A great piece on our book from Eric Volmers at the Calgary Herald.
 

Drawn To The Devil

Effects of stomach-churning murders at hands of preteen girl
still felt by book's authors

 
 
 Robert Remington can pinpoint the exact moment the horrors of April 23, 2006 hit home.

It was when he saw bloody photos of a dead eight-year-old boy.

The veteran journalist and columnist for the Calgary Herald had covered the shocking murders of a Medicine Hat family--whose names can't be printed.--from the beginning. He arrived in town shortly after the bodies of three people were found in their home. Alongside crime reporter Sherri Zickefoose, Remington helped untangle the unbelievable story of how a 12-year-old middle-class girl --whose online name on various horror-based websites was Runaway Devil--had orchestrated the death of her mother, father and eight-yearold brother with her then 23-yearold boyfriend, Jeremy Steinke.

It was a journey that took Remington and Zickefoose into a strange world of teen subcultures, forbidden love and hopeless youth. Dogged reporting had led the pair to countless scoops and insights into the bizarre case even before the girl was taken to trial and found guilty of murder.

So Remington may have felt he was sufficiently prepared to see photos of the crime in a Medicine Hat courtroom. He wasn't.

"I got back to my motel room in Medicine Hat and I just had a big meltdown," he says. "I was in tears, I had to call my wife. We always write in our business about how difficult it is for emergency responders to deal with dead children. For the first time in my career I felt that. I felt it myself and it took me back to when I was eight years old. I was playing baseball and doing all this stuff and an innocent little boy. And to see this kid, lying there. . . ."

Readers of Runaway Devil, Remington and Zickefoose's new book about the murders, won't see the crime-scene photos. But we're hardly let off easy. For all the segues into teen psychology, Goth culture and the complex legalities surrounding youth crime, there is no dampening the visceral impact of learning how a 12-year-old girl became the puppet master of one of the most shocking crimes in Canadian history.

Initially thought to have been abducted, the dawning realization that the girl--named JR in the book--was not the "innocent little lamb" she appeared to be is hard to stomach, even for those familiar with the crime.

Runaway Devil (mcclelland & stewart, 270 pages, $29.99) is now in stores.

For the two authors, this was the first clue that the case was more complicated than it first appeared.

"A schoolmate of JR's told me that her boyfriend's name is Jeremy and he has a truck and she's gone to be with him," says Zickefoose, about her early investigation into the killings. "That was the first time that we were suddenly starting to doubt that she'd been abducted. My first instinct was that some American had been posing as a peer (online) and had come up here and killed her family and stolen her. Then when we learned that she was actually a suspect, I thought 'which is worse?' The fact that she willingly killed her family because they were an obstacle to her boyfriend or this other horrible scenario? It made me feel sick."

It was during JR's trial that Remington and Zickefoose decided they should write a book about the case. Remington, a seasoned journalist who has reported from Pakistan, East Africa and the Middle East during his long career; and Zickefoose, who has covered crime for five years at the Herald, were a good fit. He was the gifted writer, she the dogged journalist. And besides, they figured somebody was going to tell the sensational tale about Canada's youngest multiple murderer and it might as well be the two reporters who had been on the front lines from the beginning.

"We knew more about it than anybody else," says Remington. "I thought we could do a better job with compassion, respect and depth than anyone else. We thought better us than someone parachuting in from Toronto or New York or Vancouver."

Early into his reporting of the case, Remington discovered that he had a friend--named Judith in the book--who knew the family. Her insights, combined with interviews with the killers' young friends, meticulous examination of love letters, online posts, crime scene photos and even an exclusive one-on-one with Steinke's mother offer as full a picture as we are likely to get into how the unimaginable happened.

Runaway Devil starts with the discovery of the bodies in the basement of the family's quiet suburban home before delving into a chronological study of what led up to it.

The book traces how a smart, attractive preteen from a good family got involved with Steinke, a 23-year-old loser and former abused kid who lived with his mother in a trailer park. We see her immersion into a group of sad, drifting teens brought together by a love of Goth culture, drugs, online social networking and death metal. We see the relationship develop, much to the chagrin of JR's parents. We read Steinke's bad love poetry and witness JR's increased alienation from her family and how she hatched a chilling plan to escape them. We get details of how Steinke stabbed JR's parents to death and differing stories of who killed the boy. And finally, perhaps most disturbingly, we get information about how JR and Steinke acted after the murders: partying, kissing on a couch and generally showing no remorse.

"She still won't take responsibility in her crime," Zickefoose says. "The jig was up, it couldn't be more up. One of those two is lying about who killed the little boy. I'm having a hard time trying to figure her out. And our legal system is designed to protect and rehabilitate her. It's going to make sure that we never understand her because we will never learn her process, of how or if she will be healed psychologically. Those are closed files and we will never know."

To the authors' credit, Runaway Devil doesn't provide knee-jerk, reactionary commentary about how young criminals are dealt with in our justice system. But it does question the fact that JR --who was sentenced to the maximum penalty of 10 years allowed under the Youth Criminal Justice Act--will have her criminal record vanish five years after she finishes her sentence if she stays out of trouble. (Steinke was sentenced to life without parole for 25 years). Zickefoose and Remington admit that, beyond the emotional impact, the biggest challenge of the book was negotiating the legal minefield that is set up to protect the identity and future of young offenders.

Zickefoose says she has heard through sources that JR, who is currently serving her sentence at an Edmonton psychiatric facility, is not happy that the book was being written. As for her extended family, Remington says they didn't officially co-operate with the book. But they didn't oppose it either. Still, as he does the media rounds for Runaway Devil, he worries that the book could reopen wounds. Judith, his friend and an important source in the book, has already contacted him. She was close to the family, including JR.

"I've been talking to her, and she's been traumatized again," Remington says. "The release of the book is causing her to relive all that pain as I'm sure it is for a lot of others in the family. I feel horrible about that and I feel that pain. But I don't think I'm responsible for that. My feeling is that Jeremy Steinke and Runaway Devil are still hurting people."