Since September 2017, when her best friend, 58-year-old Susan (Susie) Butlin, was shot and killed in her home at Bayhead, near Tatamagouche, Suzanne Davis has been in pain.
Davis still thinks about her friend — whom she’d known since kindergarten — all the time. She says if they didn’t speak on the phone three times a day, it was only because they were actually together.
The April mass shooting that began in Portapique, very close to where her inlaws live, has brought the trauma back to the surface. It’s also driven Davis to go public with her story and demand that police do more to protect women from violent men.
Davis has been diagnosed with PTSD. She is also deeply angry at the RCMP for ignoring her friend’s repeated calls for help and reports to them about the threats she was receiving from Ernest (“Junior”) Ross Duggan. Duggan was Butlin’s next-door neighbour and the man she had told friends was going to kill her weeks before he actually did.
Susie and Suzanne
Davis still has the Facebook Messenger chats between herself and Butlin from the months before the murder. Seated at her kitchen table in Truro Heights, Davis reads through them, sometimes through tears, as she recounts her memories of the last three months of Butlin’s life, during which Butlin was constantly afraid of her neighbour.
The last Facebook chat they had was on September 12, 2017, five days before Butlin was killed.
But the last message Davis wrote to Butlin was earlier this year, on March 31. She says she was sitting in bed with her iPad on her lap when she wrote:
I miss you every day. I need you back. My life will never be the same without you. You are the sister I didn’t have … How did this happen to our Susie?
Repeated calls for help
In fact, Davis has some very strong views on how this happened to her friend.
Davis says the problem began on July 2, 2017, when, according to what Butlin told Davis, Duggan entered her home while she was putting her grandchildren to bed. When Butlin came into her living room, Duggan was standing there naked. She said he was drunk, he grabbed her hand and forced her to touch him, and she felt threatened.
Butlin had lost her husband David two years previously, and often looked after her grandchildren in her home in Bayhead, as well as hosting international students who attended school in Tatamagouche.
Summer of hell
Butlin eventually informed Duggan’s wife about the July 2 sexual assault.
According to an agreed statement of facts introduced in court nearly two years later during Duggan’s murder trial, his wife told him she was leaving him unless he apologized. The statement also said that Duggan struggled with alcoholism and depression, and had abstained from alcohol until early 2017, at which time he started drinking again.
Throughout the summer of 2017, Butlin confided in Davis about the threatening phone calls and texts she was receiving from Duggan, and about her growing fear of him.
Davis says she advised Butlin to keep track of all the calls and texts, and to report them to the RCMP, which she did on several occasions.
On August 7, 2017, Butlin filed a formal complaint with the RCMP.
But, says Davis, “They totally ignored her.”
Court documents confirm that on August 7, “Butlin brought a complaint to the RCMP in Bible Hill alleging that the Accused [Duggan] had sexually assaulted her on July 2, and that she also suspected him of damaging her pool… On August 7, two RCMP officers spoke to Ms. Butlin about the sexual assault allegations, and both concluded that there were insufficient grounds for laying a criminal charge. They both recommended that she pursue a peace bond instead.”
Davis was extremely concerned about the threats, both for her friend’s sake and because two teenage female international students would be arriving in early September to live with Butlin.
On August 10, Butlin applied for a peace bond against Duggan. Duggan was served with notice of Butlin’s peace bond application on August 17 by RCMP Cst. Gallen (no first name provided in court documents). The court set a date of August 30 to hear the application before Judge Alain Bégin.
Meanwhile, according to Davis and the Facebook Messenger chats with Butlin, on August 20, Butlin messaged Davis, saying she was back from a trip to the city and to a cottage she owned on the Bay of Fundy. She’d only been home an hour and she was unhappy to be there because Duggan was again texting her.
Davis wrote back, asking that Butlin keep her posted and telling her to “stay safe.”
Repeated contacts with the RCMP
On August 21, Duggan came home with guns and ammunition, which he claimed he had found.
The next night, his wife called the police to have him arrested for drunk driving. According to Davis, Duggan was released soon after.
On August 22, Butlin wrote to Davis:
It was quite a night. It may be dangerous for you to come over here right now. [Duggan’s wife] called the RCMP last night and she’s scared. She was scared and told them that she was scared for me. All goes on record … that may be even more reason for a peace bond. Friggin idiot. I had my bat out and I was ready. LOL. I have to go and clean but really tired as it’s been a long night.
Davis said that by this time, Butlin had begun sleeping with a baseball bat in her bed.
On August 28, on Judge Bégin’s instructions, a judicial assistant named Jessica Broussard sent an email to Crown attorney Alison Brown saying that Butlin’s peace bond application contained allegations that amounted to “probably more than a peace bond.”
The next day, Brown emailed the RCMP to ask if Butlin had reported the sexual assault allegation to the RCMP. The court documents reviewed by the Examiner do not indicate whether Brown received an answer from the RCMP.
On August 30, Butlin’s peace bond application was forwarded to police and the Crown, and the hearing was adjourned until September 13. Judge Bégin directed Duggan to have “no contact whatsoever with Ms. Butlin.”
According to court documents, the same day, RCMP Cst. Naime (no first name provided, but is referred to as “he”) “reviewed the sexual assault investigation … and … agreed with the conclusion that no criminal offence had been committed by [Duggan].”
At the end of the first week in September, the two international students arrived to live with Butlin.
Butlin was now constantly afraid, and Davis remembers her saying that Duggan was going to kill her, and that she wouldn’t even make it to the next court date.
Court documents relate that Duggan’s wife said that in this period Duggan “was drinking, not working, and that his life was falling apart.”
In provincial court on September 13, the Crown advised that the RCMP were still looking into the allegation that Butlin made on the peace bond application. Judge Bégin once again adjourned the court, this time until October 4. And once again, he instructed Duggan to have no contact with Butlin.
According to documents submitted to the court by Duggan’s lawyers, Duggan’s wife said that when he returned home from the September 13 hearing, Duggan was “devastated and could not get beyond it. He started drinking heavily, had lost his license due to an impaired driving charge, and he could not run his mowing business nor maintain his regular job. [Duggan] had lost his wife and the allegations about him were in the community. [His wife] believed that he then ‘snapped.’”
The following day, Butlin called Davis to say she was contacting the Bible Hill detachment of the RCMP and asking for an appointment with the head of the detachment. Butlin said she was “scared” and that nobody was paying attention.
After that meeting, Butlin called Davis. Davis remembers Butlin saying she had sat down with an RCMP officer, recounted the history of her problems with and threats from Duggan, and asked why they were doing nothing to help her.
According to Davis, the RCMP officer she spoke with — she didn’t get his name — told Butlin to go home and mind her own business. He allegedly called her “a menace to society.” Davis continues:
So Susie’s telling me this on the phone … And she said, well, he told me I was a menace to society and I just looked it up. And that means they can charge me for being a menace to society.
Davis said Butlin was crying on the phone. She was terrified.
According to a decision issued by Judge Bégin, RCMP documents submitted by Duggan’s lawyers showed that Cpl. Wentzell (no first name provided) “concluded there were insufficient grounds to proceed with criminal charges [against Duggan],” and Wentzell “advised Ms. Butlin of this on September 14, 2017.”
This was the Thursday before Butlin’s murder. Davis convinced Butlin that it would be okay for her to take the two students out of school for a day, and that she should pack up and get away from the house, go to her cottage for the weekend.
The last time Davis spoke with her friend was Sunday evening, September 17, after Butlin and the students had returned home, and just hours before Duggan would murder her.
On the phone, Butlin told Davis that her dog had been sprayed by a skunk, and said that Duggan was “over there hanging out the goddamn window, screaming and hollering at me.” At one point, Butlin said she heard gunshots.
Davis told her to call the police, and Butlin replied, “They’re not going to do anything.”
This is how Davis remembers that last phone call:
It was like she already knew he was going to murder her. I kept saying, “You’ve got to call the police.” And we kept talking. And I said, “Well, if you need me, call me or [my husband], and we’ll be right over. And she said, “No, no, I’ll be fine.” I said, “But no, you’ve got the girls. This is different now. We’re playing a different game here.” Then I think we just said goodnight, and she said, “Don’t worry about me, I’ve got my bat, remember?”
The 911 call was made just after midnight, shortly after Duggan shot Butlin dead in her own home.
Afterwards, Duggan went home, drank more alcohol, and then led the RCMP — who had to travel more than 50 kilometres from Bible Hill — on a chase to a cemetery on the outskirts of Tatamagouche, where he fired at police, and was wounded when they shot him.
Duggan pled guilty and was convicted of second-degree murder. He is in prison on a life sentence with no chance of parole for 20 years for what the judge called the “brutal and senseless” killing of Susan Butlin.
The provincial court hearing for the peace bond to keep Duggan away from Butlin, scheduled for October 4, never happened. The final entry on the file notes that the informant, Susan Butlin, is “deceased.”
Davis is still trying to deal with the anger she feels about the police response to Butlin’s calls for help:
I want to scream it from the rooftops that the RCMP totally ignored her and treated her like she was nothing. They treated her like, well, she was nothing more than a spoon from my drawer.
The Halifax Examiner contacted the RCMP on June 5, and asked if there was a record of Butlin visiting the Bible Hill detachment on September 14 or 15, 2017, and if so, if there was a record of what was said, and with whom Butlin met. More specifically, could they deny or confirm that she was told she was a “menace to society,” as Suzanne Davis so clearly recalls Butlin telling her?
The Examiner also asked if there was a record of how many times Butlin contacted (by phone or in-person visits) the RCMP between July 2, 2017, the date of the alleged sexual assault by Duggan, and September 17, the day he murdered her.
RCMP spokesperson Jennifer Clarke replied that they were working on answers to those questions and should have replies by June 16 or 17, but as of this writing, those answers still have not been received. When they are, the Examiner will publish them.
Update: On June 19, in response to our queries, the Halifax Examiner received the following statement from RCMP spokesperson Jennifer Clarke:
I can confirm that a member of Colchester District RCMP met with Susan Butlin on September 14, 2017 in person at Colchester District RCMP and had a subsequent telephone conversation on September 15, 2017. The purpose of the meeting and subsequent conversation was to discuss the progress being made on a matter that the RCMP was investigating following a complaint she made to the police on August 7, 2017.
With reference to his notes from those dates, which are on the file, the RCMP officer has advised that during the in –person meeting on September 14, Butlin was content with what the police officer told her and the conversation was amicable. He advised that during the beginning of the phone conversation on the 15th, Butlin was somewhat upset, however, he clarified the same points as he had done in the in-person meeting the previous day, and the call was ended with her seeming to be satisfied with it. It was an amicable conversation. The RCMP officer did not tell Butlin she was a “menace to society”, or tell her to “mind her own business”.
The allegation of sexual assault was made to the RCMP on August 7, 2017 and related to an incident that is alleged to have occurred on July 2, 2017. Between August 7 and September 17, we have records of a phone conversation between Butlin and the police on August 7, followed by an in-person visit by the RCMP to Butlin’s home the same day. RCMP spoke to her on the phone on September 12, and had an in-person meeting with her on September 14, then a phone call on September 15.
Red flags ignored
When Davis heard about the Portapique murders, she said her first reaction was, ”This is the same thing that happened to Susie.”
Since then, she says she has called a 1-800 number and been able to speak with someone about the pain she feels about the failure of the police to listen to early warnings from women who feel threatened by a man, especially one who has weapons in his possession.
Davis is not comparing the murderers themselves, who committed very different crimes and on very different scales, but she does think warning signs were ignored in both cases.
She says her own father-in-law saw the guns that the mass murderer (the Examiner is calling him GW), who killed 22 people in Nova Scotia, kept in his house in Portapique. She is sure many others knew that he was abusive to his spouse, and that there were red flags all over, including the four police cars he liked to show off to people.
It was just “too close,” she said, and in both cases she feels more people could have spoken up in advance, and the police could have acted.
“Don’t tell me that those RCMP in Bible Hill didn’t know about him [GW],” Davis said. “The whole community knew about him.”
“This is bringing it all back about Susie,” she said. “It’s time to take a look at our RCMP policing. It is an old boys’ club.”
Learning to listen to women
In a recent interview with the Halifax Examiner, Colchester County municipal councillor and former RCMP officer Mike Gregory, who was stationed in Tatamagouche from 1989 to his retirement in 1996, said that until the early 2000s when the RCMP brought in district policing in Colchester County, community policing permitted officers to be part of and to know the community they were protecting.
At that time, he said, there were four officers and a full-time clerk stationed in Tatamagouche.
Today, he said, officers are stationed at the detachment in Bible Hill.
“Now — when the police officer comes over the Nuttby Mountain and into Tatamagouche — nine times out of ten he or she knows nobody in this community,” he explained. “It’s nothing against the officers that got their boots on the ground who are working for the detachment. It’s the upper echelon. And it’s unfortunate.”
Still, Gregory said he doesn’t think that the former model of community policing would have made any difference to the murder of Susie Butlin.
Linda MacDonald, a nurse activist and co-founder of Persons Against Non-State Torture, disagrees. In a message to the Halifax Examiner, she writes:
Community policing should have made a difference because the police know the people in the community better and they would not have been able to say it was too far to drive from Bible Hill to Tatamagouche. But their response would have still have depended on the culture within the RCMP and the importance they place on male violence against women and risks of femicide.
MacDonald’s colleague Jeanne Sarson, also a nurse and a founder of Persons Against Non-State Torture, tells the Halifax Examiner that there are parallels between the recent mass shooting and the murder of Susie Butlin. She says that in both cases:
Women’s voices were ignored when reporting the male violence against women. There was serial perpetration of male aggression such as stalking, sexual assault and threats to their life. These red flags were dismissed by the RCMP … from what we understand, Suzie was threatened by the RCMP by calling her a menace to society. Both women were terrified of being killed — both GW’s partner and Susie.
Back in September 2017, shortly after Susan Butlin’s murder, El Jones wrote in the Examiner about media coverage that almost erased her, the victim, while painting a picture of her killer as a man of “many, many good qualities and he would have helped anyone always.”
Jones noted that, “This pattern of excusing, sentimentalizing, and praising men who kill women is unfortunately common.”
Until we understand that our brothers and neighbours and employees and the person who buys coffee from us every morning and smiles can also be abusers, and that violent men aren’t some sinister stereotype from whatever we imagine in movies and the news, and that being a good worker, an athlete, and a good neighbour has nothing to do with how good you are to women, we will continue to ignore male violence while women are alive, and excuse it once they are dead and gone.
[With gratitude to Jennifer Henderson for her contributions.]
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