Vancouver Police Department Det Rob Faoro sits forward in his chair in an interview room at the main police station. He taps the four-inch-thick binder on his lap.
Few murder investigations produce an activity log of that size, he says.
It’s the police activity log into the investigation of the death of Aaron Webster, among the toughest cases he and his partner Det Sean Trowski ever tackled.
It’s the first time he has talked publicly about the investigation.
It was in the early morning hours of Nov 17, 2001 when a couple driving in Stanley Park saw a group of people with what appeared to be bats striking someone, Faoro says, opening the binder.
“They had been out partying and they were going, I guess, to make out,” he recalls. “As they were driving in, their headlights were smack-dab on… two to three males with bats. The male describes Aaron as dropping to the ground.”
Scared for their own lives, Faoro says the couple pulled into a nearby parking spot and called 911.
But when the couple drove back, the assailants were gone.
It was then that Webster’s friend, Tim Chisholm, who had been in the park nearby watching a meteor shower, came across the body.
Chisholm didn’t recognize the victim until he moved the man’s arm from his face. He found himself looking into the face of his dying friend.
“He started to give him CPR,” Faoro says. “He could see a little bit of blood in his mouth. Then the police arrived.”
At first, says Faoro, everything pointed to Tim Chisholm.
“There was a life insurance policy and it was in the name of Tim Chisholm,” Faoro recounts. “It wasn’t a lot of money; I think it was $50,000.”
Chisholm was taken in for questioning.
“He was very helpful and forthright,” Faoro says. “Still, it just seemed strange that he was in the park at the time and didn’t see or hear anything and didn’t know that Aaron was going there.”
But, the detective says, Chisholm was polygraphed. He passed. Easily.
Then, two days after the death, a mystery letter was shoved under the door of Little Sister’s.
Although it was later discounted, the note said Webster was killed because he was a drug dealer and was growing marijuana.
The police are fairly sure who wrote the letter. The same man would phone the detectives and scream at them and write letters to the chief, Faoro says.
Then, the break came. An anonymous tip in early December 2001.
“The tip pointed us in the direction of a male and a name was given but it was a phonetic spelling,” Faoro says.
But they had a name, a high school and an age.
Police began combing the schools. They found the male and began noting his acquaintances. They also recorded the licence plate numbers of everyone around him.
At this point, a police report surfaced from Ed Smith, who frequented the park at night. He claimed he was attacked by males bearing a resemblance to the suspects—and he gave the police the licence plate number of his alleged attackers. (See story page 12.)
“God, I thought, there’s something familiar,” Faoro says. “I went looking for the surveillance reports. Bingo, there it is.”
The plate on one of the vehicles of those around the youth was just one number different from the plate Smith had reported.
It was Ryan Cran’s vehicle, an old, blue Jeep Cherokee.
(In the end, Cran, Danny Rao, and two youths were all charged with manslaughter in the case. Cran and the youths, who cannot be named because they were under 18 at the time of the incident, were all convicted. Rao was acquitted.)
As a result of having the vehicle identified, police now had the names of all four eventual suspects.
But another witness remained a mystery.
Somebody told a Little Sister’s staff member they had seen the whole thing. They didn’t want to come forward to police.
“We pursued that for the longest time,” Faoro says. “Never to this day, I don’t know if it was a lie. This person told [the staffer] they were there, saw the whole thing but were afraid to come forward.”
A disappointment. Not yet a full case. But, the ball was rolling.
As Faoro and Trowski continued, another tip arrived. It was from Halifax, Nova Scotia.
A man had been in an online chatroom where Cran had allegedly been bragging about his involvement in the death, Faoro says.
The man called a Mountie who called the detectives. They tracked the man to Montreal. In the hopes of rescuing the data, they asked for the man’s computer.
The man’s hard drive had crashed and he’d gotten a new one.
Then, a young woman mentioned something about the situation to her mother who called police.
Called in for an interview, the teen told detectives she had been to the park with Ryan Cran and the second youth.
“They go down there and look for bums,” Faoro says she told detectives. “Not for gay individuals. Bums.”
Cran had been caught making out with his girlfriend in the area and “had a bee in his bonnet” about people looking in cars, Faoro says.
As a result, Cran and others would go to the park with golf clubs and bats to beat bums, police were told.
But, the mother was very scared and the girl reluctant to talk further.
Then, an RCMP officer came forward with information about a kid who worked at a pool hall the youths would frequent.
“Ryan Cran had told him they were the ones responsible for this,” Faoro says.
That witness, too, was leery of speaking to police and would not give his name.
The police took a chance. They assessed which of the possible witnesses they’d already dealt with would help them out. They went to one and asked.
Faoro snaps his fingers.
“Right on board,” he says.
Affidavits were obtained and presented to a judge. Phone taps were put in place.
“A lot came out of that,” he says. “It really painted a real good picture of who’s who in the zoo. No doubt in my mind all these kids were involved.”
They were telling each other not to talk, the taps revealed. They knew the cops were onto them.
Then another tip arrived telling police who was in the park and what they were driving. Faoro thinks it was a female acquaintance of Rao.
They approached her. She was scared, her father was scared.
“She would have been the best, tons of pillow talk. Never got her.”
Then, says Faoro, another break came. Cran got in an accident and sold his vehicle to ICBC. The police bought it.
But there was a fly in the ointment; Cran’s mother worked for ICBC.
“He knew through his mom, through his lawyer, that the cops were onto him,” Faoro says. “He always denied it, but in the back of [Mrs. Cran’s] head, I think she knew he’d been up to something.”
The Crans’ neighbours soon figured out there was some surveillance on as well, and tipped off the family, Faoro says. The youths became even more cautious as a result.
The officers decided to take a chance and tackle one of the youths.
“He wasn’t a bad kid,” Faoro says of the first youth to eventually plead guilty. “This was eating him alive.”
Police brought him in for questioning.
“Within 15 minutes, he said: ‘I’ve been waiting for this. I can’t wait any longer,’ and he just spilled it A to Z,” Faoro says.
The police arrested him in February 2003.
Eight months later, they arrested Cran, Rao and a second youth. Their pre-trial hearings began shortly thereafter and the police involvement waned.
“This was a very long, complicated investigation because of the fact the kids were aware the cops were on them. They were very savvy for young kids,” Faoro says.
The veteran detective says he has no sympathy for any of the four charged in Webster’s killing.
He’s most generous to the first youth who was found through the anonymous tip.
He’s least generous to Rao whom he considers dangerous. “Danny, I despised,” he says.
Unlike the others, Rao has a criminal record. To date, he has convictions for trespassing at night and obstruction of justice for interfering with a witness in the Webster case.
He’s the exception in the group. The others, Faoro says, had been pretty well straight arrows until Webster’s death. “I wouldn’t even characterize them as crooks. They were just misdirected kids coming from different families. Not the best parental guidance,” he notes.
The second youth he calls an “at-home boy” but also notes he was “cool as a cucumber.”
“If he turns his life around now, he may be able to make something of it,” Faoro says.
Cran, he says, is something of a redneck, albeit one with a string of girlfriends, often juggled concurrently.
It was a tough case, Faoro says, adding his marriage broke down over the course of the investigation. “We worked our asses off.”
It wasn’t the only marriage to end, either. Cran’s parents also parted ways.
The case is all but finished now, pending various appeals.
Faoro closes the binder and extends his hand in a firm clasp.
“I’m satisfied in my mind,” he says. “I can sleep easy at night knowing that these kids didn’t buffalo us.”