Syreeta Hartley's hair is glossy and dark, like the victim's, but the 16-year-old is also thin and model-pretty. In late 1997, when she and Reena Virk were both 14, her boyfriend was Warren Glowatski, now 17 and one of two teenagers charged with murdering Virk, a chubby and troubled Victoria-area teenager, on Nov. 14, 1997. According to prosecutors, the slender young man confessed to Hartley what he had done at least twice before his arrest a week after Virk's Friday night death. She never bothered to inform police. Last week, testifying at Glowatski's murder trial, Hartley said she had also not bothered to review her earlier statements to refresh her memory before coming to testify. "It's not a very interesting subject," she said.
Call it a disconnect from responsibility. Call it alienation, marginalization, a moral blind spot. The same traits observers latched on to as they searched for explanations for the Littleton, Colo., massacre are also evident in the Virk case. And they present a challenge that Crown prosecutors, trying Glowatski on a charge of second-degree murder in Victoria, confront along with school officials, police and parents everywhere as they try to prevent more tragedies from happening. "We ask ourselves," says John Gaiptman, a district principal with the Victoria School Board, "is there something else, something more, we should be doing?"
In B.C. Supreme Court, Glowatski in person offers no more clues than his ex-girlfriend. He sits in the glassed-in prisoner's box, barely moving during hours of testimony that, so far, have shed much horrifying light on the last hours of Reena Virk's life but relatively little on its critical final minutes. That is when the Crown contends that Glowatski, and one of seven girls with whom he had earlier joined in beating Virk, set upon her a second time and left her dead in the dark waters of the Gorge, a winding salt-waterway between Victoria and neighbouring Esquimalt.
Testimony in the first two weeks of the trial has established that Glowatski and his alleged victim were among about 15 teenagers gathered at a favourite hangout by the Gorge when a fight broke out. As half a dozen girls surrounded Virk, punching her back and head, she fell forward over a railing. Glowatski joined in with his feet. Testified Lorne Lloyd-Walters, 17: "I looked down to where Reena Virk was, I saw Warren kick her in the face." The kicks were delivered so hard, he said, that Virk's head flew backward up into the air.
Despite the beating, Virk was able to get to her feet and stagger off. The Crown contends that Glowatski and his accomplice, who can be identified only as K.M.E. while she fights to prevent being tried in adult court, attacked Virk a second time. By the end of that beating, pathologist Laurel Gray told the court, Virk's brain was swelling from repeated blows to her head, there were bruises on her liver and pancreas, and her abdomen was severely damaged. "There is a good possibility she could have died from her head injuries alone," Gray testified. Virk was likely unconscious and may have had a grand mal seizure as a result of her head injuries by the time she finally drowned.
Prosecutors are relying in part on Hartley's recollection of her ex-boyfriend's alleged confessions to make their case against Glowatski. But in common with several other teenage witnesses, Hartley has shown an apparent indifference to Virk's murder that has troubled and perplexed courtroom observers. One witness last week described Hartley's demeanour during a police interview as, "for lack of a better word, cocky." During another interview that was audiotaped and played in court, an investigator loses patience with Hartley's imprecise answers. "I don't think 'kind of' is going to cut it in a homicide," he snaps.
Such apparent emotional detachment is chilling - and difficult to deal with. In Victoria schools, says Gaiptman, "we work hard on people who are loners, who are marginalized, who are in danger of being disenfranchised. We've got to get out there and reach out to them." In the wake of Virk's death, the B.C. government stepped up its measures against youth violence, creating a resource centre in Burnaby that acts as a clearinghouse for reference and support material on the subject. Among its projects: squads of youth facilitators who mount in-school workshops about preventing violence.
In a tragic coincidence, police in the communities where Virk and her attackers lived launched a new initiative on teen violence just three weeks before her death. After the tragedy, they refocused their efforts on getting kids to open up to police about what they hear on the street. Dubbed Rock Solid, the project has the officers driving up to schools in a souped-up 1995 black Camaro and opening their hour-long shows with pulsing rock music, all to encourage teenagers to talk to cops. And despite Virk's brutal death, officials in Victoria point to some encouraging indicators. Violent incidents in area schools, says Saanich Const. Ross Elliott, a Rock Solid team member, are down. Calls to the province's six-year-old, toll-free Youth Against Violence tips line are up. In the schools that Virk and her assailants attended, no weapons have been found "in recent memory," says Gaiptman.
Warren Glowatski's trial continues this week. K.M.E. is scheduled to face trial in Vancouver in November. Syreeta Hartley does not face any charges. She left court after testifying last week, an enigmatic reminder that all the well-meant programs in the world can still fall short, on a clear autumn night by the water, when the crisp air crackles with hormones, boredom and indifference.
Maclean's May 3, 1999