I covered thousands of stories in my almost 20 years as a journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador, but few impacted me like the story of Samantha Walsh.
It took the good out of me, in some ways.
I knew my days as a reporter were numbered.
The 13-year-old, Grade 8 student from Fleur de Lys on the Baie Verte Peninsula disappeared in February 2000, and I traveled to the community to research her story.
Samantha’s body was found just before the below article was published.
George Walsh, Samantha’s father, died on Tuesday at St. Clare’s Hospital in St. John’s.
He was 66.
And the best kind of man, and father, I have ever met.
By Ryan Cleary, The Telegram
FLEUR DE LYS — The voice is that of a child, rising with a soft and sweet delivery from a room of living hell.
It’s a haunting sound, the words of Salt Water Joys, sung by a very talented and pretty little girl, Samantha Bertha Walsh, when she was 10 years old. And alive.
The song, Sam’s favourite, plays on a tape, The Children of Fleur de Lys, that her father made in 1996 for the town’s come-home year.
George and Millie, Sam’s parents, listen to the music in their living room. Pine walls and ceiling absorb Sam’s song.
“I was born down by the water and it’s here I’m going to stay
I’ve searched for all the reasons why I should go away’’
Sam’s gone now. Her body was found early Thursday morning in the woods west of town.
George and Millie actually talked about finding a body — not Sam, but a body — for more than a week.
They spoke of the body on Monday night when Sam’s taped voice filled the house. And, once again, the pain, always near the surface, erupts.
Millie leaves her rocking chair near the fire, carried off by an agony only parents can imagine and only parents who’ve actually lost a child could ever truly grasp.
George clutches his coffee mug with both hands close to his face just below his eyes, as if to catch the tears before they’re lost.
It’s been more than two weeks now since Sam, George’s precious Sammy B., vanished.
At first, there was hope that Sam had run away from home. At least then she’d be alive.
But George and Millie say they were fooling themselves, Sam would never up and leave. She was a happy child who loved salt fish for breakfast and her father who took the bones away.
“I’ll pay you if you can find a bone in that,’’ George would say as he passed Sam her plate.
She liked to ride on her orange Ski-Doo she and a friend called the “funk mobile.’’
In summer, Sam rowed the yellow rodney her uncle made for her around the harbour that the windows of her home watch over. Sam was a sharer who would never see another child do without. Her closet isn’t near full, with much of her clothes hanging in the homes of the friends she loaned them to.
Millie always made sure she told her daughter she loved her before leaving for work. And Sam always said it back. “Loves you, too, Mom.’’
The love will always be there. Not Sam.
There have been tragedies here before, deaths by drowning and fire and car crash and one’s own hand. But little girls are supposed to be safe here, in a town where hand-painted street signs warn motorists to “Drive slow, Let ‘em grow.’’
The safe harbour that is outport Newfoundland has been violated. And the Baie Verte Peninsula, like every other nook and cranny of the province, cries out in distress over the loss of Sammy B.
Most windows in Fleur de Lys are naked.
It’s not that people here are against curtains, they just love sunlight. And in a small fishing town like this where every soul knows the habits and history of most every other soul, there’s little to hide.
Front windows shine yellow and inviting against a frigid February night, a night when footsteps crunch on a white crust that is the main road. Voices of pedestrians carry in the still air so that they’re heard long before their faces come into view.
They file into St. Theresa’s Church, an old wooden building with settled, slanted floors that tilt the pews towards the centre aisle.
The night is Sunday, Feb. 20, and Father Ed Brophy says the mass.
“These are difficult times,’’ he tells his flock, a congregation that is missing one member. Samantha Walsh, a 13-year-old Grade 8 student, had been missing for two weeks at that point and residents were out of their minds with worry and frustration and fear.
“We must pray Sammy is safe in God’s care,’’ says Brophy. “Thy will be done.’’ Sam is in God’s hands. Her body was found early Thursday in the woods west of town and a 16-year-old boy who grew up just down the road from her home has been charged with second-degree murder. The pieces of the puzzle that was Sam’s disappearance are coming together.
The grieving, too, has begun.
There are memories to temper the pain, the unimaginable hurt.
Sam was born a Newfoundlander, her father, George, made sure of that. In 1986, when Sam’s mother, Millie, was nine months pregnant the family was living in Fort McMurray, Alta.
George piled himself, Millie and Sam’s older brother, Sandy, into their small Nissan truck and headed for home. “I wanted Sam to be a Newfoundlander,’’ says George.
They arrived in Fleur de Lys on May 19, 1986. Eight days later, Samantha Bertha Walsh was born. “If Sam had’ve come on the way down to Newfoundland I wouldn’t have told anyone,’’ says George, 54, the manager of a plant that produces seal oil in nearby Baie Verte.
Sam was a beautiful baby girl, remembers Millie, 40, a primary school teacher. Sam was raised in Fleur de Lys (flower of the lily) on the Baie Verte Peninsula. It’s a nice place to raise children, by the sea, in the town where her parents were raised, among her own people.
George and Millie built a fine home on a bluff above the harbour. George recalls the day he paid for the lumber. He went to talk to the sawmill operator, leaving Sam and the envelope of cash on the front seat of his truck.
When George returned for the money it was gone. Sam, who was about two years old at the time, had opened the envelope and thrown the bills out the window to float with the wind.
That’s a precious memory: Sam when she was little. George and Millie say it helps to talk about their daughter and the memories. They say it’s better than being alone and thinking about how Sam died.
“Cold,’’ says Millie, “I get so worried that Sam, wherever she is, may be cold. It’s your flesh and blood that you can’t be close to.’’
But Sam’s story is a good one, she says, “a very nice story, a friendly story.’’ George and Millie remember smiles and laughter and goodness and kisses and love, a familiar word in the Walsh home.
Sam, her parents say, was an average student who loved sports, particularly soccer, and whose passion in life was music.
Just last year, when she was in Grade 7, Sam wrote that her ambition was to be a singer while her probable career would be law.
There’s a new stereo in Sam’s bedroom that she got for Christmas with an Eric Clapton CD still in the player. Above her dresser there’s an autographed poster of The Fables, a traditional Newfoundland group.
Sam’s taste in music varied. Millie says that when Sam sang along with Celine Dion to the superstar’s hit song, My Heart Will Go On, she couldn’t tell who was singing, Sam or Celine.
“Sam had a great ear for music,’’ her mother says. Sam took piano lessons for a while but decided to give them up. Millie says she never pushed Sam, deciding to let her daughter find her own way.
Sam was a teenager but wasn’t into makeup. She loved clothes but wasn’t vain. “Sam didn’t mind hauling on a pair of rubber boots,’’ her father says. She liked teddy bears and Leonardo DiCaprio and Beanie Babies and valentines. There are a pile of them from last year wrapped in a red ribbon in her bottom drawer.
Sam missed Valentine’s Day this year.
Her mother won’t read the letters or notes in Sam’s bureau. Sam still has her privacy.
When Sam arrived home every day from school she threw her coat on the floor, her bookbag in her room (where it lies still) and turned up the stereo. She had friends and a best friend, Davina Alyward.
“Best friend,’’ in fact, is engraved on the pendant Davina wears on her necklace, a recent gift from Sam.
“I wear it always,’’ says Davina. “It doesn’t seem like Sam is gone until you look for her and she’s not there.’’
When it comes to Davina and Sam, their memories are much the same. The two grew up together, slept in each other’s beds, sat on the same school bus seat, shared clothes, watched movies and talked about boys.
Sam had a boyfriend in nearby Coachman’s Cove, who she loved as only a 13-year-old can. They were going steady. Davina says Sam loved him a lot. Millie had only one piece of advice for her daughter about men.
“If you’re ever looking for someone in life,’’ she would say, “look for someone like your dad.’’
Millie says she didn’t want her daughter to be anything especially great in life. She just wanted her daughter to be happy, to have respect for herself and her community.
“I didn’t want Sam to be taken advantage of,’’ says Millie. And Sam could hold her own. She had a voice and stood up for what she thought was right.
Millie and George centred much of their life around their daughter. They spent more than one New Year’s Eve hosting a party for Sam and her friends.
“When a kid leaves you and they look back, if they have good memories it holds them together,’’ Millie says is her philosophy.
Sam made a new year’s resolution this year, her mother says. “She said ‘I’m going to start going to church more.’ ‘’
Millie’s own resolution was to exercise more. She walked most days, before her daughter disappeared, and Sam always asked how her walk went.
When Millie talks about her daughter she says she feels like she’s talking about someone else, a stranger. “It’s like I’m in the middle of a book,’’ she says.
George remembers every moment of his daughter’s last day. “They were all good moments,’’ he says.
George drove his daughter to the Copper Creek ski hill in Baie Verte that day, Feb. 6. The two sang all the way there to tapes of The Fables and the Ennis Sisters. Sam spent the day skiing and then George picked her up.
The two sang all the way home. Then there was supper at Sam’s grandmother’s house, followed by a dessert of canned peaches and cream. George and Millie stayed late to take George’s mother to a card game.
Sam, who had stripped off her ski pants when she got to her grandmother’s house, didn’t bother to put them on for the three-minute walk to her house. She went home wearing her coat and hat and long johns covered by flannel pajama pants, pink with black and white lambs, bought the day before at Value Village.
But Sam never made it home. “Loves you, Mom,’’ were her last words to her mother.
George loves to tell stories about his daughter.
There was the time when Sam was two or three and he took her for a ride to Baie Verte. George promised his daughter candies but she fell asleep on the way and didn’t wake up until on the way back.
“ ‘Daddy, you’re going the wrong way,’ ” George recalls Sam as saying. “ ‘Daddy we’re on the wrong side of the road.’ ”
It’s hard to hear a man laugh and cry in the same breath.
It’s harder still to bear witness to a hurt that can’t be eased.
People do try, an effort George and Millie say they deeply appreciate. Cards, letters, faxes and e-mails have poured into the Walsh home since Sam’s disappearance.
There are messages from Russia, China, France, Norway and, of course, all across Newfoundland.
Some of the most touching cards are from Millie’s grades 4 and 5 students.
“I feel sorry about not seeing you in school,’’ writes Dora. “I’m sure Samantha will be home soon.’’
“I’m so sorry about what happened,’’ writes Savannah, another student. “I wish I could help you.’’
In Fleur de Lys today the chimneys continue to exhale fat, crooked rolls of smoke that carry with them the perfume of burning wood. Innocence has been shattered, the grief is intense but life goes on.
And light, always light, continues to shine through the windows of Fleur de Lys.
Michael Lewis misled investigators for 17 days before admitting he strangled Samantha Walsh in a cabin just outside the town. Sixteen years old at the time, he was convicted of murder in the case. George and Millie Walsh often spoke publicly about their quest to prevent Lewis from getting parole. Despite the Walsh family's campaign and after rejected appeals, day parole for Lewis was approved last fall.