Brian King’s 20-year pursuit of a killer
Bre-X to Baltovich to Bernardo: as an investigator Brian King has done it all. As he prepares for retirement, Ontario’s master private eye turns his attention to public service – pro bono, of course.
Celebrated Canadian private investigator Brian King is at the top of his game.
He started almost 40 years ago with practically nothing and built up an empire - King-Reed Associates - with offices stretching across Canada. In 2011, King-Reed merged with Canpro Global to become Canada’s largest national investigation and risk management firm.
Over the decades he landed wealthy, powerful clients, including banks, insurance companies, governments and even police forces.
Not surprisingly, some of his cases grabbed newspaper headlines, such as his efforts in exotic locations to unravel the mysteries of the $6 billion dollar Bre-X “gold” scam.
After such an extraordinary career in the private corporate world, King is about to plunge into the world of public service. The recent sale of his business has given him the opportunity to work for The Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC), for an entire year – and he will not be charging a cent for his services.
Working pro bono is nothing new for King. Since he got into the job about 40 years ago, he has worked for nothing on numerous cases where an innocent person has been imprisoned. Two of these cases are among the most notorious miscarriages of justice in Canadian history:
Steven Truscott: Only 14-years old when he was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to hang in 1959 for the murder of Lynne Harper (exonerated in 2007 thanks to the assistance of AIDWYC.) Few criminal cases have touched the Canadian public as much as the troubling arrest, prosecution and sentencing of Steven Truscott, which became the subject of books, documentaries, articles and inquiries.
"My days were spent putting away white collar criminals and my evenings and weekends were spent getting wrongly convicted people out of jail.”
Robert Baltovich: Wrongly convicted in 1992 and acquitted in 2008 of the murder of his girlfriend Elizabeth Bain. Only in a defence lawyer’s wildest fantasy – or perhaps a John Grisham novel - could the client be vindicated after investigation led to a notorious serial rapist and murderer. However, life can truly prove stranger than fantasy and fiction. By the time of the trial, the defence was able to point the finger at the as yet unidentified “Scarborough Rapist,” as the possible killer. By the time of the appeal, the Scarborough rapist had been identified as none other than Paul Bernardo, one of the most reviled criminals in Canadian history.
Payment was far less important to King than the opportunity to use his investigation skills to help remedy rank injustices in these high profile cases – as well as in many other cases of which the public were largely unaware.
In his early years, while building up his business, King, the son of a police officer with a charitable spirit, realized that the only commodity he had to give anybody was time.
Once his business became successful, pro bono work became his personal way of giving something back to the community, including the underdogs and the less fortunate.
King quickly learned that the big bucks in private investigation were generated by “fraud” work.
“To put it sort of bluntly,” he says, “my days were spent putting away white collar criminals and my evenings and weekends were spent getting wrongly convicted people out of jail.”
When King was asked to work on the Baltovich case for lawyers who had a meager retainer, he agreed to go pro bono because the family could not afford to pay for his services. Although Legal Aid paid him initially, he didn’t bill ‘everything’, volunteered to work for reduced rates and thereafter did it for free.
Little did he realize that he would be working on the case for nearly twenty years.
“The case of Robert Baltovich really haunted me, especially after the conviction,” King says. “I felt so strongly about the fact that an injustice had been done that I was not going to give up.”
Lawyer Joanne McLean, who worked alongside lawyers James Lockyer and Brian Greenspan, represented Baltovich at his successful appeal, and later at his 2nd trial, where the Crown elected to call no evidence, notes that King spent $2,500 out of his own pocket for a transcript of the first trial after Baltovich was convicted in 1992.
“We needed them to dissect the case and what the actual witnesses testified to, and there was no funding to get the transcripts,” says King. “I didn’t even ponder about it. I went to the court reporter and asked, ‘how soon and how much?’”
McLean also notes that on Baltovich’s application for bail pending appeal after eight years in the penitentiary, King privately volunteered to sign for $200,000 after hearing the proposed sureties commit in open court to sign for a total of $800,000.
McLean thinks this was a sign that King was so satisfied that Baltovich was innocent that he knew he would not be ‘risking’ any money anyway. (Ultimately King’s participation became unnecessary).
One of the keys to King’s success is his insistence on taking absolutely nothing for granted, re-investigating everything and re-interviewing all witnesses.
This approach proved particularly apt in the Baltovich case, where crucial documents that could lead to his exoneration were concealed from the defence.
“Brian and others who work for innocent clients give them hope that the truth, that is out there somewhere, might one day be discovered,”
McLean says that King’s “beautifully bound” trial investigation files revealed a “leave no stone unturned kind of guy” who was “absolutely thorough, insightful, a master of making links, and full of good ideas.
Another key to King’s success, noted by McLean, is his commitment to finding the truth – wherever it may lead.
“In all the time I’ve been dealing with him he has never said ‘we shouldn’t investigate that for fear of where it may go”, she says. “He’s open-minded, prepared to face anything. He just needs to look straight forward at it. Good or bad, he’s looking for the truth.”
McLean says there’s another side of Brian King, which she also admires. Indeed, it pours out. “He’s funny. He’s got a really good sense of humour. He’s very smart. He’s kind. He’s gentle. Generous. Indefatigable. He’s married. Indeed he’s got two sons who he has brought into AIDWYC.”
Robert Baltovich says that King, who provided him with “strength” and “emotional comfort”, came into his life at a time when he was “quite terrified” about what awaited him, having had no experience with the Canadian criminal justice system - and despite knowing that he was innocent, “I had no real sense that anyone was actually trying to find out what had happened to Liz.”
“Brian and others who work for innocent clients give them hope that the truth, that is out there somewhere, might one day be discovered,” he adds. “Brian interviewed many witnesses who had already been infected with the tunnel vision of the police but he was able to track down valuable information, track down witnesses and peruse leads that I am convinced helped persuade the Crown to call no evidence at my second trial.”
Derek Finkle, author of an important book, No Claim to Mercy, which brought considerable public attention to the Baltovich case in the time leading up to the appeal, says another key to King’s success is his historian-like refusal to allow a single document that may or may not be related to the case get out of his grasp.
Finkle recalls King leading him into a small windowless office whose sole purpose was to house the material he had amassed on “the Bain File.”
Within that room, King had amassed court transcripts, police statements, thousands of documents pertaining to King’s investigation, including tapes and photographs, Baltovich’s notes, a copy of Elizabeth Bain’s diary from 1990 (which had been entered into evidence) and reams of correspondence.
“It took me more than a year to make it through all the materials Brian had collected about the Baltovich case,” he says.
Lawyer Lockyer says that another one of King’s prodigious talents is “the ability to dig out people from the past and convince them that talking about it is important to the present.”
This was particularly important in the Truscott case, where King had the extreme challenge of locating witnesses, who, back in 1959 when Lynn Harper was murdered, were “army brats” between 16-18 years of age - children of military people who are posted all over Canada every couple of years.
To make matters even more difficult, there were also female witnesses, who had married, acquired new surnames, and were even more difficult to find.
King says it was gratifying to have had the chance to use his skills in finding crucial witnesses and conducting unique photography reconstructions to assist lawyers on this historic case “and get the result we ultimately did.”
For AIDWYC, which has achieved 20 exonerations since it realized its first success in the case of Guy Paul Morin in 1995, landing a seasoned investigator of King’s stature and ability is a huge boon.
“It’s great,” says Lockyer. “There aren’t many good ones out there.”
Besides, private eyes don’t come cheap,and King has been told that there will be about 25 cases waiting for him when he shows up for work.
A seasoned investigator may charge up to $300.00 per hour or more, and AIDWYC doesn’t have access to those kinds of funds, except, perhaps, for the exceptional case.
And coming up with the “fresh evidence” that Canadian courts require to overturn a wrongful conviction can be a very time-consuming task.
King says he has never charged AIDWYC for any of his work because he knows the organization would be spending scarce donated money which otherwise could be used to fund expert witnesses such as pathologists.
As part of his responsibilities, King will encourage other private investigators to do pro bono work on wrongful conviction cases and set up an investigation “protocol” for the organization.
Robert Baltovich says King’s move will help “level the playing field,” which seems to wrongfully accused persons to be tilted in favour of the prosecution and the police.
Baltovich stresses that indigent clients must get “not only the representation they deserve but the investigation they deserve: “One that might make the difference between languishing in prison for a crime you didn’t commit and spending your life free knowing that the right person was brought to justice.”
“I can’t image anything more satisfying for a private investigator.”
It’s not really a surprise that King has chosen to devote a year of his life to AIDWYC and its clients, instead of deservedly lounging under palm trees by the pool side in Florida, or travelling around the world.
This man just has to investigate.
“My wife says your hobby is your work,” he says. “It really is. I mean, I live and breathe investigations.”
King is also living and breathing yet another dream.
In his own words: “Believe it or not, the Baltovich case continues behind the scenes. My dream is to eventually find the evidence that will prove who killed Elizabeth Bain.”
About the Author
Harold Levy is a lawyer, freelance author and former reporter. @hlevy15