Ivan Henry spent 27 years in prison, but is still seeking justice
Jon Woodward and Chad Derrick, W5
Published Saturday, November 8, 2014 11:48AM EST
Last Updated Saturday, November 8, 2014 10:14PM EST
Police called him "the rip-off rapist."
In the early 1980s, a sexual predator was prowling Vancouver neighbourhoods, among them Mount Pleasant, attacking young women in their ground floor apartments and basement suites.
Many of the assaults were committed late at night, at knifepoint, with the attacker telling his victims he was looking for someone who'd ripped him off. As it was dark and their assailant sometimes had a turtleneck pulled up over his face, victims rarely saw his face, so police had few leads.
Eventually, one victim got enough of a glimpse to allow police to produce an artist's sketch. It bore a resemblance to a suspect police would soon decide was their man: a 35-year-old labourer named Ivan Henry.
Henry was tried and then convicted for sex attacks on eight women. He was declared a dangerous offender and locked up indefinitely. But from the beginning, he maintained his innocence. And Ivan Henry never wavered.
"It was a fishing expedition. I happened to be the guy in the lake and they fished me out and put me away," Henry tells W5.
In 2010, the BC Court of Appeal finally listened, citing legal problems with the trial. There were other questions as well that cast doubt on his conviction. Did police botch a lineup? Was there another suspect who might have committed the assaults? After 27 years in prison, Ivan Henry won his freedom.
While Ivan Henry was acquitted the appeals court did not declare him factually innocent. Many of the victims and the Vancouver police still maintain that Ivan Henry was the attacker. Now, he hopes a civil claim will fully clear his name and provide compensation for decades behind bars.
"In many ways Ivan Henry's case is a textbook example of a wrongful conviction," said Henry's lawyer, Cameron Ward, in an interview with W5. "You have a series of notorious offenses, public pressure coming to bear on the police to find the perpetrator and get him off the streets."
Back in 1982, Henry was no angel. He had a criminal record for drug trafficking and almost a dozen property crimes. He even had an attempted rape conviction in Winnipeg, for which he was sentenced to five years in prison.
Henry moved in with his common-law wife, Jessie Henry, and two young daughters for a fresh start in Vancouver. The house was right in the heart of Mount Pleasant, on 17th Avenue.
It was not a relationship made in heaven. Ivan and Jesse had been married, got a divorce and got together again in Vancouver. About May 1982, Jessie provided police with a statement that detailed some of her frustrations with Ivan. It also provided enough information for police to consider him a serious suspect as the "rip-off rapist".
"Ivan told me recently that he had been ripped off on a couple of drug deals," she told police. "He has been going out around midnight or later and coming home around 4 a.m. ... He carries a knife in the car with him all the time."
On May 12, 1982, police arrested Ivan, and thrust him into a lineup in front of eleven victims.
But Henry didn't want to be there. He became aggressive, and struggled with the officers. The lineup had become a farce. One officer took a photograph. It shows Henry in a headlock while others in the lineup, many police officers in civilian clothes, were laughing.
Some of the victims marked their choices on ballots but the lineup was called off and identification wasn't solid enough to charge Henry. He was freed, but kept under surveillance. Police tapped his phone and followed him. But they couldn't watch him closely enough and after losing sight of Henry there were new attacks.
Police then arrested Henry again, this time with new identification evidence: another victim identified him after being shown a collection of photographs, including one of Ivan Henry standing outside a cell at Vancouver Police headquarters. Henry was charged with seventeen counts of rape, attempted rape, and indecent assault.
Eventually ten counts proceeded to trial at B.C. Supreme Court. Here Henry made a foolish decision, firing his lawyers and deciding to conduct his own defence.
Untrained, and with little guidance, Henry stumbled through the court proceedings. He aggressively questioned the women who testified he was their attacker; a traumatic experience for the victims.
"It was intimidating. The impact of dealing with the anger, dealing with the close approaches to the witness stand," recalled one victim in an interview with W5. "I remember feeling smaller and smaller as those questions kept coming at me."
Ivan Henry's trial lasted less than two weeks. The jury didn't take long to deliberate and declared him guilty on all counts. Eight months later, Henry was declared a dangerous offender, which meant he was to be imprisoned for an indeterminate period, likely for life.
Henry tried to adjust to prison life. Not a pretty place for sexual offenders, who are considered among the lowest of the low among other inmates. He was separated from his family, including two young daughters, who grew up without him.
"Their birthdays, their graduations, I wasn't there. Their marriages, I wasn't there. It was terrible," remembered Henry.
Claims of innocence
All along, Henry maintained his innocence. Sitting in his jail cell he wrote and filed applications seeking to overturn his conviction and his sentence. More than fifty were sent to various courts and justice ministers.
No one was listening to Henry's appeals, even though he may have been right, according to lawyer Cameron Ward, who took up Ivan's cause.
"You have a zealous prosecutor who was trying to get the conviction, and you have investigative techniques that are flawed and faulty," Ward said.
Ward picked holes in the case and the evidence that helped convict Henry, beginning with the police lineup.
"Obviously anybody viewing that live line-up from an adjacent room would be struck by this extraordinary sight and their attention would be drawn to the person who's in the headlock and obviously he would look guilty," said Ward, who also questioned whether the victims could truly identify their attacker.
"All they had was the eye witness testimony of the complainants which came from these assaults that occurred usually in the dark, they were perpetrated by a stranger, the stranger's face was often covered and they were stressful circumstances. Eyewitness evidence is notoriously weak.".
In addition, physical evidence, like hair, fingerprints and semen was never presented in court.
"That's not to say that physical evidence wasn't obtained by the police investigators, it was. Bodily fluids were left behind at four of the scenes where Ivan Henry was suspected of committing sexual assaults," said Ward.
But the samples that were collected were never presented in court and then lost. When DNA technology was developed as an identification tool only a few years later, there was no way to confirm the true identity of the "rip-off rapist".
Finally, the statement made to police by Ivan Henry's wife, Jessie, also came under question.
Ivan's daughter, Tanya, told W5 that her mother made a startling confession in 1990 -- just months before she died - that her statement was fabricated and motivated by money.
"She admitted that it wasn't him and she knew it wasn't him but that she couldn't do anything about it because she was just a drug addict on welfare and no one would believe her," said Tanya, adding that her mother was paid $1000 for her information.
But the breakthrough that finally attracted the attention of authorities came from a completely unexpected place: an investigation into the women going missing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. It would eventually lead police to serial killer Robert Pickton.
While reviewing cold cases police identified a group of 25 previously unsolved sex attacks which occurred between 1983 and 1988 -- with assaults that resembled the attacks for which Ivan Henry had been convicted. These attacks were often committed in basement suites and ground floor apartments. The attacker often wielded a knife. But they couldn't have been committed by Henry -- he was already in jail.
The suspect in several of these rapes was a Vancouver plumber named Don McRae. He had been tailed by police in the eighties but at the time was not charged for any sex assaults. Later, DNA evidence linked McRae to three of those 25 assaults and, in 2005, he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years in prison.
Following McRae's conviction, the similarities between those two sets of crimes of were difficult for authorities to ignore. The B.C. government appointed a special prosecutor, Len Doust, to investigate whether Ivan Henry had been the victim of a miscarriage of justice.
In 2008, Doust recommended that Henry be allowed to appeal his convictions. Henry was freed pending the appeal.
In October 2010, the B.C. Court of Appeal acquitted Ivan Henry on all of the original counts which had sent him to prison. Justice Richard Low wrote: "Legal errors were made at trial and the appeal must be allowed. ... The evidence as a whole was incapable of proving the element of identification on any of the ten counts and the verdicts were unreasonable."
Ivan Henry was a free man. But although his convictions were quashed, he was not declared factually innocent. This is not uncommon among Canada's wrongful convictions, where few are completely exonerated.
He is now suing the City of Vancouver, individual police officers, and the provincial and federal governments for the years he spent wrongly imprisoned. But the Vancouver Police Department has rejected the claim. In their statement of defense the VPD insists that "the quashing of the convictions does not mean that (Ivan Henry) is factually innocent" and that he "committed one or more of the sexual assaults."
Unfortunately, evidence which could conclusively clear Ivan Henry -- the bodily fluids collected at the crime scenes more than 30 years ago have been lost -- meaning it is not available for DNA testing. Ivan Henry can neither be cleared nor convicted through forensic analysis.
"He's innocent. He didn't commit any of these offenses. The state had the ability to conclusively determine that question if they had kept the DNA from some of these offenses, but it's gone," said Ward.
Ivan Henry's civil claim for compensation is expected to go to trial in August 2015. It is expected that he, his family and the victims will be forced to rehash the events of thirty years ago.
If successful, Henry could be awarded millions of dollars for his wrongful conviction and lost years. But Ivan Henry knows he will never be truly free.
"I'll always have those senses of disrespect, of being framed, you know, that kind of thing," he said. "It will never go away. Never, as long as I live. Even on my dying bed, I'll tell you the story. I didn't do it."