Al & Toby
I met Al Arsenault and Toby Hinton in 1998 while working at the WISH Drop-in Centre on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
The WISH Drop-in Centre, then located at the back of the First United Church on East Hastings provided dinner and respite for the neighbourhood’s sex trade workers.
Al and Toby were well-respected police officers who functioned more like advocates for marginalized women than beat cops. In 1998, Al and Toby, with five other Vancouver police officers, formed the Odd Squad, a non-profit organization whose main mandate is drug use prevention through awareness and education.
Through a Blue Lens
A year after its launch, the National Film Board of Canada was inspired to use Odd Squad’s raw street footage to produce Through a Blue Lens, a gritty documentary chronicling the lives of addicted men and women living on the Downtown Eastside. Through a Blue Lens was shown to audiences around the world and became the National Film Board of Canada’s all-time most successful feature-length documentary. It’s estimated that footage from Through a Blue Lens has been seen by more than 100 million people worldwide. The Odd Squad recently celebrated its 25th anniversary continuing its work of providing much needed drug-use prevention and awareness education to youth.
April Reoch was a participant in the Through a Blue Lens documentary. A pretty, petite, Indigenous woman in her mid-twenties, April was from the Squamish Reserve, about 65 kilometres north of Vancouver. April hoped that by telling her story in the Odd Squad documentary, she could prevent others from making the same mistakes she had. April’s life as addicted woman had robbed her of the ability to raise her son and exposed her to profound levels of violence.
The Gym Bag
On December 25, 2000, April Reoch’s friend Danny Dee phoned Al and Toby to tell them that April had been expected home on the Reserve to celebrate Christmas with her son but hadn’t arrived. Danny was upset, because he’d heard a radio cast earlier in the day stating that a woman’s body had been discovered in a gym bag beside a dumpster at 40 East Hastings – a social housing complex. The following day, Al and Toby went to the morgue, but the body was so badly decomposed that they were unable to identify it as April’s. Tests later concluded that the body in the morgue was, in fact, that of April Reoch.
On New Year’s Day, 2001, the Odd Squad, led by a Vancouver Police Department piper, led a crowd of people assembled at the Carnegie Centre, a library and community centre located in the heart of the Downtown Eastside, to the First United Church, a block away, to attend April’s funeral. Odd Squad members and a few other Vancouver police officers attended, wearing dress uniforms. Al Arsenault gave a touching eulogy on April’s short and tragic life. He described her as a selfless, compassionate individual who shared her story so that others wouldn’t have to suffer as she did. Over two hundred people attended April’s funeral, and the event was covered by society columnist Malcom Parry in the Vancouver Sun.
A few days before April was murdered, Al and Toby had seen her and had taken notes about their conversation. April told the officers she was staying with a man named Ian (Matheson) Rowe at 40 East Hastings. Once established that the body in the morgue was that of April Reoch, homicide detectives began questioning Rowe about April’s death. Rowe told police that he hadn’t seen April in weeks. But the detectives knew he was lying, and they had Al and Toby’s notes to prove it.
Rowe became the prime suspect in April’s murder investigation. It took almost nine months and an elaborate police sting operation, but Rowe was eventually charged and later convicted of murdering April Reoch. In the end, Rowe confessed to choking April to death in a violent rage after he discovered she stole his rent money and spent it on drugs. Rowe hid April’s body in his apartment for several days before leaving it beside a dumpster, concealed in a gym bag. Had Rowe been able to lift her body into the dumpster, April, too might have been declared a missing woman, and the man who murdered her likely would not have been brought to justice. But April’s situation was different. She knew Al & Toby.