On December 23 1981 16-year-old Barbara Gayle Stoppel was found unconscious on the floor of the woman's washroom at the Ideal Donut Shop in Winnipeg, Man. where she worked as a waitress. She’d been strangled and died a few days later. Numerous witnesses observed a suspicious male in the store moments before her body was discovered.
Thomas Sophonow was arrested for her murder several months later. He would go through a preliminary hearing and three separate trials being found guilty but was successful in appeals. He served several years in prison until 1986 when the Supreme Court overturned the last conviction and deemed that he would not be tried again unless new compelling information came to light.
Now a free man Sophonow was considered by many to have gotten away with murder. He pleaded with the media, the courts, police and elected government officials to reopen the case not only to show his innocence but to pursue the real killer.
His pleas were ignored until 1999 when I was assigned to reinvestigate the case against him. Although Thomas Sophonow had been requesting a review for over 13 years, it took me only a few hours to realize the truth. He was innocent and the real killer of Barbara Stoppel had been left free to rape and murder young women across Canada.
Although this tragedy took place in 1981 the theme is very contemporary. As police agencies we have continued to make mistakes over the years not only in wrongful convictions but in inaction with offenders such as Clifford Olson, Paul Bernardo, Robert Pickton, David Russell Williams and even today with missing and murdered aboriginal women.
I retired in 2014 after 28 years in the Winnipeg Police Service. I am now free to divulge what happened. The victims and their families deserve nothing less.
“To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.”