The case of Nelson Hart: 2 girls, 3 years and a mystery ’Mr. Big’

The road to murder charges was in fact an elaborate sting
Nelson Lloyd Hart, 36, is escorted to court in Gander, Nfld., on Monday, June 13, 2005. Hart is charged with two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of three-year-olds Karen and Krista in August 2002. (CP PHOTO/Scott Cook)

Editor’s note: The Supreme Court of Canada has announced its decision on an appeal brought forward by Nelson Hart, who was convicted of first-degree murder in the drowning deaths of his twin daughters after he confessed to an undercover police officer in a “Mr. Big” sting operation. The justices ruled that Hart’s decade-old confession was unreliable and should not have been used in his conviction.

Hart will find out Aug. 5 if he will face a new trial.

This story about Hart was first published in Maclean’s magazine in August 2006 and republished online in October 2013, when the Supreme Court said it would hear Hart’s case.

Nelson Lloyd Hart, 36, is escorted to court in Gander, Nfld., on Monday, June 13, 2005. (Scott Cook/CP)

On Aug. 4, 2002, Nelson Hart drove his three-year-old twin daughters to a secluded beach just west of Gander, Nfld., where both girls drowned. The deaths, on an overcast morning when most of Gander was busy preparing for a local festival, afforded investigators no witnesses. According to news accounts, Hart, 33 at the time and unable to swim, told police that upon seeing the first girl fall in the water, he jumped into his grey Dodge Shadow and drove for help.

With a spotty work record, rumours of mental illness and a gambling problem, Hart came under immediate suspicion. Three days later, the St. John’s Telegram reported on its front page that police would lay criminal charges against him — only to run a correction the following morning. “While the RCMP has started a criminal investigation,” it read, “police have not identified anyone as a suspect.” The Telegram had jumped the gun: it would take the RCMP nearly three years to arrest Hart, a balding, heavy-set man with a moustache, charging him with two counts of first-degree murder.(Hart pleaded not guilty to both charges in June.)What happened in the years between the deaths of his daughters, Krista and Karen, and the day police arrested him in Gander will likely be the subject of his trial, due to begin early next year.

But in an exclusive telephone interview from the St. John’s prison where he’s been since a judge denied him bail, Hart recently gave Maclean’s his own account — a tale that shows him to be greedy, self-serving and highly susceptible to persuasion. Yet he insists he played no role in the drownings and that he is the victim of a bizarre plot to imprison him. “I’m in here on the wrong,” he said, in a high, pleading voice. “I never hurt my daughters.” Police say they charged him after a sting operation uncovered new evidence. Hart says he was drawn into an elaborate ruse when, last winter, he met a stranger in search of his lost sister — a chance encounter that soon drew him into an underworld of violent hoods, suitcases of cash and a mysterious crime boss who brooked no dissent. He ended up in handcuffs.

Put in the vernacular of Newfoundland, Nelson Lloyd Hart is something of a hard case. The eldest of three sons, he was nine months old when a high fever triggered the illness that still plagues him. When Pearl Hart, his mother, heard his laboured breathing late one night in the village northwest of Gander where they lived, “he was coal-black in his crib,” she says. By the time they arrived at the Gander hospital, an hour and a half away, “they told me they didn’t think he was going to make it.”

Though he survived, the illness brought on the epilepsy he inherited from his father’s family. Pearl recalls him as an infant, “his eyes rolled over, foaming at the mouth, his tongue hanging out.” The fits “prevented him from being normal,” she says. “He was always deprived of a lot of things and he was always bitter.” Later, his schoolmates were repelled by the fits. “They used to tease him and tell him how ugly he was — because he was,” Pearl says. “People didn’t get all that close to Nelson.”

By age 12, Hart had already spent three years in Grade 5. Pearl agreed with school officials that he would go no further and, from then on, he stayed home. “To look at him he was healthy — you couldn’t see into his brain,” says Pearl. Hart still has difficulty reading and has lost his driver’s licence several times due to his condition(medication he began taking in his late 20s allowed him to continue driving). Believing his licence was “the only thing in life he had going for him,” says Pearl, Hart frequently refused to go to hospital for serious seizures, fearing doctors would alert authorities. By his mid-20s, he was jobless and living at home. That changed when Pearl’s new common-law husband, whom she says Hart threatened to kill during a row, demanded he move out. “He was sort of a child in a man’s body,” says his mother.

Living on his own, Hart’s seizures grew worse. “I’m having a weak turn,” he would holler, slapping his stomach. The episodes became so severe, says Pearl, that in October, 1997, the provincial government arranged for him to receive live-in care, hiring Jennifer Hicks, a young woman with doe eyes from a small northern hamlet. But Hart wanted more than a nurse and, before long, he and Jennifer were lovers. Asked what drew her to him, Jennifer, now 32, just giggles(the couple was married in March, 2000). The relationship caused Jennifer to lose her home-care job, putting both on social assistance. Soon, she was pregnant, with twins. The prospect of having children terrified Hart: he prayed they wouldn’t suffer from epilepsy too. He wondered how he would care for them. During fits, Hart clutches objects in a rictus grip — glasses break in his fists — and he worried he could suffocate a child.

Karen and Krista were born on March 9, 1999. Karen was the elder by a minute or two and, at five pounds, eight ounces, was just over a pound lighter than Krista. As they grew, the twins’ personalities diverged. “Krista was like Nelson and Karen was like me,” Jennifer says. “Krista was like a little woman — she thought she needed to take care of Karen.” Though there were two beds in the room the girls shared, in the morning Jennifer often found that one had crawled in with the other.

Meanwhile, the chronically poor Hart, who had broken his neck in a car accident the year before, received something of a windfall: a $25,000 insurance claim. Hart bought a bed, a chesterfield, a table set and clothes for his newborns, but when social services discovered the award, says Pearl, they forced him to sell his purchases and relinquish the money. “That’s when everything started downhill for Nelson,” says Pearl. By the time of the drownings, Hart was spending what little money he had gambling. “He’d stay until the machine shut down,” recalls Jennifer. The situation was so dire that social services threatened to remove the children and told Jennifer she would have to make a choice. “It was either going to be the girls — or Nelson,” she says.

Such were his circumstances on the morning of Aug. 4, 2002, when Hart drove his girls to their deaths. The family had been looking forward to that day’s demolition derby, part of the annual Festival of Flight celebrations that locals call “Gander Day.” Jennifer “had the girls dressed and fed,” recalls Hart, but needed a shower and to do her hair — a chore that, with locks flowing down to the small of her back, took over an hour. Due to his fits, Hart had always avoided being alone with the twins. But that day he loaded them into his Dodge Shadow and asked where they’d like to go. “We wants to go to the swings,” they sang. With that, they set out for Little Harbour, a hidden corner of Gander Lake surrounded by thick brush 10 km west of town where swings had been erected just days earlier. Upon their arrival, Hart first retrieved Krista from the back seat, setting her on the ground, then Karen.

He had just put the second child down and shut the car door when he says he suffered a massive seizure. Hart recalls one of the girls running but cannot remember whether she was running toward him or to the water(the twins were frightened of his seizures and, when one came upon him at home, he would hide from them). When he came to, Hart told Maclean’s, he looked and saw Krista “into the water.” The fit left him confused. “All I could picture was Jennifer — where’s Jennifer?” he says. “I could see her but I couldn’t get to her.” Though he knows he got behind the wheel of his car, he does not remember driving home. “By this time, I was starting around to my real senses,” says Hart. “I said, ‘Oh my God, Karen’s there, too.’ ”

As he sped back to the harbour with Jennifer, says his wife, “it didn’t seem like Nelson was going fast enough — but he had the gas to the floor.” At the beach, “we found Krista into the water,” says Hart. She had drifted into the middle of the harbour, beyond reach. Jennifer, who couldn’t swim either, began searching the surrounding forest for Karen, who had disappeared entirely. Hart, meanwhile, raced to a nearby gas station and called authorities. Paramedics retrieved Krista, who somehow survived but died the following day in hospital, and found Karen in the water 10 m from the wharf, dead. As police drove him away from Little Harbour for questioning later that morning, Hart suffered a second seizure. “I loved my daughters,” says Hart. “My own flesh and blood — there are times when I cried, I cried, I cried.”

The account of the drownings that Hart supplied Maclean’s forms a more detailed picture of that morning’s events than did news reports that followed after the tragedy, when police said he drove away immediately upon seeing the first girl in the water. Indeed, according to his mother, Hart did not tell police of his seizure until over a week after the deaths. “He didn’t want to lose his driver’s licence,” says Pearl(though she cannot explain Hart’s reticence even after suffering one in the back of a cruiser later on the morning of the deaths). Yet Hart’s latest account of that day is not what he told a man by the name of Steph Sauve and Sauve’s mysterious boss last summer.

At first, Sauve’s arrival in his life was a boon to Nelson Hart. “The Lord finally answered my prayer,” he once told Pearl. After the drownings, he and Jennifer had separated for a time. Now the couple was back together — Jennifer had missed her husband — and was living in Grand Falls, Nfld. Neither had a job and both were squeezed in a small apartment. “We never had a bed to lie on,” says Hart. “All we had was a sponge on the floor.” The couple was often hungry and could not even afford a headstone for Krista and Karen’s graves.

Hart met Sauve in the winter of 2005, when the swarthy French Canadian pulled up and asked for directions. Then he pulled out a photograph of a young woman with long blond hair. She was his sister, Sauve said, a drug addict who gambled away her days in the local bars. Their mother, he added, had lung cancer in Montreal and longed to see her daughter before she died. Could Hart help him look for her? “I’ll give you $50,” Sauve said. “That,” thought Hart of the money, “could go to a bed.” When he failed to locate his sister in Grand Falls, Sauve gave him $50 more and a carton of cigarettes to search another nearby town. “My,” Sauve told Jennifer when he met her, “you have some nice man there — he’s going to help find my sister.”

Hart never did find the woman. But the following day, Sauve offered him more money to collect a package from his hotel and make a delivery. Hart suspected drugs and drove instead to Gander for his mother’s advice. Pearl called the RCMP and says a constable told the pair: “If he’s foolish enough to pay you, then let him.” Before long, Sauve was giving Hart all manner of odd jobs. He and a group of associates said they ran a trucking outfit and handed Hart business cards with its name — BCW Transport: Coast to Coast Service, complete with a Toronto address. Hart carted a Ski-Doo by U-Haul to Corner Brook, where a man signed an invoice provided by the company, and later drove a new Pontiac Grand Am to Deer Lake.

Hart and his wife, who rode along on several trips, were meanwhile being treated by his new employers to pizza dinners, garlic fingers and free hotel rooms. One night, Sauve uncorked a bottle of champagne and sprayed the contents on the ceiling. There was talk they’d arrange a real Vegas wedding for the couple. And Hart was suddenly flush. With his earnings, he bought a headstone engraved with two angels for Krista and Karen, laying down $4,000. “That’s the first thing he bought of it,” says Jennifer, who had twin Winnie the Pooh dolls encased in waterproof plastic cubes placed by each grave. Hart paid $6,500 for a used 2000 Pontiac Sunfire and purchased a chesterfield and a mattress for their bed. “He bought,” says Pearl, “a lot of necessaries.”

He was earning more in part because Sauve had begun sending him on trips to the mainland — on increasingly mysterious errands. In Halifax, Sauve gave him a key to a numbered locker in a local YMCA. Inside, he found an envelope and brought it back to Sauve, who was in a meeting with a third man Hart did not know. Sauve tore open the envelope and withdrew two credit cards. “There are some samples,” he told the man, handing them over. Hart says he balked at what he knew to be contraband. Later, Sauve looked at him. “You don’t tell nobody,” he said. “You can’t tell your mother, your wife, your dog, your cat — you can’t tell your goldfish.” He added: “You’re in a circle now — you don’t get out.”

Hart soon learned he’d been recruited by an organized crime group with international reach. He travelled extensively in the ensuing months — to Halifax, Fredericton, Montreal and Vancouver — at the bidding of his new bosses, a cast of characters that included contacts across Canada. According to Hart, the men had him transporting everything from casino chips and passports to truck-loads of cigarettes and cash. “When I got into it,” says Hart, “I couldn’t back out.” In one city, they claimed to run prostitutes. “It’s not a pretty sight because sometimes you gotta bash their heads in to get them to pay up,” one man told him. Another time they supplied him with strippers. Hart turned away. “I’m married, I love my wife, I thinks the world of her,” he says.

The work had its perils. He was staying in a room at the Chimo Hotel, in Ottawa, when Sauve arrived with a man he identified as an American and a “good customer.” Not long after they sat down to business, Sauve struck the American savagely across the face. Then he directed Hart to the bathroom, where a suitcase was stowed behind the shower curtain. Hart laid it on the bed. Inside was more cash than he’d ever seen, “all stacks of $100 bills.” Sauve struck the American again. “Don’t mention my name,” he told the man. In another incident in Montreal, Sauve stepped into the room with blood on his knuckles. “I had to take care of some business,” Sauve told him. Once, Pearl says, Sauve wondered aloud whether Hart could similarly take care of business. “What about if you have to pull the trigger?” he asked him. Hart replied: “I have no problem with that.”

Nor did it take long for Hart himself to feel vulnerable. He was in Montreal with Sauve when the latter received a call. “We gotta see the boss,” Sauve told him. Word had arrived from Gander that a member of a rival gang was poised to tell police that he’d witnessed Hart drown his daughters. The boss, Sauve said, was “very rich and powerful” — a man in control of the underworld. “People go there,” Sauve said, “and get cremated. Flushed down the toilet. Bye bye, send you a postcard.” His meeting with the boss was held in a hotel room in Vancouver. “He was a hard-looking fellow,” Hart says. “I’m afraid, Nelson,” the boss told him. “Tell me how you done away with your daughters.” Hart protested. “Never, sir, never, I never hurt my daughters,” he said. “I’m epileptic, sir.” The boss was displeased. “Oh, no, no, no — don’t go lying to the boss,” he said. “Don’t lie to the boss.”

Hart was terrified. “I’ll be made away with if I go against the boss,” he thought. He uttered a confession. “I drowned my daughters, I pushed them over the wharf,” he told the boss, describing how he had knocked the girls into the waters of Little Harbour with his knee. The confession flooded him with a sense of relief. “I knew then I wouldn’t have my ribs broke. I knew I wasn’t going to be made away with,” he told Maclean’s. After the meeting, the boss greeted his lackeys. “Me and Nelson had a chat,” he told them. “Nelson’s okay.”(Hart would later act out the episode with Sauve at Little Harbour.)

Back in Grand Falls, Hart got a call from Sauve. The gang would take care of the man threatening to reveal Hart’s secret, he told him. Hart says he told Sauve he wanted no part in a murder. Sauve reassured him, saying they would only “take care of him.” Still, Hart wanted an alibi. Sauve told him he would call ahead of time, giving Hart a chance to get in front of a security camera for proof he’d been elsewhere. Hart and his wife were doing their laundry when the call arrived. According to Jennifer, he did not even permit her to retrieve their clothes. Nor would he tell her why he so desperately needed to get to WalMart. Inside, Hart turned to her. “Jennifer,” he said, “look up at the camera and smile.” They stared into the camera for 20 minutes.

The following day — on June 13, 2005 — the RCMP arrested Hart at the airport in Gander, where Sauve had directed him to pick up a plane ticket for yet another trip to the mainland. As police gathered outside his car, Hart tried to place a call to Sauve. “No point in calling Steph,” an officer told him. “He’s with us.” Crown prosecutors are now armed with Hart’s videotaped confessions to the murders, intercepted by hidden cameras. Sauve, “the boss” and the others Hart met on his journeys were not the gangsters they claimed to be but rather undercover RCMP officers — part of an elaborate police ruse known as a “Mr. Big” operation that Greg Brodsky, a Winnipeg defence lawyer who has worked similar cases, says is illegal in the United Kingdom and many U.S. states, but which has been used with increasing frequency in Canada. Though they declined further comment, both Cpl. Phil Matthews, of the RCMP’s major crime unit in Gander, and Hart’s defence lawyer, Derek Hogan, confirmed the existence of the sting.

Such silence on the part of police leaves Hart’s as the sole voice in the story of the RCMP operation. The degree to which he participated — how willing he was to move what he believed was contraband, say, and how hard “the boss” needed to work for Hart’s alleged confession — remains unknown beyond his account.

At Hart’s preliminary hearing last fall, Pearl and Jennifer were outside the courtroom when Sauve, who the pair now refer to by his real name, walked by and said hello. “My son,” Jennifer told him, “you got some nerve on you.” Indeed, Hart’s family — his wife, who still lives in Grand Falls, and his mother, remain close — believes him innocent and condemns the RCMP. “I think they overstepped their boundaries with Nelson,” says Pearl, a position she holds even after watching her son’s taped confession at the behest of the RCMP — including his exchange with Sauve about whether he could “pull the trigger.” She accepts almost daily collect calls from Hart’s prison; $400 bills are routine.

Only Hart himself, the sole survivor of that late summer day at Little Harbour, knows for sure how his daughters died. But whether by tragedy or malice, the deaths of Krista and Karen Hart have since claimed a third casualty. Recently, standing by the waters where her girls drowned — the first time she has revisited the spot since that morning in 2002 — Jennifer stared vacantly. Though her hair is shorter now, she still wears a gold necklace with a dangling “#1 MOM” pendant. “The girls was my life,” said Jennifer. “When they died, it was like I died too.”