There was Another String of Murdered Women in Halifax During the 70’s

Are they connected?

Halifax.jpg

 My Long Hiatus….

A little over two years ago I folded my laptop open and after some hesitation, I started typing a story about a string of unsolved crimes in Halifax, Nova Scotia that would eventually became this blog. The idea had been stewing for a couple of years and it was time for it to surface and materialize. The writing didn’t gel or flow seamlessly right away. I often paused and reconsidered, fumbling my way through the narrative with considerable trepidation and uncertainty about how the story would be received.

I wondered how the victims families would feel upon reading it. Would they appreciate my unsolicited input on cases about people they’d loved and mourned? Was I poking my nose where it wasn’t wanted?

I also had reservations that readers in general, might consider the notion untenable. After all, who was I to propose a connection between a string of cold cases that occurred over twenty years ago in a city I only lived in for brief periods at different points in my life? I wasn’t a detective or a cop. I wasn’t even a professional or semi-professional journalist. In fact, I was just a guy who liked to write and ponder over mysteries who so happened to stumble upon a string of unsolved crimes that piqued his interest.

That interest led to hours of research. It morphed into a passion that treaded dangerously toward a threshold of a borderline obsession. So I pulled the plug and distanced myself from it long before I wrote a single word . My mind had spent too much time in the dark cellar and it was starting take on a sickly pallor . I needed to step into the light. Breath clean air and leave the cellar behind for a while.

Two years would pass before the day I picked up my laptop and put my doubts aside and my thoughts to type. What started then as a shaky and precarious idea has now developed into something  I am definitively certain of.  There was a serial killer in Halifax during the late eighties and early nineties. I’m sure of it.

Now I am wondering if perhaps the same person was also active in the seventies. And if so, why was there such gap in the crimes that appear to fit his signature? And if it wasn’t the work of the same fiend, was there another homicidal sexual predator stalking Halifax in the seventies too?

And alas I find myself back down in the dark cellar searching for answers once again after a long hiatus.

This stuff isn’t easy to write. These are real life stories of real victims who’ve had their lives brutally cut short by vicious monsters. Monsters who paradoxically live in the shadows and hide in plain sight. The victims are women who were someones daughter, sister, friend. Mother. These cases have left a legacy of families robbed of justice and closure. Writing about them often feels like a seemingly futile plea to flesh out the monsters who lurk amongst us. Sometimes the writing gets in your head. It keeps you awake at night. The victims come to you in your dreams. The compulsion to reveal the obscure face of a monster pervades your thoughts. And you need to take a break, walk away.  Breath fresh air again.

But then eventually, something calls you back and you can’t ignore it . A voice assures you that you are doing something that matters. It whispers that the memories of these victims and what happened to them matters. Doing a small part in finding justice for them and their families is important. Especially if it contributes in some small way to catching the bastards responsible. And that voice drives you until you find yourself at the cellar door again… descending into the dark corridors to bring something, anything to light that might help.

And here I am.

Was there a Serial Killer in Halifax during the 1970’s?

Exhibit A – Case #001 – The Murder of Helen Diane Knickle

Helen

A thin veil of fog drifted over the Halifax peninsula during the early morning hours of July 26th, 1974 when two pedestrians stumbled upon an unresponsive female near the Halifax North Commons, just across from the tennis courts and off Cogswell Street. The two concerned citizens had initially thought the girl was drunk and passed out – until they discovered the body soaked in blood and it was obvious that a violent crime had just taken place. Police were promptly alerted and arrived on location at 2:50 A.M. The responding officers took little time to conclude that the woman in question had been the victim of a murder as multiple stab wounds were apparent. Further inspection also revealed that she’d been strangled and sexually assaulted.

The ensuing investigation revealed that the victim, twenty-two year old Helen Diane Knickle, had been walking alone when she was grabbed off the street and dragged into the bushes by an unknown assailant sometime between 1:00 A.M. and 2:30 A.M. Police offered no explanation as to how they came up with this window of time but it’s likely based on Helen’s last known whereabouts and the estimated time of death indicated in the coroners report.

It also surfaced that another woman had been sexually molested by a man in the same area just a few days prior to the murder. Police also have reason to believe that the same assailant attempted to attack other women earlier in the evening on the very same night that Helen was killed.

Investigators never confirmed which direction Knickle was headed or even where she was coming from but it’s believed that she was walking home after a night out. The only other detail made available to the public is that she was living at a residence on Cook Street at the time of her death.

HalifaxCommon9_v1
An aerial view of the Halifax North Commons facing Cogswell Street. Helen Diane Knuckle’s body was discovered near the upper left corner of the oval track in the area across from the tennis courts, not far from the roundabout.

 

It is worth noting that this attack exhibits some of the classic traits of a disorganized killer. This suggests that the crime was potentially an act of impulse and that the perpetrator may have lacked experience. It’s even possible that the attack might have been his first homicide.

The classification of violent crime as either organized, disorganized or mixed was first developed at the FBI Behavioural Analysis Unit in 1980 by pioneering criminal profiler Roy Hazelwood. Today, it serves as a fundamental classification model for criminal profiling used widely by criminologists, forensic psychologists and law enforcement agencies all over the world.

The gist of this classification system is that violent criminals fit somewhere on a continuum that distinquishs them as an organized, disorganized or mixed killer. Those that fit the mold of an organized perpetrator are scheming, deliberate and methodical. They are meticulous in planning and executing an their crimes. They take measures to conceal the crime or mislead investigators. They will try to eliminate any physical evidence, often learn from experience gained in prior crimes and adapt to become more proficient. The organized perpetrator will carefully selects victims, often targeting strangers by conning or luring them, they might even spy on their victims for a while to study their habits and pattern of life to establish an optimal strategy before striking. They have above average intelligence and are able to function well socially and are very comfortable approaching people. They may be very charming, manipulative and cunning,  they often hold down a job and may even be in a normal relationship.

By contrast the disorganized perpetrator commits his crimes in a frenzied, impulsive state. They are messy, poorly planned and rash. They do little to conceal or destroy evidence and victim selection is far more sporadic. The crimes are usually opportunistic, improvised on the spot. The perpetrator might make use of materials they find at the scene as a weapon. This is largely due to poor foresight and planning. They will tend to commit over kill during a homicide. They may not even know they are going to commit murder until the crime commences and they get caught up in the moment. The disorganized killer is normally a socially inept loner with a poor, unkempt appearance and low intelligence. They make no attempt to conceal the body or hide evidence after an attack. They typically don’t have a vehicle and will leave the body where the attack took place. Because there is no cunning or luring employed, the disorganized killer will often ‘blitz’ their victim – that is, use sudden and overwhelming force to take them by surprise and assault them.

As Roy Hazlewood wrote in The Evil Men Do, a book he co-authored with crime writer Stephen G. Michaud, “the organized offender is a crafty wolf, while the disorganized offender is more like a wild dog.” Ted Bundy and John Wayne Gacy were prime examples of the organized serial killer while Ed Gein is a good example of the disorganized type.

It is important to view the categorization of most crimes as being somewhere on a continuum between these two extremes. That is to say, that many crimes and criminals don’t necessarily fit neatly into one category or the other.  These are the mixed variety of kllers. They exhibit a lot of overlap and grey area. A mixed killer will show traits of both the organized and disorganized offender but typically fall closer to one side or the other. Where the features of a particular crime land on the spectrum can reveal things about the killers’ personality, tendencies, criminal experience and state of mind when the offence was committed. Sometimes, a particular offender might show disorganized tendencies early on in their criminal career, due to youth and lack of experience, but they gradually become more organized as they gain experience and learn from their mistakes.

I think Helen Diane Knickle might have been the Halifax Stalkers first homicide and that this might explain the disorganized characteristics that are evident. But before I get into why I think she might have been his first victim, let’s  first examine what the disorganized traits are in this particular crime:

  • The attack seemed frenzied – Helen was forced into the bushes, strangled and stabbed repeatedly. This has the markings of a ‘blitz’ attack or a sexual assault gone wrong or too far.
  • The body was left where the attack took place for possibly an hour and half and there was no attempt to move or conceal it. Suggesting the perpetrator was probably on foot.
  • Another woman was sexually assaulted nearby a few days prior and others reported attempted attacks in the same vicinity that very night. This suggests high risk, poorly planned behaviour and inexperience. You’d think that a smarter, more experienced criminal would find another place to strike next due to the likelihood of increased police presence in the area. Of course, it is possible that two or more violent criminals were targeting women in the very same area around the same time and that the prior sexual assault might have been committed by a different offender but that seems unlikely.

 

My Take on this:

The vast canon of psychological literature on serial homicide reveals a common escalation pattern among several serial killers where sexual assault is involved. Most power/control or hedonist/lust killers are consumed by deviant sexual fantasies for years and start out as peeping toms until their fantasies and urges drive them to escalate to the next level. They then eventually graduate to physical molestation, rape and murder. I think Helen Diane Knickle’s homicide represents the very point where the Halifax Stalker transitioned from a sex offender to murderer.

Note where I mentioned above that there was a case of an unnamed woman who’d been sexually molested in the same area just a few days prior and that police expressed that they believe Helen’s attacker may have attempted to assault other women around the Halifax Commons that very night.

I think the perpetrator was staking out the Halifax Commons area for some time before he gathered the nerve and gumption to strike. And when he crossed that threshold from planning to action he shocked himself. Not once but twice.

I think this is what happened: The first time was the sexual assault on the unnamed woman. I believe he was watching and following women for a while but on this occasion he surprised himself by gathering the courage to take his fantasy to the next level. He approached the woman with a knife and forced her into the bushes in much the same way he did with Helen. She might have been very afraid and compliant at first. He was likely very excited by the thrill that he was actually about to go through with his fantasy and could barely contain this exhilaration. He then quickly proceeded to fondle her or have her perform some sexual act upon him but something happened. He was interrupted. Maybe someone walked by and startled him in the act or she screamed and he lost his nerve and ran off… disappointed in himself but mostly seething with rage for her because he was unable to reach full gratification. And now he needed it more than ever. He also needed to feel that rush again. Now that he’d actually crossed the threshold from fantasizing about sexual assault to committing to it he could never turn back.

A few days later he was at it again. He couldn’t contain himself. The urge was too strong. He liked the rush too much. Needed that fulfillment of his fantasy. Needed the gratification he didn’t get from the attack on the other woman. But he would surprise himself once again and cross another line that would alter him forever.

I believe he tried a few times that night to approach other women and take her into the bushes and finish his fantasy. Only the conditions weren’t right for the first few women he stalked that night. Perhaps there were too many witnesses around. Maybe they noticed him following too closely and said something, screamed or threatened to scream if he came any closer or maybe they just ran. But one thing is for certain. They all made him more and more frustrated and angry. Things weren’t going his way and he was possessed by his urges.

Then Helen Diane Knickle came along in the wrong place at the wrong time and he managed to get her into the bushes. I think she screamed and struggled to get away in much the same way as the other woman from a few nights prior. Only this time he wasn’t about to give up so easily because the urge was too strong and he was seething with rage. When she screamed he impulsively began to choke her to shut her up. But she still wasn’t compliant despite his repeated threats to stab her or cut her throat. She kept fighting and finally he was blinded by rage and lust and flew into a homicidal frenzy, stabbing her over and over again and squeezing her throat harder all the while. Until she was lifeless.

When he regained his composure he was startled and shocked at what he’d done. But something ominous and malicious also happened in that moment. He realized that he enjoyed it. He was thrilled that he killed her. But also panicked because he had no idea what to do next because the murder was a sudden and disorganized attack that ended in a way that he hadn’t expected. So he fled. And waited, hoping he wouldn’t be caught.

He might not have realized it in that moment…. that he’d do it again and again. But he would. And the next time he wouldn’t be so haphazard. He’d have a plan.

To Be Continued……

The Nova Scotia Department of Justice Rewards for Major Crimes Department is offering a $150,000 reward to anyone with any information leading to an arrest in the murder of Helen Diane Knickle. If you know anything please call investigators at 1-888-710-9090

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