Runaway Devil has been one of the most challenging stories for me. I’ve lived with it – let it take up space in my head – for 10 years. I think it’s because we’re never really done figuring it out. To me, it’s always felt like a story without an ending. So many times, a story is assigned and you go and talk to everyone; you follow up in court and you try to remember the parole date. This story isn’t that clean. It’s messy. There are so many players and the fallout is happening in realtime. Every day counts. So I keep in touch with key players. I’m watching and questioning and learning all the time.
It’s been 10 years since a 12-year-old Medicine Hat girl made headlines around the world by committing the most brutal crime known to society – the slaughter of her family.
She recruited a boyfriend twice her age to help her carry out the stabbing deaths of her father, mother and eight-year-old brother by sneaking the boyfriend inside her parents’ home around 5 a.m. on April 23, 2006.
This was no act of retribution from an abused child. It was all in a bid for the freedom to keep her illicit romance alive. We also now know what was driving the girl’s anger and passion: serious mental disorders.
Identified only as J.R. under court order, the notorious young offender is now a thriving 22-year-old university student. She is reportedly remorseful. And once again, J.R. is within striking distance of freedom. Her 10-year maximum youth criminal justice system sentence for three counts of first-degree murder expires next month. She spent four years in an Edmonton psychiatric institution and 4 1/2 years under conditional supervision in Calgary.
The end of J.R.’s intensive rehabilitative custody and supervision is near, but this story is far from over.
This has always felt like a story without an ending.
Covering the Medicine Hat murders was like no other reporting experience I’ve ever had in nearly 20 years in journalism. Hours after the news broke that police were investigating deaths inside a family home, I had travelled 300 km southeast from the Calgary Herald newsroom to stand on the sidewalk at the scene with a notebook and endless questions.
Our presumption – callous but practical to deadline decision makers in newsrooms everywhere – was that it was possibly another tragic case of domestic violence; a murder-suicide. As the hours ticked past, the real tale began emerging and the story spilling. A Grade 7 classmate told me J.R. wasn’t missing: she had run off with her older boyfriend in a grey truck and online she called herself Runaway Devil. My colleague Robert Remington crossed paths with a teenage mom who said she’d left a raucous afternoon house party with her newborn baby after a kissing and giggling couple made her feel uncomfortable. The amorous pair was none other than J.R. and her boyfriend, Jeremy Steinke, just hours after the murders. Steinke told his friends he was a 300-year-old werewolf and that he liked to drink blood.
The ill-matched pair plotted to stay together when the girl’s parents kept them apart. J.R. was the architect of the crime: “So I have this plan,” she messagedSteinke, who went by the user name Souleater. “It starts with me killing them and ends with me living with you.”
In the decade after the crime, I have to wonder if anything has really changed. The lives of grieving family members are regrettably still darkened and diminished by the kind of damage that only comes from murder. A little neighbour boy, now a handsome high schooler, surrendered his innocence after coming to play and instead discovering the bloodied bodies of the dead through a window.
On this sad anniversary, police officers and other first responders with long memories vow to replace the gore and horror they saw by choosing to think of the family in happier times. If they can.
What’s woefully missing 10 years after the killings is any kind of significant national conversation about childhood mental illness and supportive resources for parents. Have we learned anything from the nightmare that befell the family? Has anything improved since the desperate Medicine Hat father and mother sought help for a daughter they couldn’t control?
She was always two steps ahead of them, able to manipulate and outsmart any boundaries her parents tried to enforce. Mental health experts have since said J.R. is afflicted with oppositional defiant disorder and conduct disorder. To most, that looks an awful lot like tantrums and disobedience, not uncommon in childhood.
The murders of J.R.’s father, mother and young brother were needless, of course. Because the courts must protect J.R.’s identity in order to fulfil efforts to rehabilitate her, the family’s legacy remains shrouded in secrecy. They were, in fact, loving parents who were building a better life for their young family.
The family’s struggle was no secret. The parents told many in their circle of the problems they were having with their daughter. Family therapy wasn’t working. They were fighting hard to rein in their wilful and headstrong daughter in the weeks leading up to the tragedy. Their legacy deserves to reflect that.
And I guess that’s where the rub is. J.R.’s records are sealed, but can anything be learned from her mental health case? We are left to hope that her case can be used to improve children’s mental health detection and support for parents looking for crucial answers.
The young offender’s future is looking much brighter than that of her former partner-in-crime, Jeremy Allan Steinke. The now 33-year-old was also convicted of three counts of first-degree murder, but is serving a life sentence with no hope of parole for 25 years. He has recently lost his most devoted supporter: after gaining a new lease on life from a successful double-lung transplant in 2010, his mother died last month.
It’s a safe bet he’d give anything to have his mother back.