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Months after death of a homeless man, town gets answers

A memorial will be erected to mark the death of Harley Lawrence across from the Tim Hortons where he often sat.


Ron Lawrence appealed to the townspeople of Berwick for patience and allow the RCMP to do its job in trying to solve the mysterious death of his brother, Harley.

That was last fall. Harley Lawrence, 62, the only homeless person in the quaint Annapolis Valley town, was found dead in a bus shelter on Commercial Street after police and the fire department were called to a fire there.

By day, Mr. Lawrence hung out in front of the Tim Hortons, never begging for money but accepting it if a few coins landed his way; by night he slept in the bus shelter. He had lived there for about eight months.

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Immediately after his death last October rumours began circulating; there were witnesses who said they saw a couple of guys filling a jug with gasoline at the local gas station just before the bus shelter was ablaze. People in town were shocked, scared and they wanted police to step up.

"In a small town like that, rumours fly so fast and they want answers … I know people got frustrated with the RCMP, but I stood by them all the way," Mr. Lawrence told The Globe and Mail on Sunday. "That's the only thing we could do because no matter what we did it wasn't going to bring Harley back."

Finally, six months later, there appear to be some answers. The RCMP have charged Daniel Wayne Surette, 26, and Kyle David James Fredericks, 25, with first-degree murder. The two will appear in court, in nearby Kentville, N.S., Monday morning.

Police are saying little else about Mr. Lawrence's death – only that the two accused, both from the area, are not believed to have had a connection to Mr. Lawrence and that he died as a result of the injuries sustained in the fire.

Berwick Mayor Don Clarke credits Ron Lawrence for speaking out so strongly right after his brother's death, cautioning against rumour-mongering and saying to the community: "Don't give the police a hard time. You just wait and they'll do their job."

"That was good. That set the tone," said Mr. Clarke. "I must admit that I was quite pleased that the majority of people really were quite patient."

He says there was "general and genuine relief" when the announcement of the arrests was made. Ron Lawrence felt the same way: "In the back of my mind I was always scared that we would never find out actually what happened, I am glad it's progressing the way it is."

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Harley Lawrence, described as stubborn and eschewing help, had drifted around for years, picking up odd jobs, construction and farm work, before he finally ended up in Berwick. His brother heard about his death on the car radio when he was driving down the highway.

"Harley's favourite thing is if you got too close to him he would just disappear and you wouldn't see him for years," said Mr. Lawrence.

The two, although 11 years apart, were close when they were younger, but Harley gradually drifted away from the family, said Mr. Lawrence. There were nine siblings and they grew up in Hantsport, N.S., on the Minas Basin. Keeping tabs on Harley, the second oldest, was not always easy.

"Everyone called him homeless, right?" said Mr. Lawrence. "I said was he homeless? The thing was he had lots of family around, who would have helped him. He refused help, so it's a double-edged sword. There's got to be more in place … [a] law in place for people like that to get help …"

For a man who lived an anonymous and peripatetic life, Mr. Lawrence's death is now being marked permanently in the town. A garden bench with a brass plaque to honour Harley Lawrence is being put – hopefully next month – on a prominent corner in the town, said Mr. Clarke. Appropriately, it is directly across from the Tim Hortons where he often sat.

In addition, townspeople are trying to learn and understand more about homelessness and those who suffer from mental illness. They had a town meeting and called it "Lessons from Harley." The mayor says there are done-and-out people in the community, who find a car or a barn to sleep in. But Harley Lawrence was different; he was visible. "He's the only one who camped on our street and said, 'I am here,'" said Mr. Clarke.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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