Mention the names Jessica States or Carolyn Lee to people in Port Alberni, and depending on a person’s generation, someone is going to have a memory of these young girls.
Long memories will recall that both girls went missing and were found murdered, two decades apart—circumstances that shook the resource-based city hard enough those reverberations are still felt today. What people may not recall is that ground-breaking science led to the capture and convictions of both murderers.
Retired Alberni Valley Times journalist Shayne Morrow has written a riveting true crime book on both murders and the science that links them. The Bulldog and the Helix: DNA and the Pursuit of Justice in a Frontier Town has been published by Heritage House and will be released in Port Alberni on Thursday, May 23 at an official book launch.
In April 1977, the city of Port Alberni was shaken by the murder of 12-year-old Carolyn Lee, who was abducted while walking home from dance class. Within days of the crime, police had formed a good idea of the killer’s identity, but they lacked the proof needed to make an arrest, and the trail went cold.
Twenty years later, Lee’s case would be the first in Canada to go to trial based on historic DNA samples, leading to the conviction of the original suspect, Gurmit Singh Dhillon, in 1998.
In 1996, the community was devastated again by the disappearance and murder of 11-year-old Jessica States as she chased foul balls from the sidelines of a local fast-pitch game. The States investigation also made history as the first in Canada to attempt a DNA “blooding”—taking voluntary mass DNA samples from individuals known to have been near the crime scene.
Morrow was in a unique position to tell this story: he was working at the AV Times as a reporter when Lee’s murderer, Gurmit Dhillon was arrested and eventually convicted, and he covered the Jessica States story from her disappearance from a baseball tournament at Gyro Recreation Park on July 31, 1996 to the conviction in 2001 of Roderick (Roddy) Patten for States’ death.
Right from the first page of The Bulldog and the Helix, Morrow hooks the reader into his tale, describing the frontier aspect of a resource-based town in the late 1970s—remnants of which still exist today. With two decades of experience as a news writer, Morrow accomplishes what he does best: he paints a concise picture of both murders, police investigations and court cases, without sensation, and allows the voices of the people involved to tell the story as it unfolded.
Morrow spends a lot of time explaining how the emerging science of DNA played into both crimes. It was a passion of his from a young age. “I got hooked on DNA quite early in life, in high school,” he explains.
Because of his interest in the scientific part of the story, and due to some lucky timing, Morrow had unprecedented access to the DNA lab in Vancouver. He was headed to Vancouver for a work experience stint with Stirling News Service, and Port Alberni RCMP detachment commander, Chief Inspector Andy Murray, set up a visit to the lab. “I was able to take it in with some background,” Morrow said.
He chose not to approach the Lee or States families for interviews, although he has made family members aware of his book. “I made a promise not to knock on their door and ask them how upset they were,” Morrow said. “It was something I set up as a mental note.”
Morrow will read from his book and answer questions at his official launch on Thursday, May 23, 7 p.m. at Echo Centre. Books will be available at the Alberni Valley Museum and online at amazon.ca. For more information, phone the museum at 250-720-2863.