A radical grief
In 1984, Cliff and Wilma Derksen's daughter was abducted and left to die in the Winnipeg winter cold. With no idea of her killer's identity, they made a controversial choice: to forgive. Now, Jana G. Pruden writes, a suspect in the case awaits his verdict – and the couple reflects on the decision they made
It was late on Jan. 17, 1985, one of the longest days of their lives. There had been people around them for hours but he came to the door the moment they were alone, as though he'd been waiting outside for the others to leave. He was dressed in black and they recognized him from news coverage, though they couldn't quite place it at the time. He stood outside their house in the dark, in the cold.
"I'm the parent of a murdered child, too," he said. "I've come to tell you what to expect."
Cliff and Wilma Derksen had identified their daughter's body at the hospital just hours earlier. They were in shock, reeling, but still they invited the man into the warmth of their kitchen and offered him the fresh cherry pie one of their friends had made. Then he started to speak.
For two hours, the man recounted the things he had lost to murder. Not only his daughter but his relationships and his work, his belief in justice, his trust, the goodness of his life before. Even his daughter's memory. He showed them notebooks from the trials, lined up the bottles of pills he was taking. He told them, "It will destroy you."
As he spoke, the Derksens saw for the first time what faced them. They would come to know it as the darkness, an abyss of sadness and anger that could swallow a person and take away everything they loved, that would spread until it destroyed all that was beautiful. Alone in their bedroom after he left, they made a decision: They had lost Candace, they wouldn't lose everything else, too. They couldn't.
"We kind of looked at each other and said, 'We have to stop this,'" Cliff says. "We have to forgive."
But what does it mean to forgive the person who killed your daughter? The person who bound her hands and feet in a way so dehumanizing it is called "hog-tying," then left her alone and helpless to die in the cold? How do you forgive a person you have never met? Who has never asked your forgiveness? How do you forgive a person who may not even be sorry?
It took more than 22 years for a man to be charged, and four more for him to stand trial for murder. Now, after a second trial, the violent sex offender Cliff and Wilma believe killed their daughter may go free. A verdict could come within weeks.
He has never admitted he did it. He has never said he's sorry. And the Derksens are still discovering what it means to forgive him.
Anger is very natural. It comes out of fear, it comes out of dishonour, it’s a reaction to anything that threatens us and it’s addictive. To forgive and say, I’m going to let it go, give it to the higher power, whatever we call it, and then find something good in it, it’s not an easy process.Wilma Derksen
When Candace didn't come home
Candace Derksen vanished on Nov. 30, 1984, a Friday afternoon on the sharp edge of a Manitoba winter. She had started Grade 7 at Mennonite Brethren Collegiate Institute in Winnipeg that September, not the best student but well-liked and social, and her marks were getting better. She was 13 years old with clear blue eyes and golden brown hair, pale skin sprayed with freckles that came out with the summer sun. Her parents thought of her as sanguine, an old-fashioned idea of temperament but the one that fit her best; the kind of person who was invigorated by the attention of others, who loved people and attracted them with her light.
People often commented on her vivaciousness, her laugh, the brightness around her. It was too much, sometimes. Wilma noticed how men looked at her daughter and it made Wilma worry, even then. Candace was just a child.
There was a snowball fight outside the school that Friday afternoon and an older student named David Wiebe grabbed Candace and rubbed snow in her face, a childish facewash they both knew was flirting. David was her first real crush and the attention made her giddy. He liked her, too. When she called her mother from a payphone to ask for a ride, she was still laughing.
Wilma might have gone to get her, but Candace's best friend was coming for the weekend and Wilma was busy wrangling her two younger children and tidying up. She called Cliff to see if he could leave work early, but he couldn't. So when Candace called back from a payphone at a nearby convenience store, Wilma asked her to walk home or take the bus instead. It wasn't far, and Candace didn't mind.
So Candace turned toward home as a winter afternoon turned to evening, and the cold and snow blew in.
It didn't take Wilma long to realize something was wrong. Candace had called around 4 and when she wasn't home 40 minutes later, her mother had a sickening, uneasy feeling. By 7:30 that evening, after searching for her themselves for hours, Cliff and Wilma called the police.
Police at first dismissed Candace as a runaway, a teenager rebelling against her Mennonite parents and religious environment who would find her way home again after a few days. No matter how strongly the Derksens tried to tell the officers that their daughter was happy – and that even if she wasn't, she wouldn't have run away right before her best friend came to visit – the police weren't convinced. A lot of teenagers ran away. It happened every day. Abductions didn't.
But when Candace didn't come home by Monday, and when the sightings of her proved false, police started to consider other possibilities. At first, that meant shifting their focus to David Wiebe, the boy she'd been fooling around with that day, and to Cliff, her father. Most people are hurt by those they know, and the two of them seemed like obvious suspects if something had happened to Candace. Meanwhile, the Derksens' friends, church, and community struck up their own search committee, and were scouring the city day after day in the cold, looking for Candace to bring her home.
December came, then January. Six and a half weeks. Almost seven.
Victor Frankowski was out on the lot at Alsip Brick Tile and Lumber on Jan. 17, 1985, when he peered inside an old machinery shed looking for a saw. As his eyes adjusted to the dark, he noticed a figure on the ground, so still and pale he thought at first it was a doll.
It had turned cold the day Candace disappeared, and it was bitterly cold the day her body was found as well. As police officers headed to the scene, the temperature fell and wind whipped the snow into a whiteout.
Candace's cheeks were frostbitten red, her body covered in a thin layer of frost. Pieces of twine bound her wrists and ankles behind her back. One of her shoes was missing. She had been tied and left to freeze to death in the shed the same day she disappeared. There was nothing to indicate she had been otherwise harmed or sexually assaulted.
The officers moved around her carefully, their breath and words making clouds above her in the air, camera shutter clicking in the cold.
'People suffer in different ways'
The search for Candace Derksen had been the largest in Winnipeg's history, and her death felt close and personal. Everyone in the city knew the bite of that kind of vicious cold, and it was easy to imagine how cold and scared she must have been.
In the weeks after she disappeared, her school picture had become as familiar as that of a friend, feathered hair and a black and white sweatshirt, a smile as though she was sharing in a joke or about to burst out laughing.
For many of us growing up in Winnipeg then, it was a moment of profound change. With no suspects in custody, there was a feeling of danger in the city. Parents started walking their children to and from school, and warned them with new urgency about the threat of strangers. Mike McIntyre, a true crime author and veteran reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press, turned 10 years old the day Candace Derksen's body was found. He describes her disappearance as one of the first times he realized the world wasn't a safe place. At my elementary school, across the city, there were rumours about other missing girls, about a man in a silver van that prowled for children. When my uncle came to pick me up from school in a van one afternoon, other kids ran away across the playground, screaming in fear. We called her Candy as though we knew her, though none of us did. When she died, we mourned her, as though we understood instinctively that, on a different day or a different street, she might have been any one of us.
The Derksens had turned to the media early in Candace's disappearance, appealing to the public for help with the search and trying to keep the case in the public eye as police dragged their feet. By the time Candace's body was found, Cliff and Wilma knew their daughter had become the city's child. At a press conference two days later, they invited all of Winnipeg to come to her funeral.
When a reporter asked how they felt about Candace's unknown killer, they each publicly expressed the decision they had made alone in their bedroom the night her body was found. They would try to love whoever killed her, and forgive.
"We would like to know who the person or persons are so we could share, hopefully, a love that seems to be missing in these people's lives," Cliff said. "I don't believe the person who did this had loving parents or a circle of friends who thought the world of him or he wouldn't have done a deed like this."
Wilma said their main concern had been finding Candace, not her killer. "I can't say at this point I forgive the person," she said. "But we have all done something dreadful in our lives or we have the urge to."
The reaction to their comments was unexpected and strong. Some people were angry, as though the Derksens were saying they didn't care about their daughter or that they thought her killer shouldn't be caught or punished. Others questioned what that forgiveness meant, at a time when Cliff and Wilma weren't sure themselves.
"We said we were going to forgive and we didn't know how to talk about it, and we really didn't know what it meant ourselves," Cliff says. "Our big thing was just we were going to forgive whoever it was. We just were going to forgive. We didn't know how or where or when this was going to happen, it was sort of a north star we put out there."
Some people also found their comments suspicious, especially since the case remained unsolved. News coverage noted they didn't cry at the press conference, and that there was "not even a tremor in their voices" as they talked about their daughter's death. The Derksens weren't behaving the way people expected grieving parents to do. Free Press columnist Gordon Sinclair wrote a column about how some people saw Cliff and Wilma as "cold," and were surprised by their composure and lack of emotion in public. In a phone call in the spring of 1985, he asked them if they cried.
"I think people suffer in different ways," he quoted Wilma as saying then. "And I think we, by nature, suffer differently. I like to cry in private."
The Mennonite faith was forged by persecution, and forgiveness is a deep part of the religion and culture. Cliff and Wilma had both been raised to believe in the power of forgiveness, and Wilma says it was "in their DNA" to try to forgive. But to say they were able to forgive because of their faith is far too simple. It was also a radical choice, contrary to their instincts as people and parents, but the only way they could see to save themselves, to ensure they wouldn't lose their marriage and their family, the good memories of Candace's life.
"There was an article three or four months later saying 80 per cent of Canadians didn't agree with us and would be upset with us because forgiveness meant letting the murderer go free and condoning murder," Wilma says now, 32 years later. "That wasn't what this was about at all. It really was about escaping the aftermath of murder."
But there was so much to forgive, and it went far beyond forgiving the brutality of a stranger they did not yet know. There were the police, for not believing them when they said Candace wouldn't have run away, for implying that they were bad parents, and for focussing so long on Cliff as a suspect. For not finding her when she lay in a shed not more than 500 metres away from home. There were their own actions and choices, for the small things said and done, for not picking her up that day. There were the friends and family that disappointed them, the media that sometimes got things wrong. The strangers who piled on more hurt with false confessions and crank phone calls. There were the years Cliff spent under suspicion, even after a polygraph declared him a truthful man.
Forgiveness was not something to be done only once. It had to be a constant choice, letting go as a way of living.
At times, there was pain so intense Wilma described it like amputating one of her arms without anesthetic, moments of anger so blinding she once imagined shooting 10 murderers in retribution. She knew then even that much bloodshed would not be enough. Her daughter was innocent, the killers she imagined were not.
"Anger is very natural. It comes out of fear, it comes out of dishonour, it's a reaction to anything that threatens us and it's addictive," she says. "To forgive and say, I'm going to let it go, give it to the higher power, whatever we call it, and then find something good in it, it's not an easy process."
Wilma threw herself into trying to help others. Within four months of Candace's body being found, she and Cliff had helped start a Manitoba chapter of Child Find to help in other missing children cases, and were fundraising for a swimming pool at Camp Arnes in Candace's name. Wilma started speaking publicly and got involved with victims' advocacy and support groups, eventually heading Family Survivors of Homicide and Victim's Voice. In some of the groups, she says she was instructed not to use "the f-word," forgiveness being too controversial to broach in a space for victims.
The Derksens became well-known as advocates and survivors, but as the 10-year anniversary of Candace's murder approached, they found themselves struggling. Wilma was working so much she was burnt-out and crashing. Cliff, still living with an undercurrent of suspicion that he had something to do with his daughter's unsolved disappearance and death, had become so consumed with rage he seemed to Wilma like a different person. He would yell and swear, throw things around, say things he didn't even know he was capable of. Afterward, he would apologize and promise to fix it, but he never would.
Cliff says the anger felt good, but he knew he had to change.
He began memorizing scripture about Jonah and the whale, and soon recognized himself in its words. He was working as a truck driver at the time, and he started to vividly imagine loading a truck full of pallets of things he had to forgive. One day, he imagined dumping it all into the Grand Canyon.
"The thing about forgiveness is you have to go to the hard places," he says. "You have to be ready to be courageous. I didn't do this overnight. I was really trying to go to all the bad places and the ugly stuff, and really address it."
It would be more than a decade later, when a suspect was finally charged, that Cliff would really be tested again.
We said we were going to forgive and we didn’t know how to talk about it, and we really didn’t know what it meant ourselves. … it was sort of a north star we put out there.Cliff Derksen
'This is holy, this is bigger than us'
In the fall of 1984, Mark Edward Grant was 21 years old, a mentally ill young man from an abusive home who had a history of sexual assault and violent behavior, and an attraction to vulnerable victims. He'd been hanging around the area near Candace's school that fall, dating a runaway girl not much older than Candace.
Mr. Grant was one of two sex offenders questioned early in Candace's disappearance but there was nothing solid to link him to the case and, as years passed, police focused on another violent sex offender who had been charged with murdering a teenage girl in the 1990s.
Eventually that man was ruled out, and in 2005, after serving 13 years in prison for two brutal rapes, Mr. Grant became a prime suspect again.
Police had retained evidence from the 1985 investigation, including hair from where Candace's body was found and the twine used to tie her, and the items became increasingly important as DNA science emerged and the technology continued to develop. As part of a cold case investigation called Project Angel, undercover officers in Winnipeg collected new DNA from Mr. Grant's spit on the sidewalk. That evidence – as well as DNA from Mr. Grant's relatives and blood from a pair of his pants – provided enough of a link to charge him in Candace's death.
In May, 2007, more than 22 years after Candace disappeared walking home from school, police arrested Mr. Grant on Main Street in Winnipeg and charged him with first-degree murder.
Having a suspect identified and charged was a new challenge for the Derksens, who, after two decades, had grown accustomed to life without a suspect. Their forgiveness had been, by necessity, not focused on one person, and they were comfortable that way. They learned to forgive without him. And yet, 22 years later, there he was. A real man, who had inflicted real harm on other women and girls.
The news coverage laid out his history in spare terms after his arrest. "Mark Grant is a schizophrenic whose mind is filled with disturbing rape fantasies, lust for vulnerable teens, a hatred of women and an unwillingness to take any treatment for his perversions…," one news story began.
They referenced parole documents that called him a predator, that described his violent sexual attraction to prepubescent girls.
Watching the news on the day of his arrest, Cliff and Wilma bristled seeing his picture next to Candace's. It bothered them to see him so close to her, as though he was connected to them now.
"It felt like he was now a member of our family, like an extended uncle or some distant relative and suddenly he has been found," Cliff says. "And here's this ugly story and this guy who had done such a bad thing and he was put right beside our Candace, on the TV screen side by side. That hurt. And I thought, are we going to be seeing this now forever?"
It occurred to Wilma that it had been far easier when he wasn't around.
The murder trial started on Jan. 17, 2011, exactly 26 years to the day after Candace's body was found. It was the first time the family would learn the full details of Candace's death, and hear the evidence against the man accused of killing her. Before the trial began, they formulated their own strategies to survive it.
Cliff, who had struggled so deeply with his anger, worried that the rage he had experienced would resurface in the emotion of the court proceedings.
"I was wondering how much I had forgiven him when I didn't know who he was," he says. "And I thought that kind of forgiveness or attempt at forgiveness would be shallow or wouldn't have much depth to it because you don't know who you are forgiving."
But the rage he expected didn't appear. Instead, Cliff took a sketchbook and drew. Sometimes he sketched people in the courtroom – the jury, witnesses, lawyers. On other days, a magnified strand of hair, a pair of hands tied.
Their daughter Odia, who was nine when Candace disappeared, was now in her mid-30s. An artist, she sat crocheting circles, using red yarn for pain, black for anger, and white for neutrality, the emotion of the hearing coming out through the yarn in her hands, and later, turned into an art gallery installation called Evidence of a Trial.
Syras was three when his sister disappeared, and by the time of the trial had become a practicing psychologist. He told his family he believed that at hard and important moments in court they should take off their shoes as though in the presence of something holy, like Moses before the burning bush. In that way, they would transform the courtroom, in its ugliest moments, into something sacred.
It turned out to be a powerful subversion.
"When something really, really hurt and you are dishonoured or Candace is dishonoured, our instinct is to be angry and to fight back and to be very defensive," Wilma says. "The other alternative is to submit to the moment. Don't fight the birth pains, you know? Breathe with it. The taking off the shoes is saying this is holy, this is bigger than us. Let's embrace it. Let's see what it is. And let's look at the opportunities to learn, to find the goodness in it."
Wilma, who had gone to journalism school before Candace disappeared, had become a writer, the chronicler of her family's own story. She took notes, recording the events of the day along with descriptions of Cliff's drawings and Odia's choice of colours. Wilma also logged the weather, itself such a powerful part of their story, -26, -30, -23, the cold, dark days of winter.
A jury convicted Mr. Grant of second-degree murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years. After the trial, Cliff and Wilma held a public ceremony in their backyard, honouring Candace's life and talking about the effects of her death. Among those who attended were jurors from the trial.
For four months, it was settled.
Then the defence filed an appeal based on evidence of another alleged kidnapping which was excluded from the first trial and never presented to the jury, and questions about the DNA evidence. The case went to the Supreme Court, and a new trial was ordered.
Nothing is going to bring Candace back, and to some degree Candace is good. She has managed to outlive this. She has created her own justice.Wilma Derksen
'All of life is good'
The air in Winnipeg on Jan. 16, 2017, was stinging cold. Not as frigid as Jan. 17, 1985, when Candace's body was found, or Jan. 17, 2011, when the first trial began, but cold enough to bring back the feel of those days and reinforce the strangeness of the timing, the sense of a cycle repeating. The kind of cold that hurts. That can kill.
They were back in Room 230, the same courtroom as the first trial, a grand space in the historic Winnipeg Law Courts with old-fashioned theatre seats and marble walls, ornate trim painted with the colours of the prairie. The courtroom was full. There were old friends, people who had been with the Derksens since the earliest searches, and others who have come to know them through the years. There was the mother of another girl who was sexually assaulted by Mr. Grant, and a row of reporters. A class of high-school students whose parents were children themselves when Candace disappeared.
It was striking how much time had passed. David Wiebe, their daughter's first love, was now a man of almost 50. Candace's younger siblings, Odia and Syras, were 41 and 36, with children of their own. The police officers and witnesses were older, some retired, others gone. Among the missing was Candace's best friend, Heidi, who had died of cancer the previous January at 44. She had remained close to the family all her life. In their last visit before Heidi's death, Wilma gave her a message to pass along to Candace.
Sitting in court, Wilma thought about the beauty of friendship and how it lasts, the what-ifs of a life not lived.
Mr. Grant was older, too. Now 53, he walked into the courtroom with his wrists and ankles in shackles, chains clanking with every lumbering step. He was heavy and pale, mostly bald, with glasses and a greyed goatee.
He faced the judge directly from inside a high-backed prisoner's box, which was positioned in such a way that he was almost completely hidden from the view of those in the body of the courtroom. Even when they watched him being brought in and out of court, Wilma thought he seemed like a "non-entity," like nothing. At times, unable to see him, she and Cliff almost forgot he was there at all.
They admit it's strange that the man at the heart of their story somehow doesn't play a bigger role, but yet he is nearly invisible. Through the years, they have come to know that their forgiveness must be offenderless. They have fought so hard to keep him from destroying their lives, that in some ways it is not really about him at all.
Over six weeks, the Derksens would again listen to testimony about the knots used to bind Candace's wrists and ankles, the hairs found around her body, the gathering of evidence long before DNA protocols existed.
They would hear again how Candace was in the shed for a day before she died, about how her body was completely frozen through when it was found. There are things that still hurt deeply even after so many years. Moments, Wilma says, that sink like lead in your stomach.
The defence maintains Mr. Grant didn't kill Candace, and that the evidence used to convict him the first time was deeply flawed. Defence experts raised serious questions around the DNA testing that was done, and the lawyers pointed at the possibility of other suspects.
Cliff and Wilma were convinced in the first trial, and then again in the second, that Mark Edward Grant murdered their daughter. But they have learned a lot about the law through the years, and they know he may not be convicted this time. In a way they almost expect he won't, and they are preparing for it.
They say they feel sorry for him, for the love he missed as a child and for the abuse he suffered then. They heard about how he was locked in a shed for two days when he was a boy, and they know how violence can repeat. They pray for him. They are afraid for others if he is released.
"I think it will be sad no matter what happens, and I worry about the vulnerable," Wilma says. "Not about us, but the vulnerable. Nothing is going to bring Candace back, and to some degree Candace is good. She has managed to outlive this. She has created her own justice."
The effects of Candace's death have been profound and far-reaching.
There is Candace House, an ongoing project to build a safe space for victims' families near the Winnipeg courthouse, and Child Find Manitoba, now known as the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, created after her disappearance. There is the swimming pool at Camp Arnes that bears Candace's name, the site of so much fun and joy.
Wilma has spoken to people around the world about trauma and forgiveness and has written eight books. Her most recent, The Way of Letting Go: One Woman's Walk Toward Forgiveness, happened to be released in the middle of the second trial.
Malcolm Gladwell devoted a chapter of his book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, to Cliff and Wilma's response to their daughter's murder. He wrote the introduction to Wilma's new book.
There is Cliff and Odia's art, Syras's psychology practice, the way their story has affected people, in ways large and small. They have all had the opportunity to create, to be heard, to help others. Wilma still shakes her head about it all, as though she can't believe how they have been blessed.
"All I have really done in my life is chosen to forgive, just to let go of the bad stuff and move toward good stuff," she says. "And the rewards for that are overwhelming. Look at our children. Look at our grandchildren. It's amazing, the beauty."
The judge will hear closing arguments in May, and then she will decide if Mark Edward Grant will be convicted a second time for the murder of Candace Derksen. Wilma wonders when they will have a decision, and what it will be like when they do. Whether one day, they might finally feel free.
Outside court on the first day of the second trial, a reporter asked Wilma, "How do you keep a lightness about you?"
Wilma giggled, as she often does, whether she is talking about things that are happy or sad.
"I want to live," she said. "If we had waited for justice 32 years ago, can you imagine where we'd be? We would just have put our whole lives on a shelf. And we have two other children, so we've had to say, you know what, this is good. All of life is good."
Cliff and Wilma Derksen were standing side by side, together, just as they were on that cold winter night so long ago. They have spent 32 years fighting to keep the darkness away. It is not easy or perfect, but every day they keep trying.
Jana G. Pruden is a feature writer at The Globe and Mail.
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