Canadian True Crime - Cherish

Episode Date: May 23, 2024

The case of a beloved 16-year-old girl who didn't return home one night—and the many questionable decisions made by authorities that could have inadvertently saved her life.The intention of this epi...sode is to highlight how cases involving missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls are often treated differently at every stage of the criminal justice process, as per Reclaiming Power and Place, the final report of the National Inquiry into #MMIWG.Additional content warning: this episode is about the murder and possible sexual assault of an underage girl.This month, Canadian True Crime has donated to Justice for Girls Outreach SocietyFull list of resources, information sources and credits:See the page for this episode at  Hosted on Acast. See for more information.

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Starting point is 00:00:58 Your first audiobook is absolutely free when you sign up for a free 30-day trial at podcast often has disturbing content and coarse language. It's not for everyone. Please take care when listening. Hi everyone, I hope you're well. Before we start, I have to tell you about three events coming up, but I'll try to make it as quick as I can. I'll be at the Podcast Power Up Summit in Toronto on Sunday, June the 2nd. An event coming up very quickly for anyone in or interested in podcasting. I'll be speaking about how to get your indie podcast signed with the hosts of CBC's The Secret Life of Canada.
Starting point is 00:01:53 Then the following weekend is the Motive Crime and Mystery Festival, a three-day event that brings together the best crime and mystery writers in Canada and around the world. You can enjoy book signings, workshops and conversations like my one with the Toronto stars Kevin Donovan, author of the Billionaire Murders book and podcast about the Barry and Honey Sherman case. That's happening on the Saturday evening, June 8th. There are so many great authors at the Motive Crime and Mystery Festival, including my good friend Laura Norton from the hit podcast The Fall Line, an author of that forensic science book I told you about called Lay Them to Rest, as well as acclaimed true crime author Sarah
Starting point is 00:02:37 Weinman. Then in July, I'll be at the True Crime and Paranormal Podcast Festival, July 12th to 14th in Denver, Colorado, where you can find me with all the other podcasters on Podcast Row. Use discount code Christy for 15% off. For more details about these events, check the show notes and the website And with that, it's on with the show. An additional content warning. This episode is about the murder and sexual assault of an underage girl pieced together from the news archives and inquiry testimony. Our sincere condolences to her family and anyone else affected. Please take care when listening.
Starting point is 00:03:31 The date was Friday, October 12th, 2001. That evening, Cherish Oppenheim asked her mother Shelley if she could drive her over to a friend's place for a visit. Shelley said that was fine, but reminded 16-year-old Cherish to make sure she was well rested because they had a busy weekend ahead. Cherish agreed to be home by 1am and promised she'd be ready to go in the morning. After they said their goodbyes, Shelly decided to wait up for her daughter to get home. She ended up falling asleep on the couch. Cherish was the second eldest of four daughters and her family lived in the Nicola Valley
Starting point is 00:04:15 in the southern interior region of British Columbia. The area is known for its natural beauty and amazing outdoor recreational activities. And it's also the traditional territory of a number of indigenous First Nations. Cherish Oppenheim and her family were Antlau Capim Nation, originally from Coldwater First Nation. But they live nearby in Merritt, a small city of about 7,000 residents that serves as the primary commercial and administrative hub of the Nicola Valley. Cherish attended Merritt Secondary School, where she was a popular and active grade 11 student,
Starting point is 00:04:56 known for being talented at whatever sport she tried. She played on the girls' junior basketball and rugby teams. Rugby was her favorite. She proudly wore a number 13 jersey and her team was so good they'd traveled to France to play. Cherish was outspoken about wanting to become a PE teacher one day, but she liked to keep busy with lots of other activities as well. BC newspaper The Province would report that she was an avid pool player. She'd taken training for first aid, hiking, and survival skills. In that summer of 2001, she'd been a day camp supervisor
Starting point is 00:05:37 at the Coldwater First Nation. Cherish's mother suddenly woke up on the couch with an uneasy feeling. She found herself saying, Ah Cherish. She glanced at the clock and saw it was 3am. She must have missed when Cherish arrived home and went to the 16 year old's room to check. Cherish wasn't there, her bed hadn't been slept in. Shelly's instincts were already telling her something was wrong. Her daughter usually checked in often when she was out and she wasn't
Starting point is 00:06:17 one to come home late, so Shelly got in her car to see if she could see any sign of Cherish. It was all she could think of to do. After driving around Merritt for a while with no sign of her daughter, Shelley returned home, hoping that Cherish would have beat her there. She hadn't. Not long after that, Cherish's three sisters woke up to the sounds of their parents having concerned conversations about where Cherish might be. Her older sister Ashley told them that she'd actually walked home with Cherish that night. They met up at the Downtown Merit 7-Eleven store shortly after midnight and then walked home together. But as Ashley opened the front door and entered
Starting point is 00:07:05 the house, Cherish didn't follow. Instead she turned and left again, but she never came back. The family spent that Saturday morning looking for Cherish as various concerned family members stopped by the house to lend their support. After a few hours searching they were at their wits end. Shelly could feel the situation intensifying. She knew something was seriously wrong. It was time to contact the RCMP to report her daughter missing. That evening, Shelley looked up at the moon and prayed for Cherish. There was still no sign of her on Sunday and the family hadn't heard anything else from the RCMP. By this point Cherish had been missing for more than 24 hours. Shelley would say she didn't know what the policy was for searching for a missing person,
Starting point is 00:08:09 but the family decided to schedule a larger scale search themselves immediately. Quote, we needed to move now and we knew that. Shelley's cousin Robert Moses was put in charge of the search for Cherish. He got a map out, sectioned it off and delegated areas to the growing number of volunteers to search, with ATVs arranged to help them get around. Cherish's immediate and extended family created a poster, printed off thousands of
Starting point is 00:08:40 copies and distributed them in and around town and nearby areas. Shelley would describe how the Upper Nicola First Nations cowboys arrived on their horses, offering to help by searching the woods and wooded areas on the outskirts of Merritt. They were soon joined by the six First Nations bands in the area, who came together to help with the search, donating food and money and other items needed by the family. Cherish's cousin Thelma commented to the media, we're using the moccasin telegraph, sometimes it works better.
Starting point is 00:09:21 The family home had been turned into a command centre, the search headquarters. There were volunteers and family members manning phones while others were out searching highways and logging roads for any sign of what might have happened to Cherish. There was a lot of activity going on. Before long, the search for Cherish had turned into a major ground and air operation. On Monday, more than two days after Cherish had been reported missing, the RCMP pulled into her family's yard. But they had no news about Cherish. There was still no sign of her. Shelly wondered what was happening with the media. She hadn't seen anything reported about Cherish being
Starting point is 00:10:09 missing, no pleas to the public to come forward with any information yet. But that was all about to change. Later that day, the police received an anonymous tip that a young girl fitting Cherish's description had been seen getting into a vehicle just down the street from the downtown 7-Eleven shortly before 2.30am on the Saturday morning. Cherish had of course already been at that 7-Eleven that night, about two hours earlier when she met her sister Ashley and they walked home together.
Starting point is 00:10:45 When Cherish unexpectedly turned and headed back out again, she had gone back to meet up with her friends. Those friends confirmed to investigators that Cherish was with them at the 7-Eleven again in the time before 2.30am, but she left them at the store and started walking down the street by herself in the direction of her house. Shortly after that she was seen getting into a vehicle, or a person fitting her description was. If true, the driver of that vehicle was the last known person to see Cherish alive, so it was top priority for investigators to locate them.
Starting point is 00:11:28 The problem was, the person who called with the tip didn't provide any further information about it, and of course, they were anonymous. At this point, the RCMP engaged the local media to report on the disappearance of Cherish Oppenheim, issue a public plea for information, and request that the anonymous tipster get back in touch with them. Cherish was described as indigenous, about 5 feet 8 inches tall, 115 pounds with long brown hair, and she was last seen wearing a green fleece pullover, white running shoes and dark blue jeans with a red letter T on one pocket and H on the other.
Starting point is 00:12:14 A couple of days later, a follow-up article reported that the RCMP wasn't able to make contact with the anonymous caller and they hadn't found any other evidence that Cherish had gotten into a vehicle down the street from the 7-Eleven. So at that point, as far as investigators knew, the last time the 16-year-old had been seen was when she left her friends at that 7-Eleven shortly before 2.30 on the Saturday morning. As the RCMP and Cherish's family hoped that the media attention would result in more tips, they continued their efforts searching everywhere, in buildings and in abandoned homes. But soon, rumours started to surface that Cherish might have been a victim of sex trafficking, that Cherish might have been a victim of sex trafficking, that she'd been snatched, drugged and forced to work on Vancouver's downtown east side.
Starting point is 00:13:10 Her family described this as devastating to hear, but they couldn't ignore it, and family members went to comb the streets of Vancouver to look for any sign of her. Several days later, the RCMP confirmed these rumours existed, but added a clarification that there was never any evidence whatsoever to support the story that Cherish had been sex trafficked. She was in a high-risk group for human and sex traffickers. According to Canadian statistics, incidents of trafficking reported to police show that 96% of victims are women and girls, 24% are girls under the age of 18, and Indigenous girls are especially
Starting point is 00:13:57 vulnerable. But there are a number of misconceptions and myths about what human trafficking really is and what it looks like in real life. The prevalent belief is that sex trafficking typically starts with the victim being abducted or kidnapped by a stranger. But in the vast majority of real life cases, this just isn't true. Traffickers are typically already known to the victim or as someone who came into their lives and built a relationship with them by establishing trust and an emotional connection. Sex trafficking victims are typically groomed with the end goal of manipulating and coercing them into working to earn money that's paid straight to the person trafficking them. But because of the widespread
Starting point is 00:14:43 misconception about being snatched off the. But because of the widespread misconception about being snatched off the streets, many of the actual victims do not realise that what's happening to them is sex trafficking. When it came to the search for Cherish, her family did whatever they could to try and find her. At the end of long day searching, they got together. They did smudges, said prayers,
Starting point is 00:15:07 and participated in cultural drumming and singing in an effort to keep everyone connected, safe, and grounded through the search. Cherish's mother, Shelly, described it as an important part of how they were able to function day to day. Quote, I really believe in my heart that's what kept us moving, kept us going through that traumatic time,
Starting point is 00:15:30 our culture, how strong it was when we were together. By October 21st, Cherish had been missing for eight days. The search operation had been extended and more tips had come in with sightings of her in particular areas. Her family would get their hopes up but as each tip was revealed to be a dead end, their anguish and disappointment was palpable. But then the family suddenly heard whispers that the police had their sights on a suspect. A man had been stopped by the RCMP in downtown Merritt the same night that Cherish went missing.
Starting point is 00:16:14 And apparently in the man's van was duct tape and a knife. The date was Monday, October 22nd of 2001 and Cherish Oppenheim had been missing for nine days. The RCMP confirmed to Cherish's mother Shelly and stepfather Victor that they did have a suspect in custody, that they'd been watching closely for a few days, but he wasn't talking. They tried a different approach and interrogated him for hours about the night that Cherish went missing, but he still wouldn't talk. They tried a different approach and interrogated him for hours about the night that Cherish went missing, but he still wouldn't talk. So as a last resort, investigators asked Cherish's parents if they'd be willing to come down to the jail to plead with the man to tell them where she was.
Starting point is 00:17:21 They agreed immediately and began what was likely an agonising wait on standby to be called. The suspect's name was Robert Raymond Desjuan, a 37-year-old labourer from Kelowna, a city located a little less than a 90-minute drive from Merritt. But Robert Desjuan was no stranger to Merritt. He grew up there and his family once ran a nursery that wasn't far from Cherish's family home. And more importantly, he was in town the same night that she vanished. In addition, Robert Desjuan had a sizable criminal record
Starting point is 00:18:06 that reportedly started with charges related to narcotics and possession of stolen property dating back to the 1980s. 29-year-old Robert Desjuan was married at the time and when his trial started his wife was halfway through her pregnancy with their first child. He said he was dealing with financial issues at the time and was engaging in hazardous consumption of alcohol which he claimed contributed to his criminal actions that day. While he acknowledged that he had broken into the woman's home and forcibly confined her, he oddly denied straddling her on the bed. This is the earliest public indication that Desjuan
Starting point is 00:18:51 appears to be highly sensitive about accusations related to sexual assault. There is no way to know his intentions that day but when his criminal actions are taken to their logical conclusion, it's reasonable to assume that he likely would have sexually assaulted the woman had she not screamed. Desjuan was found guilty of breaking and entering an unlawful confinement and the judge sentenced him to a one-year jail term. That was in November of 1993, about eight years before Cherish Oppenheim's disappearance. In February of 1994, a small announcement appeared
Starting point is 00:19:36 in the Times Colonists that Robert and his wife Nadine had welcomed a baby son named Cruz Dizwan. There was obviously no mention of the fact that the baby's father likely missed the birth because he was in prison. A month later, the Nanaimo Daily News published a strange photo showing Robert Dizwan and another inmate with wide grins on their faces as they presented a check to two women also pictured. According to the caption, the women were representatives from the local chapter of
Starting point is 00:20:11 the Boys and Girls Club, now referred to as BCG Canada, which had recently been broken into. Robert Desjuan decided to organize a fundraising event, encouraging other inmates to join him in donating several days of pay from their prison jobs to replace the toys and equipment that had been stolen. of 1995 and another small ad was published in the Times Colonist newspaper that appears to be a first birthday announcement accompanied by a picture of a smiley baby boy. The caption reads, quote, Hello, I'd like to formally introduce myself to the parents of my future girlfriends. My name is Cruz. My parents, Robert and Nadine, are awfully proud of me. When I come to pick up your daughter for a date, you'll know me." His parents' marriage didn't last long
Starting point is 00:21:17 after his father was released from prison. Cruz was about 18 months old when they separated, and he lived with his mother after that. A few years later, in 1997, Robert Desjuan was convicted of assaulting another woman. There are no details on the public record about the specifics of that assault. In 2001, leading up to the disappearance of Cherish Oppenheim that October, Robert Desjuan was found dead in a car accident. The police were unable to find him, and the police were unable to find him. record about the specifics of that assault. In 2001, leading up to the disappearance of Cherish Oppenheim that October, Dazwan was arrested on two counts of uttering threats to his ex-girlfriend
Starting point is 00:21:56 and her new boyfriend, and then released on bail. He was arrested again just a few weeks later, this time for a violent attack against a teenage girl from earlier that year that included the use of duct tape and a knife. He was charged with sexual assault with a weapon, confinement and robbery. of his charges and convictions, Dizwan was determined to not be a risk to the public and again released on bail on several conditions. He was only allowed to reside at a specific approved address in the city of Kelowna, he was not to consume alcohol and he was not to have any prohibited weapons including firearms, crossbows, ammunition, explosive substances or any other prohibited or restricted weapon. Curiously, Robert Desjuan did not use any of those weapons. For reasons that will come up later, the weapon that he did use, a knife,
Starting point is 00:23:00 was not on that list. a knife was not on that list. That was August of 2001, and just a month later Robert Desjuan was arrested in relation to the incident where he uttered threats to his ex-girlfriend. He was charged with two counts of breaching his bail conditions and ironically released on bail again. About two weeks later, a van driven by Robert Raymond Desjuan was pulled over by the RCMP in the nearby city of Merritt on suspicion of intoxicated driving. He told them he was from Kelowna, but was staying with his mother in Merritt at the time.
Starting point is 00:23:49 He also denied drinking any alcohol that evening. But the results of his breathalyzer test showed a blood alcohol level approaching the legal limit, which necessitated a warning. The RCMP member took his name and returned to the cruiser to enter it in the system. It showed that 37-year-old Robert Raymond Desjuan was on bail awaiting trial after being charged in relation to two separate offences, which included the violent sexual assault of a teenage girl. There was some discussion with RCMP telecommunications about the specifics of the bail conditions, particularly the one about prohibited weapons.
Starting point is 00:24:34 The RCMP member who spoke to Desjuan had also seen an 8 to 10 inch kitchen knife clearly visible in his van, along with with duct tape but was told that the bail conditions mentioned nothing about knives specifically. But Desjuan was in breach of two other conditions. He was not to consume any alcohol which he clearly had that night and he was staying with his mum in Merritt when his bail conditions only permitted him to live at an approved address in Kelowna. When the RCMP asked him about this, he told them he was moving house at the time. Obviously, a person under bail conditions like this cannot just move house and temporarily stay in a different city
Starting point is 00:25:22 without it being approved through the official process. And Robert Desjuan hadn't. Despite the fact that he was in breach of two of his bail conditions, the RCMP did not take any action. Instead, they gave him a 24-hour roadside suspension for driving while almost at the legal limit. He was free to go, but not in the van. He reportedly left the scene on foot. This incident happened in Merritt the evening of Friday, October 12th, 2001. The exact same night that Cherish Oppenheim was out with her friends. And just a few hours later she disappeared.
Starting point is 00:26:08 37-year-old Robert Raymond Desjuan reportedly became a person of interest on October 18th, five days after 16-year-old Cherish Oppenheim went missing. There was no known relationship between them, other than the fact that he was originally from the city of Merritt where she lived with her family. And like many aspects of this case, the details published in the news archives about how exactly the RCMP linked him to her disappearance are hazy and a little inconsistent. The most likely version of the story is that about four days after Cherish disappeared, the Merit RCMP suddenly remembered they had pulled over a man in a van that same night
Starting point is 00:26:57 and had seen a knife and duct tape. They realised that this man might have something to do with Cherish's disappearance and started surveilling him. After two days with no more information, they arrested him and charged him with breach of bail conditions for failing to reside at the approved address. It was too little, too late. By that point, Cherish had been missing for six days. Cherish's mother Shelly and stepfather Victor were waiting on standby at the jail. They had agreed to the RCMP suggestion to plead
Starting point is 00:27:39 with the suspect believed to be responsible for the disappearance of their daughter to tell them where she was. But they were never called in because later that day they were given an update that no one could have prepared for. Robert Raymond Des Wann had confessed to murdering Cherish and had told investigators where he left her body. While the RCMP left to search the indicated area, Cherish's parents were driven back to their home to wait for more news. It must have been agonizing for them. Cherish's mother Shelly quote,
Starting point is 00:28:26 And then they came to the house and let us know that it was Cherish and that she was gone. And so a house full of people were just devastated. A formal identification was needed next and Cherish's stepfather Victor and two other family friends agreed to accompany the RCMP back to the spot where they located her body. They drove about 22 kilometres out of Merritt following a rural road that turned into a rough dirt road to a wooded area near a clearing. And there lay a partially clothed body. Victor knew it was Cherish but said quote, this does not look like Cherish. It was clear that the 16-year-old had been severely beaten at least but it would be a while before more details about what happened to her were released.
Starting point is 00:29:22 The city of Merritt was shocked when the news broke that Cherisher's body had been found. Invicta said their entire family was devastated by the news, quote, we're in turmoil. He also learned from the RCMP that when they first came across the shallow grave where Cherisher's body had been hastily buried, there was a fawn lying right next to it. Animals play an important role in Indigenous cultures, considered spiritual symbols or totems that guide humans along their journey of life. Animals are often found on totem poles,
Starting point is 00:30:03 those tall carved monuments created by First Nations of the Pacific Northwest to represent and commemorate ancestry, history, people or events. So this fawn found lying next to Cherish's body was extremely meaningful to both her family and her people. As Cherish's stepfather Victor would explain it, the fawn represented quote, the totem of an animal being close to her, keeping her company until someone came along to recover her body.
Starting point is 00:30:37 The fawn would become an important symbol of Cherish's story. Years later, it would be featured above Cherish's name on a handmade quilt presented to the BC legislature to honour the memories of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Robert Raymond Desjuan was charged with first degree murder the following day, and the press scrambled to find out more about the man. Newspaper The Province spoke with a woman who identified herself as his former landlady and next door neighbour up until about a year earlier.
Starting point is 00:31:19 She noted that Desjuan was a hard worker and she seemed to like him. Quote, when he wasn't at work he was working in the yard, digging in the garden. She couldn't believe the news that he'd been charged with murdering a 16 year old indigenous girl. The neighbour slash landlady went on to say that Robert lived in the house with his fiancee, who she described as a sweet girl, a very nice lady. Just before the couple moved away, Robert's fiance told her that she was pregnant. There's no further information about whether a baby was born from that union,
Starting point is 00:31:59 but it doesn't appear they stayed together for very long after they moved away. According to Robert Desjuan's criminal timeline, he was charged the following year for uttering threats to his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend, about two months before Cherish was murdered. As the City of Merritt grappled with the news, Cherish Oppenheim's family, friends, classmates and others who knew her were shocked and grieving. The province reported that flags flew at half mast, and some classmates were seen wearing red ribbons in her memory and crying around a makeshift shrine outside a popular youth community drop-in centre.
Starting point is 00:32:45 Another shrine was set up outside the office of the Merit Secondary School where Cherish attended, covered in messages from fellow students grieving their friend. The principal told the press that it had been a really tough day, devastating for students and staff alike. Cherish was known as someone who was friends with everyone, a gentle soul with a beautiful smile, who would always go out of her way to help out friends in hard times. Because Cherish and her family were from Coldwater First Nation, that's where her funeral was held. Over 500 people packed into the gym of the Coldwater School to remember Cherish Nicole Billie Oppenheim.
Starting point is 00:33:31 Her older sister Ashley described her as a best friend with a smile and laugh that could always light up a room. Panflits with photos of Cherish were distributed around the gym and her family would say they felt like the community really came together for the funeral. A group of young students gave the eulogy, representing the massive number of students who knew Cherish, whether as a friend or from playing sports. Cherish's teammates on the girls' junior rugby team held her No number 13 jersey up high on a pole in her memory and took part in drumming and singing as her handmade pine casket was carried to the grave site at Coldwater Cemetery.
Starting point is 00:34:33 Even though Robert Raymond Desjuan had confessed to the RCMP that he killed Cherish Oppenheim, and even though he disclosed details that only the killer would know, he decided to plead not guilty. So the case proceeded to trial. Cherish's loved ones showed up at every single pretrial court appearance and preliminary hearing. At one hearing that dealt with whether certain pieces of evidence would be admissible, the defense argued that the statements Desjuan had given to police that led to the discovery of Cherish's body should be excluded because they were a violation of his rights. The judge did not agree. The statements were admitted and a six-week trial was scheduled to start just a few weeks later in March of 2003.
Starting point is 00:35:18 But it never came to that. Robert Desjuan unexpectedly decided to change his plea to guilty, but not to the charge of first-degree murder, which of course includes planning and intent to kill a person. Evidently, he had made a deal with the Crown to plead guilty to the reduced charge of second-degree murder, which means the murder was not planned. which means the murder was not planned.
Starting point is 00:35:56 The court heard that Cherish Oppenheim had been out with friends drinking in downtown Merritt the night of Friday, October 12, 2001. She walked home with her sister, then returned to her friends, friends and the last time they saw her was when she left them at the downtown 7-eleven, shortly before 2.30am and started walking down the street. The court heard Robert Raymond Desjuan's side of the story from that night, which began with him being back in his van just hours after the Merritt RCMP gave him a 24-hour roadside suspension for intoxicated driving. To say he wasn't exactly someone who was known to play
Starting point is 00:36:30 by the rules is an understatement. According to Desjuan, he met 16-year-old Cherish outside a downtown Merritt hotel, not far from the 7-Eleven. And for reasons that he didn't explain and wasn't required to, she got into his van. He drove to that stretch of dirt road about 22 kilometres out of Merritt, where he claimed they drank some beer together and had consensual sex, but then Cherish panicked or freaked out. Desuwon claimed he had little memory of what happened next. All he could remember was covering Cherish's body with some logs. That's it.
Starting point is 00:37:12 Like other aspects of this case, there's some mystery about what exactly happened to Cherish Oppenheim that night, including from a forensics perspective. An accused person pleading guilty is not required to admit to all the facts of the case or provide a motive for their crime. And with no trial, there's no calling and testing of the evidence. But in this case, there were enough details in the news archives to paint a pretty terrible picture. Cherish suffered multiple injuries, including a skull fracture and brain hemorrhage,
Starting point is 00:37:56 which was probably caused by being hit with a large rock, according to reporting by the Merritt Herald. Cherish was strangled, likely from behind, with a smooth rope or cord, and her body described as badly damaged had been found buried in a shallow grave covered with rocks and debris. As these details were read out to a packed courtroom, Cherish's family members passed around boxes of Kleenex. Her mother Shelly would say it wasn't easy for them to sit and listen to the evidence about how her daughter's life was taken. She and some other family members had to leave the courtroom and wait in the lobby. Shelly returned to give a victim impact statement that she would later say she didn't remember. It was all a blur.
Starting point is 00:38:46 She spoke about how her family's life had been a nightmare since her second eldest daughter was murdered. She was emotionally battered by thoughts of how Cherish died and she wasn't able to work. Her marriage suffered and she hit rock bottom. At one point, according to a reporter from the Merritt Herald, quote, She put her hand to her forehead and the wail she uttered was raw pain. The cry chilled those gathered with its anguish.
Starting point is 00:39:17 Family, lawyers and news reporters cried themselves. Even RCMP members had tears welling up in their eyes. Looking at the man responsible, Shelley told him, How dare you do this to us? How dare you do this to cherish? Robert Raymond Desjuan was seen crying, according to the Vancouver Sun. He turned to her family and apologized, adding, quote, it's a world of drugs and alcohol that destroys lives. I wish I could take back everything I did. Desjuan's defense lawyer told the judge that his client was
Starting point is 00:39:59 deeply remorseful and extremely distraught over what he did, offering up a few details to explain his actions. Apparently, Dizwan was abused by his own family at an early age and developed a serious dependence on alcohol and drugs. In 1998, three years before Cherish's murder, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, which ignited a cycle of depression and drug use, according to his lawyer. The Crown prosecutor told the court that Desjuan strangled Cherish for no reason, describing it as a monstrous attack, sexual in nature, against a girl intoxicated with alcohol. Desjuan had claimed he had consensual sex with 16-year-old Cherish.
Starting point is 00:40:51 He wasn't charged with sexual assault, and there was no mention of it when he reached a deal with the Crown to plead guilty to the reduced charge of second-degree murder. But according to a CBC news report, quote, a forensic report says there were clear signs Charish Oppenheim was sexually assaulted and savagely beaten before she died. In the news archives from that time, this is the only article we found that refers
Starting point is 00:41:22 to a forensic report that mentioned sexual assault. But it's worth noting that the article is still live on the CBC website. If false it would have been a pretty outrageous claim to make. But it's also worth noting that the day after Desjuan pleaded guilty to second-degree murder BC newspaper The Province published an oddly worded correction notice with a public apology. The brief correction notice indicates that the original article published that prompted the complaint, quote, for second-degree murder involved sexual assault. No sexual assault was involved,
Starting point is 00:42:06 and Mr. Desjuan was found not guilty of first-degree murder." End quote. Sexual assault aside, the fact that Desjuan pleaded guilty to second-degree murder does not mean he was found not guilty of first-degree murder. There has to be a trial for that. The correction notice ends with another strange statement, quote,
Starting point is 00:42:29 our story also stated incorrectly that Mr. Desjuan had previous convictions for sexual assault. This is not the case, end quote. This statement, without any qualification, is a misleading characterization of his criminal history. Desjuan might have been able to avoid a conviction, but the night he murdered Cherish Oppenheim, he was out on bail facing charges of sexual assault with a weapon against a teenage girl. Overall, this correction notice is more evidence that Robert Desjuan was highly sensitive about being accused of sexual assault.
Starting point is 00:43:12 Strangely enough, the case would resurface eight years later with some notably different language. In 2011, several mainstream media outlets would publish stories stating outright that Robert Raymond Desjuan had murdered and sexually assaulted Cherish Oppenheim. We'll get to the development that prompted these new media reports in just a minute. First there was a guilty plea and now it was time for sentencing. As part of deciding on a sentence for a guilty person, a judge reviews their criminal history, which of course for Robert Raymond Desjuan included charges of possession of narcotics and stolen property dating back to the 80s.
Starting point is 00:44:16 His two convictions in the 90s relating to violence against women, breaking and entering enforceable confinement and after that, uttering threats and multiple instances of breaching his bail conditions. This judge found that Desjuan's criminal record was, not one I find of great substance. For pleading guilty to second degree murder, Robert Raymond Desjuan was sentenced to life in prison
Starting point is 00:44:46 with no chance of parole for 15 years. Quote, you have taken part in a horrendous deed, not just against Cherish, but against the very roots of our society. Cherish's family did not feel that this sentence reflected the crime that Desjuan had committed, but noted that first-degree murder had been taken off the table during plea-deal negotiations with the Crown. It was a bitter pill to swallow. Cherish's loved ones weren't the only ones disappointed.
Starting point is 00:45:21 After Desjuan was sentenced, the media and critics alike pointed out his record of violent assaults on women and girls. A spokesperson for the Justice for Girls nonprofit, who analyzed the case, posed the question, how is it that a man who has been convicted twice for violence against women was released on bail after being charged with sexual assault
Starting point is 00:45:45 with a weapon and confinement of a teenage girl. There were more questions asked about the knife. Why was Desjuan prohibited from possessing a range of weapons except the one he'd actually been charged with using during that sexual assault. It appears that the Crown had not been specific enough when requesting bail conditions, according to the 2005 paper, Justice Systems Response, Violence Against Indigenous Girls, published by Justice for Girls and later presented to the BC Attorney General Wally Opal. The paper's author, lawyer Kelly A. McDonald, wrote that the Crown's request for a bail
Starting point is 00:46:30 condition prohibiting weapons referenced a particular section of the criminal code, which doesn't include knives. She wrote that instead, the Crown could have referenced a different section of the code that allows for a specific request that knives of all descriptions be prohibited. Likely an innocent oversight, but one that had potentially dangerous consequences. Of course, that wasn't the only serious oversight in this case. There were calls for an investigation into the RCMP's failure to take action when they stopped as one in Merritt that night and discovered he was in breach of two of his other bail conditions. If he'd been rightly detained for violating the terms of his parole, it would have inadvertently saved Cherish Oppenheim's life. Instead, he was released on the spot
Starting point is 00:47:27 with a 24-hour driving suspension. It should be noted that this wasn't the first time the RCMP's failure to take action that night had been questioned. According to the news archives, just a month after Cherish was murdered, a news broadcast by TV station BCCTV mentioned the bail conditions and asked that very question.
Starting point is 00:47:54 The RCMP was not happy about that broadcast and complained to the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, or CRTC, that the TV station broadcast misinformation about police actions and had not yet provided an on-air clarification. So what was this alleged misinformation? Well, the answer to that remains a mystery. An RCMP spokesperson refused to provide more specific details about what kind of on-air clarification they were looking for, according to the Vancouver Sun. The only
Starting point is 00:48:33 thing they would say was that the broadcast, quote, caused a lot of anguish for the family because they wonder whether police could have arrested the suspect. These details were reported in November of 2001, a month after Cherish Oppenheim was murdered, and there appears to be no more updates about it until a little over a year later. In February of 2003, just days after Robert Raymond Desjuan pleaded guilty, the trial judge suddenly issued a publication ban. It prevented the media from publishing details of any evidence presented during the pre-trial hearings, which included tapes and transcripts of Desjuan's statements to the RCMP as well as forensic evidence. Publication bans are typically issued to protect someone's identity or to protect a jury from hearing details outside of the trial
Starting point is 00:49:34 that might influence its decision. It is unusual for a publication ban to be ordered after the guilty party has been sentenced. Who would that be protecting that didn't need to be protected before? Multiple media outlets reported that this particular publication ban was directly related to the RCMP's complaint about the alleged broadcast of information about the police's action or inaction that night. As it turned out, the publication ban had been prompted by a request for the release of some of the evidence
Starting point is 00:50:12 by a lawyer for the TV station, presumably as part of a defense against the RCMP's complaint. There's no further mention in the news archives of this situation. The complaint seems to have just faded away. And to date, the RCMP has never provided an explanation for why they did not detain Robert Raymond Desjuan that night when they knew he was in breach of his bail conditions. Perhaps that fact is the source of Cherish Oppenheim's family's anguish,
Starting point is 00:50:46 not the TV station that reported it. The criminal justice system let Cherish down at every step of the way. And she was not the only one. When Robert Raymond Desjuan was sentenced for murdering Cherish Oppenheim, he was still facing those charges of sexual assault with a weapon, confinement and robbery of a teenage girl. As you'll recall, the violent attack included the use of duct tape and a knife. At the end of that same year, the Crown prosecutor quietly withdrew those charges. Dizwan would not be facing a trial.
Starting point is 00:51:29 A few months later, when Justice for Girls discovered the charges had been withdrawn, they pursued it with the Crown, but there was no explanation given. Robert Raymond Dizwan may have had the good fortune to avoid a conviction for sexual assault, but the proverbial apple didn't fall far from the tree. You might remember that first birthday announcement published in the Times Colonist newspaper in 1995. Hello, I'd like to formally introduce myself to the parents of my future girlfriends. My name is Cruz. My parents, Robert and Nadine, are awfully proud of me.
Starting point is 00:52:09 When I come to pick up your daughter for a date, you'll know me." When Cruz was 16 years old, he committed an unimaginable crime against someone's daughter that led to not only her devastated family knowing who he was, but the wider Canadian public. That daughter's name was Kimberly Proctor and she was known as a kind-hearted girl who loved animals and saw the good in everyone. But Kimberly's light was extinguished in 2010 when Cruz and his friend from school tortured, sexually assaulted and murdered her. The devastation and shock felt by Kimberly's loved ones and the wider community only grew when it was revealed that Cruz was also the son of Robert Raymond Desjuan.
Starting point is 00:53:00 It had been eight years since Cherish was murdered, but her family would say that after this connection was revealed, the media was at their doorstep again, which brought up all their old feelings of trauma and anxiety. They decided to release one strategic statement in support of Kimberly Proctor and her loved ones. As reports about Robert Raymond Desjuan's crimes hit the news again in connection with the crime his son had now committed, there was a notable difference to the original coverage. Multiple media outlets now stated as fact that Desjuan both murdered and sexually assaulted Cherish, describing the striking similarities between the two cases.
Starting point is 00:53:48 None of these outlets, which included The Province, The Vancouver Sun, The National Post and Vanity Fair, mentioned the source of that fact, so it's unclear whether it came from the same forensic report mentioned by CBC News in that original article. But it's interesting to note that all these articles are still live with no correction notices. Cherish Oppenheim's family knew Desjuan would be eligible to apply for parole after 15 years. But the update that came after that was not what they were expecting. In April of 2017, 16 years after Cherish Oppenheim's murder,
Starting point is 00:54:36 her family saw a distressing breaking news report. Robert Raymond Desjuan was missing from mission institution where he was serving his life sentence in a minimum security unit. This prompted a police manhunt to recapture the 53-year-old as soon as possible with a warrant for his arrest and a public plea for information. The news reports were accompanied by a photo of Desjuan, describing him as being 6 foot 1, 186 pounds, with green eyes and a bald head.
Starting point is 00:55:11 Cherish's mother, Shelley Oppenheim-Lussert, told CTV Vancouver reporter Shannon Patterson that not only did all the hurt and memories come flooding back with this news, but there were several other reasons for the family shock. No one had informed them that the man who murdered Cherish had escaped, they heard it on the news with everyone else. And alas, they knew Desjuan was serving his sentence in an institution out east, on the other side of the country to where they lived. The fact that he'd been transferred to Mission Institution in British Columbia,
Starting point is 00:55:51 only about two hours' drive from Merritt, was news to them. As was the fact that at some point, he had been downgraded to minimum security. And now he was missing. It was all over the news. Cherish's family was incredibly fearful that he was going to end up back in Merritt. Dizwan was described as having escaped, which conjured up images of a dramatic prison break. But in a minimum security facility, there are no big fences with barbed wire and
Starting point is 00:56:26 minimal supervision. Shelley told CTV Vancouver, quote, for him to be able to just walk out like this just doesn't seem right. There's something wrong with the system. But the shocks didn't end there. The family learned that Desjuan had applied for day parole and had already had a parole hearing, albeit unsuccessful. It was only after he walked off the prison grounds that the family learned all of this through media reports. Fortunately, Desjuan was recaptured within 24 hours. He'd made it to the Fraser Valley area,
Starting point is 00:57:06 which is more than 50 kilometres away from Mission Institution in the direction of Merritt. Although the police didn't release any information about what he was doing or what his intentions were. The public uproar about the whole situation prompted Correctional Services Canada to issue a statement saying it evaluates all offenders and places them in facilities appropriate to their security and program requirements. Only those offenders who are assessed as having a low risk to public safety will be placed in a minimum security institution." End quote.
Starting point is 00:57:46 But according to media reports, Robert Desjuan remained in minimum security even after the parole board determined he was rated as a high risk of violent reoffending and a moderate to high risk for sexual reoffending. The board also found that he most likely harbored deviant sexuality and sexual sadism, which means sexual pleasure derived
Starting point is 00:58:11 from inflicting physical or emotional pain on another person. He denied there was any sexual component to his crimes. And despite those multiple incidences involving violence towards women and girls, he claimed he was not a violent person. The board also determined Desjuan minimised his actions and blamed external factors for his crimes.
Starting point is 00:58:38 There has been no further information released publicly about whether he remained in minimum security. And unlike the US, Canada's privacy laws restrict the general public from inquiring about where inmates are located. In 2018, the year after Desjuan escaped from prison, Cherish Nicole Billy Oppenheim's family members joined almost 1,500 people who testified at the National Inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. The inquiry would find that they
Starting point is 00:59:15 are 12 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than members of any other demographic group in Canada and 16 times more likely than white women. Investigations are often marked by indifference and negative stereotypes about indigenous people that result in their cases being treated differently from others. Many murders remain unsolved. The inquiry also found that for those cases that are solved and have a reasonable chance of conviction, Crown prosecutors are often too willing to accept plea bargains or reduced charges in exchange for guilty pleas. That appears to be exactly what happened in the case of Cherish Oppenheim.
Starting point is 01:00:02 Not only did Robert Raymond Desjuan confess to murdering her, but he directed police to the remote location where he buried her body, and according to multiple media outlets, there were clear signs that he had also sexually assaulted Cherish. If Desjuan had been charged with both first degree murder and sexual assault, it seems likely that the Crown would have been successful in prosecuting him at trial. Despite him having no known leverage in this case to negotiate a deal, the Crown permitted him to plead guilty to the reduced charge of second degree murder and did not contest his claim that he had consensual sex with a 16-year-old indigenous girl.
Starting point is 01:00:53 As part of the inquiry's truth-gathering process, Cherish's mother Shelly testified that her constant thoughts of the violence and fear her daughter must have experienced that night haunted her dreams. But she said that over the 17 years that had passed, she had become stronger. And now, she was focused on activism to prevent more Indigenous women and girls
Starting point is 01:01:17 from disappearing and being murdered, and, of course, to keep her daughter's memory alive. With treasured photos of Cherish on display, her family members shared memories of her short but meaningful 16 years on this earth. The inquiry heard that Cherish liked to sing and have fun, and was very close with her immediate and extended family. There were fond memories of her singing with her grandfather at a family reunion. Her mother testified that quote, Cherish was our daughter and a sister, a granddaughter, cousin, niece, friend and
Starting point is 01:01:56 would have been an auntie one day and I'm sure a mother. There were stories of her generosity and kindness and she was remembered as an outgoing, joyful and happy person. Beautiful on the outside but also on the inside, a calm spirit. Many people loved Cherish. It's clear she will never be forgotten. Thanks for listening. If you found this episode compelling, we'd love for you to tell a friend, post on social media or leave a review wherever you listen to podcasts. Visit to see the full list of sources and resources we relied on to write this episode and anything else you want to know about the podcast.
Starting point is 01:02:53 Canadian True Crime donates monthly to those facing injustice. This month, we have donated to Justice for Girls Outreach Society, the nonprofit who analyzed Cherish Oppenheim's case and advocated for her. Learn more at Special thanks to Danielle Paradis
Starting point is 01:03:14 for Indigenous Content Consulting on this episode. Audio editing was by Eric Crosby, who also voiced the disclaimer. Our senior producer is Lindsay Eldridge and Carol Weinberg is our script consultant. Research, writing, narration and sound design was by me and the theme songs were composed by We Talk of Dreams. I'll be back soon with another Canadian crime episode. See you then.

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