Jessie James Roach: A Legacy Beyond Highway 17B

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Editor’s Note: I would like to thank the five strong women who welcomed me to their table to share their memories of Jessie and their hopes for healing and justice for their family, and for their community, Garden River First Nation. So to Tina Roach (great-auntie), Bobbi Jo Martin (auntie), Dawn Roach (auntie), Kelly Roach (cousin) and Natalie Nielsen (auntie) – Meegwetch.

I’m in sitting at ‘Auntie Tina’s’ kitchen table in Garden River. It’s Saturday, March 12th, 2016 and the day had been unusually warm. I broke out my flip-flops and Auntie Tina had a row of fresh sheets drying outside on the clothesline. Tina Roach isn’t my aunt. In fact, I just met her that day, but everyone calls her Auntie.

“Can I get you a drink?” She brings me a ginger ale that she poured into a clear jar. “Don’t mind my glassware. The glasses always break in the sink when I’m washing them. Jars never break. I put them to use.”

Auntie Tina has all sorts of repurposed empty jars- mustard jars, nacho cheese jars, jam jars, bread n’butter pickle jars, extra hot horseradish jars, minced garlic jars, roasted red pepper jars, antipasto jars, salsa jars. Some of the jars are in the sink drying, in the cupboard, on the windowsill, in my hand and I bet in the spring, a jar set on a table to hold a bouquet of wildflowers. As I sit there sipping my jar of ginger ale waiting for the rest of the women to join us, I think about what I’m going to start doing with my sturdy jars once I’ve emptied their contents.

The women arrive on a cloud of energy, dropping grocery bags, laughing and chatting, and slapped together a quick meal for the handful of children that came with them, who retreat to the basement rec room with their hot dogs.

All the women come together around the table. It’s time to talk about Jessie.

jesses and family member

Jessie and his beloved Auntie Laurie

Jessie was 15 years old when he permanently moved into his Auntie Laurie Roach’s house with his 4 year old little sister and his 3 year old little brother. When he was younger, his Auntie Laurie, and many of the women in the family cared for him as his mother struggled with ongoing personal challenges.

Auntie Laurie became Jessie’s rock. Of her mother’s love for her nephew, her daughter, Dawn, says that it ran deep. “She considered him ‘Son’. She knew the struggles he went through as he was growing up and she was proud of the young man he had become.”

Standing at 6’2”, 22 year old Jessie was striking, handsome and had a cache of friends. He was athletic, a sounding board and college-bound. Employed as a tree climber for a local urban arborist, Jessie was a co-provider for his young sister and brother. Jessie was generous with his money and time, and the family often remembers him pushing a bit of cash into his Auntie Laurie’s hand and saying, “Go to the BINGO Auntie. I’ll watch my little brother and sister.”

The family worked hard for what they had, Bobbi Jo shares with pride. “We weren’t raised with a lot of money. Everything that everybody had was earned. But we were raised with strong morals and strong beliefs. And we were raised to be respectful. And that’s exactly how that boy was.”

Bobbi Jo, who speaks in a soft strong voice, puts her chin down for a moment. She lifts her head back up. “Jessie did not deserve this.”

In the fall of 2013, Auntie Laurie was diagnosed with lung cancer. The entire family was devastated by the news. Jessie was broken-hearted. His steadiest support, his most significant maternal figure was fighting the biggest fight of her life. About one month after her diagnosis, and after much quiet time spent in his bedroom, Jessie decided to step out with his friends for the evening. He made his way to town -to Sault Ste. Marie, and met up with his buddies at a house party on Queen Street. Jessie blew off some steam, enjoyed his beer and at the end of the night called a couple of people for a ride home. His Auntie Laurie had been taken to the hospital that night and required some care before being sent home the next morning. Family usually available to Jessie were occupied with Auntie Laurie’s needs and other reliable friends were unreachable. Not able to find a lift home, Jessie began the 30 km walk back to Garden River, home.

“My mom didn’t like him doing that walk,” recalled Dawn. “She’d say ‘stay in town my boy’…but he wants to get home. He had done that walk before. Numerous times.”

After walking for a couple of hours Jessie hit Highway 17B in Garden River First Nation –just past the little median where drivers can opt for the new expressway that wraps behind Garden River. Jessie continued by foot along the older highway passing through the reserve. He almost made it home that night.

In the early hours of October 13th, 2013, Auntie Laurie was resting comfortably in an emergency room bed at the Sault Area Hospital. Just down the corridor her boy -her son, Jessie, was pronounced dead on arrival.

Jessie James Roach

Jessie James Roach

On November 1st, 2013, Sault Ste. Marie Ontario Provincial Police charged 73 year old Terry Mosher in the death of Jessie James Roach. Mosher was charged with: Obstruct a peace officer as per sec 129 (a) of the Criminal Code of Canada; and with Fail to report accident as per sec 199 (1) of the Highway Traffic Act of Ontario.

Jessie’s family is outraged that the charges against Mosher are not as equal in severity as was the outcome for Jessie that night.

“We are so angry.” Bobbi Jo drops her half fist, balancing her cigarette between two fingers, on the kitchen table. “He got charged with ‘obstructing justice’ and ‘failing to report’. There are no substantial charges. We lost a life. My nephew is gone. His brother and sister are heartbroken. The whole family is just in shambles. It’s been a horrible, horrible experience.”

Several days after his death, Jessie’s tissue was discovered clinging to the undercarriage of Mosher’s vehicle. During a voir dire that took place over February and March, Mosher’s lawyer, Ross Romano, argued that Mosher’s rights were violated by four warrantless searches and seizures of his Ford Windstar. Last week, an article by Linda Richardson, states that Ontario Court Justice Romuald Kwolek, ruled that while he found several errors committed by investigating officers, ultimately the evidence of Jessie’s DNA is “relevant, reliable forensic evidence that was obtained from the undercarriage of the vehicle, with respect to an offence that has a significant community interest”.

The admission of this evidence provides a degree of relief for the family but does not quench their frustration with Mosher’s charges which they feel are a huge injustice. Discussions with the Crown and officers indicate to the family that little else can be done. A charge of Careless Driving could only be applied if the incident was witnessed and a Criminal Negligence charge would only be possible if Mosher admitted to hitting Jessie with his vehicle.

“And you know what the family wonders too?” Bobbi Jo stares hard at the wall behind my head. “If this was a white man would this be the same? If this was a white man would this be happening? I don’t think so. And this guy right now- he’s on a release for a promise to appear. So there is nothing substantial for him. And then he’s viewed not as a risk –and look at what he did. He killed somebody.”

The OPP investigation revealed that in the hours before Jessie was killed on the highway, Terry Mosher and his wife had attended a hockey game, spent some time at the casino gambling and drinking pop, picked up some groceries at the Metro around 430 a.m. and then headed back to their home in Richard’s Landing. Camera’s capture Mosher, first heading east along Highway 17B in Garden River, then backing up and driving back towards the Sault. The Mosher’s pull into the Husky on the highway and camera’s at the gas station show that Mosher and his wife both exit the vehicle to examine the front of their car.

The family is frustrated with statements given by the Mosher’s under oath to the police. “They’re conflicting. One minute Mosher’s wife says she was sleeping during the drive, and then she says she’s eating Cheetos and looking out the window,” remarked Bobbi Jo.

Mosher claims that he did not hit Jessie and that Jessie was already laying on the side of the road when he came upon Jessie.

“None of that makes any sense,” says Auntie Tina. She is stirring a pot of beef vegetable soup that she has prepared for the gathering of women. “He made it that far, all that way and he’s almost home and he’s just going to lay down now? On the highway? It doesn’t make sense.”

Event in Garden River organized by Jessie's family. "We wanted to create a memorial for my nephew. We wanted people to know how kind-hearted he was. We wanted people to know what impact his death had on his family, the community. And we wanted to communicate how unsatisfied we were with the outrageous charges against Terry Mosher." ~ Bobbi Jo Martin

Event in Garden River organized by Jessie’s family. “We wanted to create a memorial for my nephew. We wanted people to know how kind-hearted he was. We wanted people to know what impact his death had on his family, the community. And we wanted to communicate how unsatisfied we were with the outrageous charges against Terry Mosher.” ~ Bobbi Jo Martin

OPP investigation shows that Jessie was struck by a vehicle and dragged 100 feet. There weren’t any skid marks found on the highway.

Mosher claims that he observed a body on the side of the road but his behaviour at the Husky perplexes the family. Instead of calling for the ambulance, Mosher put out a call for the police saying there was a “crazy man” on the road. Mosher and his wife returned to the scene, and waited for 15 minutes in their vehicle for the police to arrive. Once on scene, the police called an ambulance. The ambulance arrived 15 minutes later. Over 30 minutes had passed since the moment Mosher encountered Jessie on the highway before an ambulance arrived. While the Moshers waited in their vehicle, a woman stopped to comfort Jessie until help arrived. Her gesture was a small comfort for the family, who are anguished by the thought that Jessie may have been aware, alone, hurting and scared on the side of a dark highway during his final moments of life.

Despite what the law considers not enough evidence to find Mosher guilty of hitting and killing Jessie, the family believes he is guilty, though the family has also been advised that if Mosher had confessed that he struck Jessie with his vehicle, the police would most likely consider it just an accident.

“And that would have been easier than what we are going through now. Accidents do happen,” says Auntie Tina over a bowl of hot soup. “We would have been upset, we would be grieving but we would be moving forward and healing today. But now, here we are in Court and it’s awful. This man can’t even say he is ‘sorry’.”

Offering an apology to the family would be as good as an admission of guilt.

Auntie Tina’s husband comes home. He casts a glance at us as he passes through the kitchen, dropping his partial top dentures into a jar on the windowsill. I continue to sip my jar of ginger ale and nod as Dawn expresses how difficult it is to endure the Courtroom.

“He refers to Jessie sometimes as ‘it’.” Dawn’s face shatters. “So that’s pretty f*ckin’ hard to hear that. He is referring to our son, our nephew as ‘it’. I get so angry I just want to scream. He went back to where Jessie was on the highway and they both sat there in their van. Nobody got out to cover him up, ask him what his name was? Nothing? There was no humanity showed to Jessie.”

The women silently weep, catching tears before they fall.

“I’d like to throw in here that Jessie’s death has created a ripple effect of pain in the community.” Dawn is referring to the Garden River First Nation. When she speaks it’s from the heart. “A lot of people in the community, people we know –friends and family, have lost loved ones on this highway. So when another person dies like this, it’s like the whole community grieves again. It’s too many.”

Dawn Roach, Jessie's siblings and cousin at his memorial site on Highway 17B in Garden River First Nation.

Dawn Roach, Jessie’s siblings and cousin at his memorial site on Highway 17B in Garden River First Nation.

Over the past four decades, 37 deaths have occurred along the 20.8 km stretch of highway through Garden River First Nation. Highway 17B is located between Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario and Echo Bay, Ontario. Not one person has been charged and convicted with a criminal offence related to any of these deaths.

In 2007, an expressway was built to divert highway traffic away from the Garden River First Nation reserve, addressing safety concerns. Just over 1100 people call this reserve home. Villagers often travel along the main corridor by foot and dozens of homes dot both sides of the highway.

Garden River Band Chief, Paul Syrette, commented that when the new bypass opened to traffic almost 10 years ago, traffic through the reserve noticeably decreased- for a while. “When they first threw the switch and opened the bypass it served its’ purpose in the early stages. But as the years went by, people realized that if they took the bypass it was longer- 10 or 15 minutes longer. And then we would hear concerns about not enough lighting on the expressway. And so the traffic started to swing back through the reserve, back through 17B. That started to create risk –again, for our people travelling the highway by foot.”

Various Chief and Councils have fought for a bypass since the 70’s. For Band members, it is disheartening that an expressway is accessible to loop traffic around the reserve but people are choosing to travel along the old, perhaps more familiar and quicker route that 17B provides.

“I get it. Highway 17B is a provincial highway. It’s not our position to say ‘stay off our reserve. You can’t come through’. When you look at situations like Jessie’s, it really speaks to the purpose of the bypass. Go around. People walk that portion of the highway all the time, at all hours. Our Band members walk. If the individual responsible for Jessie’s death had just taken the bypass, Jessie would be alive today.”

Chief Syrette focused the point that right now, the Garden River First Nation community and the leadership are standing with the Roach family. “This is a stressful time for the family and it should be a time for healing. We are hoping that justice will be served for Jessie to help with closure and healing for the family.”

Chief Syrette also emphasized that there have been too many deaths. “We’re keenly watching now to see how this trial will play out. We are concerned if for some reason there isn’t a good ending for the Roach family, then we as Chief and Council need to look at how we can protect our Band members that walk that highway. There was a highway transfer deal developed when the bypass opened that indicates the responsibility of the highway 17B, the old highway, is going to become that of the First Nation. That is an option for us. These are things that we are going to have to consider.”

I didn’t refuse a bowl of soup after Auntie Tina offered it a second time. It was delicious. As I was pacing myself through a generous bowl, Auntie Tina and niece, Kelly, began to conspire as they heard Auntie Tina’s husband getting ready to head back out. Giggling they raced to the windowsill and nicked his teeth from the jar.

There have been remarkable events that happened after Jessie died. The first anniversary of Jessie’s death in 2014, fell on Thanksgiving weekend. Everyone came together and Auntie Laurie, whose body was tired of fighting cancer, was happy to be surrounded by her family, especially after the awful year coming to terms with Jessie’s death.

The traditional Anishinaabe family had a feast and built a sacred fire for Jessie. “My brother fed the fire, giving an offering to Jessie’s spirit,” shared Dawn. “As soon as he did that, my mom’s spirit left us. It was just like Jessie came and scooped her up. I think she wanted all of us to be together one more time. And I think she was waiting for Jessie’s memorial.”

Auntie Laurie passed on October 12th, 2014, one year to the day that she lost her son.

Jessie, mom -Vanessa Roach, sister- Janessa and brother -Hayven.

Jessie, mom -Vanessa Roach, sister- Janessa and brother -Hayven.

For Jessie’s sister, now 14 years old and his brother, 13 years old, the loss of their big brother and their maternal caregiver over a one year period could have been devastating. When the family found out that Aunt Laurie was facing the end of her life, Jessie was prepared to step in as the primary caregiver for his sister and brother. Since Auntie Laurie’s death, Dawn’s brother has taken them into his home. Grieving but not broken, the women say that the young siblings are doing ‘ok’ though both deeply feel their loss.

“They really wanted to come to Court,” remarked Bobbi Jo. “But we can’t control the filters in the courtroom. After we put in our time at Court we have to come back and try to break things down in a way they’ll understand and in a way that won’t hurt them further. It’s really hard.”

The women are unhappy with how the investigation unfolded. They believe that: some potential witnesses were let go before their personal information was collected; charges were too lenient; and are angry that there was such a fight to enter the finding of Jessie’s DNA beneath the carriage of Mosher’s vehicle into evidence. And until measures are put in place, the women are worried about the safety of villagers who must travel by foot through the main highway corridor on the reserve.

Though the women expressed that they would prefer an admission of guilt from Mosher and an apology, they have taken some solace that his trial has advanced forward this week, with the admission of Jessie’s tissue recovered from his vehicle as evidence.

“As a family we want the accused to stand trial for what he is charged with,” remarked Dawn. “Again, we are taking this next chapter -the trial, one step at a time. We are slowly starting to heal and we would like to continue on this healing journey. As a family all along we have wanted answers. We have to accept that we may not get all the answers we are looking for. This trial, we know, will not bring Jessie back however it can hopefully hold the accused accountable for his actions.”

The conversation has been a bittersweet.

From the corner of my eye, I watch the joke on Auntie Tina’s husband come to a head. “Where’s my teeth,” he whispers so I don’t hear.

“Over there in the jar on the windowsill. That’s where you put them isn’t it?”

“There not there,” he says hurrying back to look one more time.

“You didn’t put them on the windowsill did you? They didn’t fall into the sink did they?” Auntie Tina pretends to be concerned. Her husband scratches his head, looking frustrated, getting a bit rattled now.

“Let me see,” says Auntie Tina starting to giggle. “Oh is this them?” She holds up his teeth, pulled from the hiding place. They are a foot part and Auntie Tina’s husband leans in, now nose to nose, and swipes his partial dentures from Auntie Tina.

“Woman! Stop f*ckin’ around with my teeth!” He is trying not to smile and Auntie Tina roars with laughter and so do all the women. So do I. Life has dealt this family their fair share of grief but they have not been spared of humour, resilience and love.

Everyone dabs the wet corners of their eyes- tears of laughter this time.

Bobbi Jo brings the conversation home for everyone. “I have to say this –and it gives me peace, and I remember your mom saying this too,” she says looking at Dawn. “We’re all going to meet the same Creator someday. And we all got to answer for what we did. And he’ll be dealt with in the same fashion as everybody else.”

The family comes together to celebrate and remember Jessie on the day of his first birthday since the his passing.

The family comes together to celebrate and remember Jessie on the day of his first birthday since the his passing, October 13th, 2013.

(feature image by Jessica Mooney, Left to right -Jessie, mother- Vanessa Roach, auntie -Laurie Roach, grandmother-Peggy Martin)

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