Murder Most Forgotten: A cold case the victim can't remember
Lora Sousa was there the night her teenage daughter, Leah was murdered. A horrific tragedy that any parent would want to forget, but not Lora. She wants only to remember.
Leah was barely 13 years old and excited to be entering grade eight. That was almost 20 years ago. "She was so beautiful. She had a wonderful sense of humor and she was very bubbly", said Lora.
But Leah's dreams were stolen from her in the dark hours of a late summer evening on Labour Day weekend, 1990. She was asleep on the couch in the living room of her house in Cumberland Beach, a cottage community 135 km north of Toronto. Lora, a single mom, and her nine-month-old son, Michael, were asleep in the next room.
An intruder broke in. Lora was beaten, and left for dead. Leah was assaulted and killed in what police describe as one of the most brutal homicides ever in Ontario. Michael was left unharmed.
Ontario Provincial Police Det. Inspector, Mark Pritchard, is the latest in a long line of investigators who have worked on the case since Leah's murder on Labour Day, 1990. According to Pritchard, "the brutality was off the scale." He said there was no chance for the Sousas to defend themselves as they were sound asleep and both were hit multiple times with what police believe was a pipe or tire iron.
Although police believe Lora saw her daughter's killer, she was so badly beaten that she has been unable to help them because her memory of that night has been erased.
"I really want to remember because the police have not been able to arrest the murderer," said Lora.
To try to recover her memories, Lora underwent hypnosis and was even injected with sodium pentathol, otherwise known as truth serum. But both failed to bring back any trace of her missing memories. Doctors told her to give up.
But Lora refused, finally heading to Sudbury, Ontario and a lab run by Michael Persinger, a renowned expert on the human brain. Using magnetic fields, the scientist tried to tickle brain cells in the injured right hemisphere of Lora's brain, in hopes that it would encourage any residual neurons that may be intact. Sadly, this too failed.
Human memory is not recorded instantly as it takes twenty to thirty minutes for experience to be permanently stored. This was critical time Lora did not get when she was assaulted.
"It would have been like turning off your computer without saving. It would be gone forever," said Persinger.
Seeking a suspect
The OPP believe that the family was targeted by someone who knew they were home alone; someone who knew Cumberland Beach. But they have almost no forensic evidence. Incredibly, for such a bloody scene, the killer left none of his own DNA behind. Despite massive searches over many years, neither the murder weapon nor clothing, which police believe would have been covered in blood, have ever been found.
There was one bloody shoeprint found inside the residence and by comparing the tread pattern, police were able to identify the exact type of shoe. A Nike all leather court or tennis shoe which police believe was either a size 9 or size 10.
The OPP homicide team still meets regularly to go over the case and have conducted more than 1,800 interviews in the past 20 years. Some of those people have been interviewed multiple times.
One of the persons interviewed multiple times is Brian Timothy Elson. Just four months after Leah Sousa was murdered, Elson stabbed and killed a teenage girl, 17-year-old Sandra Bannister. W5 discovered that Elson's grandmother lived just down the street from Leah and Lora Sousa. Police believe he was in the Cumberland Beach area the night of the murder.
Elson was convicted of the Bannister murder and served six years in prison. Convinced he was dangerous, the courts took a rare step and allowed police to monitor his movements for three years after he was released from prison.
W5 tracked down Elson, who is now living in Orillia, Ontario, about 20 minutes from Cumberland Beach. Asked by W5 reporter Sue Sgambati about the unsolved murder of Leah Sousa and about his interviews with police, Elson said police had accused him of the murder, had arrested him but that he was later released.
Elson also maintains he had nothing to do with the murder and denied that he was at Cumberland Beach the night of Leah Sousa's murder. "I got 60 people to back me up," he claimed. "All I know is I had nothing to do with it."
Despite Elson's denials, the OPP said they believe he was in Cumberland Beach the night of the murder. But Elson was released after questioning and has never been charged.
So the murder of Leah Sousa, and the vicious attack on her mother, Lora, which left her with no memories of that night remains a mystery, a cold case. Police believe there are people who have knowledge of what happened and who could help them solve the 20-year old homicide case, and have offered a $50,000 reward for information leading to the killer's arrest and conviction.
"As time goes on you worry that it's never going to be solved," said Lora Sousa. "My hope is that one day we'll know what happened and why it happened. I'm hoping that people won't forget."