When she first heard her friend had died in an accidental fire, Theresa Koetsier didn’t believe it.
Koetsier had worked with Aimee Beaulieu at a market in Summerland. The pair had bonded — she describes Beaulieu as “a real spitfire, she stood her ground” — and in 1990 when a pregnant Beaulieu needed help leaving a bad relationship she turned to Koetsier for help.
Koetsier’s husband and another friend went to Beaulieu’s home while her partner was away, packed her up and moved her to Nelson.
The pair lost touch until word spread to Koetsier that Beaulieu, 19, and her 11-month-old twins David and Samantha had died in a trailer fire on April 2, 1992. At first, investigators thought the fire was started with a cigarette in the bedroom, but Koetsier called the RCMP to say she didn’t believe Beaulieu would have been so careless.
“There’s zero chance that she ever smoked in bed. It was like nails on a chalkboard to people. That was her end of all ends of existence. She would never smoke in her bedroom, ever.”
Beaulieu and her children were living in a trailer just outside Nelson city limits. RCMP initially stated they did not suspect foul play, but 11 days later they changed course and said was evidence Beaulieu had been murdered before the fire was started.
Last year, Koetsier decided she would try to find Beaulieu’s family online. She remembered hearing police had a suspect, and in the intervening years assumed Beaulieu’s killer had been caught. But when she typed in her friend’s name, she found a link to a transition house named after Beaulieu and realized she was wrong.
“It’s horrible. I thought it had been solved.”
The 30-year-old deaths of Beaulieu and her children remain Nelson’s most infamous unsolved murders. When contacted by the Nelson Star, RCMP declined to comment on the case, which is still considered open.
But a police spokesman conceded the case was not being investigated, and the officers initially involved had since retired.
The fire and search for answers
Simon Grypma had the night off when the call came in.
At the time, Grypma was shift officer with Nelson Fire and Rescue. The department, he said, was young and enthusiastic. They had put out big fires in the city and were high on the experience.
“It was an exciting career,” he says now. “But when we had that happen it was just a feeling of defeat and horror to realize how bad fire fatalities really are.”
Grypma and every other member of the department responded to the blaze. No one expected fatalities, because that group of firefighters hadn’t previously dealt with any caused by a fire.
When he arrived, Grypma said the scene was chaotic and somber. Beaulieu’s mother Judy lived next door and had to be held back from running into the trailer. Two firefighters pulled the bodies of David and Samantha out of the trailer and attempted to resuscitate them, and another firefighter had to be treated at the hospital.
In the days that followed, the department underwent a critical incident debriefing to deal with post-traumatic stress syndrome, and began placing a greater importance on the mental health of its firefighters.
The police, meanwhile, turned to the public for support and were swamped with calls from around the province.
Dana Urban was a Crown prosecutor in Nelson at the time of the murder. He said RCMP had taken “extra measures” during the investigation and had a suspect, but never found enough evidence to recommend charges.
Urban said he doesn’t blame the investigators. The fire, he said, hid the crime well.
“Either it was an accidental fire caused by someone other than the suspect, or the suspect did it and was smart enough to not fall into the carefully laid traps that were laid out for him,” said Urban.
“I don’t know what the answer to that is. I’ve always believed it was a homicide.”
Keeping Aimee’s name alive
In the fall of 1992, Anna Maskerine moved across the country to escape an abusive relationship.
Maskerine had been working at a transition house in northwestern Ontario, but fear of an ex-partner forced her to leave family and friends. She took a job with Nelson Community Services (NCS), and moved to the city during a time when the Beaulieu murders were a common conversation topic.
Even though there was no evidence, domestic violence has become accepted as the underlying cause of Beaulieu’s death.
In the early 1990s, Maskerine said a program was staffed by volunteers who would house women and children fleeing violence. But it wasn’t until 1995 that NCS established the Aimee Beaulieu Transition House, which operates to this day.
Maskerine has been program manager of the house since it opened. She said it was named after Beaulieu to keep her memory alive, but three decades later few remember the murders.
“It’s almost like it never happened,” says Maskerine. “I’m sure it isn’t for people in her family, but there’s probably many in the community who are unaware of that case. We get asked all the time where our namesake came from, so we have an opportunity to talk about that.”
The transition house assists women with planning for escape, how to be safe in the community and with legal details. It also has a program that offers counselling for children.
There are eight beds for women and children, who are offered 30-day stays. Maskerine said that isn’t a long stay, and the housing shortage in the Nelson area makes finding safe and permanent shelter difficult.
That can mean stays last longer than a month, and the transition house’s beds are typically all occupied. The lack of resources means the program often has waitlists, which Maskerine said is ridiculous for women ready to flee.
“Often and unfortunately we’re in positions sometimes where we have to triage need, which doesn’t feel good to anybody. It doesn’t feel good to staff, certainly it doesn’t feel good to a woman who’s ready to leave and needs safety.”
Koetsier said Beaulieu was lucky in a way. When she decided to leave her relationship in Summerland, she had support from her friends and family.
“She had support from her mom, she had a place to go to that wasn’t really close to where she was living at the time. … Unfortunately it didn’t quite end up the way we all had hoped.”
Beaulieu’s case may have led to the creation of the transition house, but it also inspired a program in Nelson that isn’t as obviously connected.
When fire investigators examined her trailer, they found a smoke alarm without a battery. Neighbours had previously responded to Beaulieu’s alarm when it went off, said Grypma, but no alarm was sounded on the night of her death.
That led to Nelson Fire and Rescue’s biannual initiative of knocking on residents’ doors to check the status of their smoke alarms. The program continues to this day.
Grypma became fire chief in 2008 and retired in 2014 after a 38-year career. He still keeps a photo of Beaulieu’s smoke alarm as a reminder of what might have saved her family.
The night of April 2, 1992 continues to haunt the firefighters who responded to the fire. As he spoke about the case, a former colleague of Grypma interrupted to say hi. His eyes widened when he found out what Grypma was speaking about.
Grypma hopes the anniversary of Beaulieu’s death leads someone to offer new details to police.
“It would certainly give a lot of peace to the family knowing that there’s a resolve to this crime, that the individual responsible for it can be held accountable. That would be the best-case scenario, but it’s looking like who knows? We may never know.”
The Aimee Beaulieu Transition House can be contacted 24-7 at 250-354-4357. A text option is available at 778-608-3900, seven days weekly from 8:30 a.m. to midnight. An online chat and more information is available at https://www.servicesfyi.ca/aimee-beaulieu-transition-house/. Women at immediate risk of harm are advised to call 911.
With files from Greg Nesteroff.