The Hunt: Neil Stonechild and My Path to Fighting for the Wrongfully Convicted
A twisting tale that starts in the frozen Canadian North and still hasn't ended to this day...
Having your soul drop out of your body in the middle of your kitchen is not something you want to have happen often.
I distinctly remember the last time it happened to me. It was January 2023. It was late evening and cold as hell (as Saskatchewan is at that time of year). A rectangle drawn by the village drunk, Saskatchewan is smack in the middle of Canada with a reputation not far off its likeness. Saskatoon, its most populated city, where I live, can see January temperatures plummet below -40C with wind chills so dangerous it can literally freeze your dangly bits if you leave your zipper open. True story. I know a guy who has fewer dangly bits now.
Only my wife and partner, Clare, our Aussiedoodle, Penny and our two cats Esme and Pippa were still awake and the house was dark. Clare was curled up in our large, grey, circular reading chair in the living room, enraptured over a Netflix series on her laptop. I was doing the shambling ADHD walk of shame in the kitchen while idly scrolling through transcripts of the Neil Stonechild Inquiry.
It was there, in the dark dopamine-deprived evening, that the moment hit.
You know that feeling that starts in your throat and moves into the pit of your stomach? That moment of dread because you were wrong about something very, very important. You fucked up. The physical sensation of passing a large log made of regret, followed by queasiness and nausea? I have been told (this is a lie) that this is the moment when your soul evacuates the premises through your rear exit.
“Holy. Fuck. Clare.”
Bullsh*t Hunting is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Now, this is a phrase that Clare has become used to over the course of the last 15 years, in a variety of circumstances. She full well knows this can mean all kinds of things and the key is to respond flatly:
“Uh oh, what did you find?” she responds, perhaps a bit too flatly this time.
She did smack her spacebar a little hard to pause her show, I’m not afraid to tell you all that much.
“These guys didn’t do it, Clare. The forensics were complete and utter bullshit, this fucking guy is out here measuring 35mm photos down to microns!”
I have shoved my head through the opening between our living room and kitchen. In hindsight, I recognize that this was a classic Richard Pryor bit that I was using for emphasis. I digress.
Clare looks up from her laptop quickly and blurts, “What do you mean?”
“I mean those two cops didn’t drive Neil Stonechild out to his death. There’s no proof, the only thing was this bullshit, photogrammetry, fucking…”
I trail off. I can sense I am hitting that investigator-mania point where you can boil over and unleash a real lightning bolt of stored rage.
“It’s bullshit. It’s all bullshit. No wonder those cops fought for so long to clear their names.”
I put my head down in my hands. I’m not crying, but I am upset. The brain-treadmill is moving much faster than the brain-feet, and I am about to fly out the back of it and hit the wall, likely ending up on YouTube in the process.
You see, for 20+ years, I was certain that two police officers in Saskatoon had been responsible for driving Neil Stonechild, a 17-year-old Indigenous kid, out into the middle of a remote field outside of town, on a freezing cold late November night, leaving him there to freeze to death.
This was a practice known as Starlight Tours or famously known as the “Saskatoon Freezing Deaths”. Starlight Tours involved the practice of police officers driving Indigenous men and women out of urban areas and leaving them in the cold to try to make it back alive. Some survived, some died and many we may never know about but in all cases it traumatized the victims, their families and the community. I was now coming to grips with a new viewpoint on this particular case. My certainty may have not been so…certain. These officers may have actually been innocent.
Then it really hit me.
It wasn’t just that my viewpoint was going to have to change, it was much bigger than that. The investigators fucked up. The courts fucked up. Everyone involved fucked up.
It was all I could mutter into my hands.
I wasn’t anticipating that I would be faced with a moral and ethical dilemma, the kind that blindsides you in the middle of your kitchen on a freezing cold dangly-bit destroying night in January.
Do I now need to try and help exonerate these men?
Clare stared at me worriedly, knowing that something big was coming. She’d seen this reaction before. She knew that I was incapable of walking away from someone being wrongfully accused.
I rubbed my eyes and my poorly trimmed beard and just repeated my favourite four-letter word. I knew I had a lot of work cut out for me and I was already getting Investigator Fatigue(tm). I had been working pro bono on local cases for nearly 18 months, by myself. I was looking forward to just putting some tidy bows on some of the cases I had discovered, watching some justice get dished, and then quietly retreating for about an entire decade. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the furthest thing that would happen to me.
I also knew that the Neil Stonechild Inquiry investigation would be a Herculean effort, as the Inquiry was a massive undertaking with over ten thousand pages of documents and exhibits. People would hate me on all sides for doing this research, I knew that much. This was not going to be a fun ride.
What I didn’t know was where it would take me. A lot farther than a cold, snowy field in Saskatoon where Neil died in November of 1990. This would take me on a journey beyond the murders that I investigated in Saskatoon before and after Neil’s, beyond the forensics lab in Regina, our province’s capital, where our federal police force maintained a large presence and training ground, some 250 kilometres away.
I didn’t know it yet, but I was going to Stanislaus County, California.
Modesto. To be precise.
p.s. Carry on to Chapter 2 below.
Related Resources and Recommended Reading
These are not endorsements but I recommend reading anything you can get your hands on, from all sides, if you are interested in doing the full background research on this case. Really read it critically…..many people didn’t.
The Neil Stonechild Inquiry - (stonechildinquiry.ca)
Starlight Tour: The Last Lonely Night of Neil Stonechild - (Amazon affiliate link)
When Police Become Prey: The Cold Hard Facts About Neil Stonechild’s Freezing Death - (Amazon affiliate link)
Criminal Podcast: Starlight Tours - (listen here)