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Denise Bourdeau Kept Returning to Her Abusive Partner; One Day, He Killed Her

Though her killer is behind bars, for her mother there is no justice in how her case was handled.

Jane Gerster

A photo of Denise taken in the early 1980s. Photo provided by Amy Miller

The last time she was seen alive—New Year's Eve, 2006—Denise Bourdeau was wearing a baseball cap over her brown curls. She'd borrowed it from her friend David Heath, in whose apartment she'd taken refuge two days earlier. In her haste, Denise had forgotten to bring the hair dryer she used to tame her hair, so the cap would have to serve instead. She and Heath were heading out to ring in 2007 at a bar in a plaza in Waterloo, Ontario.

When Denise, 39, had shown up at Heath's apartment, a fresh bruise marred her face. It was the second time in less than a week that she'd come to him looking like this and in need of a place to stay. But this time she'd brought a duffel bag with clothes and ID, as if she planned to stay awhile.

They got to the bar just after 9 PM. Soon after, Denise's common-law spouse David Thomas, then 44, arrived. At first, some said he seemed upset—one reveler said that David yelled something about Denise being his wife, and about how she should be at home; another saw him grab her by the arm—but that he appeared to cool off. Later, the pair drank, and talked, and danced.

Sometime after midnight, they were seen leaving the bar together, Denise still wearing Heath's cap.

A bit before 2 AM, Heath left the bar. On the sidewalk outside, he found the cap he'd loaned Denise.

Amy Miller at home in Kitchener with a portrait of Denise that was used for the Sisters in Spirit gathering in Ottawa. Photo by the author

Denise and David Thomas met two years earlier, in late December 2004. She was working a series of temp jobs and he was a plumber. By January 2005 they were dating. Soon after, Denise moved into his apartment.

Nine months later, over the course of several days in September, David beat Denise repeatedly. She had a broken nose and marks on her neck. But it wasn't until five days later, when a neighbor spotted her on the street with blood on her face, that Denise was taken to the hospital and David was charged with assault causing bodily harm.

In November 2005, David pled guilty. He was sentenced to time served and two years probation. He was released, roughly two months after he'd been arrested for—and this is according to the agreed statement of facts—beating Denise while telling her, over and over, "I want you dead."

They continued their relationship.

Denise with her parents at her wedding. Photo provided by Amy Miller

In the mind of Amy Miller, Denise's mother, there was no doubt from the moment Denise went missing: David Thomas was the guilty party. Amy had circumstantial evidence that her eldest daughter's common-law spouse was to blame for her disappearance.

Amy and her husband Glen Miller had heard from the police many times over the course of Denise and David's relationship. The cops would report that they'd had to intervene at the couple's home and they wanted to drop Denise off with her parents.

Denise stayed with Amy and Glen for most of the summer of 2006. But then she went back to David. And soon the police called again: there'd been an incident at Denise and David's place, and could they bring Denise by?

Amy was incensed that it was always Denise who was being removed. She'd be removed, she'd go back; she'd be removed, she'd go back. Amy wondered: Why didn't the police remove Dave?

By the fall of 2006, when the police asked if they could drop Denise off, Amy began to say "no." She didn't know how to stop her daughter from going through the same harrowing experience that she herself had suffered. "I went through it; my ex-husband did that to me," she says. She only knew that there was a cycle she had to break. Still, saying no "was extremely hard."

That November, while Amy was cleaning out a purse that she'd loaned to Denise that summer, she found a letter written by her daughter.

"Dear Dave," it began. It was dated July 18, 2006. It was five pages long.

I know you never did read it but the book you brought home from your anger management (on the end table) stated that physical, mental, and emotional abuse usually does not end until one or the other partner moves out. Dave, you must know that this is what I had to do. The physical was intensifying and the mental [...] was out of control...

I am not blaming all our problems on you. I am fully aware of what I was guilty of as we both know you felt the need to remind me on a daily basis. The thing was I stopped but you were so hung up on the past, you couldn't or can't let it go. I don't understand how you can justify the continual hitting, throat grabbing, name calling, and recently locking me in for, as you stated yourself, just to torment me. Why?

The letter went on to describe how David changed when he drank, how the quantity of his death threats was increasing, but how he still had many qualities that she loved.

Amy gave the letter to the police in January, shortly after Denise went missing and right around what would have been her fortieth birthday.

On April 17, 2007, a man walking his dog found Denise's naked, badly decomposed remains on the floodplain of the Grand River. With that discovery, a missing person case officially became a suspected homicide.

Undated photo of Denise at Christmas. Photo by the author

Denise Katherine Bourdeau was the oldest of three sisters. Denise was Amy's "centennial baby," born January 17, 1967 in Kitchener, where she spent most of her life. She was a busy toddler, always running from one place to the next. Amy would blink and Denise would be gone.

Often, when Denise was three years old, a police officer would bring her home in the back of a squad car, alongside the family's puppy. She would take advantage of a moment of maternal distraction and walk the dog down their quiet, suburban street to the corner store. Her adventures were cut short by the same kindly police officer.

Denise may have found amusement in those police rides down the block. Even as a toddler—with close-cropped hair, chubby cheeks, and a little round belly—she found humor in everything, and laughed frequently.

"Right from the belly," Amy says of her daughter's mirth.

When Denise was three, Amy left Denise's father because he was abusive and alcoholic. When Denise was seven, Amy met and fell in love with Glen.

Nobody drank growing up in that home, Amy later testified. Denise, for her part, never forgot a Father's Day, a Mother's Day, or a birthday.

Denise finished Grade 11 with plans to be a lab technician. Then she moved in with a boy. She went on to have two serious relationships before Dave, including one marriage, and she had three children.

To support her family, she worked for temp agencies: a toy factory, a poultry factory, a wood factory. But she also started to drink, and she kept drinking.

Canadian society is not adept at having conversations about excessive drinking or about how to curb excessive drinking. A review released in early March of 2015 by the Canadian Medical Association Journal estimated that between 15 and 20 percent of Canadians over-drink, and that action is needed "to help curb the growing abuse of alcohol."

The review highlights the lack of education on addiction in medical schools, the poor screening at hospitals and clinics for addiction and misuse, as well as the low prescription rates for medication that could help.

Alcoholism, "it runs in our family," Amy says.

Glen was not a drinker, but Denise's biological father was an alcoholic, as were Amy's parents.

"I look at it as a disease," she says, "same as you've got thyroid problems, you've got heart problems, you've got mental health issues, you have alcoholic problems."

Amy notes that her own father got his 25-year sobriety pin before his death. He gave her a book reviewing the literature on alcoholism, and the 12-step recovery programs.

Amy gave it to Denise, but she can't remember when. She hasn't seen it since.

A photo of Denise when she was in grade eight. Photo provided by Amy Miller

Zach Larocque is Denise's nephew. The last time he saw his aunt was during the summer before she disappeared, at the annual luau hosted by Amy and Glen, his grandparents. The couple loved Hawaii—they'd reaffirmed their wedding vows there, and visited the islands nearly a dozen times after that—but they hadn't been back since 1995. Since then, they haven't been able to afford the trip.

Zach knew at the time that Denise was in an abusive relationship. He knew that she wanted out. He remembers thinking that Denise's predicament was similar to what his own mother, Denise's sister, had endured with a "controlling, manipulative" partner.

Even so, he remembers Denise's laughter that night. At one moment, Denise sat with a cigarette in hand; her head tilted back, her hair loose, her eyes bright and her smile wide.

"Everybody always talks about her laugh," Zach says. "They all remember how she liked to have fun. But you can't really ignore the fact that she was a really damaged girl... there was a lot of self-confidence issues, a lot of self-esteem issues."

He pauses. "It's not like she's the only woman who's ever been in that position."

A photo Amy keeps of Denise from she was just a toddler. Photo by the author

Early in January 2007, shortly after Denise disappeared, David spoke with one of her sisters. On January 15, her sister reported her missing to Waterloo Regional Police. For two days, the police tried—unsuccessfully—to speak with David. One constable, Jeff Sauve, knocked on the door of his house, where David could be heard talking on the phone with the television on. After Constable Sauve announced himself as a police officer, both the television and David went silent, but David never came to the door. Constable Sauve remained at the door, knocking, for 20 minutes, without answer.

On January 17, David called Constable Sauve. He said that he was worried about Denise, about where she was. He told Constable Sauve about the New Year's Eve they'd shared at the bar.

Both Amy and Denise's sister would later report that David called them that same day, to rebuke them for involving the police.

A week later, armed with a search warrant, police combed through David's apartment. Among other things, they were looking for blood and Denise's diary.

A police surveillance team saw David drive up to his building while the police were there. Noting the cruisers, he parked in the parking lot of a nearby school instead of his own space. Leaving his car, David took a "circuitous route" toward his house, according to court documents. He "was observed taking a circuitous route and at one point was seen crouching behind vehicles in the apartment parking lot so he could watch the police without being seen." Then he left for a local plaza.

A week later, police obtained a separate warrant to search David's car. There, they found Denise's blood. In a two-and-a-half week period in late January and early February, David was formally interviewed twice and communicated with a detective more than a dozen times.

It would be two and a half months before Denise's remains—by then, too decomposed to determine a cause of death—would be found.

It would be another four years—July 2011—before David would be arrested for her murder.

An undated photo of Amy taken where Denise's body was found, at the memorial she created and continues to tend for her daughter

In the intervening years, it was Amy who pushed for an arrest, who harangued police over their seeming inaction, and who ultimately filed complaints against the Waterloo Regional Police because of her frustration with the first three years of their investigation into Denise's death.

Amy's first formal complaint, dated April 25, 2010, was to the Ontario Civilian Police Commission. She told the OCPC about her struggle to get officers to answer her questions, to meet with her regularly. She wrote about an allegedly belligerent officer who tried to bring Denise to her home in 2006 after removing her from David's apartment. She wrote about a detective on the case who, in April 2009, admitted to her that he hadn't read Denise's file. A spokesman with the Waterloo Regional Police Service declined to comment for this story.

As the years passed, the case too seemed to pass—haphazardly or without proper communication—from one set of detectives to another. Amy expressed her frustration with this, too. Finally she asked: Why was it Denise who was always removed from the home, never David? Why was his probation never revoked?

In her letter, Amy wrote: "I honestly believe, if we were [...] NOT Native, the situation would have been treated FAR more differently!" Like her daughters, she is of Mohawk ancestry, from Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation.

On May 3, 2010, the OCPC responded: "Your complaint has been forwarded to the Waterloo Regional Police [...]"

Fifteen days later, a letter dated from the Waterloo Regional Police informed her: "At this time there will be no further investigation by this Police Service of your complaint."

The force's reasoning was sound, but felt callous. Amy's complaints were about alleged events—the belligerent officer in 2006, the ignorant detective of 2009—that had happened more than six months before the date on which Amy filed her complaint. In such cases, according to section 60(2) of the Police Services Act, a Chief of Police may choose not to investigate.

Amy requested the OCPC review the police's decision. Her request included a one-and-a-half page typed explanation and several pages of photos "to put a FACE to 'a' FILE number." In that, Amy wrote that it was only through the inquiries of a local reporter that she'd learned the detective who had not been answering her phone calls was no longer on the case, replaced by another without notice to the family. "Investigators may change on any and all investigations due to various circumstances," a spokesman for the Waterloo Regional Police Service said via email.

The response to Amy's request for review arrived, dated February 14, 2011. The OCPC supported the decision of the Waterloo Regional Police. Still, the letter said, "the Commission was not unsympathetic to your concerns and as such we are recommending the Waterloo Regional Police arrange for a senior officer to meet with you and to provide with you periodic updates on the progress of the investigation into your daughter's death."

But it was local media that seemed, at least to Amy, to advance the case. On July 12, 2011, The Waterloo Region Record ran the front-page story: "Waiting for Justice." In that story, Amy was quoted as saying: "We know nothing more than what we knew when we were told it was her."

She'd spoken to the paper previously, on the first anniversary of Denise's disappearance, about how she suspected she knew the identity of her daughter's killer—but even in that 2011 story, police would only say they had one "person of interest." "There's a reluctance by some people to come forward with information," Chris Downey, a Staff Sgt. who has since retired, says in the Record's story.

The day after the story ran, David was arrested.

Zach got the news while downing a quick meal with friends at a restaurant. He'd spent the earlier part of the evening in the place where Denise's body was found: a tree-lined area off the Grand River that Amy decorated annually with a picture of Denise. Other decorations included a "letter from heaven" telling her family not to worry, flowers, and a bow.

It was summer and the air was dense with mosquitoes. Zach had felt furious after reading "Waiting for Justice," but when he went to the site of Denise's discovery, "everything just kind of relaxed."

Zach's mom called while he sat at the restaurant. "They arrested Dave today," she told him.

"I'd had a shit day at work," Zach says now. "I found out about the article, I'd had that huge rage fit, gone all the way down there and everything just got so calm, so relaxed, I feel the most peaceful at that site ever, and then I find out he was arrested."

Amy holds the two angels that she keeps close—the purple one by her bed, the other clutched in her hand while she sleeps. Photo by the author

Since Denise's murder, Amy has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She sleeps with her fingers wrapped tightly around an amber angel encased in a clear acrylic oval. She keeps another angel—a more delicate amethyst angel—nearby, though she doesn't sleep with that one, for fear it might break.

The angels are a part of Amy's connection to Denise, whose ashes are in a corner of her apartment given over to her family. There, three glamour shots of her daughters hang, one after another. Leaning against the wall below is Denise's poster from the 2012 Families of Sisters in Spirit National Vigil on Parliament Hill. She looks radiant, but the caption tells another story: "Denise Bourdeau found murdered 2007."

In 2013, Amy traveled to Ottawa to speak before the federal government's special committee on violence against indigenous women.

She told them about the abuse, about David locking Denise in, about how hard it was to tell the police they couldn't bring Denise to her because she'd just go back—it was a "Band-Aid" solution at best—about how long she felt it took for the police to do their job.

"I was raised to believe that the police force was there to help, serve, and protect," Amy told the special committee. "Did they protect my daughter? After two years of abuse, did they protect my daughter? She was a wrongful death."

David's trial finally began in January 2015, almost four years after his arrest and eight years after Denise's murder. It lasted nine weeks.

Denise's family filled the court's benches whenever they could. "I felt like there needed to be some kind of family support there at all times," Zach said.

In the trial's early days, the court heard testimony from David's probation officer, Mary Gifkins.

Mary met David in November 2005, she said, shortly after he pled guilty to assaulting Denise. In early December, she testified, he told her that he was single, and that Denise was his ex. Why did you do it? she asked him during that meeting.

His answer is found in Mary's notes: "Client got STD. Heard phone message for Denise. Grabbed by throat. Mistrust, arguments, swearing, and yelling. Open hand hit. Felt betrayed and used. Lost control of behavior."

David and Mary spoke again about Denise during an April 2006 meeting. At that time, he was finishing the Partner Assault Response Program. "He told me that the program was helpful and that he'd learned a lot of skills that he believes would be helpful to him in future relationships," Mary testified.

But also this, from her notes: "I noted that client continues to blame victim for causing the situation in which client assaulted her. He speaks of her infidelity, betrayals, and lying as causal factors."

David and Mary spoke again that June.

"He attributes the violence to his choice of partner rather than to his choice of behavior," she testified.

Amy believes that the police, by removing Denise rather than David when the couple's interactions turned violent, reinforced that narrative.

"Police come in, they take the woman out, then the woman goes back... he says, 'See, I'm not doing anything wrong. The cops took you out, they didn't take me out,'" she says.

"The system is backwards," says Mary Zilney, chief executive officer for Women's Crisis Services of Waterloo Region. "It's completely frustrating."

Through the news, she followed the search for Denise, the hunt for her killer, and finally David's trial. It was tragic, she says, but not a surprise.

It's hard, Zilney says, for many people to understand why a woman like Denise—consistently abused, as she was, unfaithful and berated physically and emotionally for it, as she was—didn't leave.

"It's a huge barrier that we've not yet been able to surpass," Zilney says.

There was one day in May 2006, when Denise showed up on a former coworker's doorstep, "crying, bleeding, shaking."

Nancy Cossaboom had worked with Denise at a chicken manufacturing company for a few weeks that year. It was Nancy who testified about that one day.

Denise was bleeding from her nose and her lip. Her hands were covered in blood as if she'd wiped her face, and her shirt was bloodied around the collar. She was "shaking, crying, uncontrollable crying," Nancy testified.

She said that when she reached for the phone to call the police, Denise "grabbed [her] hands" and told her, "No, please, don't."

According to Nancy, Denise said: "I don't want him to go back there again."

She explained further: "[he's] been in jail before for hitting me."

The Crown prosecutor asked Nancy how she responded at the time.

"I didn't—I couldn't say anything. I didn't know what to say."

"Did you call the police at that time?"

"No."

A photo of Denise taken in 1993. Photo provided by Amy Miller

On March 13, 2015, after two days of deliberations, jurors found David Thomas guilty of second-degree murder, even though prosecutors could never prove exactly how he killed Denise. He is appealing the conviction.

On July 15, Justice D.A. Broad sentenced David Thomas to life in prison. He will not be eligible for parole for 16 years, though the four years he's already served will count against that number.

The defense argued that David Thomas's eligibility for parole should arrive sooner, but Justice Broad would have none of it.

"What can be safely surmised is that at the time of her death Ms. Bourdeau was utterly isolated and alone with no one to protect her from Mr. Thomas's violence," he wrote in his decision. "It came through clearly in her writings that what Ms. Bourdeau was looking for in her relationship with David Thomas was love, acceptance, and security. What she got was physical violence, emotional abuse, and ultimately death at his hands."

Amy has a warning for anyone who comes to her now, wanting to talk justice.

"They're gonna get punched in the face," she says. "Because there is no justice. No justice will bring Denise back. And there's no closure; Denise will never smile again."

Follow Jane Gerster on Twitter.