A plea has gone out to the community for witnesses to come forward in the murder of Fribjon Bjornson.
A CBC story last week, both on the radio and on CBC News The National, revealed details of the case.
Bjornson, who was from Vanderhoof but working north of Fort St. James, was killed earlier this year, his severed head having been found in an abandoned house on the Lower Road on Nak’azdli Reserve on Feb. 3.
The CBC story revealed people in the Nak’azdli community may know who is responsible, and said according to witnesses who approached the family, Fribjon had been at a house on the reserve partying, next door to where his head was found. Fribjon’s parents were told he was taken into the basement by a group of people, who then tortured and killed their son.
The CBC story alleges the motivation may have been robbery, as Bjornson had recently cashed a paycheque for thousands of dollars.
His body was then reportedly dismembered to hide the attack.
Bjornson’s body has never been found.
The criminal investigation of the murder is being done by the North District RCMP Major Crimes Unit out of Prince George, which according to Leslie Smith, media relations officer for the North District RCMP, has been very extensive.
Smith said investigators have gone door to door in the communities of Fort St. James and Vanderhoof, and they follow up on every tip and name they are given.
Investigators are in almost daily contact with the Bjornson family, and any information they pass on to investigators they follow up on.
Staff Sergeant Paul Thalhofer, detachment commander in Fort St. James, said the door is always open at the local detachment for people to come forward.
Local RCMP are not involved in the investigation itself, but can take statements or help facilitate introductions between investigators and local community members or witnesses.
“There’s so much more they’re doing that we don’t even know at the local level,” he said.
Thalhofer said it is understandable people in the community can feel frustrated because they are not aware of what is going on behind the scenes.
“I guess the perception in some people’s minds is: We know who did it, why don’t you know,” said Thalhofer. But sometimes RCMP will not have the information if someone does not bring it to them, and the investigation involve long periods of time to put it all together.
“We have to take our time and do it right,” he said. “I truly believe that these crimes will all be solved, but there’s a process to follow to get to that point.”
While it can be difficult for community members to feel comfortable speaking to outsiders, especially given the sensitive nature of the case, people can provide information anonymously if they need to, he said.
The CBC story suggests people are afraid to come forward, and are not comfortable speaking to investigators, and suggests fears of gang-related violence if they do come forward.
Smith said while the drug trade is prevalent in the community, which is almost always connected to organized crime, it is not clear there are formalized gangs on the Nak’azdli reserve.
“Fribjon Bjornson was involved in a high-risk lifestyle,” said Smith, which included hanging out with people who sold drugs.
Smith said if there are people in the community who know what happened, then they should come forward.
The Major Crimes Unit visits Fort St. James quite often, according to Smith, and witnesses can contact them directly, through the local detachment or through Crime Stoppers.
She hopes people realize there are safety plans in place and they can come forward, adding “it’s the right thing to do.”
While Thalhofer said it can be difficult for community members to feel comfortable speaking to outsiders, especially given the sensitive nature of the case, people can provide information anonymously if they need to.
Nak’azdli Chief Fred Sam said while he has never been approached directly, he has heard a number of things second and third hand about the murder and people not comfortable coming forward.
“They zipped their lip because they felt they weren’t being treated with respect,” he said.
But Sam also said he does not necessarily believe the violence is from gang members, but individuals involved in the drug trade.
While so far all he has heard are rumours, Sam said people out there know what happened.
He wants to see people call Crime Stoppers if they want to remain anonymous, and he would be willing to help anyone go forward to the RCMP if they had information which could help solve the crime, but were not comfortable going forward on their own.
“It would be good closure for the family,” he said.
The death of Bjornson and another unsolved case, the death of Robert Boise Prince, have both been an ongoing concern for the community, as Sam said he believes people in the community know the truth in both cases.
“People before wouldn’t lock their doors,” said Sam. But now he said people are more careful.
Smith said the investigation into the Robert Prince death, which took place in August of 2008 after he was involved in an altercation at a gathering, is still ongoing.
The two cases are not linked and Smith said RCMP have spoken to people from the scene.
In the Bjornson case, however, she said key people who have information need to come forward.
Sam said the relationship with local RCMP is improving, but it is still not perfect.
“I think it could be better,” he said. To start with, Sam said he would like to have more consistency in the liaison officers who work directly with the First Nations.
Thalhofer said he agreed and steps have been taken to begin addressing these issues, starting with increasing the liaison officers’ terms assigned to a specific reserve from six months to one year.
Addressing the issues in the community
While drugs and alcohol are concerns Nak’azdli is attempting to address, Sam said it is a difficult one to solve, and the administration needs the community to get involved.
“You just shut down a house and another one pops up,” he said. While some people have been banned from the community, he said he believes these people are still coming in at night.
The band is going to hold some crime prevention workshops and meetings, with the first one on Oct. 29 to discuss the problems. He hopes to see the entire area involved, from surrounding First Nations to the municipality.
“People always complain but they don’t come to these meetings and we need to get their direction,” he said.