Holly and her father Wayne Bartlett
Holly and her father Wayne Bartlett

A review of the Halifax police investigation into the death of Holly Bartlett finds that “based on the evidence presented to the reviewers,” her death was accidental. The report, however, goes on to fault the police department’s investigation, noting that the investigating officers jumped to a conclusion early on, before collecting all the evidence, and then kept to that opinion. According to the review, police failed to conduct a timely canvass of the neighbourhood where Bartlett’s dying body was found, rushed an interview with the last person to have seen her alive and conducted that interview in an improper place, demonstrated a “lack of empathy” for Bartlett’s family, and inappropriately acted on information provided by a psychic.

Holly Bartlett is the 31-year-old woman who was found severely injured under the MacKay Bridge on the morning of March 27, 2010. Two days later, she died in hospital.

The circumstances around Bartlett’s death are perplexing. As I reported in an investigative piece I wrote for The Coast, Bartlett was blind, but was considered extremely adept at her “orientation and mobility” skills, regularly travelling alone to and from work, on the bus, around her north Halifax neighbourhood, and generally about town. Still, despite those skills, police concluded that the night before the morning she was discovered under the bridge, and despite auditory cues that should have pointed her in the right direction home, a drunk and disoriented Bartlett had walked away from her apartment, 300 metres in the wrong direction, then inexplicably went under the bridge, through a fence and climbed up a concrete abutment to the bridge, before falling to her ultimate death.

Adding to the strange circumstances around her death was the odd behaviour of Paul Fraser, the cab driver who took Bartlett home that night and the last person known to have seen her  alive. Fraser first gave police an incomplete timeline of events that night, then later admitted he had stolen money from Bartlett. Still, police kept to their initial theory that Bartlett was simply drunk and disoriented, the victim of a tragic accident.

After The Coast article was published, Bartlett’s family and friends pressed the case with newly elected premier Stephen McNeil, who asked his Minister of Justice,  Lena Metlege Diab, to look into it. Soon after, the Halifax Regional Police Department asked the Service de police de la Ville de Québec to conduct an “operational review” of the Halifax department’s investigation into Bartlett’s death.

The Quebec department was not charged with re-opening the case. The Quebec police collected no new evidence, performed no new interviews outside the Halifax PD. Rather, the Quebec police merely reviewed the Halifax department’s case files, and assessed the Halifax investigators’ work. So while it’s true, as the Chronicle Herald says, that the review “reaffirmed” that Bartlett’s death was accidental, that assessment is entirely “based on the evidence presented to the reviewers,” and it’s important to note the Quebec police then go on to severely criticize the collection of that evidence.

In particular, the review criticizes the Halifax police department’s interrogation of Paul Fraser, the cab driver. The public version of the review released today redacts Fraser’s name, and much else related to this matter. Here’s a screen shot of the public report:

Still, a non-redacted part of the review concludes that:

In all cases of suspicious death, like this one, the beginning of the investigation is crucial and no lead can be ignored. Meeting the last person that saw Holly unarmed [sic, “unharmed” is the correct word] and alive is the key to the beginning of the investigation. [Redacted, but probably “Fraser”] should not have been met at [redacted, but probably “his home”] to obtain [redacted, but probably “his”] initial version and based on our experience; a valuable interview can in no way be conducted in 25 minutes.

The next paragraph, which likely details the polygraph test given to Fraser, is entirely redacted.

In terms of evidence collected by the Halifax police investigation, the other big shortcoming involved canvassing Bartlett’s apartment building and neighbourhood. Says the review:

Concerns in regard to the quality of the canvassing performed by police were also raised by the family. More than often canvassing the neighborhood is an excellent source of intelligence and information for any type of investigation. In the case of a suspicious death, this should be conducted as soon as possible in order not to lose any potential witnesses. An investigator cannot limit the canvassing of the area by attempting to only locate surveillance cameras. Locating surveillance cameras is only a small portion of canvassing the area.

In this investigation, some residents were only canvassed on august 12, 2010, more than 4 months after the occurrence. At that time, only 6 residents were met by the police. Considering the location where Holly was found, all residents of [redacted, but the apartment building at the corner of Novalea Drive] Kencrest, as well as the residents along the possible routes journeyed by Holly that night, should have been rapidly met by the police officers.

[…]

Seeking potential witnesses has to be done during the first hours of the investigation; undeniably few buildings were visited by police and a search for potential surveillance cameras was completed but the door to door was not completely executed. We recommend that a canvassing form be created by police agencies in order to tally this important aspect of investigating.

So far as the rest of the evidence goes, the review mostly doesn’t further fault the Halifax investigation. Police missed finding Bartlett’s cane because it was in a place with a “whirlwind,” and so the police dog couldn’t smell it. Concerns about a misreading of Bartlett’s blood alcohol are discounted. But the review does obliquely criticize the Halifax police’s rush to judgment in the case: “Pretending to know exactly what happened that night appears to us as a lack of open-minded attitude towards the investigation. All doors should have been kept open until the end of the investigation.”

Perhaps the saddest conclusion of the review concerns how Halifax police dealt with Bartlett’s family, and in particular how they responded to a family request to visit the site where Bartlett was discovered:

We cannot keep under silence the incident where Holly’s family requested to attend the location where Holly was found. A different day than the day of Holly’s funerals [sic] would have been more proper. As far as we are concerned, this gives the perception of a lack of empathy on Sgt McKinley’s part. Then again the reviewers did not meet with Sgt Mckinley since this process was an operational review and not an inquiry into the quality of the interactions between the police and the family.

Lastly is the issue of the psychic. I’m told that at one point in the investigation, police investigator Kim Robinson was discussing the case with Marion Bartlett, Holly Bartlett’s mother, expressing frustration at how the investigation was turning up no specifics. “I don’t know Marion,” said Robinson, “maybe you should go see a psychic.” 

Is it appropriate to suggest to a distraught and grieving mother that she should see a psychic? Whatever the answer, Marion Bartlett did see a psychic, and then brought the psychic’s “information” back to Robinson, who somehow acted upon it. “The Quebec police service major crime unit does not act on information provided by mediums based on the fact that this information is not considered as ‘real evidence’ and, most importantly, it can’t be used in court,” notes the review dryly.

You can read the complete but redacted public version of the review here. I’ll be talking with Holly Bartlett’s family and friends in coming days, and will report back.

Tim Bousquet

Tim Bousquet is the editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner. Twitter @Tim_Bousquet Mastodon

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6 Comments

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  1. I want to know more about the cab driver’s admission of stealing money from Holly, and what if anything the police did about that.

  2. I have seen many psychics over the past 4 years trying to figure out what happened to Holly . But for the record I never once passed anything I was told to the police. However they have spent a lot of time since last August following up on information provided to them by a psychic ( medium) . I have no idea why they would say that I provided them with information when it not true.

  3. The CBC report makes it sound like the suggestion to use a psychic did not come the police: “Halifax Regional Police Chief Jean-Michel Blais said the information from the psychic was provided by Bartlett’s family. He said, out of sensitivity to the family, police looked into the psychic’s findings but were not able to find any evidence to help the investigation. He said it’s not police policy to use a psychic during an investigation.”

    But Tim reports that it was the police who actually suggested to the mother that she consult a psychic.

    I don’t know Marion,” said police investigator Kim Robinson, “maybe you should go see a psychic.”

    The police investigator suggests that the mother turn to a psychic for information about the crime and then the police chief admits that the police spent time and money investigating the “psychic’s” report.

    Instead off investigating the crime and witnesses the police are investigating an unnamed psychic’s vision.

    When the CBC report that chief said the police “looked into the psychic’s findings” does that mean the police interviewed the psychic?