A Pacific Spirit Murder

The last time Cathy Jewett saw her friend was in mid-March. It was a typical Wendy day, with a whole gang of girlfriends and their kids skiing together. Wendy had called Cathy, who lives in Whistler, out of the blue and said, “We’re here. You’ve got to come.” It was puking snow, driving many off the mountain, but Cathy, a ski patroller, took the gang to some of her best secret spots. Afterwards, she had Wendy over for dinner since Wendy’s husband, Michel, was away on a five-week skiing and writing trip in Europe. As always, Wendy insisted they play Scrabble. This day, atypically, she lost. That was because, with her well-known generosity, she nudged Cathy to rethink a move. Gestures like that have made it impossible for friends to imagine who could have been so angry with Wendy that, when her family came to the UBC RCMP station, police told them that photos of her face wouldn’t be enough to identify the person whose body they’d found in the woods.

Cathy and Wendy met in the 1980s; both were in their late 20s and had begun competing in telemark skiing. But once their children started racing themselves, the mothers had abandoned ski competitions in Europe for chauffeur duty. Wendy, who surrounded herself with overlapping circles of family and friends, stayed connected to Cathy. They both lived in large, active groups that played and vacationed together, the grown-up version of the best communal student house ever. Wendy had a couple of those circles going: her own big Ladner family, which included five brothers and sisters, who gathered every August long weekend on Pasley Island; plus her high-school Crofton and York House friends, who had their own weekends on Pasley. Cathy was one of the group of “ladies,” as they called themselves, who gathered periodically at the new Nelson Island cabin that Wendy and Michel had bought with World Cup skiier Rob Boyd and his wife, Sherry.

Physical play was part of their bond. Wendy belonged to the generation of women who, liberated from old roles, expressed their new freedom through cycling and skiing, triathlons and hikes and running. Running was the activity of first and last resort, easy to fit in around kids and meals and jobs. Wendy had started running more than 30 years earlier, with her friend Celia Plottel, when they both took the lowest-mental-effort jobs they could find after getting their university degrees, so they could play field hockey and, on the side, run. Wendy and Celia kept running after their first babies came along. They’d leave the kids at the Dunbar Community Centre and take off for the University Endowment Lands. Hundreds of women turned to those woods as their outlet during the heavy family years.

Running was Wendy Ladner-Beaudry’s final act. Her death is one of the most mysterious cases the RCMP has faced. Their perplexity showed in the Mounties’ reluctance to say for weeks whether or not her murder was random. And it showed in their requests, more than a month after Wendy’s death, to interview Wendy’s girlfriends to figure out if there was anyone in her life who would want to kill her. Wendy’s murder is a compelling mystery to strangers as well, who still puzzle over it publicly and privately. There have been many murders in Vancouver in recent years, but hers stands out, and not just because she was from the Ladner family, which constitutes a kind of minor royalty in the city. She wasn’t a gang member or a drug dealer or a young kid outside a downtown club. She was a West Side mother, the kind who rode her bike everywhere and kept trying to convince her dubious friends and family that they should practise communal gardening.

THE LAST TIME NANCY EDMONDS saw her younger sister was also over a Scrabble board. It was March 27, the Friday before Wendy’s 53rd birthday and a week before her death. Wendy had taken to inviting Nancy for tea and Scrabble on Friday afternoons. She’d bought the small bungalow, which sits on a dead-end street between Marine Drive and the Musqueam reserve, with her brother Steve when they were in their 20s. A pack of folks had lived there: Steve and his girlfriend; Wendy’s brother Chris and his girlfriend; and Wendy and the guy she’d met windsurfing at Jericho Beach, Michel Beaudry. Eventually the others decamped for their own homes, and Wendy and Michel raised two daughters, Maya and Jenna, there. The house was Wendy’s, both legally-she became the sole owner-and spiritually, as she transformed it according to the principles of Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, a 1960s bible for architects and architecture lovers.

Lately, Wendy had had the first glimmering sense that her life was about to enter a new phase. She’d talked to Nancy about the thrill she’d had the last fall when she got to spend a whole week by herself, painting the new addition to the Nelson Island cabin. Twenty years of mothering were tapering off-Maya was at university in Montreal; Jenna was nearing the end of high school. She would finally have time.

In fact, many things were changing in her life. For much of their more than quarter-century of marriage, Wendy and Michel had made a life that was focused on kids and sports. That was thanks to a modest inheritance from Wendy’s lawyer father, the money and freebies Michel got as a writer of extreme-sports stories and consultant at Whistler and around the world, and access to the Ladner family condo in Whistler and the cabin on Pasley Island.

Knowing Michel’s line of work couldn’t last forever, Wendy had powered through a master’s in education at UBC in her late 40s and was building a career working with organizations that foster physical activity. Michel was scheduled to have both knees replaced when he came back from Europe, the cost of four decades of extreme sports. Wendy was looking forward to making some money and to having the kind of time together they’d had at the start of their marriage, these two who were so different and yet so alike. Wendy was the solid one and Michel the perpetual boy adventurer, their friends have said; but they were matched in their approach to life, grown-up hippies who cared about living a good life in every sense. “I’m just going to miss her so much,” says Nancy. “I dial her number, thinking I’ll hear, ‘Wendy speaking.'”

After Wendy’s death, the family had to go through a second shock. Police asked them if Michel had a temper. Acquain­tances spread the word that they hadn’t really been living together. A raft of amateur CSI experts-fed by Michel’s melodramatic storytelling and the RCMP’s deliberate vagueness about suspects-would decide that he was the prime suspect. It was gossip that, thanks to the Internet, wasn’t just talked about at dinner parties, but was posted to the websites of major newspapers. “I think they really need to examine where Mr. Beaudry was the day Wendy was murdered” was one of the milder comments after Michel wrote dramatically that he was going “far away” with his two daughters. (It was a three-week trip to Europe, timed to coincide with a London visit with friends that Maya had already planned.) Another: “I don’t buy his story. Not one bit of it.” All of that was one more burden for the family, who closed ranks around Michel, the emotional, sometimes over-the-top French-Canadian guy they saw as a brother. “Wendy,” says Nancy, “would be beside herself if she knew about this cruel gossip.”

THE LAST TIME MICHEL BEAUDRY saw his wife was during a quick stop at home between his return from Europe on March 31 and his departure for Whistler on Apri 2. He hadn’t intended to take off again right away, but the previous week a friend from the extreme-sports world had met an early end. There was to be a memorial at Dusty’s Bar on April 2 for Shane McCon­key, who’d died after jumping off a cliff in the Italian Dolomites. Michel-even with his wrecked knees, jet lag, and a wife whose birthday was waiting to be celebrated-headed up for a day’s skiing before the memorial. He and a friend, Binty Massey, skied all day, then went to Dusty’s at night. The morning of Wendy’s death, Michel spent time with Wendy’s sister Jinny, the first Ladner he’d gotten to know after moving here from Quebec in the 1970s.

THE LAST TIME SANDRA STEVENSON saw her friend Wendy was when she dropped her off on Thursday afternoon, April 2. The two had been spending a lot of time together on Wendy’s latest project for KidSport Canada, where Wendy was the CEO. Wendy had been working with women at food banks in Vancouver and Burnaby, part of her mission to get low-income women exercising as a way of fostering more physical activity in their children. Now, she was talking about a similar project in Surrey. Wendy, who hated to drive, preferred to carpool with Sandra. The no-driving was just one more facet of what Sandra calls her “child of the earth” personality.

Another part of that persona was her conviction that she was obliged to stand up for what was right. People would sometimes get thrown off by Wendy. Yes, she was a peacemaker and tactful. But she was always one to challenge people, a trait that made friends later wonder about whether that might have played a role. “If something was happening that she thought was not right,” says Sandra, “whether it was throwing a candy wrapper on the ground or breaking into a car, she would have done her civic duty.”

THE LAST TIME PETER LADNER SAW his sister was March 28. He was cycling through Stanley Park and came across a group of runners from the Dave Reed 5K race. Alongside was Wendy, standing by as Jenna competed. He stopped to talk and, hearing about the Surrey project, told her she should speak to a guy he knew at the race who might be helpful. When he left, Wendy was already walking over to the guy. That’s how she worked. Everywhere she went, she struck up conversations that led her in widening circles. It was part of a wisdom that her family greatly valued and that was complemented by her uncanny ability to sense what was invisible to others. Peter had always been struck by her intuitiveness, the way she could feel when something was right-or not right. He believes that whatever happened in Pacific Spirit Park, she “would have had a spooky feeling. She would have known something was wrong.”

ON FRIDAY, APRIL 3, WENDY DROPPED Jenna at school. She spent the morning on her computer. The last email she sent was at 12:48. Then, as far as anyone can tell, she laced up her shoes and headed out for a run. She had called a friend twice, looking for a running partner, but the friend was busy. Nancy didn’t hear from her about coming over for the Scrabble session but didn’t think much about it, assuming Wendy was busy with Jenna.

At 2:30, Michel called from Whistler. He left a message saying he was on his way. Crossing the Lions Gate Bridge, he got a call from an aggrieved-sounding Jenna. Mom didn’t pick me up for swim practice, she groused. And, Jenna added, the house alarm wasn’t on. The rule was that if the girls came home and the alarm wasn’t on, they weren’t to go inside. Their block had always been a petty-crime hot spot. There had been break-ins over the years, their car had been stolen, and Wendy’s skis had been taken. The week before, her car had been broken into and her laptop stolen-the second time she’d lost a laptop. Once, when she was up at dawn to take one of the girls to a swim practice, she saw people in balaclavas creeping through the bushes across the street. So it was very odd for the alarm not to be on. “From the moment Jenna called,” Michel says, “I knew something was terribly wrong.” He drove home in a blur and then, not wanting to leave Jenna alone at the house, got her to bike with him to the park five blocks away where Wendy surely would have been running. From a couple of blocks away, they could see police tape. “I knew when I saw the tape, I knew it was Wendy,” says Michel. “I knew she was dead.”

Michel and Wendy had always worried that if there was a premature death in their family it would be Michel’s, since many of his friends had died on some extreme-sports expedition gone awry. In fact, he had just finished writing a novel about a family coping with grief after the death of a man caught in an avalanche. He’d never thought Wendy would die before him. She was the pillar, the one who’d made him grow up a little, settle down, pay off his student loan, be a good father. And, he says, she set the rules: “It’s the Ladner way. You know what’s right and you won’t compromise on your principles.” He was the eternal adventurer and, as he’s the first to admit, not the easiest man to live with. Wendy had coped, for 28 years, with “a pretty hard-edged husband.”

Some have speculated that a homeless camper living in the park, perhaps someone who saw demons in every passerby, might have killed Wendy. Michel, who spent years building trails in the park, can’t imagine that. “Most of the homeless people I’ve met there are scared of human beings, they’re hiding out from mainstream society.” But he can’t understand who would have assassinated her in what he calls her cathedral. “I think she saw something she wasn’t supposed to and they killed her. I think there was something going down in the park. The way I’ve seen the site, the amount of violence that was used-either it was a crazy person or someone who hates women.”

It’s an unusual spot for murder. The path is within sight of Camosun and Marine Drive, the southeast entry to the park. Laser-beam counters show that an average of 13 people an hour enter at that spot-one every four or five minutes. It was a lovely, almost-spring afternoon. The main crime news that day was that arrests had finally been made in the Surrey Six drug murders. No one imagined that, by late afternoon, the RCMP would be swarming over Pacific Spirit Park after a walker found Wendy Ladner-Beaudry lying face-down on the path. At her running pace, she was three minutes from home.