On January 26th, 2003 David Tanasichuk of Miramichi New Brunswick called the Miramichi Police Force (MPF) to report that Maria, his wife was missing. He stated that she had been gone since January 14th and he hadn’t heard from her since. An MPF constable, in following up on the call said: “Hi David, I understand you haven’t seen your wife since January 12th?” Tanasichuk replied, “Yes.”
“I found that the Miramichi investigators were very open to discussing the details of the case, and the story they told me was very compelling.”
That was the first of many mistakes that David Tanasichuk would make over the course of the investigation. Maria’s body was found in the woods five months later. What is notable in this case is the use of cadaver dogs and their trained handlers from Maine who volunteered their services for their cross-border neighbours.
Kate Clark Flora, a former assistant attorney general for the State of Maine and crime writer has produced an excellent moment-by-moment account of how members of the small but very capable police force of Miramichi with the assistance of the Maine warden service and Maine Search and Rescue Dogs were able to find Maria’s body once the snow melted enough for the cadaver dogs to get a scent of the decomposing body. It is highly readable, suspenseful and educational (for police procedure, cadaver dogs and the legal system) all at the same time. Ms Flora had the full co-operation of the MPF in the writing of Death Dealer (New Horizon Press, 2014), which makes it feel even more authentic and adds to the realism. Highly recommended for true crime readers and those who enjoy the Law and Order/CSI type of story.
Hardcover, 300 pages with 8 pages of black and white photos.
The following Q&A with Kate Clark Flora is reprinted by kind permission of New Horizon Press:
What kinds of twists and turns interested you in this case?
The relationship that existed between the Miramichi police and David and Maria Tanasichuk at the time Maria disappeared was unusual. Though David had a lengthy criminal record, an explosive temper and a reputation for violence, the relationship had become a close and supportive one, developed when the police became involved in the death of Maria’s only child, B.J. The bonds forged as the police supported them through the investigation and trial of B.J.’s killer had softened the Tanasichuks’ anti-police stance to the extent that David Tanasichuk had actually told Detective Brian Cummings that if they had another child, they would name it after Cummings. So close that Cummings had even considered inviting the couple to his wedding.
That close relationship pulled them into the case in a powerful way when David Tanasichuk first called them to report his wife missing and begged for their help in finding her. And made it feel like a greater betrayal when they realized how many of David’s statements to them were lies.
What is it about Maria’s murder that touched the police involved in the investigation so strongly?
During the investigation of her son’s death, the investigators, primarily Paul Fiander and Brian Cummings, had become close to the Tanasichuks. Both of them fathers who are devoted to their own children, they were touched by Maria’s deep sorrow over the loss of her only child. Part of the role that police officers play in a homicide, especially in situations where there isn’t a victim/witness advocate, is helping the family through the legal process. Here they watched a woman who had been hardened by lifelong contact with the legal system into being distrustful become a softer and more vulnerable person, a person they could care about. When she disappeared, the loss was personal and, while all victims matter, getting justice for this particular victim became extremely important.
David and Maria appeared to have a close and loving relationship. What is it that the investigators discovered that changed their understanding of this marriage?
In the past, I was a government attorney doing child support enforcement and protecting battered kids. Later, I did domestic relations law. What I learned from the former was that people are very good at excusing their own bad behavior. From the latter, that sometimes the stories people who’ve been married tell are so divergent you might think they’d never met, let alone spent decades together. But when I started talking to Miramichi detective Brian Cummings and to Maria’s friends, what I learned about David and Maria Tanasichuk was that they had been deeply in love. Friends described them as always together and expressed envy at their closeness. I was curious to explore how that had changed, and what it was that had led David to kill his wife rather than divorcing her.
Something that crime writers know is that the underpinnings of many crimes are people’s secrets, and people will go to great lengths to keep them. I was curious to find out what David Tanasichuk’s secrets were. In addition to affairs and flirtations, some of which Maria knew about and had forgiven, and drug dealing, the investigators learned that David had much deeper secrets, secrets which involved the death of at least one, and possibly two, other people. As long as the Tanasichuks were happy, Maria was willing to be the keeper of her husband’s secrets. But if the marriage fell apart, that incentive might go away.
From a civilian’s perspective, what drew you into the events surrounding Maria’s murder and compelled you to write about them?
Initially, I was interested in the case because it involved the Maine game wardens and I was fascinated by these almost unknown public servants who possessed skills and expertise that could be put to use in assisting in criminal investigations.
Then I found that the Miramichi investigators were very open to discussing the details of the case, and the story they told me was very compelling. I was intrigued by taking readers behind the news stories and into what really happened in the investigation.
Three aspects of the case, in particular, attracted me. First was the discovery that this wasn’t an isolated domestic homicide. David Tanasichuk had a reputation for violence and an aversion to police pressure that had led him, in a prior instance, to plot the assassination of a police officer, the crown prosecutor and the judge in a case against him, so they knew that he was a dangerous individual.
Second was an aspect of the case I call “crossing the thin blue line.” In general, due to their small numbers, police are only able to function in society if they enjoy a level of protection and respect that make harming them unthinkable. This is doubly true for their families. In this case, the investigators discovered, through an informant, that Tanasichuk had become so angry at their questions and surveillance, and the way that impacted his life, that he had decided to target their families if they didn’t back off. This turning of the tables was unusual and added a powerful extra dimension of tension to the story. Third was their unwillingness to quit when endless initiatives and relentless searching failed to turn up Maria’s body. It’s tempting, when a criminal investigation hits a wall, to move on to something else. The Miramichi detectives’ willingness to “think outside the box” when months passed and they were unable to find Maria’s hidden body was impressive, beginning their stories of the many avenues they investigated, such as metal detectors and searching with poles and nighttime surveillance. They then explored cadaver dog resources in Canada and looked across the border to the United States for help.
Cadaver dogs play a key role in solving this case. How did you learn about the ways in which cadaver dogs work?
I was the beneficiary of the generosity of both the warden service and Maine Search and Rescue Dogs, who allowed me to attend training in search and rescue and in cadaver dog training. Reading a dozen books can’t duplicate the experience of watching. The bond between the dog and handler is a very powerful one and it was fascinating to watch a series of different handlers take their dogs through training exercises. I watched beginners working with a row of cinderblocks where a single coffee can held cadaver scent to experienced dogs working different situations where the scent might be above ground, buried or even up in a tree in a large block of land.
I watched warden dogs doing building searches where cadaver scent was present, scent running the spectrum for a very recent scent to many years old and got to observe the ways that individual dogs would respond. Some are averse to the scent; others will thrive on finding it. Trainers will carry many different types of scent to prepare dogs for different situations, including scent from burned bodies and scent that may be a decade old. As part of the training, I also got to be a victim hidden in the woods that the dogs had to find.
In what ways are cadaver dogs different than general search and rescue dogs?
Put most simply, cadaver scent searching is one of the many expertises that search and rescue dogs will acquire. There are defined rules for the different abilities and the dogs must train and then pass a test to be certified in different areas of searching.
The case’s investigators were eager to have their story told, yet getting them to tell it was a complex process involving time and trust. How did you earn their trust and get them to open up?
One of the initial challenges of writing about a real crime from the police perspective is getting their trust. Law enforcement personnel are naturally skeptical about civilians and can be wary about whether a writer is going to write bad things about them. I was lucky in this case that my introduction came from Lt. Dorian, because, in their minds, his contribution to the case had been instrumental in helping them solve it, something they could never have done without Maria’s body.
That got me through the door. After that, it was up to me. I’ve found that having a genuine and sincere interest in their stories, and being a good listener, helps. I’m pretty new to this, so when I’m done with what I think are the right questions, I always say: Now what are the questions I should have asked you? That usually brings me the most useful information.