TORONTO — Months after a Toronto man was convicted of sexually assaulting and killing Tess Richey, the young woman’s family is suing him, police and others over the psychological devastation they suffered as a result of her death.
Richey’s mother, Christine Hermeston, and her sisters allege Kalen Schlatter — who was convicted of first-degree murder in March — ought to have known his actions would inflict humiliation, injury and death on Richey, and cause her relatives mental and emotional distress.
They also allege Toronto police, and particularly the two officers who investigated Richey’s disappearance, failed to properly search for her, which led Hermeston to conduct her own search and eventually discover her daughter’s lifeless body steps from where she was last seen.
The statement of claim further alleges police, including Chief Mark Saunders, then falsely reported that Richey had died from misadventure, and that she had been working as an escort.
It alleges lack of police presence in the Yonge and Wellesley area — a neighbourhood known as Toronto’s gay village — emboldened predators such as Schlatter to “commit crimes without fear of being caught.”
The allegations have not been tested in court and the defendants, which also include the nightclub where Richey and Schlatter were earlier in the night and the property where she was killed, have yet to file their statements of defence.
A lawyer representing the Toronto Police Services Board, the chief and the officers named in the suit declined to comment. Counsel for the others could not immediately be reached for comment.
Hermeston said that while the criminal trial focused on Richey’s killer, the lawsuit aims to hold the others accountable for actions that contributed to her death, and to help prevent similar incidents in the future.
“I’m doing this for Tess but there’s going be other young girls out there. So it’s not just for Tess,” she told The Canadian Press this week.
“Do I want to just go in the house and hide and let it go? Absolutely. But can I? Absolutely not, I can’t, because I can’t get it out of my head that they let her lay there for four days,” she said.
That image is seared in her mind forever, Hermeston said, adding that she should not have needed to travel from her home in North Bay, Ont., to Toronto to “do the job of the police.”
Richey was the glue of the family and her death has torn everyone apart, her mother said.
“We have trouble looking at each other, we feel like we all let Tess down, we feel a lot of guilt. And that’s why we’re continuing to fight on behalf of Tess, because we’re not going to let her down again,” she said.
The family has experienced post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, nightmares and insomnia as a result of what happened, according to the statement of claim.
They are seeking a total of $20 million in damages, including punitive damages.
Michael Smitiuch, who represents the family, said mental distress is an emerging area in Canadian law, which recognizes the psychological devastation that people can suffer in horrific situations.
“There would have been grief for the loss of Tess, but it goes beyond that because of the manner in which she was found and the horrific circumstances under which she died,” he said.
The allegations against the police relate to the force’s actions before and after Richey’s death, he said.
“They were slow to warn the neighbourhood about a serial killer,” he said, a reference to convicted killer Bruce McArthur, who was still at large at the time and targeting men in the area.
“They didn’t beef up patrols and then afterwards they wrongly portrayed Tess when she went missing. And it’s really, I think, a case study in insensitivity and how not to serve and protect.”
It’s also alleged Crews & Tangos, the club both Richey and Schlatter attended that night, continued to serve Richey alcohol to the point where it should have known she was becoming dangerously impaired. A lawyer for the club also declined to comment.
Meanwhile, the claim alleges the owners of the property where she was killed and those who were responsible for renovations there failed to ensure the area was adequately lit, “which would have provided nighttime security and served as a deterrent to trespassers and other criminal activity.”
During the trial, prosecutors alleged Schlatter was determined to have sex with someone and targeted Richey after crossing paths with her and her friend as they left Crews & Tangos in the early hours of Nov. 25, 2017.
They alleged he tried to discourage Richey from going home and, after her friend left, convinced her to walk down an alley at a construction site.
Her body was found days later at the bottom of a stairwell in that alley. A forensic pathologist testified Richey had been strangled, possibly with fabric or a forearm.
Police have faced criticism for officers’ failure to find Richey in the days after she was reported missing. The two police officers named in the suit are also facing disciplinary charges in the case.
Schlatter was arrested and charged in February 2018. He has appealed his conviction, which carries an automatic life sentence.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published on June 10, 2020.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press