As the months dragged on and calls went unanswered, Carrie Low started to feel like the police didn’t believe her.
Low was drugged, kidnapped, and sexually assaulted in May 2018. She reported her assault to police at a hospital in Dartmouth the next day. That began a years-long fight for justice, as police repeatedly mishandled the case.
“This feels like my last step for me in trying to hold police accountable for their negligence in serious sexual assault like mine,” Low told reporters. “And I’m looking forward to the conclusion of this, to be honest, so I can try and put … this aside and work on healing and moving forward.”
A Nova Scotia Police Review Board began Monday looking at the way Halifax Regional Police, and one officer in particular, handled her case. That officer, Const. Bojan Novakovic, was the first to respond in 2018. He was later docked eight hours pay for neglecting or failing to properly or diligently perform a duty.
Low’s lawyers had to go to court to even get to that stage, after her initial complaint was dismissed because it didn’t meet a six-month deadline.
Justice Ann Smith ruled in 2020 that the complaint should go ahead, and Halifax Regional Police conducted an internal investigation. They narrowed the complaint to Novakovic, and found him in disciplinary default.
Unsatisfied with the finding against Novakovic alone, Low’s lawyers appealed that disciplinary decision, triggering the hearing.
Low testified Monday as the hearing’s first witness. She told the three-member board how she went to a bar in Dartmouth in May 2018 and woke to find herself in a strange vehicle with a man on top of her.
When she regained consciousness again, Low said she was being sexually assaulted. The next time she woke, a different man was assaulting her. The next morning, she woke up in a camper in East Preston missing most of her clothes, and a man who was there called her a cab.
That morning, a Saturday, Low said she went to her daughter’s soccer game, and then she and her daughter, then 16 years old, went to the Dartmouth General Hospital. Nurses there examined Low and found a police officer in the emergency department, Novakovic.
Officer failed to collect evidence
Novakovic came to Low’s hospital room and interviewed her. At one point, the nurses stopped him from further questioning. Low said Novakovic and the nurses argued about police procedure around questioning survivors of sexual assault. The nurses said it was police policy to interview them at the station, not at the hospital.
“I at the time had no clue what the process was, where I should be interviewed,” Low told the board, adding she was just “numb” and “at the mercy” of the people she was speaking with.
Novakovic gave Low an evidence bag and instructed her to place her clothes in it. He said an officer would come to her home to pick it up. That never happened that night, and not for another 10 days.
When Low next spoke with Novakovic, the next day, he said police were too busy to pick up her clothes. It was a long weekend, and Novakovic told her someone would contact her on Tuesday.
“I was kidnapped by multiple strange people and I was gang-raped, so I thought this was a serious crime,” Low said on cross-examination.
“I was under the impression that someone would come by that evening.”
Meanwhile, Low was concerned for her safety. She’d found her wallet and phone at the bar where she was abducted, but not her identification or bank card. She worried the perpetrators would be able to find her.
Low had also pieced together where she woke up. She remembered the number of the address, one word of the street name, and that she was in East Preston. She typed what she had into Google Maps and found the location.
After she provided that information to Novakovic, he just said someone would contact her on Tuesday.
Insp. Derrick Boyd concluded in December 2020 that Novakovic was “in violation of the neglect of duty disciplinary default by not properly collecting Ms Low’s clothing as evidence.” Boyd wrote that Novakovic also “should have spoken to a supervisor to determine if the scene would be held regarding a warrant at that time.”
Months-long delays in processing evidence
On the Tuesday following her assault, Low heard from Const. Jerell Smith, an RCMP officer on the joint HRP-RCMP Sexual Assault Investigation Team (SAIT). He picked her up at work later that day and took a recorded statement.
Low said Smith told her police couldn’t collect her clothes because too much time had elapsed, and he couldn’t “beat down doors” and go to the property she’d identified.
With Smith failing to return her calls, Low called and asked for a supervisor a few days later. Sgt. Stephen McCormack, with HRP, took the call and Low said he was “shocked” no one had collected the clothing.
Novakovic went to collect the clothing later that day, and that was the last time Low had contact with the constable.
Months later, in April 2019, there was a new lead investigator on the case, but police still hadn’t made headway. They hadn’t sent her toxicity test or her clothing in for analysis. When they finally did, the lab found drugs in her system and a DNA match on her clothes. Police arrested and charged Alexander Joseph Frederick Thomas in 2020. Thomas was killed in 2021 before the case went to trial.
During cross examination, Novakovic’s lawyer Brian Bailey argued it didn’t matter that his client had waited so long to pick up the clothes because they got the DNA match anyway.
Low pointed out that had the trial gone ahead, she doesn’t know whether that evidence would’ve been admitted after the delay in police taking custody of it.
Novakovic also failed to secure the crime scene, didn’t explain the investigative procedure, access to victims services or legal processes, and didn’t even make sure Low got a ride home from the hospital, she testified.
Bailey suggested to Low that she’d hugged Novakovic after their interview at the hospital.
“That is in fact not what I did,” Low said. “I’m sorry, were you there?”
Case has taken five years of Low’s life
Police eventually charged a second man, Brent Alexander Julien, in Low’s case. He was acquitted in May.
During direct examination, Low’s lawyer, Cydney Kane, asked her how the investigation has affected her.
“I felt like they didn’t believe me, and it started affecting my mental health, and I attempted suicide because of this,” Low said.
After Monday’s hearing, Low told reporters she’s dedicated to making sure police do better by survivors.
“This investigation has taken five years of my life,” Low said.
“I’ve lost five years of my life. My children have lost their mom for five years. It’s been devastating. And it’s been difficult and I’ve been struggling. But I’ve built a great support team who is keeping me afloat. And I’ve committed the rest of my life to making police accountable to victims and survivors of sexual assault and that’s that’s how I’m able to move forward now.”
‘Uncharted territory’ for the review board
Low and her lawyers hope the board will focus its decision not just on Novakovic, but on the police force in general.
“We’re really dealing with uncharted territory here,” Kane told reporters.
“Carrie’s is the first that we’ve come across in Nova Scotia that involves a police complaint against the department as a whole and we have a bit of gap in a law where such a complaint is permitted, but not necessarily laid out as to what the process is, what the potential ramifications are.”
Nova Scotia’s Police Regulations allow a complaint “about a police department generally,” but the forms for complaint don’t contain the option. And the board has never really considered a complaint against a department, despite arguments in the past, just individual officers.
Jason Cooke, another member of Low’s legal team, said the board will only really be able to make recommendations to the police force.
“It’s better that we can make a complaint against a department than not, but it’d be nice to have remedies that had some teeth against the department other than recommendations, although one would hope that recommendations would be taken seriously,” Cooke told reporters.
Emma Halpern is the executive director at the Elizabeth Fry Society and Low’s lawyer on a civil case against both Halifax Regional Police and the RCMP. She said she hopes for recommendations that will make it easier for people in Low’s position to navigate these processes.
“It’s untenable. It’s impossible,” Halpern told reporters. “At E-Fry, we work with highly vulnerable women who experience assaults all the time and they would never have the capacity to fight at this level, and do this kind of intensive work, not to mention the cost that would generally be associated with that. And so that makes it almost impossible, really, to get the accountability for many, many people.”
The three-member review board — chaired by Jean McKenna with members Nadine Bernard and John Withrow — is scheduled to continue hearing the case this week and next.