It hasn’t been easy trying to find a little peace and comfort these past five years. Sandra and Shannon Hallam, suggest that it is more accurate to describe this past half decade as a time of crazy-making.
Sandra’s son and Shannon’s brother, Wesley Hallam, was killed on January 8th, 2011 at a house party on 30 Wellington East in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. His decapitated and dismembered body was discovered on January 11th, 2011 along Landslide Road in a deep fold, close to Cold Water Creek. In March 2011, Sault Ste. Marie Police concluded their search of a garbage dump in Dafter, Michigan, just south of the Sault Michigan/Sault Ontario border. Parts of Wesley’s dismembered body were recovered at that site.
A couple of months after the discovery of Wesley’s body, Ronald Mitchell, Eric Mearow, and Dylan Jocko, were charged with first degree murder and being a party to indecently interfering with Hallam’s remains. At the time of Wesley’s death, he was 29 yrs. old and father to his then 5 year old son.
Three women were charged in conjunction with Wesley’s murder. Melissa Elkin was charged with indecently interfering with a dead body and accessory to murder after the fact. In November 2012, police withdrew those charges when Elkin plead guilty to obstructing justice. Ontario Court Justice Nathalie Gregson was satisfied that Elkin had served a sufficient amount of time and released her back into the community- time served. Kayla Elie was also been charged as being an accessory after the fact to murder and obstruction of justice. In 2013, two years after her arrest, Kayla Eli received a conditional sentence that was served in the community. On January 28th, 2013, Jaclyn MacIntyre was found guilty of obstruction of justice by interfering with the police investigation into the murder of Wesley Hallam. The charge of accessory to murder was dropped after MacIntyre pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of obstruction and she was released back into the community.
The preliminary hearing for the three men charged in Wesley’s death, finally wrapped up in 2015 and pre-trial motions were initiated that same year. Though it’s anybody’s guess at this point, it is anticipated that a trial date will be finally established some time in 2017.
“It’s been pure hell. Insanity. It’s to the point where I feel like I want to give up. I don’t feel like I have anything left in me. It’s drained me,” remarks Shannon. Adding of the the slow wheels of justice she states, “I don’t have no faith anymore. I feel like just saying let them go. It won’t bring back my brother. And it would let my mother bury Wesley finally.”
Five years have passed since Wesley’s remains were discovered and Sandra still hasn’t been able to lay her son to rest. Parts of his body have not been cremated and won’t be until his flesh is no longer required for the purposes of evidence.
“I haven’t got to bury him yet. But that’s not my biggest worry,” sobs Sandra. “I’m afraid to bury him. I’m afraid to say good-bye.”
Moving on is hampered by the drawn out legal process and that there isn’t a final resting place for Wesley’s remains adds to Sandra’s pain. A memorial site on Landslide Rd. –where Wesley’s body was discovered, was removed by the property owner in the summer of 2013. The roadside sanctuary once provided Sandra with a small comfort.
“I had to take down his cross. That was so awful.” Of the property owner Sandra adds, “I hope ‘karma’ bites that man in the ass for making me do that. Driving along highways, you see crosses. But me, I had to take mine down. And I haven’t even be able to bury him and I had to do that. That was wrong.”
Though it has been five years since Wesley’s passing, the grief is still fresh for Sandra and Shannon. It is not unusual for co-victims of murdered loved ones to be stuck in a perpetual loop of horror and mourning.
“I don’t want to feel like this anymore,” weeps Shannon. “I feel worse now than when it happened. At that time I was in shock but as time goes by it sinks in more and more. And then there is the fact that I miss him.”
Shannon and Sandra have struggled with mental health issues following Wesley’s death. Both women have problems sleeping at night, Sandra expressing that she has recurring nightmares and requires sleeping aids to get through the night, and both women experience depression and anxiety. Shannon has been diagnosed with PTSD and her physical health is compromised due to stress. Shannon and Sandra also experience anxiety when they are in public.
“It’s hard to meet people because I feel like they don’t know what to say to me. And I think they are afraid of me because they don’t really know what happened to my brother. They think he was involved in bad things and they think maybe I was too.” Shannon is still crying.
Sometimes Shannon is fearful for her own life. “I’m not the same person that I was before this happened. I don’t trust anybody. I still don’t go out at night. I don’t know who these people are connected to and I don’t know what they are capable of.”
The small community of Sault Ste. Marie increases the likelihood of either of these women running into people somehow connected to Wesley’s murder- especially given the fact that his murder occurred at a well-attended house party. This has caused both women to self-isolate, exacerbating the natural feelings of social alienation when a loved one has been murdered.
“I’m afraid to go to a mall because I might run into someone that was at that party or their mothers. And it just overwhelms me. I get anxiety attacks. I don’t have a life. I don’t leave my basement except to go to work.” Sandra’s voice is flat when she continues, “I get up in the morning the same time as always. I get ready for work. I go to work. I come home. I’m in bed by 9:30. That’s my life. No emotion.”
A publication ban has been issued for the trial of the men charged in Wesley’s murder. This has posed great challenges for the family who are unable to get off their chest what has been revealed in the courtroom to the media or via social media platforms. This point underpins the isolation from community that both of these women experience. For Shannon, especially, this has been a problematic stipulation. It’s not easy for anyone to keep their mouth shut about the murder of a loved one for five years- and onward.
Shannon is a tiny woman who experiences a degree of frailty due to a condition of COPD and substantial physical injuries suffered years ago in a hit and run. She is of modest means and a single-parent to a 14 year old son who requires around the clock care. Shannon’s most reliable connection to the world is through Facebook. Shannon reached a breaking point in 2014 after she received troubling information about the trial of the three men. Shannon lashed out on her personal Facebook page to vent her frustrations. She railed about the legal process and then she made statements against someone involved with the trial. This individual felt threatened and involved the Sault Ste. Marie Police who made the decision to arrest her on charges of uttering threats and intimidating a witness. “They wanted to make an example of me,” remarked Shannon. The latter charge was dropped but not before Shannon was dragged through the Courts. Eventually the Facebook Couch Warrior –at best, was slapped with a one-year conditional sentence plus a $100 fine.
Over the years, Sandra and Shannon have felt the support once received from family, friends and services, trickle away. The uncomfortable nature of Wesley’s death compels people to avoid the topic all together or in some cases, as has been demonstrated through comments made in the media, blame the victim for their murder. Placing the onus on the victim makes the rest of us feel safe and untouchable.
“As time goes on, things change and you get treated differently,” sighed Shannon.
Mother and daughter both feel deeply disappointed that there was not a greater show of support from friends, family and community members during the preliminary hearing. “That part has been hard,” admitted Sandra. “I have a couple of friends, and of course Shannon and my parents, but we haven’t had that much support anywhere.”
Shannon echoed her mother’s sentiments. “I thought there would be more people attending especially because Wesley had all these friends. No one went. Everybody says that they’ll pray for us and support us- but nobody came.”
Supportive services, like counselling, that were once available early after Wesley’s murder have evaporated. After ten counselling sessions, through Victim Services of Algoma, Shannon found herself trying to find affordable therapy. “It’s hard,” remarked Shannon. “Everything is privatized now.”
Shannon is concerned about the toll the trial will take on herself and her family. “We need help, counselling, to cope with this. It feels like everyone has forgotten about us. We need somebody to talk to after going through a whole day at court and then having to come home and tend to your family. I don’t know how I’m going to do everything. It worries me how long this is yet to be.”
Navigating the legal process has been a trying experience for the Hallam ladies. Both women issue criticisms of the Crown’s office, that they feel, has failed at keeping them informed about what to expect throughout the preliminary hearing and what lays ahead during the trial.
“They were once very helpful but a few years ago the Crown just stopped talking to us,” shared Sandra. “They need to start talking to us and letting us know what is going on. I have no clue about anything. I have to worry about my job still, my family. I have no clue about what’s going to happen or how I’m going to react to it. I’m scared for myself and I’m scared for my daughter.”
The loss of a courtroom liaison worker, initially provided through the Victim/Witness Assistance Program, has made attending hearings an intimidating experience. “Sometimes I’m nervous going in there,” admits Sandra. But it is the decorum held –or not held, within in the Courtroom that upsets both Sandra and Shannon.
The behaviour of the three men in the prisoner box, as well as their interactions with some of the Emergency Services Unit –a tactical unit of the Sault Ste. Marie Police Service mandated to deal with high risk situations including emotionally disturbed persons, has offended the Hallam women.
“I don’t like the fact that everyone is laughing and carrying on in there,” remarks Shannon. “I just want to say ‘my brother died, it’s not funny. Nothing about being here is funny.’ I don’t like the atmosphere in there- the ESU guys talk to Mearow and Mitchell and Jocko, they’re laughing or on the phone. I think it’s kind of rude.”
Of the three accused in the prisoner box Sandra says, “To sit there and watch them in court and the way that they act –it’s disgusting.” Sandra and Shannon have both been taunted and in receipt of rude gestures by the accused in the courtroom when court has adjourned and in the hallways of the courthouse. “We’ve put in complaints but nothing happens. They sit there rocking, laughing and talking, meanwhile we’re all sitting there because they killed my son. They took my son and they can sit there and laugh and joke and nobody does anything to stop them. It’s so disgraceful. How would their parents like to be the ones sitting there? It’s awful.”
For Sandra and Shannon getting on with life and getting over it is almost impossible.
“I know moving out of town is the best chance I have to reclaim peace in my life and my son’s life,” wept Shannon. “We need to reclaim a little peace in our life. There’s too many bad memories here. I don’t feel good here. I feel like everybody is staring at me. I always feel like that. It’s time to start some new memories. I just don’t know if we can. This case just holds us here. It traumatizes us over and over again. I’m so worried for my mom.”
The Canadian Parents of Murdered Children writes, “Society offers many misconceptions about grief. Many people believe it is a lineal experience where the bereaved person goes through various ‘stages’ of their grief, eventually reaching some kind of ‘acceptance’. When a homicide occurs, the family’s grief is often worsened by a drawn-out legal process, bail hearings, preliminary trials, adjournments, mental health assessments, more adjournments and perhaps finally the trial. For families bereaved by homicide, the constant involvement in the investigation and the legal process creates a situation where survivors of homicide victims re-live the horror of what has happened to their loved one.”
For both Hallam women the uncertainty of the future and an impending trial is unsettling. “I’m just afraid of what the year ahead brings for me and Shannon,” shared Sandra through broken sobs. “I’m afraid of knowing what they did to him. I’ll never get over that. I can’t even imagine how they sleep at night. And here we are. They did that to my son and everybody watched. I don’t understand. I know they were scared but days passed and nobody said anything. I don’t want Wesley to be forgotten about.”
Annual crime data from Statistics Canada for municipal police services, Maclean’s reported that during the year 2011, Sault Ste. Marie ranked 5th overall among Canadian cities with the highest rate of homicide per capita. Local statistics for the same year collected by Sault Ste. Marie Police Services indicated a swell of criminal activity within division two of the city. This downtown division is marked by Pim Street on the East, Huron St. on the West, St. Mary’s River on the South and Wellington St. on the North.
In a 13- month period from January 1st, 2011 to February, 2012 police services received 7,273 callouts for division two that included: 4 homicides; 21 sexual assaults; 157 assaults; 34 assaults causing bodily harm/or with a weapon; 4 assaults of a police officer; 164 break-ins; 483 thefts under $5,000; 36 fraud; 191 mischief; 251 bail violations/breach of probation/court absences; 16 arsons; 262 domestic disturbances; and 257 noise complaints.
Wesley was murdered on Wellington St. East just at the top of Gore St., the centre of division two. In the years since his death efforts to revitalize the downtown core have been in full force. Sault Ste. Marie Police Services and NORDIK Research Institute partnered to work with residents, businesses and service providers in Ward 2 on the Downtown Dialogue in Action project to address concerns and solutions in the area. As well, new businesses –including social enterprises have been established on Gore Street. A Neighbourhood Resource Centre was established on the same street that is inclusive of multiple service providers, including policing services, to create a safer and healthier environment downtown.
However, Sandra believes that there remains much to be done to address what she feels were the social conditions that led to Wesley’s murder. “Things have to stop happening in this town with the problems of drugs and all the crime that comes with it. There’s a lot of work that still needs to happen. And it until that work is done, what happened to my son can happen to anyone’s child.”
(feature image taken of Sandra and Shannon on Nettleton Lake, Sault Ste. Marie. Wesley’s favourite place.)