Kathryn-Mary Herbert (left) and Monica Jack

Garry Handlen’s ‘Mr. Big’ confession could have been fabricated, judge says

Details revealed of why evidence of Abbotsford girl’s 1975 murder was found inadmissible

A “Mr. Big” confession related to the 1975 murder of an Abbotsford girl was found inadmissible in court on the basis that the accused could have made up the story from media reports, two TV documentaries and police investigating the case.

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Austin Cullen made the ruling last August in a voir dire during the trial of Garry Handlen, 71, who had been charged with the killing of Kathryn-Mary Herbert, 11, and the 1978 murder of Monica Jack, 12, of Merritt.

But the ruling was not made public until this week, following the conclusion of Handlen’s jury trial for Jack’s murder. He was convicted and sentenced on Jan. 27 to life in prison with no chance of parole for 15 years.

At the conclusion of the case, the Crown announced that it would not be proceeding with the Herbert case at that time, saying that key pieces of evidence had been found inadmissible.

The Crown has not yet announced whether it will be challenging that decision.

Cullen’s written ruling released on Tuesday details the Mr. Big operation – including Handlen’s confessions – that led to the murder charges against him in 2014.

Handlen had long been a suspect in both killings, but police had been unable to definitely link him to the crimes.

The documents indicate that the undercover operation began in November 2013 in Minden, Ont. – where he was living at the time – and ran for about a year.

“The accused was drawn into a relationship with various undercover officers posing as members of a criminal organization offering him employment, the prospect of increasing remuneration and becoming part of, and adopting, the ethos of the organization,” the documents state.

Handlen’s confessions occurred on Nov. 14, 2014, after he was informed that, following a “deep background check” on him, the “crime boss” (identified as “Agent A” in court documents) wanted to meet with him.

Garry Handlen as he would have appeared around the time of the murders.

During that meeting, Agent A first referred to something that had happened near Merritt and asked Handlen about him being on the police’s radar for a murder.

Handlen initially said he knew nothing about that, but Agent A informed him that a DNA sample that police had obtained from the remains in 1995 was a match with Handlen’s.

He then confessed to Jack’s killing, saying he had seen a girl, age 11 or 12, riding her bike along the highway in the Merritt area. He said he grabbed her, put her in his camper, raped and strangled her, and then threw her body behind a log and her bike into a lake.

(Jack’s remains were found in 1995 on Swakum Mountain in Merritt.)

The court documents indicate that Herbert’s killing was also brought up at Handlen’s meeting with Agent A on Nov. 14, 2014, although he initially denied having anything to do with it.

But Handlen then admitted to the killing, saying he had picked up Herbert on a road in Abbotsford, sexually assaulted her, strangled her, unintentionally backed over her body with his car, put her in some blackberry bushes and covered her with plywood on a First Nations burial ground.

He later told undercover officers that he had hit her over the head possibly with a tire iron, had run his vehicle back and forth over her body, and had taken her shoes and thrown them over a floating bridge in Mission.

The court documents state that Handlen was able to take the officers to within about 200 metres of where Herbert’s body had been found on Nov. 17, 1975 near Harris Road in an undeveloped area of the Matsqui First Nations.

But Cullen said in his ruling that several of the details that Handlen shared with the undercover officers did not match with the evidence. For example, a coroner testified that there was no evidence that Herbert had been run over with a vehicle or that she had been sexually assaulted and strangled.

Cullen referred to admissions by Handlen that, before the Mr. Big operation, he had viewed two documentaries on Herbert’s murder – A Garden of Tears and A Mother’s Resolve – both of which provided the same details that he had shared with undercover officers.

Few details on the Jack homicide were contained in those programs, Cullen said.

He also said Handlen could have gleaned details about the Herbert murder through numerous newspaper and online articles that he said he had read, as well as from details shared with him by officers who had questioned him.

Cullen said Handlen could have known where her body had been found because it was identified in the documentaries, and his dad pointed out the area one day when they were driving by.

Conversely, Handlen knew details about the Jack case that had not been publicly shared, Cullen said.

“The evidence suggests that the accused was prone to strong embellishments … I accordingly decline to admit the evidence of the accused’s confession to the Herbert homicide,” Cullen wrote.

READ THE ENTIRE JUDGMENT HERE

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This sketch by artist Felicity Don shows Garry Handlen at his first court appearance after his arrest in December 2014.

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