He would have graduated high school this year.
On April 23, 2006, the boy—who we still can't legally name—was killed in his bed. The eight-year-old's throat was cut from end to end, his blood splattered on his toys. His parents were brutally murdered in the basement of their Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada home.
It wasn't a random crime or a break-in gone wrong.
It was a plan developed by their sister and daughter. She was 12. Her 23-year-old boyfriend did most of the dirty work. Neither would admit to killing the little boy.
Insp. Brent Secondiak, a staff sergeant with the Medicine Hat Police Service at the time, remembers getting the call from dispatch that someone thought they'd seen bodies in a basement. His instincts told him it wasn't a false alarm. He parked on the wrong side of the road and unpacked tactical gear.
He looked in a basement window and could see at least one person down. He called for other officers to come to the scene. He thought they might be able to save a life. There was no one alive in the house, but there was one member of the family absent from the bloody scene. The daughter.
"I truly believed that this person was missing and possibly abducted," Secondiak said.
"It wasn't even in the realm of possibility that she was an accused."
In the first few hours, an Amber Alert was sent out for the girl, but police uncovered evidence—writing and drawings—in her room and school locker and realized she was a suspect.
"It was a huge shocker that she had any part of that because it was so horrific. "I couldn't imagine someone so young doing something so horrific," Secondiak said.
The girl, who would become known as J.R. because the law prevents a young offender from being identified, and her boyfriend, Jeremy Steinke, were arrested the next day, along with another woman, in Steinke's truck a few hours east in Saskatchewan. In the truck, the trio had a copy of Monday's Medicine Hat News.
Steinke, fueled by booze, ecstasy, cocaine, and pot, broke in through a basement window. His first victim was the mother. Their fight woke up the father, who fought with Steinke to protect his family. He jabbed Steinke in the eye, but it ended up being no match for Steinke and his knife.
"He fought to the end," MHPS Chief Andy McGrogan says, "He was a warrior. He just didn't have the same tools that the other guy did."
With his last breaths, the father asked Steinke why he was doing this, which came with a chilling response.
"It's what your daughter wanted."
The little boy was the last to die.
This spring is also when J.R. completes her sentence. In May, she will make her final court appearance—in person in Medicine Hat—and then be a mostly free woman. If she doesn't commit any crimes for five years, the murders will be wiped from her record.
When McGrogan, an inspector when the murders happened, thinks of this case his response is no surprise.
"I think of the photos of the boy who had his throat slit from one end to another."
Secondiak echoes this sentiment saying: "I've seen lots of bad scenes and lots of dead bodies, but very few children and very few children ever in that state," he said.
It's the image that likely haunts everyone who dealt with the murders. I know it haunts me.
I had been in Medicine Hat for about eight weeks when the murders happened. I'd moved to the city to be a reporter and desker, editing stories and doing layout, at the Medicine Hat News. I didn't know what to expect, but I definitely didn't expect to cover a story that would stay with me for the rest of my career.
I wasn't supposed to be at work that Sunday, but I stopped by to check on something for Monday's paper. When I arrived, my colleague told me they thought there'd been a murder-suicide and three people were dead. The situation seemed to be under control and I went home. It's one of few decisions in my career I regret.
In the coming days, staff was sent to find out what they could. They spoke to neighbors, we tried to find family members. A reporter and photographer camped out at the house overnight. My job was to man the desk, I took phone calls from numerous people claiming to be friends of J.R. and Steinke. They mostly declared their disbelief. Some declared Steinke was innocent.
I would play a bigger role in the months to come. I covered preliminary inquiries for Steinke and the first days of J.R.'s trial, which my roommate covered. I covered the plea bargains for the girls and woman charged with accessory to murder after the fact.
If the brutality of the crimes wasn't enough, the story just got weirder as reporters learned more about J.R. and Steinke. The two were members of a website called VampireFreaks.com and spoke about drinking blood. Steinke told people he was a 300-year-old werewolf. There was a picture of J.R. online in heavy, dark makeup posing with a realistic replica handgun.
The duo were part of the local punk/metal/goth community. They met at a punk show. When dressed in her darker persona, J.R. definitely didn't look 12.
Her parents didn't approve of this relationship with a much older man. From all accounts, they handled the situation appropriately. They let J.R. go to concerts, but one of her parents had to go with her.
As the forbidden relationship grew, the couple exchanged emails where J.R. said things like: "I have this plan. It starts with me killing them and ends with me living with you."
Steinke replied, "Well I love your plan but we need to get a little more creative with like details and stuff."
The two shared a love for Oliver Stone's 1994 film Natural Born Killers and watched it the night before the murders were committed.
Many of these details wouldn't become public knowledge until their separate trials.
When J.R.'s trial started in June 2007, she no longer looked like a tough girl with a dark side. She looked like a girl more likely found at a church picnic than a punk show. She wore a collared lilac shirt and khaki pants. Her medium-brown hair was in a neat ponytail that hung to her waist.
When she pleaded "not guilty," her voice was barely above a whisper.
J.R. took the stand in her defense, saying that when she talked about killing her parents she was "kidding" and never thought Steinke would act on it.
But none of this convinced the jury she was merely a pawn in Steinke's plan. After a month-long trial, she was found guilty of three counts of first-degree murder.
She was given the maximum sentence for a youth, ten years split between custody and supervised release. She received credit for the 18 months she'd spent in pre-trial custody.
A year later, Steinke was also convicted of three counts of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole for 25 years.
J.R.'s sentence came with an order called intensive rehabilitative custody and supervision (IRCS), a program developed for young offenders convicted of serious crimes who also suffer from a mental illness or disorder.
Few details about J.R.'s psychiatric assessments were made public other than that she was diagnosed with conduct disorder and oppositional defiant disorder.
Those two disorders are incredibly common among young offenders, especially those who've been charged with a serious offense, said project director of the Incarcerated Serious and Violent Young Offender Study and PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University's school of criminology Evan McCuish.
But those disorders alone aren't reason for a judge to impose an IRCS sentence, he said, it's reserved for youth who require intensive treatment.
Rehabilitation is the goal for young offenders, McCuish said, and custody is a last resort.
"The kids who are entering the custody centers in Canada are the most serious and violent young offenders," he said.
Secondiak says what he saw in that house on Cameron Road didn't really hit him until he was driving back to the station to brief the higher ups. That's when the tears started to come.
Still, he didn't take a day off work.
"Some of the images, you never get out of your mind. Now, I'm kind of at peace with it."
McGrogran says the murders have left "stains" on the force.
"Unless you were involved you'd never understand," he said. "I don't care where you're a police officer... very rarely would you run into something that horrific in your career."
The four officers who were the first on scene have remained close, according to Secondiak. He says one officer in particular will come into Secondiak's office to talk about the murders.
"But at least we have somebody talk to."
Neither J.R.'s lawyer, Katherin Beyak, or Crown prosecutor Ramona Robins returned requests for comment on this story.
When it comes to J.R.'s ten-year sentence, Secondiak says he's gone through a myriad of emotions.
"At one point I was mad. Mad that she wasn't treated as an adult, but I've also gone the other way and felt sorry for her," he said.
Now, he says he trusts the system.
"At one point I wanted her locked up forever. I don't think I'm there now. I hope she moves on and becomes a productive member of society," he said. "That's tough coming from me. If you would've asked me five years ago I would've given you a different answer."
Like Secondiak, I've struggled with my opinion about her sentence. My answer seems to change daily.
I have a hard time reconciling the violence and her dead family with a ten-year sentence. I often find it hardest to swallow that she will remain largely anonymous.
I can only hope that she goes on to live a good, full life and does all the things her brother never had the chance to do.
In the last few years, J.R. has had some of the conditions of her sentence relaxed. She no longer has a curfew and has taken classes at Calgary's Mount Royal University.
"Those decisions aren't usually made arbitrarily," McCuish said, explaining that these things are signs that the process has worked for her. "The program she's been on, the treatment strategies she's been given have been helping her progression towards rehabilitation."
According to one of her lawyers, she's a "poster child" for rehabilitation.
McCuish's research shows that most young homicide offenders don't commit murders in adulthood.
And as awful as her crimes were, Secondiak doesn't think she's without hope.
"I don't think she's truly evil. I've met some of those people that are bad to the bone and she's not one of them."
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