Canada’s most dangerous city: Prince George

Gang wars, drug abuse and a serial killer guaranteed Prince George, B.C., the top spot
A man known to RCMP was shot and died on Oak Street in August 2010 in Prince George. photo by David Mah Prince George Citizen

Most days, after Doug Leslie is back from work at the molybdenum mine in tiny Fraser Lake, B.C., he sits at his computer and writes a chatty little note to his 15-year-old daughter Loren. It’s a catch-up on the day, and maybe a bleat about those times he pulls the night shift, or about the cold of a northern B.C. winter, or about how quickly days fly by now that he shoulders the destiny Loren has inspired. “Loren, can you do anything about this weather?” he asked her recently. “It’s snowing and I hate winter, it’s cold and damp, and you are not here to warm up the room.” Invariably, he tells Loren how much he misses her, before signing off, “Love Dad.”

The notes grew increasingly plaintive as Nov. 27 approached. The pills weren’t helping him sleep, and the gulf separating father from daughter seemed impossibly wide, although he’d like to believe she reads every one of his messages. “That has been my sanity,” he says of his missives to a daughter who will forever be 15. Nov. 27 was the first anniversary of her murder.

Her alleged killer, 21-year-old Cody Alan Legebokoff, is in custody in nearby Prince George. He faces charges for the first-degree murders of Loren and three other women: Jill Stuchenko and Cynthia Maas, both 35, and Natasha Montgomery, 23.

The murders capped a grim 2010 for Prince George. For the second year in a row, it has the highest—that is to say, worst—score in Maclean’s fourth annual national crime rankings, 114 per cent above the national average. The result is no surprise to RCMP Supt. Eric Stubbs, who heads the detachment there. The year was marked by outbreaks of gang and drug-related crime. Added to that was an uncharacteristic string of nine murders in and around the community of just 74,000 people. Three homicides are alleged to have been committed by Legebokoff that year. Most of the rest are accounted for by organized crime and the drug trade, says Stubbs.

The rankings are based on our analysis of Statistics Canada’s Crime Severity Index (CSI), commissioned by Maclean’s to measure criminal activity in Canada’s 100 largest cities and police districts. Overall, the news is good. Canada’s crime score has fallen almost 23 per cent since the year 2000. Even Prince George, after a murderous year, recorded a crime score 11 per cent lower than a decade ago. The severity index is a relatively new tool StatsCan has created. It uses police reports of a broad spectrum of offences to rank their relative seriousness. More weight is allotted to the worst offences, such as murders, robberies and serious assaults, based on the length of the sentences served. Using StatsCan’s tally of seven murders in 2010, Prince George had the highest per-capita murder rate in Canada—486 per cent above the national average. It also tops the overall, violent and non-violent crime score rankings, among the 100 cities.

Maclean’s also tracked crime trends by commissioning a run of six indicator offences: homicide, sexual assault, aggravated assault, robbery, breaking and entering and auto theft. It shows Prince George residents endured far more than their share. The rate of breaking and entering was 89 per cent above the national average, the second highest in Canada. Vehicle theft was 104 per cent above the national average, eighth highest. Robbery: 57 per cent above average, 14th highest. Sexual assault: 84 per cent above average, fourth highest. Only the rate of aggravated assault was below the national average.

Turf wars over the drug trade, and related addiction issues, account for a significant share of the crime, says Stubbs. Prince George draws a large transient population. As well, gangs have shifted some operations to the B.C. Interior after a concerted effort by police in the Lower Mainland to disrupt the organized drug trade. Still, Stubbs says anti-gang initiatives have had a significant impact, and the work of a new Downtown Enforcement Unit has made the central core safer and more welcoming. “It’s an excellent community and a safe community to live in, if you’re not in that world of drugs, alcohol and violence,” Stubbs says.

But it is the four murders allegedly committed over 13 months by Legebokoff that many find inexplicable. The burly, good-looking son of a prosperous, respected family grew up in Fort St. James, outside Prince George. By most accounts, he had an unremarkable upbringing, playing hockey, snowboarding and hunting. Yet, if police allegations are proven in court, he began a killing spree at age 19 with the murder of Stuchenko in October 2009. Three other murders followed the next year. He was arrested the night of Loren’s murder after an alert RCMP member stopped his pickup as he pulled out of a logging road in a remote area northwest of Prince George. Loren’s body was found that night in the woods. Legebokoff was charged with the other three murders after a 10-month RCMP investigation.

Prince George and area has endured much sorrow and crime. It sits on Highway 16, better known as the Highway of Tears. It’s a long stretch of road cutting through resource towns and wilderness between Alberta and Prince Rupert, B.C., on the Pacific coast. Eighteen women, most of them hitchhikers, vanished or were murdered between 1969 and 2006. (Forensics and his age eliminated Legebokoff as a suspect in any of those unsolved cases.)

Sharon Hurd, who works at the Phoenix Transition Society, a local women’s shelter, says the city remains a dangerous place, especially for vulnerable women. “The viciousness of the retaliation by the gangs up here has everybody absolutely terrified,” she says. “I’m not the least bit relieved, I’m just wondering how quickly they’re going to get the next [killer].”

Loren’s parents draw some comfort from the belief that her murder was the “catalyst,” as Doug puts it, leading to her alleged killer’s arrest, and perhaps saving other lives. He has launched the Loren Donn Leslie Foundation to raise awareness about Internet predation (Loren may have met Legebokoff online) and other risks facing young people. The foundation, he says, is his destiny. A vigil and fundraiser was held on the anniversary of her death. “[E]veryone was awesome and things went really well,” he wrote Loren on the foundation website. “You would have loved it.”

Prince George, too, is moving on. For whatever reason—vigilant policing, circumstance, and, Stubbs concedes, some luck—at this time the city hasn’t recorded a single murder in 2011. “I’m knocking on all the wood I can find,” Stubbs said.