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An engaging narrative of a horrific story
on August 26, 2009
"Why?" That's apparently the last word uttered by the father of Canada's youngest mass murderer and certainly the first question asked by most people who have heard her story. JR was just twelve years old when, with her 23-year-old boyfriend, she participated in killing her father, her mother, and her younger brother in the grisly April 1996 murders that took place in Medicine Hat, Alberta. We are used to adolescents having rebellions, but many people continue to struggle to make sense of this particular tragedy.
The vast majority of criminal offences happen in a context, though, and finding an easy answer to the question of "Why?" risks missing some of those important nuances and circumstances. Robert Remington and Sherri Zickefoose are reporters from the Calgary Herald who covered every aspect of this case, from the initial discovery of the bodies by a boy looking for his playmate, through the separate trials of JR and of Jeremy Steinke, and even up to the annual review hearing for JR's court-mandated Intensive Rehabilitative Custody and Supervision (IRCS) order. They are skilled writers with knowledge of the intricacies of the murders and of the murderers, though the story they tell in Runaway Devil never wallows in unnecessary detail. Tenaciously, Mr. Remington and Ms. Zickefoose tracked down members of the perpetrators' families, as well as friends of JR and Jeremy, verifying versions of events, weaving in courtroom testimony, and adding evidence never admitted in the trials, all to tell the story of how a seemingly bright, friendly, athletic young girl so quickly turned against her family. Was she the puppet master, manipulating the immature Jeremy into acting out her death fantasy or was he the Goth werewolf-wannabe who saw an opportunity to become the hero in his own version of Natural Born Killers?
Answering that question is where the book struggles, though not through any fault of the authors. We know the story. We know how it ends. At the time, however, as pieces of the narrative came together, we were shocked. She was a missing child, the subject of an Amber-Alert like media release. Suddenly, she became the suspect. They had communicated via the Internet and spent time in websites [...]. They had sex. They made out in the midst of a friend's party just hours after the murders. A marriage proposal was carried by police from one cell to the other after their arrests. She said he forced her to kill her brother. He said he wasn't even in the room when it happened. Each case had excellent and well-prepared Crown and defence lawyers, and the trials were overseen by respected justices who rarely stepped into the proceedings. The details have been told and retold and most people have likely formed their opinions about who really did what, about where the blame rests (society? music lyrics? drugs? parenting styles?), and about the justice system's response to a 12-year-old who, a full month before the murders, wrote of her "plan" that "begins with me killing them and ends with me living with you."
Mr. Remington and Ms. Zickefoose, then, took on a particular challenge: attempting to write more than a simple true crime book about a sensational event, while preserving the integrity of a seemingly well-known story. The result is a polished work that flows from beginning to end, that integrates the community's history into the personal stories, that provides new glimpses into the lives of the perpetrators and their families, that explains the lethal mixture of JR's need for control and Jeremy's need for acceptance, and that challenges the reader to look beyond the notion of simple answers.