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Murdered in Halifax: Before Loretta Saunders, There was Tanya Brooks

Before she was murdered herself, Loretta Saunders was researching an unsolved murder of another aboriginal woman in Halifax. When we started to investigate that unsolved murder, people told us it was dangerous and we shouldn't write this article. This...

by Hilary Beaumont
Apr 30 2015, 7:37pm

When Loretta Saunders phoned home from university in Halifax, where she was studying the high murder rate of First Nations women in Canada, she would ask her mom, "Why? Why does this have to happen to all these women?"

Her brother Edmund remembers when she came home to Goose Bay for a visit, she told him about the 11,000-word, 28-page thesis proposal she was researching in the fall of 2013 and early 2014. The 26-year-old Inuk student was shocked to have learned that around 500 First Nations women and girls had disappeared or been killed in Canada, a number that has since expanded to nearly 1,200 over the past 30 years.

Loretta's thesis proposal talked about her own personal struggles as an Inuk woman, according her family. She was in the process of digging into the stories of three Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq women who had been murdered. One of them was Tanya Brooks, a parent to five children who was killed on Mother's Day in 2009.

The following afternoon, Tanya's body was found at the bottom of a basement window well of St. Patrick's-Alexandra P-to-9 school in Halifax's north end. A teacher heard Tanya's cell phone ringing and discovered her body.

Halifax police still haven't laid charges in the case, but the circumstances surrounding Tanya's murder are no mystery. Investigators believe there are people who know what happened to her, and those close to her have their suspicions about how she died. Of the three murders Loretta was researching, Tanya's is the only one that remains unsolved.

But before Loretta could finish her research, the bright young student disappeared in February, 2014.

Halifax detectives found her body two weeks later in a snow-covered hockey bag along the side of the Trans Canada Highway and concluded she had been murdered. They quickly charged her two former roommates, Blake Leggette and Victoria Henneberry, with the crime. Last week, Leggette and Henneberry pleaded guilty to murdering the young woman. Leggette suffocated her in a brutal attack after she asked for the rent money they owed her. Henneberry helped him do it.

The heart-wrenching connection between Tanya and Loretta led me to investigate both cases. Loretta's murder trial ended in two guilty convictions on April 22 while Tanya's case remains beyond reach of judge or jury.

When I started looking into Tanya's case, two Mi'kmaq elders warned me to be careful. And they weren't the only ones. Two women separately told me I shouldn't be writing this story. The subtext was clear: they thought it could be dangerous for me to look for a killer who has yet to be caught.

Residents haven't forgotten about the murder of Tanya Brooks, but they know not to talk about it.

Tanya Brooks. Photo provided by family

Tanya Brooks was a few weeks from her 37th birthday when she died.

Friends remember her as a mother of five who loved her kids.

"She could draw, oh my lord, and paint," said Candy Hutchinson, who used to run with her when they were little.

She always had a notebook on her, and wanted to be known as a poet, remembered a Mi'kmaq elder.

"Tanya was funky and creative and very artistic," recalled her sister, Vanessa Brooks. But she wasn't perfect. "When she was good she was good, when she was bad she was bad," her sister said. "She was human."

"Tanya had a sickness," Hutchinson said. "If she hadn't been addicted to the drug, her life might have been a whole lot different."

Tanya's criminal record is a long list of skipped court dates and breaches plus charges for fraud, assault, and uttering death threats. In 2008 she spent time in prison, where she continued to write poetry.

When she was released, people who knew her said she tried to clean up. According to court documents, she found a job at a café and began going to school.

When Tanya's murder hit local media, reporters mentioned her history as a sex worker. She worked in the sex trade at times in her life, but there's no indication that she was in the business when she died, or that her history as a sex worker had anything to do with her death.

People who knew her have their theories about what happened to Tanya.

People in the Gottingen Street neighbourhood have heard rumours about what happened to Tanya. Photo by Hilary Beaumont

Cheryl Maloney, president of the Nova Scotia Native Women's Association, remembered Loretta calling her with questions for her thesis.

Maloney said she told her about three Nova Scotia Mi'kmaq women she personally knew of who had been murdered: Nora Bernard, a residential school survivor who initiated the largest class-action lawsuit in Canadian history; Anna Mae Pictou-Aquash, an activist with the American Indian Movement; and Brooks.

Last year Maloney received an anonymous phone call. She wouldn't reveal the gender of the caller, but says they told her to keep pushing for answers in Tanya's case.

"Everyone seems to know what happened to Tanya," said Maloney.

I asked around the Gottingen Street area for information about her case. Six years ago, when Tanya hung out there, the neighbourhood had a reputation as a high-crime area, the kind of place only the most hard-up university students would consider renting in. In the six years since her death, the area has become trendy, and is now populated with cocktail bars and award-winning restaurants catering to Halifax's wealthier residents.

A tangle of fake flowers still wraps around the railing above the window well where Tanya's body was dumped. Photo by Hilary Beaumont

When I asked longtime residents about Tanya's death, I got used to hearing a pause before they replied. One woman who knew her from her sex worker days said, "No one talks about what happened to Tanya."

Another woman told me she thought one of Tanya's ex-boyfriends beat her to death. "He always used to beat her," she said.

I only heard that theory once. I asked a few people about it, but they shrugged.

I more frequently heard another rumour—that someone put a hit on Tanya to get revenge and send a message.

An older resident, who didn't want to be named, said he heard people had killed her because she testified against someone.

Three more people who were close to Tanya alleged someone put a price on her head. Two of these people independently said that price was $2,000.

The story that Tanya testified against a drug dealer is widely known among long-term residents of the area, though they didn't seem to know or wouldn't say the dealer's name.

All of this may well be neighbourhood rumour, but there's more than a grain of truth to the story.

Mainline, the safe-injection site Tanya frequented. People who knew her said she tried to clean up in 2009. Photo by Hilary Beaumont

More than a year before her murder, Tanya had a run-in with a violent dealer who nearly killed her.

According to court documents obtained by VICE, on March 28, 2008 Patrick Segerts severely beat Tanya with a metal pipe for ten minutes and only stopped when the pipe broke. An agreed-upon statement of fact said he struck her between 75 and 100 times.

He beat her so badly that the arm she raised to defend herself broke in multiple places. His blows bloodied the back of her head and gave her seizures on the way to the hospital.

The Crown prosecutor on the case, Susan MacKay, would later tell the judge, "He could have killed this woman—it's sheer, sheer luck that he didn't."

The following events are constructed from Halifax police detective James Luther's information to obtain a search warrant, and an undisputed statement of facts entered into the court record.

A week before the incident, 18-year-old Segerts asked Tanya to run some errands for him using his Cadillac.

Tanya had known him for a few months at that point. He was her dealer.

According to the agreed upon facts of the court case, Tanya took his car and Segerts reported it stolen. Police came to Tanya's door to retrieve the car, but it had a stolen licence plate so they confiscated the Cadillac.

Tanya called Segerts to make sure he wasn't upset about his car, but he didn't seem to hold a grudge against her.

A week later, at around 2 AM, three people came to her door asking for cocaine. She called Segerts to arrange a pick-up.

They took a cab to an apartment building where Tanya and Segerts usually did business at an acquaintance's flat. This time, someone she didn't know let them into the building—no questions asked.

This struck her as strange, and later led her to believe she was set up.

No one answered the door at the apartment they usually went to—although police later found a man was inside at the time who witnessed what happened next.

Segerts suggested they go to the laundry room across the hall.

There, Tanya handed him $120. She expected him to hand her the coke. Instead he pulled a metal pipe from the sleeve of his jacket, and immediately started beating her.

Segerts stood at about 6'2" with a medium build while Tanya was around 5'7".

As he hit her, he accused her of stealing his car.

"He was uttering comments... to the effect that he was going to kill her, that his intention was to do that, while he was beating her," the prosecutor said.

When the pipe broke he stopped beating her and ran away down the hall.

Tanya managed to walk to the apartment building next door, where someone called 911.

While in the hospital, an officer showed Tanya a photo lineup. When she saw Segerts' photo she yelled, "That's him!"

Segerts was subsequently charged with attempted murder.

A search warrant for his apartment turned up an unlicensed M16-R Rifle, leading to firearm charges. He was also charged with stealing the $120 under section 344 of the Criminal Code.

At first Tanya wasn't going to testify against him, but according to the prosecutor and a source with knowledge of the case, she changed her mind at the last minute.

But before she could testify against him, Segerts entered a guilty plea.

Instead of attempted murder, he pled guilty to the lesser charge of aggravated assault endangering her life.


Vanessa, left, and Tanya, right, when they were kids. Photo courtesy Vanessa Brooks

In court, the prosecutor read Tanya's victim impact statement on her behalf.

"I'm afraid for my life every day due to his friends and just from this assault," Tanya wrote. "I feel hurt emotionally. I'm afraid for anyone to get close to me. My life has changed a great deal due to this assault. I find that I am afraid of people getting to know me. I'm afraid for my partner to get hurt from someone who knows Patrick Segerts. I'm afraid to work due to getting hurt at work, or someone finding me. I have started school to get my mind off of the daily thoughts and feelings of getting hurt."

Segerts was the type to become angry and violent very quickly, Crown attorney Susan MacKay said.

"If you do not change, you are likely to spend the vast majority of your life in jail," judge Marc Chisholm told Segerts, noting the 25 offences and breaches that clouded his record.

Chisholm sentenced Segerts to five years and four months in jail, a joint recommendation, on February 27, 2009.

Two months later, while Segerts was in jail, Tanya was killed.

According to media reports from 2009, police were investigating threats Tanya received before she died.

Before Tanya decided to testify against Segerts, a close family friend who didn't want to be identified said Tanya received "a couple scary phone calls."

"They didn't want her to testify," she said.

After the sentencing, she said, "I know she was nervous, and it had to do with the trial, with the fellow who had beat her with the pipe and stuff. I know she was nervous but at the same time her addiction still called her back to the street."

May 10, 2009, at 8:20 PM, Tanya left the police station on Gottingen Street. Police won't say why she was there that evening. The station is a seven-minute walk from the school where her body was found.

According to a CBC story, an unnamed man living near the school said he had seen "a gang of men following a woman down an alley the night Brooks was killed."

I tried to find this witness. I knocked on doors and dropped off flyers with Tanya's photo, but I couldn't find him.

I knocked on doors in the Uniacke Square neighbourhood trying to find a witness who saw something the night Tanya died, but came up empty. Photo by Hilary Beaumont

In September 2012, after serving four years, Segerts was released from jail. He's 25 years old now.

Since his release, no criminal charges have been brought against him, and he hasn't been convicted of any crime in Nova Scotia. I asked provincial court administrators and Halifax Police but they were unable to say whether he had any charges or convictions outside NS since then.

I reached out to Segerts three times for comment. I told him I was looking into Tanya's death, that I knew he was in jail when she died, and that I wanted to hear his side of the story. A checkmark appeared next to the Facebook messages I sent, meaning he saw my requests for comment, but he didn't respond.

I called and messaged the two sureties listed on his court documents, but didn't hear back. I asked his friends how I could reach him. No answer. I went to the address listed on court documents, where he had lived with his father, but neither of them live there now.

I asked Pat Atherton, the lawyer who represented him in 2009, for comment, but he said he doesn't do interviews with media.

During Loretta's murder trial, I wound up alone in an elevator with Atherton, who was representing Loretta's former roommate Henneberry. I introduced myself and asked if how to get in touch with Patrick Segerts. He said, "Never heard of him." I said he was Segerts' defense counsel and he repeated, "Never heard of him." The elevator dinged and he walked away briskly.

Six years later, Tanya's murder is now assigned to the Special Investigations Section of the Halifax Police Criminal Investigation Division.

I sent Halifax police a list of 40 questions about the case well in advance of publication, but they wouldn't say much since the investigation is ongoing. Police spokesperson Pierre Bourdages said there was activity on the file in late March/early April—after VICE first alerted police that we were looking into Tanya's case.

"The case has not gone to court because we aren't yet in a position to lay a charge," Bourdages wrote in an email. "We need people who know what happened to Tanya to come forward."

The province is offering up to $150,000 for information leading to an arrest and conviction.

Halifax police wouldn't say whether Segerts is a person of interest because the case is still open. They are aware he attacked Tanya in 2008, but wouldn't say whether he was a person of interest in the case.

The close friend of Tanya's family who didn't want her name used said Tanya had stolen from people and ripped off others due to her addiction. Someone else who held a grudge might have killed her, she speculated.

I don't know who killed Tanya Brooks. Segerts was in jail at the time, and neighbourhood rumours are just that—rumours.

There's a huge gap between conjecture and conviction. Police need evidence directly linking a suspect to a murder, or a witness who will take the stand, as Tanya was willing to do.

Loretta Saunders. Photo provided by the family

Over the phone from his small Labrador community of Hopedale, known in Inuit as Agvituk, or "Place of the Whales," Loretta's brother Edmund Saunders said his sister struggled early in life, but was later accepted as a student at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.

At the sentencing of her killers on Wednesday, her parents said she had dropped out of school in grade nine, and moved to Montreal where she struggled with drugs and alcohol. She was homeless and sleeping on park benches.

But Loretta turned her life around, her parents said. She went into treatment and spent time in Hopedale upgrading her education.

In the town of 500, "violence is an everyday thing," Edmund explained.

"It's nothing for a woman to walk down the road with a black eye or a cut lip from getting beat up by her spouse. Instead of people feeling sorry for that person and saying this stuff got to stop, they'll laugh and say, 'Look, she got another black eye!' It's so acceptable it's not funny.

"That was one of the things that sparked her passion for what she believed in," he remembered. "She was really vocal when she was around here about violence toward women. She was sickened by what she seen here. You know, it's normal in our communities on the coast of Labrador. It's normal for a man to hit his woman."

When Loretta began studying missing and murdered First Nations women, "she really took that to heart," her brother said.

"My story isn't unique," Loretta wrote in her thesis proposal. "Thousands of girls are exposed to the exact same experiences that I couldn't even fathom wishing upon another human being, yet our very own government is responsible for orchestrating the events and developing the policies and practices that led to the marginalization of generations of my people."

Family dinner with the Brooks family when Vanessa and Tanya were kids. Photo provided by Vanessa Brooks

Over the past year, Loretta's case has moved swiftly through the justice system, ending in two guilty pleas last week, and two life sentences Wednesday afternoon. Edmund Saunders thinks he knows why.

"I'll tell you this, I know from my own experience, when Loretta went first missing, my dad said, 'Don't tell them she's native.' 'Why not?' 'Tell them she's white.' So we said she was white, and we had all the help in the world that we could get from the police. As soon as they found out that she was Inuit, the help started slowing down big time."

Loretta was originally identified to police as a white woman, police confirmed. As the investigation progressed, they learned she was an Inuk woman.

Loretta's family members raced to Halifax when they heard she was missing. They spoke to media. They covered the city in posters. Edmund turned dumpsters inside out, determined to find his sister.

"When my sister first went missing, we knew we had to make her public," Edmund said. "We knew."

"My mother and father are really adamant that that's the reason we got something done—because we pushed them and we forced them to."

Tanya's family took similar steps to keep her case alive. Each year on May 10, the anniversary of her murder, they hold two memorial walks—one in her hometown of Millbrook and one in Halifax.

"She didn't ask to be born First Nations, she didn't have a choice in that," Vanessa, Tanya's sister, said over the phone. Being a First Nations woman and a sex worker changes how a person is treated, she said.

Vanessa encouraged anyone with information about Tanya's death to come forward to police, even if what they know seems like a small detail.

When he heard about the two guilty verdicts, Edmund sent me a message on Twitter: "I'm pleased that they admitted guilt, although it will not bring back my sister."

When Tanya's sister Vanessa heard the news, she texted me, "I'm so relieved for [Loretta's] family. It's nice to see them get justice and closure."

After six years, she said, "It never gets easier."

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