After her father was found shot dead on an Oro farm in 1992, Kim Kneeshaw found her calling to help other victims at North Simcoe Victim Services.
Having lost her father to a violent murder, Kim Kneeshaw suddenly found herself navigating the alien world of the legal system.
It was in the 1990s and the Barrie courthouse – with its rules and formalities and a labyrinth of rabbit adaptations and additions after the fact and hardwood benches – was all a bit overwhelming. Having no access to any particular service, she relied on the kindness of an officer who also acted as a liaison with the victims.
At one point, as she was preparing to testify at the preliminary hearing, Orillia’s wife fell ill and, with no other choice, found herself lying on the couch in the Crown attorneys office.
“There’s nowhere to go,” Kneeshaw recalls in an interview with OrilliaMatters. “The lack of accommodation for the victims is horrible. It was all so re-victimizing.
Her father, Paul Kneeshaw, 51, was gunned down on his rural property south of Orillia, in what was then Oro Township, on March 21, 1992, ultimately bringing his daughter to justice.
The elder Kneeshaw was a successful entrepreneur who ran a series of bingo halls, owned a gravel pit and a collection of vintage cars, and was active in the community through the Civitan Service Club, which held a memorial service in his honor and launched a scholarship in his name.
He also clung to his agricultural roots. He often wore a flannel shirt and work pants, and had what his daughter describes as a hardworking work ethic that he tried to pass on to his children while working on their small Oro farm.
“On the day of the 1985 tornado, my father stepped in to help. He took an injured person to hospital using a debris door as a stretcher in the back of his truck,” she recalls. “He worked tirelessly that day to help people and try to clean up the debris. He took piles and piles of debris from the back of his truck and threw it in the gravel pit to get rid of it. later.
“He had so much more to teach me and I wasn’t done learning yet. So many times over the years, I wonder how different our lives would have been if Dad had lived. We all loved him. so much and his loss left a huge hole in our hearts. “
His best friend and sometimes business associate, Jack Heyden, along with his son, Bill Vanderheyden, were convicted of first degree murder in 1999. – a verdict that was overturned by the Ontario Court of Appeal after spending a decade in prison.
They then both pleaded guilty to less serious charges. Heyden pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit murder, while Vanderheyden pleaded guilty to aiding and abetting after the fact. Both were sentenced to prison terms.
With Vanderheyden passing away at the age of 57 earlier this month, following the death of his father three years earlier, the final chapter of their decades-long saga is written.
For Kim Kneeshaw, it seemed time to share her own story of a life forever changed by tragic loss.
She was 27 when her father was killed almost 30 years ago, so she survived him, as did Heyden and Vanderheyden – people she knew at the time as friends of the family.
The Heydens were friends for as long as she can remember and the children played together when they were younger while their parents visited.
So in 1994, when the father and son were indicted, young Kneeshaw was shocked and asked the OPP lead investigator if he was sure.
By the time the 18-month trial finally concluded with a guilty verdict in 1999, Kneeshaw was convinced that the police had arrested the right perpetrators, a view that has not changed over the years despite protests from the men. condemned.
And she was glad her family didn’t have to endure the experience of another trial, even with the truncated sentence the men received as a result of the plea deal.
Several years after the verdict, a three-member panel of the Ontario Court of Appeal concluded that the trial judge had erred in refusing the defense to challenge the credibility of three “unsavory” witnesses. basis of appeal allowed to quash the murder conviction.
“By the time they finally got an appeal on these grounds, it was nine and a half years later, there were witnesses who by that time were dead, they weren’t available. And my mom was sick… and I was terrified that the stress of a second try would cost both of my parents, ”she says.
The case itself was circumstantial, resulting in the longest jury trial in Canadian history at the time.
And for Kneeshaw it was a lot – horrible and uncomfortable at best.
She remembers sitting on a bench in the hallway of the courthouse while waiting to enter the courtroom to testify and engaging in a conversation with another young woman there.
“We were both mothers, we were talking. I had no idea who she was, ”said Kneeshaw, who later found out to be the wife of the young man accused of killing her father. “It was like, ‘Oh, that’s weird.’
“I don’t think she knew who I was either. … I felt terrible for her and the children, really. It’s not his fault – she had nothing to do with it. She is very much a victim of this situation like anyone else.
In 1999, as the murder trial dragged on, a new organization began to develop in Orillia. Kneeshaw participated in the first North Simcoe Victim Services Volunteer Training Program that spring.
The death of her father and the experience of the trial “guided my decision to join Victim Services 100%, as I wanted to be able to support other people” who may have lost someone and have need to be guided, she said.
While there are witness and victim support services at the courthouse, the service that attracted Kneeshaw was designed as a crisis intervention program.
With volunteers available 24 hours a day throughout the year, North Simcoe Victim Services provide immediate practical and emotional support to victims of crime or tragic circumstances.
“It means so much to have someone next to you and maybe pat your arm. Just to have someone there, to know that someone else cares about what happened to you, ”Kneeshaw says. “It makes a difference just to have someone there.”
Training volunteers, she says, exceeds government standards and, for some, has been a life-changing experience, leading to transferable skills. Many volunteers, like Kim Kneeshaw, have had traumatic experiences.
What a difference it would have made for her family, she says now. They had questions no one had time to answer, no link to information, and they all needed some kind of emotional support.
“Sit down and help people make a list of who to call, supporting them throughout those calls. And, honestly, just knowing that someone cared enough to come and sit with you, ”says Kneeshaw, who at the time had been involved in family businesses.
After her father was killed, the business continued but on a smaller scale. Kneeshaw found herself more drawn to victim services as a team leader. While scheduling staffing for the company, she also scheduled 45 volunteers for 12-hour, 24/7 shifts.
Four years later, she joined the staff as a Volunteer Coordinator. Now she continues with the organization as an executive director.
“It’s become my life,” she says. “It’s a vocation, I don’t consider it a job.
“I am very happy to see some of the changes that have taken place and I hope more will come to help more victims.”