Posted by: cochinblogger | August 30, 2015

The Swarming of Reena Wirk

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This book describes a horrific murder that occurred in 1997 in the beautiful province of British Columbia in Canada. The murder was unusual in that the killers were girls. Well, there was a lone boy involved, but the rest were all girls. And the victim was one of their own, a classmate, 14-year-old Reena Wirk. The motive is a bit of a mystery, though competition between two girls for the same boy seems to have been a prime reason. Girls are not made of sugar and spice and all things nice. Physical violence among them (and women) is rare, true, but their domain is emotion: studies have been done and at least one book written (I just can’t remember the name now) that document the inner world of schoolgirls and the social and psychological cruelty they inflict on one another in schools.

In this instance, the alleged culprits were Kelly and Josephine, who invited Reena to a party at the usual place, near the waterfront. After some time, a handful of those present, led by Kelly, ganged up on Reena and began beating her up. It is unclear to me — even after reading the book — why the others (apart from Kelly’s best friend, Josephine, who also had a bone to pick with Reena), would join in the beating. There must have been a preplanned conspiracy by some of those present, but the details are not known. Some of the teenagers were so sickened by what they saw that they left immediately. The beating continued. It was a girl called Laila who decided that it had gone on long enough. She was reputed to be a tough girl, so the group dispersed. Reena picked herself up and began walking toward the bus stop to catch a bus home.

The episode might have ended there. It’s not clear how badly injured Reena was at that point, but since she was able to walk without assistance, it’s unlikely she was seriously injured. However, Kelly and Warren had no intention of stopping just then. They pursued Reena as she walked into the night on her way home, and that is the last time Reena was seen alive. Her body was found in the water days afterward.

Kelly and Warren were tried separately for the murder; the others who participated in the initial trial were tried for lesser assault charges, and found guilty. Then Warren was tried for murder, found guilty, and sentenced. Kelly was represented by a big-name lawyer, and it paid off. It took no fewer than three convoluted trials to finally nail Kelly. In her first trial, Kelly pled innocence, saying she saw Josephine (her best friend!) and Dusty with Reena on the bridge. She, of course, had stayed away. She was found guilty in that first trial, but released after a few years as her conviction was set aside and a new trial ordered. She escaped conviction by a whisker in the second trial (the judge had to declare a mistrial because a lone juror refused to find Kelly guilty) despite Warren’s chilling eyewitness testimony of Reena’s murder. It’s a convincing account, not least because he admits to having inflicted further damage on Reena together with Kelly. But he said it was Kelly who drowned Reena.

The chief unusual feature of the murder, that it was teenage girls who were the culprits, I’ve already referred to. There are a couple of other noteworthy features. The girl who was murdered, Reena Wirk, was of Indian (Southeast Asian) origin. Her father had immigrated from Punjab. I wonder if racism was a factor in the killing, because, of course, Reena would stand out, the lone brown-skinned girl amid a sea of white girls. That night near the bridge, did some kind of latent xenophobia surface, which could explain why boys and girls, some of whom were seeing Reena for the first time (Warren, for example, had never seen her before), kicked and punched her? Perhaps not, because it is not mentioned as a factor in the book, but I still wonder. A conspiracy was hatched by Kelly and Josephine. Reena was lured to the party by a phone call from Josephine. Who else apart from Kelly, Josephine, and perhaps Warren, had prior knowledge that Reena was to be targeted? How many had agreed to take part in the beating? The book has hardly anything to say about these questions.

Reena’s mother, Suman, forgives her daughter’s murderers. During the trial, she reaches out to Kelly’s parents in the courtroom. Her composure finally snaps when she has to say her final goodbye to her daughter at the funeral:

My baby, my baby, don’t do this to my baby,” she screamed as the coffin moved toward a rather dark place of flames. She tried to throw herself on the coffin, to hold her daughter, but she was pulled back and the casket receded into the place for burning.

There is also a love story in this unlikely setting; Warren and Syreeta are lovers. On that fateful night, Syreeta was also at the party with Warren, but she left early because she was feeling unwell. Warren offered to walk with her to the bus stop, but she said she’d walk alone. That decision tormented her afterward; if only she’d allowed Warren to walk her to the bus stop, maybe he wouldn’t have been on the bridge with the others. Also, she had to testify in court about conversations she had with Warren after the murder. She had to walk a tightrope here between her conscience and her desire to protect Warren. Later, she felt her testimony was at least partly responsible for Warren’s conviction, and the guilt weighed her down.

After Warren was convicted, their paths diverged. Warren himself became a model prisoner, taking advantage of the opportunities for study that the prison system offered. He became a passionate participant in the Restorative Justice programs, “which unlike the Western idea of punishment and penalty, draw on Aboriginal ideas of healing and community.” It was through these programs that a meeting was arranged between Reena’s parents and Warren. How did it go? In 2006, Reena’s parents were present at Warren’s parole hearing. Usually, the victim’s relatives oppose parole, but in this case, Reena’s parents had this to say: “I am thankful and grateful you have taken responsibility for your actions. You have to go forward. I hope you stick to your path and prove that you have learned from your experiences and will truly love and respect others for the rest of your life.” This was highly unusual, perhaps a unique occurrence worldwide: the parents of a murdered child asking the parole board to release the murderer. The board voted to release him.

The blurb on the book cover compares this book to Capote’s In Cold Blood, which I have in my library but haven’t read. However, from whatever I’ve read about it, it seems to me that In Cold Blood is first and foremost a novel; Under the Bridge, on the other hand, is first and foremost a nonfiction book in the true crime genre. This is narrative nonfiction at its best, with the thrust, flow, and immersive power of a novel. One of the most powerful parts of the book is Rebecca’s presentation of the autopsy conducted by Dr. Laurel Gray. We awake to the full horror of Reena’s murder as we read Dr. Gray’s observations. As a selection from the book, I offer parts of Dr. Gray’s narration as she conducts Reena’s autopsy:

Measured, the girl is 5’6. She is 182 pounds.” Dr. Laurel Gary said. In her external observation, she saw no sign of needle marks, no sign of drug use or disease. “She’s a very healthy girl.”

Note the irony of her last statement! It’s all about point of view, of course. She wouldn’t say, “It’s a very healthy corpse,” or “She was a very healthy girl.” She uses the present tense, and it sounds natural to the ear.

The body is intact, but the skin on her hands and feet is starting to slip away. I would estimate she spent a week in cold water.”

And then, after removing her clothes, the brutal damage assessment:

it is certainly apparent that she received a very severe beating. The following observations regarding bruising are:

— bruising and swelling under both eyes

— very bruised cheeks

— a large laceration on her lips

— nose bruised; bloody discharge in her nostrils

— red marks on tops of both shoulders (an odd symmetry to the bruising on shoulders, almost a circle)

— bruising on collarbone

— “thermal burn” — circular red mask — above right eyebrow

— on left side of back of head, a mark that is textured in a manner consistent with a sneaker

— also pattern of footwear on the left side of her back

— a large bruise on left side of voice box — this bruise appears to come from a “karate chop” type blow

No broken bones, fractures, or dislocations. No genital trauma, which rules out sexual assault. Then, an incision is made to expose the internal organs:

Damage to the liver and pancreas. Multiple blows sustained in the abdominal area. The layers of her abdominal wall are deeply bruised in a number of locations. Mysentery torn away.Organs crushed. Separation of fatty tissue from muscle tissue. A ‘crush convulsion’ injury, as often seen in car crash victims.

Most severe damage at torso. Evidence of internal bleeding in the chest and lower abdomen. This consistent with a forceful kicking or stomping in the abdomen area.”

After the head was shorn:

On the bare scalp, there was evidence of “severe bruising. Most severe at the back and front of her face. Extensive bruising under the skin of her face. Multiple bruises under the tissue. The bruising is almost a complete mask right up to the skull bone.

There is a substantial degree of hemorrhaging and trauma. Brain is swollen. No indentations or abrasions to the skull. Sufficient concussive injury to cause unconsciousness.”

And then, a surreal detail:

Dr. Laurel Gray motioned to the photographer: “A bruise in the shape of a sneaker print is on the back of the brain.”

Finally:

Death by drowning was the conclusion written in the report: “Alive when she went into the water.”

I have quoted more from the autopsy report that I’d intended to, but more than anything else in the book, it is this detailed, stream-of-consciousness depiction of Reena’s autopsy that conveys to the reader the brutality of her murder. The listing of her injuries together with the clinical descriptions evoke the violence she was subjected to, as nothing else can. I have never seen an autopsy report used in this effective way in a true crime book. When a lawyer for the prosecution brought Reena’s jacket into the courtroom, a hush descended in the room. It was as though Reena herself had stepped into the room. No longer was she an abstraction. The injection of the autopsy report in the book has the same impact on the reader; it’s almost as though Reena materializes next to the reader.

A question that occurred to me is this: why was the evidence of the sneaker footprint not followed up by the investigators? If it was, it’s not described in the book. It seems to be a vital, almost clinching, piece of identification evidence.

In conclusion, this is a marvelous book. Rebecca Godfrey has inserted herself into the lives of the protagonists, winning the trust of many of them, getting them to talk (especially Warren) about the event that changed their lives. The book blurb says she spent six years on research — and it shows.

There is a love story buried in this dismal homicidal setting. Warren and Syreeta. From the photographs, they look clean-cut, beautiful. It’s clear from the book that this wasn’t puppy love; it was far stronger. Warren (when in prison) was told by Syreeta’s relatives not to contact her anymore. They obviously wanted her to get over her convict boyfriend and look to greener pastures. Despite this, Syreeta wrote to Warren in prison, asking him to forgive her for her court testimony. “Life would have been different if I’d let you walk me home,” was the only thing she said about that night. Warren wrote back, enclosing a CD with a video of himself giving a talk on restorative justice. It was a wrench for Syreeta to hear her beloved’s voice after so many years.

The girls move on with their lives. The book follows some of them in their new roles; one (Dusty) is a mother with two daughters, another (Josephine) a dancer at a strip club. Speaking on the futility of violence at a school to an audience of teenage schoolgirls many years later, Syreeta Hartley was asked about her first sweetheart, Warren. The girls were fascinated by the fate of Syreeta’s first love, Warren. Did they still keep in touch, she was asked? Syreeta’s brutally matter-of-fact reply scotched any hopes of lingering romance that the girls may have had: “I’ve got a boyfriend now,” she said. “A job, a life. I don’t have time for a pen pal. We have nothing in common anymore. I’ve moved on.” Syreeta, Syreeta. You could’ve at least softened the blow.

And lest we here in India think that this kind of thing happens only in the decadent West, here’s a chilling wakeup call:

15-Year-Old Killed by Schoolmates for Complaining to Teacher

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Responses

  1. Excellent discussion of what sounds like a riveting book. Yes, it’s unusual for girls to kill, but the mob persecution of a particular girl isn’t unusual at all. It just doesn’t generally veer into physical violence. I remember as a young teen, in the early to mid 1960s in New England, USA, how the group would turn on one girl for no reason but to prove that we could. Those of us who weren’t ringleaders might participate mainly to avoid being the next victim.

    The lack of motive in the killing of Reena Wirk doesn’t surprise me. Why was she targeted? Like you I suspect that her ethnicity had something to do with it. Also, if those statistics are accurate — 5 foot 6, 182 pounds — she would have been considered fat, and fat girls are regularly targeted for persecution.

    Cat’s Eye (1988), a celebrated novel by the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, deals with this aspect of girl culture. It’s painfully realistic, not least in the way the persecuted protagonist tries so hard to be accepted by her tormenters.

    • Yes, it’s the physical violence by girls that makes this case unusual. I’ll watch out for the novel you mentioned — thanks! And yes, Reena was a chubby girl, which influenced how the press referred to her. If my memory serves me right (I’ve returned the book to the library), “misfit,” and maybe even “ugly duckling” (this could be my imagination, though) were some of the words used by journalists. In fact, Reena’s parents were forced to release a photo of their daughter as a cute toddler to counteract this impression. That photo appears in the book.


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