pregnant, having been allowed conjugal visits with Darwin, a "former felon with gang ties." This past February, at her parole hearing, for the first time, Ellard took responsibility for her role in the murder, albeit with a dubious story, saying she brought Virk to the water to "splash water on her face" to see if she would "wake up." She was granted escorted prison releases to take her newborn son to medical appointments. The birth of her son, she told the parole board was "very motivating… the best therapy for me."
In View Royal, the murder of Reena Virk still resonates, haunting the community like a myth or a ghost tale. While the case shone a light on the hidden world of girls, like Bell, who were abandoned, vulnerable, volatile teenagers, there's been little systemic effort to provide guidance or shelter. Seven Oaks, a government-run home for runaway girls, where both Virk and Bell spent time, was closed soon after the killing and has never re-opened. Social services for abused or traumatized girls (one of the girls involved in Virk's assault had witnessed her mother murder her father) remain scarce. Though educators and experts noted the need for a youth center, local politicians instead invested in the development of a casino, which now stands not far from the bridge where Virk last walked.
Many of the girls who witnessed or participated in Virk's attack now, like all of us, live online, sharing photos of their children, husbands, and homes. The victim in the story, Reena Virk, stays a stranger to this strand of modernity. There's a single, awkward yet poignant photograph of her. After Virk was beaten under the bridge, girls rifled through her backpack, hurling her perfume bottle and diary into the dark waters. Divers recovered her diary, and I often think about the pages, in a forensic lab or filing cabinet, sealed and dry. This is what remains of Virk: her sentences, her words, unknown to the world, yet somewhere, saved.
*Name has been changed to comply with a court-ordered publication ban.
Rebecca Godfrey is the author of Under the Bridge: The True Story of the Murder of Reena Virk.