By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express
It was the morning of February 15, 2012 when someone entered the Oshawa home of Claudio Cara, stabbed him in the chest and left him to die on his kitchen floor.
This home was shared with his son Frank.
Nine months later, the Durham Regional Police (DRPS) pointed the finger at Frank.
Claiming innocence, an alibi cemented by multiple family members, Frank spent 10 months in jail before a crucial piece of evidence came to light and he was released, the charges dropped. The evidence is a report from his father’s pacemaker, stating his time of death and proving Frank’s alibi.
Now, Frank is suing DRPS for $5 million due to an investigation that he says unfairly targeted him, had his phone tapped, his car tracked, and his family and girlfriend harassed by investigators, a statement of claim alleges.
The Durham Regional Police Services Board, Chief Paul Martin, and detectives John Dingwall, Mark Sheridan and Paul Sartain are all named in the suit.
Frank agreed to sit with the Oshawa Express at the office of his lawyers in Toronto. Information for this story comes from that interview and the statement of claim. None of the allegations have been proven in court.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Frank is awake early that morning. It’s the day after Valentine’s Day, and Frank figures he will visit his sick grandmother, or Nona, as the Italian family calls her, who is undergoing treatment for breast cancer. He remembers his father telling him he should visit her some time that week and decides today is a good day.
After watching some highlights on The Score, Frank heads out around 8:45 a.m., shutting the door behind him.
Nona is still at the hospital when he arrives a little after 9 a.m. He talks with Nonu, his grandfather, small talk about work, Nonu sharing stories of his days working on the railroads in the 50s and 60s.
When Nona returns with Frank’s aunt and sister, she invites him for lunch.
“Well, what are you making?” Frank asks.
She tells him she’ll make his favorite, hamburger and fries, and he can’t say no.
It’s around 10 a.m. and Frank tries to call his Dad to tell him where he’ll be for lunch.
There is no answer on the home phone or Claudio’s cell, so Frank leaves a message.
Returning home after lunch, walking up to the house, Frank notices that something is off.
The mail is still in the box, something his dad would usually gather in the morning.
He picks it up, opens the screen door and stops.
The inside door is slightly ajar.
Knowing that pressure from the screen door closing can sometimes bump open the inside door, Frank steps inside and yells for his father as he takes off his shoes. He tells him he picked up the mail.
There is no reply.
There is no TV on. The house is silent.
“I started walking into the kitchen to put the mail down and that’s when I saw my father lying on the ground there. When I first saw him on the ground, I thought he’d had a heart attack,” recalls Frank.
Claudio, a longtime employee of GM, faced early retirement in 2007 due to a heart condition for which he had a pacemaker installed two years previous.
“I’m screaming his name and there’s no response,” Frank says.
“As I turned him, that’s when I noticed that his face was all white, kind of bluish, and when I looked, there was a puddle of blood to the side of him and then as I turned him, there was a steel object in his stomach.”
The object was a knife, one from Cara’s kitchen, but the handle was missing.
“So at that point, I freaked and ran to the neighbor and started pounding on his door.”
It is still unclear to Frank’s lawyers now whether Durham Regional Police Services (DRPS) ever had any other suspects in mind.
Brian Gover of Stockwoods LLP in Toronto, who is representing Frank, along with his colleague Andrea Gonsalves, says it is hard to comment on the DRPS investigation now, as a statement of defense has yet to be filed by the police force in the civil case.
The DRPS did not provide comment for this story as the matter is now before the courts.
“As I see it, the police took steps that went from February 15, 2012, up to November 6, and they really used a number of investigative techniques all focusing on Frank. To our knowledge at this point, there wasn’t any consideration of other suspects and it became a matter of trying to prove a case against the person who they thought was the best available suspect,” Gover says.
According to Frank, it was the day after his father’s murder that he started to suspect the police were looking at him for the murder.
Frank, along with several members of his family, went to the station and during this time, the homicide detectives on the case asked to speak with Frank alone.
“That’s when I got, ‘we know where the handle is’, ‘tell us where the handle is,’ all that,” Frank says of the detectives’ comments.
They also pointed to a small medallion on Frank’s keychain, comparing it to a pacemaker, telling Frank they could easily gather information from the pacemaker in his father’s chest.
“I said go ahead,” Frank says.
“I was compliant with them,” Frank says. “So I thought being compliant and me saying I had nothing to hide and you can ask me anything, it’s already an open book, that they would have ventured elsewhere.”
Throughout the course of the investigation, Frank provided clothing and shoes, fingerprints, surrendered his car keys and gave the DRPS full permission to analyze the home.
The only thing he declined was a polygraph, believing it would be unreliable due to him taking antidepressants at the time, and still grieving for his father, the statement of claim says.
In the course of the investigation, Frank’s statement of claim alleges a tracking device was placed on his car, his phone was tapped, his text messages intercepted, an undercover officer attempted to befriend Frank, and his sister was asked to wear a wire and confront him about the murder.
The statement of claim also alleges Frank’s girlfriend, Jennifer Tureski, was told as part of the investigation that Frank was a heavy drug user who shouldn’t be around her children, and there was the threat of notifying the Children’s Aid Society.
Frank admitted in the interview that he had used drugs recreationally in the past.
As part of the murder probe, investigators are said to have told Frank’s friends and family that it’s possible that Frank was a liar, a drug addict and a murderer, according to the statement of claim.
“Yet no reasonable effort was made to determine the time of death of Claudio Cara,” the statement of claim reads.
The pacemaker manufacturer, St. Jude Medical, analyzed Claudio’s pacemaker in March of 2012 and a report was prepared for DRPS in July, which stated the pacemaker noted two “loss of capture” events on the morning of Feb. 15. Simply, the pacemaker noted the times that the small pulse emitted by the pacemaker was not enough to get the heart beating again.
These two events were captured at 10:35 a.m. and 10:36 a.m.
“In other words, on or about July 19, 2012, or even earlier, the DRPS investigators knew or should have known that Claudio Cara had died at a time when Frank had been at his grandmother’s house, in the company of witnesses. They knew, or should have known that this ruled him out as a suspect,” the statement of claim says.
Yet, four months later, on November 6, 2012, Frank was arrested for his father’s murder.
“They had it (the information) at an early stage,” Gover says. “It does appear that it was ignored, but it’s difficult to see how you could even come to reasonable grounds to believe that even an offense had been committed with the presence of affirmative alibi evidence.”
Frank wakes up at his aunt and uncle’s, where he’s been staying since his father was murdered nine months previous.
Sitting down for lunch, fried potatoes, a ham and cheese sandwich with a pop he doesn’t quite finish, the phone rings.
The family has been working to sell his dad’s house with his aunt handling most of the salesman duties.
Somebody wants to see the house, and Frank’s aunt makes an appointment for 2 p.m. that afternoon.
Not long after, the phone rings again. This time it’s DRPS and they want to speak with his aunt and uncle down at the station.
Well, they won’t be able to until after two, Frank’s aunt explains. The officer on the other end says that’s fine and they set a time for 4 p.m.
Frank and his aunt and uncle head over to the house before the appointment in order to tidy things up and make it presentable.
They take separate cars so the aunt and uncle can visit the station after the showing.
Driving his own car, Frank heads down the street, noticing a police cruiser parked off on a side street.
As he passes, the car immediately pulls out and the officer flicks on the car’s lights.
Confused, knowing he wasn’t speeding, he’s wearing his seatbelt, Frank wondered what was going on?
He watches the officer through the rearview mirror, who hasn’t moved from his car.
As he drops his head to light a cigarette, several more cruisers speed onto the street.
A detective approaches the window and tells Frank to shut the car off.
He tells him to put the keys on the passenger seat. Frank does. He asks him to step out of the car. Frank does that too.
“Then he grabbed me and turned me around and said you’re under arrest for the murder of your father, Claudio Cara,” Frank recalls.
“At that time, my aunt and uncle were driving by because they were going to see the house. They saw all the cruisers, so my uncle pulled over on the side and said ‘what’s going on?’ And they said he’s being arrested for the murder and even my uncle at the time said, ‘I don’t think so, you’ve got the wrong person, and they said, ‘well, we’ll see about that.”
For the first time since his father’s death, Frank decided he needed to get a lawyer.
A history of tunnel vision
“It’s difficult to come to any sort of conclusion here other than this was tunnel vision where the police had done what they could, developed what they considered to be a circumstantial case, but of course, ignoring a key piece in the whole puzzle that meant the other evidence was completely inadequate,” Gover says.
This is also not the first time DRPS has arrested the wrong man.
In 1992, Guy Paul Morin was wrongfully arrested for the 1984 murder of his next-door neighbor, nine-year-old Christine Jessop.
In 1995, DNA evidence exonerated Morin, following which a public inquiry was held, commissioned by former Quebec Court of Appeal judge the Honourable Fred Kaufman.
After the inquiry, Kaufman released a report outlining 119 recommendations for the DRPS in order to avoid these situations in the future.
In the conclusion of his report, he stated that many of the failings of the investigation “go to the heart of police culture.”
“An investigation can be perfectly structured, but flounder due to tunnel vision or ‘noble cause corruption or loss of objectivity or bad judgment. Older techniques and thought processes are, at times, deeply ingrained and difficult to change,” Kaufman writes.
“The failings which I identified were systematic and were not confined to several officers only. The challenge for Durham will be to enhance policing through an introspective examination of the culture. I am convinced that such an examination has commenced.”
Gover is also convinced that police forces have done a great deal to address the problems of tunnel vision and their consequences on those being investigated.
“This isn’t a case of a wrongful conviction because, fortunately, the case never got that far, but I think that part of the lesson of (Frank’s) case is despite all the awareness in legal circles, including lawyers and police officers and certainly judges, that a case like this can still happen,” Gover says.
Four concrete walls
Frank spent 10 months in jail at the Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay. During that time his communication was cut off from his girlfriend and his aunt, and he was only able to speak with his uncle if he answered the phone.
Frank says the thoughts set in like a sickness.
“Then came the kind of heartbreak and that sickening feeling. That’s how I can describe it, like a sickening feeling that I got that overwhelmed me,” he says.
“I’m rotting in here for something I didn’t do and now it’s very hard to prove you didn’t do something once you’ve been accused of it. So, at certain times, I’m sitting in there going, ‘I’m going to spend the rest of my life in jail, this is what I’m coming to, four concrete walls and the chaos that’s happening in here,” Frank says.
However, he says he never gave up hope.
“I never gave up on it, but there were those days where you’re just like, ‘am I ever going to get out of here?’ ‘Am I ever going to get out of this place?’ I didn’t do anything and that’s all I would do sometimes is hope and pray that there would be something or someone that could, you know, deter that, say this wasn’t him.”
Frank’s prayers were answered in August of 2013.
Frank’s lawyers, while preparing for his trial, discovered the pacemaker information buried among thousands of pages of disclosure. The information was immediately presented to the Crown.
On August 31, 2013, Frank was released from custody.
The handcuffs and shackles click off, and the relief sets in.
Frank runs across the courtroom to throw his arms around his aunt and uncle.
Despite the relief, the gnawing worry is still there.
Frank knows it’s not over yet.
A family in tatters
“It was a relief that I’m out, but I knew there was still more of a hill to climb, that this obstacle wasn’t over yet. I’m climbing Mount Everest and I’m at a peak, but it’s not the top, there’s still more to go,” Frank says.
It wasn’t until December 2013 that the second-degree murder charge against Frank was dropped.
However, the damage was done.
Frank could not return to Oshawa, where he had grown up since he was a child. His family was torn apart with grief and suspicion.
It wasn’t until after that Frank found out his sister had, in the fall of 2012, tried to convince the police to arrest him for murder, the statement of claim reads.
Claudio’s death had divided Frank’s family.
“It tore our family apart. We weren’t the strongest whole bunch of family to begin with. Every family has their problems and issues, but a European family, my father was Italian, we believed in the family, the morals,” Frank says.
“Family was always there, good times and bad, and all of a sudden this happens and it started tearing things apart.”
Despite this, Frank has a hard time letting go of how he says his family turned its back on him during the DRPS investigation.
“What they did is very unforgiveable, so the relationship with them, I don’t really want a relationship with them anymore. They’ve made no effort with me. I was on bail conditions and stuff like that, I was out, they knew where my aunt and uncle lived, there was no attempt made to (find out) how I was doing or why did things happen like that or anything. There was nothing. So the no communication basically tells me a story in itself,” Frank says.
The ordeal has changed him, Frank says. His attitudes and his ability to trust have been tarnished.
“Before, I was easy going, let’s do this, let’s do that, not a problem. And after that, it’s more hesitant and not trustworthy anymore.
“People I could go to and trust weren’t there anymore, or the ones I trusted and counted on were backstabbing me in the back anyways, so I don’t know which route to go. The person that I would go to for any of these problems was my dad,” he says.
And through it all, Frank is still trying to cope with the loss of his father. He says he hasn’t been afforded the time to grieve, not even for five minutes, and he’s not sure when that time will come.
“It’s not just that my name and my family’s name is smeared all over the newspaper or people think certain ways, it’s also the fact that I lost my father and I’m the one that found him, so I’m the one that’s going to have all those images in my head, not everyone else. I’m the one that is still coping with that. It’s very hard to cope with,” he says.
“I haven’t had that period of time to grieve. I’ve been with all the chaos that’s been going on, I haven’t had five minutes to just sit down and say, okay, my dad’s gone and let’s try to work things out.”
Clearing his name
For Frank, the lawsuit isn’t about the money. It’s about restoring his name, a name that has prevented him from getting any sort of employment since 2012.
“They could say I’ll give you a billion dollars, it doesn’t bring my dad back,” he says.
“This lawsuit, it’s restoring the name, our name back, my dad’s name, the family name. It’s also to put the aspect out there that I didn’t do anything and although things were published against me and saying that I was this and that, that I didn’t do anything wrong. I was innocent from the beginning,” Frank says.
For Gover, the justice system eventually worked for Frank, but there is still more to be done.
“In a sense, one can say the justice system worked, ultimately the justice system did work, it didn’t work very well, and it’s got to do some more work for Frank Cara, I think.”
The murder of Claudio Cara remains unsolved. The case is displayed on the DRPS website as an unsolved homicide in their cold case files.
Frank and his family have received no updates from DRPS as to the state of the file.