When writer Rebecca Godfrey walked into the Victoria Youth Custody Centre in winter 1997, all she was looking for was a description of the jail for her debut novel, The Torn Skirt-certainly not for an experience that would change the course of her life for years to come. Outside the jail, what would become a media storm was just beginning to brew, as reporters from around the world-many of them had come for the APEC summit in Vancouver-began to catch wind of the atrocities that had taken place under a Victoria bridge. Inside the jail, however, all Godfrey saw were seven very average-looking girls on the wrong side of the bars.
"They just looked so young and suburban-not like misfit bad kids at all. They looked like little girls you would see in the shopping mall," says Godfrey (who grew up in Victoria but has lived in New York since the late 1990s) catching a late breakfast at a hotel restaurant in downtown Vancouver. "I thought 'I wonder how they got here.'?"
The very short answer-and the one that filled reams of newsprint and hours of airtime in the eight years that followed-was that several of the girls had beaten 14-year-old Reena Virk so badly that the coroner said it looked as if she had been hit by a car. As Virk begged for her life, the young teens viciously punched and kicked her in the head, the throat, the ribs, the stomach. One of them extinguished a cigarette on her forehead. Most of them left, but two of them-Warren Glowatski and Kelly Ellard-followed Virk as she stumbled across the bridge. According to the courts, the now-notorious Ellard dragged Virk into the water and held her head under the surface until she drowned. Eighteen small pebbles were found in her lungs. Both Ellard and Glowatski were eventually convicted of second-degree murder, and several of the other girls received convictions for assault.
Headlines declared them "Bad Girls" and said the murder was "over a boy"-which it wasn't-while the usual parade of experts and radio-call-in participants blamed the usual suspects: TV violence, music videos, a lack of discipline, a stretched education system, absent parents, and, of course, teens these days.
Hearing the details of the case as they began to trickle into the public realm, Godfrey became equally enthralled, so much so that she began doing interviews for her recently released book, Under the Bridge: The True Story of the Murder of Reena Virk (HarperCollinsCanada, $32.95). But unlike the news reporters who were determined to find definitive answers through the facts of the case, Godfrey-who was educated as a fiction writer, not a journalist-felt the true story could only be found in the true stories of the characters themselves.
"The most interesting moments in people's lives are the smaller moments. In true-crime books, they never focus on those things. They go right for the blood and gore. But Reena waiting for Colin to arrive is a heartbreaking moment," says Godfrey, referring to a scene in the book in which Virk waits to meet a boy she likes at a corner store. (He never had any intention of showing up, and had only agreed to meet her in order to stop her persistent phone calls.) "Those are the moments that fiction writers are trained to observe. You ask yourself, 'What are the most telling moments?' instead of 'What are the most shocking details?'?"
That's exactly what makes Under the Bridge such a compelling read. We find out that Glowatski, a 5'4", 115-pound kid who was every girl's best friend, was bouncing from couch to couch after being abandoned by his father. We meet his girlfriend, Syreeta, a smart, honest young woman who provided crucial testimony against him-despite the racking guilt it caused her-but got torn to shreds in the media for her seemingly blasé demeanour in the courtroom. We hear about Josephine, the egotistical ringleader who orchestrated the beating, and about the two Russian sisters who listened to her bragging about the assault, then snuck off to inform police-knowing that they could face serious retaliation if they were found out. We discover chilling details about Ellard, who, before Virk's body was found, showed no emotion as she told a high-school counsellor that Virk "probably got picked up by a bunch of guys. That's what guys like to do," and how moments later, she joked with her friend Josephine that Virk was "probably floating around somewhere". And, far from the one-line summaries that appeared in most news reports, the book gives us a real sense of Virk herself: where she played as a child, how she loved to drive in her uncle's sports car, how she fell in with the wrong crowd, how she liked to wear blue nail polish.
We read about the teens' days at school, their dinners at home, their telephone chats. We hear from their parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, counsellors and social workers. ("Mothers woke to their morning coffee; they fed their other, unarrested, children," writes Godfrey, who delves into the effects of the case on the families.) We also find out about the students who had nothing to do with the assault but were repeatedly dragged into the witness box because they had seen or heard something to do with the crime. ("These kids were supposedly so vicious, and then you see these highly paid lawyers committing verbal assault," says Godfrey. "It completely destroyed people. One boy, a witness, had a nervous breakdown.") In the process, the reader gets a rare three-dimensional view of the crime, the investigation, the dragged-out court battles, and, most importantly, the lives of the people who were directly involved or affected.
Problem was, all of those people were not the fictional characters that Godfrey was accustomed to working with-and they had already been swarmed by reporters. Early on in the process, the author was handed the entire police file, which provided eight binders' worth of invaluable information, including transcripts of interviews with all of the accused attackers. Still, in order to get insight into their lives and their perspectives, she knew she needed to speak with them; she just had no idea how challenging that would be.
"Some of them were really hard to find, so it was a little like detective work on my end. I would have their names, but then I would try to find them and their parents would say things like, 'I don't know where that piece of shit is.' So I really started seeing that so many of these kids lived completely transient lives," says Godfrey, who was so nervous about approaching some of the teens that she would put it off for weeks and months; and when she finally met Glowatski in prison, she was the one who was trembling. Still, the writer quickly won their trust. "I think because I was pretty nervous when I called them, I wasn't so intimidating. I definitely wasn't some Barbara Walters. And I didn't approach them with a set of questions; I would just listen to them and let them bring it up if they wanted to. I was also interested in what their lives were like and what they were doing, so they were really happy that someone was actually listening to them. Syreeta was furious about the way the media wrote about her. She said, 'They didn't even talk to me. How do they know?'?"
While on tour promoting the book, Godfrey recently gave a reading in Victoria; but even though Under the Bridge was finished more than a year ago (she had to wait for the final verdict in the third Ellard trial so it could be included in the book), she still feels saddened and overwhelmed when she visits the city-so much so that she is certain she could never live there again. Godfrey also says that she never would have undertaken the project if she had known how much time, effort, and emotion it would demand. (The nightmares that used to haunt her, she says, have finally abated.) Still, she is pleased that the truths she uncovered were finally brought to the surface.
"It was really gruelling. You get close to these people, and then you learn more about their lives and you carry that with you. I had to live with it for years, so it affected me a lot. And sitting through all the trials was really difficult-just seeing the Virks and what they had to go through, and seeing a lot of ridiculous decisions made by people in power who were very arrogant and cavalier. You feel very powerless observing that. I mean, I was watching people get crushed and I couldn't help them," says Godfrey quietly. "So all I could really do was just witness it. But it was important, I felt, to be a witness, because I had my own power to let people know what really happened."