Writer Gary Dimmock tells the story of an Ottawa mother’s fight for justice, 15 years after her son’s unsolved killing.
Stories about grieving parents rarely go beyond those words you invariably hear, including the classic “there is no manual on how to cope,” and then there are the voices from support groups and counsellors, who have carved an entire industry out of others’ grief.
No story or counsellor can tell you what it’s like to lose a daughter or son, let alone when it was a murder that has gone unsolved for 15 years.
Born on Oct. 20, 1971, Donald James Mongeon was a risk well before they registered his birth at the Civic Hospital on Carling Avenue. His mother, Susan Mongeon, was admitted three months early because her pregnancy was risky. She turned 17 while in hospital, waiting to give birth.
In short, young Donald’s childhood was steeped in violence and instability, going from parent to government child custody back to parent, then leaving school after Grade 9 to the streets of Ottawa, where he stole what he could until he graduated to armed robbery.
It is interesting to note that the dropout was subjected to a series of tests at the time that rated his grasp of the arts at a university level.
On Jan. 16, 1999, around 4 p.m., Susan was thrust into a grieving category of her own when the Ottawa mom’s son was killed in his cell at Collins Bay Penitentiary in Kingston, Ont.
Some of her friends, and even family, have told her it’s hard to hang on to her son’s memory and her fight for justice because he was in prison, and not exactly the subject of an annual candlelight vigil. Even the police, early on, said the homicide investigation was a low priority.
Officially, the police will tell you that every life has the same value when it comes to solving a case. The reality is that police throw much more resources and detectives at random killings outside prison walls.
His parents understand that, and they’re the first ones to tell you their son was no angel. He was violent, picked fights and hanged with the worst crowd. But, as his last girlfriend in life says, he was rough on the outside but had a big heart on the inside.
His parents will also tell you, and understandably so, that their son didn’t deserve to die in prison.
By all accounts, Donald’s first federal prison sentence hit him hard. Worse, he was in the prison’s worst unit, known for racial violence between native and black inmates. Donald, who grew up in public housing in Ottawa’s west end, was one of only three white inmates on Unit One.
But he had no worries forming alliances with both the black and native prisoners because he was allowed trailer visits with his girlfriend. This meant that he could smuggle drugs into the unit.
Because the other inmates didn’t have weekend trailer visits, Donald played a key and sometimes the only role in supplying inmates with drugs, which sell for 10 times as much in prison.
In the end, some black inmates wiped out their drug debt by killing him. They have so far got away with murder. But our interviews with police detectives, and a review of a confidential police brief, show that police firmly believe they know who killed him, but proving it in court is not as easy as it looks on television.
The police finally caught a break two years ago.
I started reporting on the killing of Donald Mongeon 15 years ago. I’ve clocked hundreds of hours on the phone with his parents. Been to both of their homes. Some pizza lunches with the mom, and I’ve gone fishing with his father, Joe Martin. It was a few years ago and we moored in Alexandria Bay, New York.
For years, I dealt exclusively with the father, but then Susan Mongeon summoned the courage to take up an intense fight that has consumed her life.
When I first met her, her apartment had been converted into a headquarters for the campaign. Outside of her grandkids’ sports, her son’s unsolved case is pretty much all she knows. She didn’t go public with me at first because she was grieving hard, and for the most part, alone. Then she feared for her life.
It was not a farfetched threat for someone whose life had been threatened in the past. She finally called me years after clipping all the stories I had done on her son.
Of all the grieving parents I have met across 23 years as a reporter, Susan Mongeon is one of two mothers who stand out for their tenacity. If it wasn’t for Susan Mongeon, the police case would have long been shelved.
Her campaign, which has gained attention and soft support from the prime minister’s office, prompted the OPP to take the case to the Crown for possible criminal charges in January. It’s a long shot because the only co-operating witness is no longer co-operating because police refused to give him a deal on fresh drug trafficking charges.
But it’s still a shot.
It took years for Susan Mongeon to open up in the way she does now. For this story, she spent days — back and forth — to answer prying questions with the hopes that she could finally express what she endured. It’s hard for her, and having been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder months after her son’s killing, makes it understandably so.
These are some of the words she wants to share with you, on the off chance that someone out there is going through more than their fair share of hardship.
“It’s been a long and winding road, a roller-coaster of adversities, this persisting fight for justice. Frequented with self-doubt, loss of hope weaving in like the ocean tides. After 15 years, I finally understand that there are no timelines or absolutes in the murder of our children or our loved ones.
“I also realized that, I have been oblivious to the fact that I was, and am disengaged from the outside world, constantly reviewing what I should or I could have done different to save him from his demise.
“It’s like a continuing movie with no ending. A past that you’re stuck in, a present you can’t live and there is no future, therefore, no end.
“I spent endless days blaming myself for all his struggles he went through as a child. I try to remember good times he had, but it’s the bad ones that are ingrained, and bring tears to my eyes.”
So when she lives a movie that never ends, we asked her how she gets through everyday life. It’s refreshing to see these words in a parenting magazine, and we thank Susan Mongeon, 59, for letting us in.
“I cope by staying strong in my convictions. I do not allow peoples’ opinions to cloud my vision. My persistence and determination achieved a $50,000 dollar reward. I choose this journey because I am my son’s voice for justice. I have never stopped believing, trusting, in myself.
“When things seem bleak and appear to be over, calmly I wait, and another door of hope opens. A supporting soul will appear.
“I will not stop, I will not go away, until the (killers) are held to account. The public does not care about dead inmates, nor do a lot of my personal friends and family. They believe he deserved it.
“They cannot understand how and why I feel the way I do. They do not believe I fit in the description of parents of murdered children. As I said in the beginning, I am in my own club.”
Donald Mongeon was knifed to death in his prison cell (D-18) some 50 steps from a three-man guard post.
The guards reported nothing wrong on their overnight hourly checks after the 11 p.m. lockup.
They said they checked in on Donald every hour on the hour, like they did for all inmates on the range. They didn’t notice that his locked cell had been ransacked and its walls spattered in blood. They also didn’t notice that he wasn’t in this bunk, nor the bloody footprint on the bed sheet that was inches from the cell door.
The guards use electronic wands to swipe either end of the range to record they actually checked in on inmates. The electronic records could not be found when the police came calling. The print-out paper back-up records, which were locked in a cabinet at the guard post, also went missing.
The guards were spared criminal charges by the OPP and were instead charged internally and suspended for negligence. Donald Mongeon’s killers remain free and Susan Mongeon will wake up tomorrow morning and continue her storied fight that has so far won a reward, an inquest and a fresh investigation. We’ll keep you posted on this mother’s fight for justice.
Gary Dimmock is a senior writer at the Ottawa Citizen, where he has been reporting on the killing of Donald Mongeon for the past 15 years. He won the inaugural National Newspaper Award for Explanatory Work in 2002. He won the Canadian Association of Journalists’ top award for investigative journalism in 2008. He was born in Ottawa and raised on Sesame Street. His favourite Muppet is Grover. Follow him at twitter.com/crimegarden. He also blogs at ottawacitizen.com
Photo: James Heinrich