The Unforgettable Story of a BC Teen Murdered by Her Peers
Twenty years after Reena Virk’s horrific death, the reporter who knew the teenage girls involved goes deep on a crime that shocked the world.
Art by Noel Ransome
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 Kelly 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. Her case became the subject of artwork, poems, plays, academic essays, documentaries and my book, Under The Bridge. And now, twenty years later, the crime, often called a "national tragedy," continues to fascinate and disturb, 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, Kelly was 15; she wore her hair in a short brown bob; she wore a stud in her nose.
In the months before the murder, Kelly was in the throes of an intense, fervent friendship with a blonde, delicate girl named Josephine Bell.* Of the two, Josephine 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. Josephine boasted of stealing cars and dating Crips and she dreamed of, one day, moving to New York and joining the mob. 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 Kelly 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, not to be messed with. 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 Josephine. 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 Josephine's notebook and called some boys in it, telling them Josephine wasn't as beautiful as she thought; Josephine had AIDS; Josephine's eyebrows were fake.
This act of mischief enraged Josephine. She hatched a plan for revenge, calling girls on the Songhees 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 Kelly, 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 that November evening, a Friday night, a Russian satellite broke apart in the sky. Fifty or 60 teenagers had gathered on the field behind Shoreline School, as they always gathered every Friday. 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 Kelly and Josephine's plan; most of them hadn't met Reena 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. Josephine put a lit cigarette out on Reena's forehead. When Reena cried out and swung back, Kelly 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 Reena, 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 Reena in the mud, bleeding, crying. No one offered to help her. Some watched, a little later, as Reena 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 and 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 or 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 that girl named Reena, 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 Reena 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 Reena's lungs, she found eighteen 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, Reena's killer was neither family member, nor vicious, older psychopath. Instead, eight teenagers had been arrested. Six girls, including Josephine, were charged with aggravated assault for the first attack under the bridge. Two other teenagers, he told startled reporters, had followed Reena 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 Warren who fit most closely to societal assumptions about who is criminal. The 16-year-old boy was slight and short, with doe eyes, a pouf of dark curls, 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, he'd moved constantly, living in Medicine Hat, Estevan, Nanaimo, and 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. Warren was fond of sagging white jeans, Too $hort; he boasted that he was a Crip.
Though he'd never met Reena before, and though he was not part of Josephine and Kelly's plan, he'd kicked Reena 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 Reena, with Kelly, and "something happened…Kelly did something to her." Based on his girlfriend's statement, the police arrested Warren 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 Kelly dragged and drowned Reena. Presciently, they warned him: "You're the guy in this case… you're going down big time." The justice system, too, 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 Warren'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, Kelly Ellard offered a very different version of events than Warren. When first interviewed by Sergeant Krista Hobday, a family friend, Kelly said, blithely, that she had "no doubt" that Reena's killer "could have been Josephine. She always says sick stuff—just weird, demented stuff. She wanted to bury someone. Josephine 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, in her bedroom closet, a black nylon Calvin Klein jacket, the arms stained with saltwater 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."
Josephine was a more wily and loyal suspect. She refused to testify against Kelly, refused to incriminate her best friend. ("Do I look like I have a tail," she asked her mom.) When police played her tapes of Kelly blaming her for the murder, she remained unfazed and feigned naiveté. "We don't talk about murder," she told detectives. "We just talk about cigarettes and make-up. 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, flirt."
In many ways, the unease and willful ignorance about teenage girls' lives, their violent impulses, their unsentimental desires, contributed to the unprecedented and often bizarre legal drama surrounding Kelly 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 Warren had been represented by a public defender who specialized in DUIs, Kelly'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 Kelly'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 Kelly in a courtroom battle royale. A different side of Kelly emerged. She rolled her eyes; she 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, Kelly was found guilty, and further appeals were denied.
In prison, Kelly and Warren would also take different paths. Warren avoided trouble, kept to himself, 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 Reena 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, Warren was "the only who has taken responsibility for his actions."
By contrast, Kelly 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 shivs; she confessed to a yearlong binge on contraband crystal meth. Soon after she turned thirty, Kelly quit drugs and took a job in the prison library and became pen pals with a 41-year-old man named Darwin. In October 2016, Vancouver Sun crime reporter Kim Bolan broke the story that Kelly, 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, Kelly took responsibility for her role in the murder, albeit with a dubious story, saying she brought Reena 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 in the manner of myth or ghost tale. While the case shone light on the hidden world of girls, like Josephine, 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 Reena and Josephine 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 Reena'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 Reena last walked. Five hundred slot machines, the website promises. "Where the fun starts!"
Many of the girls who witnessed or participated in Reena's attack now, like all of us, live online, sharing photos of their children and 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 Reena 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 Reena: her sentences, her words, unknown to the world, yet somewhere, saved.
*Name has been changed to comply with court-ordered publication ban.
Rebecca Godfrey is the author of Under the Bridge: The True Story of the Murder of Reena Virk.