By: Taylor MacPherson
As 2017 draws to a close, paNOW is taking a look back on the most important and impactful stories of the year, selected by our reporters and editorial staff.
One of the saddest stories in Prince Albert’s history came to an end this year, with the death of Marlene Bird and the sentencing of the man whose incredibly violent attack thrust her permanently into the public spotlight.
Marlene Bird was attacked and left for dead by Leslie Ivan Black. She was discovered in a downtown parking lot June 1, 2014 badly burned and barely conscious, having suffered a brutal and prolonged assault. Bird, a grandmother originally from the Montreal Lake Cree Nation, was brutally beaten and stomped by her attacker. Worst of all, Black lit the barely-conscious Bird on fire with a lighter before leaving the scene. As the flames licked at his victim, Black walked to a nearby convenience store and bought candy, passing by the scene on his way home without stopping.
One of the first people to discover Bird nearly six hours later described the aftermath of Black’s attack as “horrific.”
“I knew there was nothing I could do. I just basically stood where she could see me,” Stacy Free said during a 2014 interview. “To think that someone could do that to another person…”
Community takes up the cause
Bird, who was 47 years old at the time of her attack, was taken to an Edmonton hospital to undergo extensive surgeries and treatment for her burns. For much of the month of June she breathed through a surgical tube and communicated using only hand gestures as doctors applied extensive skin grafts and performed facial reconstruction.
The worst damage was done to Bird’s legs, both of which had to be amputated in hospital, and to her eyesight, which was irreparably damaged. For the rest of her life, Bird used a wheelchair and often wore large, dark sunglasses over her damaged eyes.
The public was outraged by the level of violence displayed in the assault, and a $2,000 reward for information was jointly offered by the Montreal Lake Cree Nation and Prince Albert Grand Council. Several members of Bird’s family pleaded for anyone with information to come forward, and tips began to pour in to the Prince Albert Police Service and Crime Stoppers.
On June 29, 2014, Prince Albert police announced they made an arrest. Police searched the home of 29-year-old Leslie Black, they said, and found enough evidence to lay charges of attempted murder and aggravated sexual assault.
Although the case already received a huge amount of national publicity, Bird’s identity could no longer be published after the court proceedings began due to an automatic publication ban that protects the victims of sexual crimes.
Bird, however, was not happy to be “just another statistic.” Although she was still recovering in hospital, Bird penned a letter to Provincial Court Judge S.C. Carter requesting he lift the publication ban and allow the media to continue printing her name and photograph.
“We just didn’t want this horrendous crime to be forgotten,” Bird’s aunt Lorna Thiessen told reporters after delivering Bird’s letter to the court. “We wanted all the information out through the media.”
Dangerous Offender hearing begins
As Bird slowly recovered from the attack, all eyes turned toward the perpetrator and his eventual fate. In April of 2015, Black pleaded guilty to attempted murder and the Crown quickly applied for a Dangerous Offender (DO) designation, which would allow Black to be kept in prison until he was ruled fit to safely re-enter society. Upon learning of the Crown’s intentions, Black attempted to have a judge expunge his plea, but found no success beyond delaying the proceedings.
Black, who was kept in an out-of-province correctional centre because he was targeted by other inmates, underwent a battery of psychological assessments before the dangerous offender hearing began on March 13 of this year.
During the hearings, Black’s own tragic background was explored in detail. Black, who grew up in Alberta, was placed into foster care after witnessing his mother’s brutal stabbing death on his ninth birthday. Psychologist Dr. Terry Nicholaichuk, who testified during the hearing, said Black suffered post-traumatic stress disorder due to the incident, which left him habitually abusing drugs and alcohol.
Black suffers from numerous cognitive disabilities, Nicholaichuk testified, and was likely born with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. At times in his life, the court heard, Black was living on the streets and injecting seemingly random substances into his veins, seeking any high he could find.
“It’s actually difficult to imagine a more tragic history,” Nicholaichuk said.
Black’s own father Solomon Black told paNOW he had no idea of the violence his son was capable of.
“I was kind of worried about him because he would go out and get drunk and pass out,” Black’s father said in a 2015 interview. “When I first heard about [the incident], it was very shocking to me … I just about lost it because I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing was true.”
Despite efforts by the Crown, Judge Stanley Loewen declined to label Black a dangerous offender. Although acknowledging the brutality shown in Black’s attack on Bird, Loewen said the Crown had not sufficiently proved that he would never successfully respond to treatment.
On Sept. 22, Loewen sentenced Black to spend the next 16 years in federal custody, which will be followed by a 10-year long-term supervision order. Black was also given a lifetime ban on owning firearms or ammunition, and was required to provide DNA samples.
“It seems to me that Mr. Black, even though he has avoided the designation of Dangerous Offender… will not have an easy road ahead of him,” Loewen wrote in his decision. “He has a long period of incarceration to serve and another long period of supervision in the community.”
Court case ends in forgiveness
Her wish was granted during Black’s sentencing hearing, when he was given the opportunity to speak on the record.
Black stood in the prisoner’s box and made eye contact with Bird as he read a letter of apology he had previously prepared.
“I apologize for what I did, and if I could undo the past, I would,” Black said. “I’m truly sorry.”
After hearing the apology, Bird said she felt it was sincere. On the courthouse steps, Bird told reporters she was satisfied with the 16-year sentence, and said she would one day be able to forgive her attacker.
“I’m doing my best, because my mom told me to forgive people,” Bird said. “I think I could forgive him.”
When asked how she planned to mark the end of the long and trying legal process, Bird chuckled and said she would “probably go have a cup of tea.”
Bird dies in hospital
Marlene Bird died of organ failure on the morning of Nov. 27 at Prince Albert’s Victoria Hospital, only two months after her attacker was sentenced.
Although her personal struggles with alcohol abuse were well-known, Bird was remembered as a symbol of resilience by the entire community, and many national news organizations covered her passing. More than 100 people participated in a ceremonial round dance for Bird outside Saskatoon’s City Hall, and a large memorial service was held at Prince Albert’s Full Gospel Outreach Centre.
Bird was remembered as a fighter who never gave up, and also as a good mother who worked hard to provide for her children. Her friends and family spoke about Bird’s keen sense of humour, which they said never faded, even after the attack.
“She was the most loving woman there was, but she was also cheeky. Very cheeky,” her cousin Ruby Bird said at the memorial service. “It meant a lot to have her in my life.”
Although Bird was best-known as a victim, and came to symbolize issues including violence against women and homelessness, she gave fellow victims hope. Bird’s courage, and her willingness to tell her tragic story, inspired many to work toward change, and will be remembered by the entire community for years to come.
–With files from The Canadian Press.