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Hell to Pay

CBC Fifth Estate/February 12, 2003 


The Stakeout

In the dead of night on April 24, 1992 Constable Mike Swan and his partner were on high alert. Their chief of police, Mike Johnston, had gotten a tip. He believed that a gang with ties to the occult was coming to Martensville and that terrible things - possibly even a human sacrifice - could happen. Swan remembers, "he authorized us to go ahead and bring in our own guns and just be heavily armed as possible. I've got to admit that I had never been more scared in my life."

The Satanic gang never showed up. And by the light of day the threat seemed bizarre.

The Beginning

The nightmare that descended on Martensville, Saskatchewan began when a local mother had some grave suspicions. She worked as a nurse at a Saskatoon hospital and left her kids with a babysitter only a few blocks from her home.

Linda Sterling had a houseful of kids ranging from infants to grade schoolers. Her husband, Ron worked at a provincial jail and many of his friends were cops. It seemed the perfect place for her children.

Her two year old daughter had a diaper rash, but the chafing and redness around her genitals looked like something else. When she questioned her daughter, the little girl said "a stranger poked at my bum with a pink rope".

The Investigation

Martensville town police took the mother's complaint and assigned their newest constable, Claudia Bryden to investigate. She tracked down more parents whose kids went to the Sterling home. At first the kids they interviewed said that there was nothing going on.

But when Bryden teamed up with Saskatoon police officer Rod Moor frightening details began to emerge. The kids said they were fondled and forced into oral sex. That a vibrator was pushed up their bottoms and that guns were used to threaten them. And it all happened at the Sterling home.

The Devil Church

Then one kid began to talk about a place that some of the children had been driven to - he called it a 'Devil Church'. A local pilot flying over town told police that he found a blue building only 6 kilometres northwest of town.

One child said that inside the 'Devil Church' he was stripped naked, hoisted in a cage and poked at. Another said that an axe handle was shoved up their bums. Several claimed they were stuffed in a freezer. They even said that they were sexually abused on a waterbed. The children claimed that they were threatened never to tell their parents.

The Cop Connection

As the investigation progressed the children started to say that they recalled uniforms and police cars. From photos the kids picked out police officers from three different forces who they said were also involved.

By the spring of 1992 Martensville was reeling with rumours about a Satanic cult called The Brotherhood of The Ram that had police officers as members. It was an explosive situation and the Martensville police were under tremendous pressure to do something about it.

The First Arrests

In June 1992 they rounded up the babysitter, Linda Sterling and her husband Ron. A young offender and their 23 year old son, Travis were picked up later the same day.

Five cops were also arrested. One of them, John Popowich went from a police officer to a pedophile in just one hour.

In all nine people were accused of the most horrible acts against children. It was such a sensation that even the Premier, Roy Romanow headed to Martensville.

The Case Collapses

The trails against the nine accused began in March 1993. One - a young offender - was found guilty. The next, against John Popowich, collapsed when the boys who claimed they were assaulted couldn't pick him out in court. The case against the Sterlings dragged on for five months. In the end, Travis Sterling was found guilty but not his parents, Ron and Linda.

That's when the Saskatchewan Department of Justice ruled that there would be no more cases. The Courts ruled that there was no Devil Church, no Satan and no conspiracy of pedophiles. In the end, eight of the nine people charged were freed. Only Travis Sterling, the babysitter's son, went to jail for fondling and touching two of the children.

Behind the Hysteria in Martensville

It turned out that things in the Martensville investigation had gone wrong right from the start.

Despite orders from the crown prosecutors not to arrest anyone, Martensville Chief of Police Mike Johnson was so convinced in the Satanic conspiracy that laid the charges before the all of the evidence was in. No longer a police chief, he refused to talk to the fifth estate about the investigation.

Operation Forway

Saskatchewan Justice called in a special task force to sift through the evidence. The lead investigator Sgt. Rick Pearson quickly saw that the case had weak foundations, "at the end of the day, we started to see flaws of what didn't seem to hold any water and we started to question it and analyze it."

When the blue building - the 'Devil Church' - was searched with a Luma Light, police couldn't find a single trace of blood or hair or semen. Early in the investigation the children had been shown pictures of the building and it's contents. And - experts speculate - over the next few months the children started generating stories about them.

The same thing happened with the suspects. When one child said he remembered being driven to the country by a cop, other children began to pick out police from the photographs they were shown. That's why the list of police suspects kept growing.

The Children's Testimony

The only evidence the prosecution had was the children's testimony - which was problematic. Experts who reviewed the tapes said the questions were leading. And when the children gave the 'right' answers they were rewarded with praise. The RCMP investigators had serious doubts about the allegations.

Just one month before the first trail in March 1993 Sgt. Rick Pearson told the crown prosecutors that their evidence was full of holes - opening a rift with the prosecutors. "There was criticism of the task force in that it didn't go in the direction they wanted it to go." But there was too much momentum and the cases proceeded anyways.

Paying for the Mistakes of Martensville

When questioned by the fifth estate the justice minister at the time, Bob Mitchell, claims that he didn't know the case was unraveling. "I am hearing this for the first time, that there was these doubts or these concerns." And the crown prosecutor Bruce Bauer could not comment.

Some of the wrongly accused are suing the Saskatchewan government for malicious prosecution. Last summer the province finally settled with former police officer John Popowich . He received 1.3 million dollars. Other cases are still before the courts.

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