Mystery surrounding Laura Babcock leaves family in a 'horrible situation'
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For almost two years, nothing. Laura Babcock was just — missing.
And then, this April, the worst: murder charges against two men, Dellen Millard and Mark Smich, in her apparent death.
Police have not told Babcock’s family whether or not they have located her body, or any remains, leaving her family and friends clinging to the hope, however slim, that maybe, just maybe, she is still alive out there.
While detectives routinely keep information to themselves for investigative purposes, it is highly unusual for police to keep secret from family whether or not they’ve found a body. No one Torstar News Service contacted, including longtime homicide detectives and criminal lawyers, had ever heard of a similar scenario.
“I can’t think of a case in recent history where that has happened,” said Alan Cakebread, a 20-year veteran of the Toronto police force who retired last year and now works as a private investigator for Haywood, Hunt and Associates.
“I can only think that under the circumstances, where the investigation is still ongoing, they may have received some information that’s given them reasonable grounds to believe that these people are involved in her death, but haven’t recovered a body to say to the family, ‘You can now close the door and move forward.’ ”
The Ontario Provincial Police, which are in charge of the overall investigation, did not return a phone call seeking comment. The force has previously told Torstar it will not comment on the investigation since it is before the courts.
Toronto police spokesperson Mark Pugash declined to discuss that force’s practices regarding sharing such information with families, noting that every case is unique and dealt with as such.
Millard, 28, and Smich, 26, are also accused of murdering Ancaster father Tim Bosma, who went for a test drive in the pickup he was trying to sell last May and never came home. Bosma’s remains were later found on Millard’s farm in Ayr, Ont.
And Millard faces a first-degree murder charge in the November 2012 death of his father, aviation tycoon Wayne Millard, which was deemed a suicide at the time.
None of the allegations against the two men have been proven in court.
Toronto police reopened the files on the senior Millard’s death and Babcock’s disappearance in the wake of the grisly discovery of Bosma’s badly burned remains.
Millard had dated Babcock, who was 23 when she disappeared. Some of the last calls made on her cellphone were to him. According to court documents, police believe Babcock was killed on or around July 3, 2012.
Cakebread said that if police had indeed found remains, there would need to be “a justified investigative reason not to release that information.”
Detectives are treading between avoiding anything that could compromise the investigation while trying to meet the family’s needs, he said.
“It’s that balancing act between what is morally right for the family and what do we have to do to ensure a conviction in court?” he said. “And as frustrating as it is and as heartbreaking as it is, it’s not a fast train, our legal system. (Police) want to do it and they want to do it right.”
Criminal defence lawyer Daniel Brown said police are under no legal obligation to provide details of an investigations to victims’ families. At times, detectives withhold information that has the potential to taint the reliability of witnesses, Brown said.
“Another possibility is that the police do not have the scientific results to confirm whether they have found her remains,” he said, noting that backlogs in forensic testing can delay results.
Alan Young, a professor at York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School, said detectives often won’t release key details about physical evidence. That way, they can use those details to test the credibility of witnesses.
“If people know the physical evidence ahead of time, they can tailor their story to it,” said Young, adding that the evidence will eventually come up in legal proceedings.
He has never heard of circumstances like those the Babcocks find themselves in.
“It’s a horrible situation,” said Young.
Kevin Bryan, a retired detective who spent 16 years on the York Regional Police forensic unit, said police don’t charge someone with murder without strong evidence.
“This isn’t a charge the police just ran out and laid,” said Bryan, who now teaches policing at Seneca College. “(A murder charge) isn’t happening unless they’re sure . . . there is enough evidence that this person is dead and that person is responsible for the homicide.”
“Holdback information,” where police stay mum on details of the case in order to further an investigation, is a vital tool, said Bryan. But if police had found Babcock’s remains, he’s certain her family would know.
“If they had a body or knew where the body was, that is something they would not withhold from the family,” said Bryan, who has investigated murders in which no body was recovered during his 30-year policing career. “Doesn’t happen, wouldn’t happen, I’ve never seen it happen, I can’t see circumstances where it would happen.”