Confusion, outrage follows slaying of Surrey teen Serena Vermeersch

SURREY — A community still in shock over the slaying of Surrey teen Serena Vermeersch responded with confusion and outrage Monday, after a high-risk sex offender was charged in connection with the 17-year-old girl’s death.

The man charged, Raymond Lee Caissie, 43, was the subject of a B.C. Corrections warning in June 2013, when he was released from prison after serving 22 years for rape, robbery and forcible confinement committed in Abbotsford.

Last week, less than 24 hours after Vermeersch was reported missing by her mother, the teen’s body was found alongside railway tracks in an industrial area in Surrey, just across from where she went to school at Sullivan Heights Secondary.

Monday afternoon, on a construction site just down the street from where Vermeersch’s body was found, a group of workers on a smoke break discussed the sad case.

“It’s sad, it’s brutal,” said Shylo Smith, a worker whose daughter knew Vermeersch. “That hits home. That’s any kid walking home from the bus stop.”

The workers responded with a mix of confusion and anger to the news that a high-risk offender released last year had been charged in connection with Serena’s death.

“Oh my God,” said Randy Anfield. “Everybody is at risk when somebody like that is out there.”

Smith remembers the public warning when Caissie was released from jail last year. He said Monday he couldn’t understand why a person so supposedly dangerous would be out on the street. He said he doesn’t believe in capital punishment, and supports rehabilitation, but added he believes certain individuals are too dangerous to release to the public.

His co-worker Joanne McDonald agreed, and added: “That’s what’s wrong with our justice system.”

Police said they believe Vermeersch and the accused did not know each other.

WARNING SIGNS

When Caissie was led out of court following his 1991 conviction, he infamously said, “I’ll see you in 22 years.”

The June 2013 B.C. Corrections warning stated Caissie “has maintained a varied pattern of offending, having offended both violently and sexually, in both an opportunistic and impulsive manner.”

Caissie was re-arrested in January this year for breach of recognizance and jailed for three months.

Last year, Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts spoke out strongly against Caissie’s release, suggesting then that it was only a matter of time before he would reoffend.

“He’s been let loose in our community to victimize one of our residents,” Watts told The Province last year. “It seems to me they know he’s going to reoffend. Why on earth would you let him free?”

At the time of the warning, Caissie was living in Surrey. He was arrested Saturday in Vancouver.

On Monday, a frustrated Watts, who last week announced she will run for the federal Conservatives in next year’s election, expressed outrage and challenged the Criminal Justice Branch to do better.

“I’ve been saying this for years — when the time is served, but the individual is still at a high risk to reoffend, he should not be released,” she said, adding her condolences to Vermeersch’s family. “Mechanisms should kick in.”

“There is more we can do and we should be doing it. And we should be outraged as a society that this is occurring,” Watt said.

“A 17-year-old girl in our community has been killed. It is absolutely inexcusable.”

AN OUTRAGE

Other Surrey politicians also expressed outrage. According to Surrey city councillor Barinder Rasode, who officially confirmed her bid for mayor on Saturday, Monday’s charges are yet another sign that “we have really failed our community.”

“Repeat offenders are causing great havoc in our city,” she said. “There is no greater fear for our community when an offender is released back into the community without being provided proper rehabilitation.”

Rasode said the city needs to “step up and deal with them better,” by providing mandatory treatment while incarcerated — like addiction or anger management services.

“It also means a proper assessment before they’re released,” she said. “That’s a big missing piece.”

According to Rasode, it comes down to a complete “overhaul” of the current court system.

“We need to do a better job,” she said. “We keep failing our community because we’re not making the changes that are needed.”

“I keep thinking of Serena’s mom — it’s hard, I get goosebumps every single time.”

Surrey mayoral candidate Doug McCallum, who served as Surrey’s mayor prior to Dianne Watts, has been campaigning hard on a six-point safety platform. McCallum’s Safe Surrey Coalition has pledged doubling the number of RCMP officers on patrol in the city to 72 and expedite the hiring of 95 new Mounties by 2015.

“I think it is a case of our justice system has let us down and I think it also goes to the fact, you know, we need to get a lot more officers on our streets, immediately … and we’ve just got to get them out of their offices and out on patrols a lot more.”

A FAILURE OF LAWS

Kash Heed, a former solicitor-general and Vancouver MLA, said this wasn’t a failure of law enforcement, but of our laws.

Police would have been trying to keep tabs on Caissie after his release from prison, but it would have been impossible to do round-the-clock for 15 months.

Instead, Heed said Caissie shouldn’t have been released from jail in the first place, as all indications show he was unrehabilitated and at high risk to reoffend.

Heed said there need to be new laws to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

Under the Criminal Code, there is a dangerous-offender designation that allows offenders to be sentenced to an indeterminate jail term. It is unclear whether there was an application for the designation during Caissie’s sentencing.

“If there is no legislation to do it, then we need to quickly create it,” said Heed. “And if this individual did not reach this threshold for the (dangerous-offender designation), then we need to fix the gap.”

Heed stressed the need for urgent action, saying: “We have reached the tipping point here. We are very upset. A young girl has lost her life. We don’t need any more inaction. We need an assertive, valid approach to creating this legislation now.”

HIGH-RISK OFFENDERS AND PUBLIC NOTIFICATIONS

From 2012 to present, B.C. Corrections issued 10 public notifications regarding high-risk offenders, nine of which were related to sex offences, said a Ministry of Justice spokesman.

The ministry spokesman said that in Caissie’s case, the Criminal Justice Branch applied for and was granted court-ordered recognizance, which is available when a court is satisfied there are reasonable grounds to fear that someone could reoffend and hurt someone.

In a statement emailed to The Province, Attorney General Suzanne Anton expressed her condolences to the Vermeersch family and said: “Police, Crown and B.C. Corrections work together to monitor high-risk offenders — such as Mr. Caissie — and use whatever tools may be available and appropriate in the circumstances, to facilitate supervision in the community … What we can do — and what we always do — in cases where offenders supervised in the community are accused of committing a crime or a violent act, is undertake a review of our monitoring procedures to ensure that best practices were followed. This is underway already and preliminary results indicate that the stringent and significant monitoring processes in place were followed.”

“That said, I know that will be of little comfort to the victim’s friends and family.”

A ‘SWEETHEART’ IS GONE

Meanwhile, Monday was the first day of the school year at Sullivan Heights Secondary, where Vermeersch was due to start Grade 12 this week. As students assembled in their homerooms, some were just learning for the first time of the terrible news about their classmate, a staff member said.

A Grade 12 student named Sukhi who had known Vermeersch since elementary school described her as a “sweetheart,” a quiet, creative girl who spent time writing love stories and drawing beautiful pictures.

“She was really sweet,” she said. “She wasn’t like a lot of the kids, she wasn’t loud and all over the place. She kept to herself.”

“It was really sad. I live five minutes away — not even — from where they found her,” Sukhi said, adding her parents “are really concerned. My dad wants to move out of the place and go somewhere else.”

The Vermeersch family asked for space and privacy in a statement released through the police, saying: “We are currently receiving the support we need from friends and family in the face of Serena’s passing. We appreciate the concern and kind words we are receiving, but we respectfully ask that our privacy remain undisturbed … Thank you.”

— with files from Cassidy Olivier and Cheryl Chan

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