Detective who solved Holly Jones murder reveals what sharp-eyed officers noticed in killer's apartment
TORONTO -- Warning: This story contains details that may be disturbing
A lead detective on the 2003 Holly Jones kidnapping and murder says there were four things that made police immediately suspect the killer when they knocked on his door for a DNA sample.
Holly Jones was abducted in her neighbourhood after walking a friend home from school. It happened in broad daylight, in the Junction Triangle neighbourhood in west Toronto, and detectives would find out later there were witnesses.
Michael Briere, 35, was later arrested and charged with her muder.
CP24's crime analyst Steve Ryan was a lead investigator on the case.
"Little did (Holly) know that Briere had consumed a lot of alcohol that afternoon, watched child pornography and had decided he was going to act out a long time fantasy of his, which was to abduct and sexually assault a young girl, and he was going to pick the first girl that he saw," Ryan said in this week's episode of The Detective podcast.
"So if it wasn't Holly, it would have been someone else."
That was in May of 2003, and the residents of Toronto were on edge after Holly disappeared.
Police had ruled out family members as suspects and were concentrating on finding a stranger.
Holly's mother, Maria Jones, made a desperate plea on television, hoping her daughter could see her and know everyone was doing their best to find her.
"Holly, honey, our hearts are out for you," she said. "Baby, if you can hear me, you know how much we love you."
"I feel you inside of me and I'm trying to find you, I'm doing everything, everybody is working very hard and whoever has her I beg you. I beg you with all my heart that you keep her and bring her home to her mother and father. You keep her safe. I beg you she hasn’t ever hurt anyone in her life. She is a happy girl, I beg you not to hurt her. Bring her home to us."
Maria Jones' pleas were for naught.
Later that day, the day after Holly Jones vanished, police announced the crushing news that body parts had been found washed up on the shore of Wards Island, across the Toronto Harbour.
Police were now hunting a child killer.
"The entire city was in lockdown," Ryan said. "Kids were telling their parents that cars were looking at them suspiciously, so parents became guardians, calling in these 'attempted abductions' and everybody in the city became a detective. Everybody had someone in mind who they thought could have done this. And that is what we were dealing with, which is a good thing."
The Toronto Police Service threw everything it had at the case, police were mobilized all over the city to find this child killer who had dismembered Holly's body.
Natasha Robinson lives in the Junction neighbourhood and recalls clearly to this day.
"I remember the panic that everyone around us felt at the time and the fear," she said. "I had a child who was the same age as Holly … we were all really scared."
During those initial days, investigators were grasping at straws for any clue as to who was responsible.
Eighteen years after the murder, Ryan paid a visit to the memorial for Holly Jones in a parkette, just steps from where she was abducted.
Joanie Thomas lives next door to the memorial to Holly Jones in a small parkette near the kidnapping scene and recognized Ryan as the officer who knocked on her door nearly two decades ago, calling him from her seat on the porch.
"Well, you were one of the detectives who reviewed this all weren't you?"
"I was," replied the former investigator. He said he doesn't remember Joanie, but does remember the questions he asked that community.
"The questions we were asking here were somewhat general, but specific as well. What I mean by that, first off, we had a missing girl and we knew her family wasn't responsible for abducting her and everybody was a suspect. So, we asked questions like, 'Did you see Holly Jones? Did you know Holly Jones? What do you think happened to Holly Jones? (Do) you know somebody who might be capable of this, who would that be?'"
Ryan said officers were looking for any detail that could lead them towards a suspect.
"That may be a shot in the dark," said Ryan. "But it's a start. When you have a case where you have nothing, somebody just vanishes you need to start with something."
But no real names were coming up, and Michael Briere was not yet on the police radar.
A large black and white picture of Holly hangs on a fence, she is smiling, her hair hanging over her shoulders, her face resting on her hand.
"Utter heart break, you look at a beautiful happy child Holly was and you know that her life came to such a tragic end it is just heart breaking, not just the investigators but the family, the community, everybody was affected by this murder."
Her killer, Michael Briere, lived an unassuming life in a rented part of a semi-detached home, a stone's throw from the abduction scene.
He was a software developer who watched child pornography and was doing that the day he snatched Holly from her family.
The hardest crimes to solve are stranger on stranger, says Ryan, as nothing to tie the victim to the suspect.
"This was one of those cases … child abductions are so rare," Ryan said. "So when we confirmed this was an actual stranger-on-stranger abduction, it shocked the investigators. Because there was no suspect, everybody was a suspect, you and I were suspects. I found people would be kind of looking at each other asking 'Who is the monster?' Because we had no idea who it was."
The investigators would get a break in the case when Holly's dismembered remains washed up on the shores of Lake Ontario, found by a couple walking a dog early in the morning on Ward's Island. But first Ryan had to clear the man who found the body.
KILLER LEAVES BEHIND DNA
"The man that found it was very co-operative but he had to put up with my, I would say, two-hour interrogation of him because we had nothing else. Now I have this man who finds this kid's remains in a bag, so I went at him pretty hard, but obviously he did not do it and he was never a suspect. But I just threw that out there because we had nothing."
Police would soon learn the killer had left his calling card in the form of DNA on Holly's body parts.
Now they had to find whose DNA it was, and as the former investigator pointed out, it was a needle in a haystack.
But not only did the killer leave his DNA, but also a couple of other clues that police seized on.
Briere was also living in fear that he might get caught, and Ryan says in the early days of Holly's disappearance, he was watching the detectives huddled across the street from his apartment.
"Yeah, right here at the corner of Perth and Bloor Street just on the other side of the street," Ryan said. "Briere's house is on the north side and we later learned … that Briere was watching us. Why was he watching us, because some of her remains he had put in the garbage and it was garbage day and he was waiting for the garbage truck to come along and get rid of those remains before we found them."
The investigators had to find a match for the DNA, so they came up with a controversial plan to ask every male within a six block radius of Holly’s home to voluntarily give a DNA sample.
A quick swab inside the cheek, and if the DNA didn't match you were cleared.
"Civil liberties were concerned about what was going on but the bottom line we had a little girl who was brutally murdered and sexually assaulted, we had DNA, we had a proverbial needle in a haystack. We just needed to get all that hay and it was done one-by-one asking men to give a sample of DNA."
But police could not force anyone to give a sample and that would prove to be the downfall for Briere.
Two beat cops noticed that something was not quite right at Briere's home.
"So, just before those DNA teams went out to swab the entire neighbourhood, they were briefed by the investigative team and they were told not only to ask for a DNA sample, but also use your observation skills," Ryan said.
"Look beyond the person, because we knew that on Holly's remains were green carpet fibres, which suggests there maybe a green carpet in the crime scene."
Ryan said that weights discovered at the crime scene suggested the suspect may have been in good shape.
"Weights were used to weigh some of her body parts down in the lake, which it never worked," Ryan said. "And we knew because of the manner in which her body was so brutally dismembered that it would have been a complete mess."
Ryan told his investigators to use their sense of smell.
"Whoever would try to clean that scene up would think that something strong like a bleach is going to work. It doesn't, because blood never goes away. But the common person would think that."
Ryan said there were four things police noticed when officers knocked on Michael Briere's door to request a DNA sample.
Firstly, Ryan said, he refused to provide a DNA sample. That put Briere on the police radar.
Anyone has the right to refuse, but police will have to clear that person another way.
It was strike one against Briere.
Then those two officers saw green carpet in the apartment.
Strike two against Briere.
Then they noticed weights in the home.
But Ryan says the fourth clue was the smell emanating from the apartment.
"They said it smelled like the cleanest place they had ever encountered, they could smell the bleach from the outside of his house."
Ryan said within an hour of officers visiting Briere's apartment, he was placed under police surveillance.
But police still did not have the DNA sample they needed to match the DNA found on Holly's remains.
So they followed their suspect, night and day.
"He was just going about everyday for him, having a soda in the morning and thankfully he discarded the soda can and we were able to seize it," Ryan said.
And on the lip of that soda can, the killer's DNA.
"The soda can was the key, literally the key, what happens in a DNA case, once we get the hit that gives police reasonable and probably grounds to believe he is the killer."
It was a eureka moment for the team of investigators, who had worked tirelessly trying to find Holly's killer and put the community's fears to rest.
"Again, the needle in the haystack, it is just the most euphoric time and I would say the saddest time as well," says Ryan. "Now that you find somebody, as crazy as it sounds, it is now real. This is not just an investigation where you are just chasing ghosts. You’ve got somebody now, this actually happened, this guy we believe actually killed her. So euphoria and heartbreak."
Michael Briere was arrested and charged with the first degree murder of Holly Jones.
Ryan and other investigators with search warrants then entered his apartment. But it wasn't the green carpet, or the smell of bleach that Ryan remembers most.
"There was a mirror, a full length mirror on Briere's front door or the wall, one or the other. When I saw that my heart sank because I thought to myself this is the last time that this child saw herself, her own reflection was in that mirror as she was led in to be sexually assaulted and murdered. The terror on her face must have been just unbelievable."
The police were able to learn from Briere that Holly put up a fight inside that apartment.
But it would prove to be the end for the 10 year old.
"At one point he thought that she was dead. He put her in his fridge and he heard a boom, boom, boom, a knocking. It was her fighting to get out, so he took her out and he strangled her and dismembered her body."
To this day, Ryan wishes Holly had screamed for help on the street as Briere grabbed her by the neck.
"I recall him saying to the officers that had she screamed I would have let her go. Tell parents to tell their kids, if they are abducted to scream, because he would have let her go."
Police would later learn Briere took the subway to the lake carrying Holly's remains.
He took them to the lake to dispose of them and would likely have got away with murder, Ryan says, if the water currents had just carried the remains past the island and into the lake.
It was a DNA case and without DNA, it might not have been solved.
Briere plead guilty to first degree murder but addressed the court and Holly's family before sentencing saying "The crime I am guilty of is simply the worst kind of crime a person can commit."
"What I did was absolutely wrong. It was done out of selfishness, it was the act of a coward. I accept the sentence which you are about to give me. No one has stood in front of you has been more deserving of such a sentence. I stand by my words when I told the police a man who commits these crimes you put away, you put away for good. I take no pride in what I have done, the truth is I am ashamed beyond belief. I regret everything, I am really sorry. I really wish I could undo everything. I have failed as a human being."
Don't believe it, says Ryan, he is only sorry he got caught.
Michael Briere was handed an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years.