Austria's 'Graveyard silence' greets book
By Kevin Mitchell, StarPhoenix Sports Editor
March 22, 2012 9:29 AM
Since writing his shocking book about the death of hockey player Duncan MacPherson and an alleged coverup, John Leake has met with icy silence from authorities in Austria.
"Graveyard silence," says Leake, author of Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery.
MacPherson, a Saskatoon native who played with his hometown Blades and was a first-round draft pick of the New York Islanders, disappeared in August 1989 while travelling in Europe.
Fourteen years later, melting ice at a resort on the Stubai Glacier in Austria released MacPherson's body from its icy tomb.
And it quickly became apparent to MacPherson's parents Lynda and Bob that their son hadn't fallen down an out-of-bounds crevasse, as the authorities suggested. Their feeling - backed by compelling evidence laid out in the book - is that he was hit by a snow-grooming machine while snowboarding, severing three of his limbs, then thrown into a chasm to conceal the tragedy.
They strongly suspected a path of deception and coverup from a wide range of authority figures and medical people in Austria, and after extensive research, Leake came to share their viewpoint. The result is a scathing book that's drawn strong praise from those who have read it, but complete silence from those closest to the scene of MacPherson's disappearance.
"I believe that for the ski resort and for the Innsbruck authorities, the best strategy for them is not to stir the pot and just hope it goes away," says Leake, who is in Saskatoon for a reading at McNally Robinson tonight at 7: 30 p.m. "I was actually expecting that. I believe we have sufficient evidence to support all the conclusions I make in the book, and I don't think they can contend otherwise and get anywhere. The best strategy for them is to keep quiet and hope the whole thing just blows over."
Leake says his next step is to try and get the book published in the German language so that people who live in Austria can follow the web of lies and obfuscations the MacPhersons feel they've been subjected to since Duncan disappeared.
The case he lays out is strong and compelling. It starts with an attempt by employees at the ski resort to cover up a terrible accident, incompetence and passivity from investigating police, and a series of lies that stretched over two decades.
Leake noted Wednesday that there was no diligent investigation of MacPherson's disappearance, and no witness testimony recorded. After his body emerged, police did not attend the recovery - leaving that task to resort employees - and the body was released for burial without determining the cause of death.
When Leake presented evidence, skeletal and otherwise, to forensic specialists and medical people on this side of the ocean, they concluded that Duncan bore all the marks of being hit by a grooming tiller. That ran contrary to the dubious - or, as the book argues more bluntly, fictitious - story told by authorities in Austria.
At the heart of the tale are Duncan's parents, who made repeated trips to Europe in search of answers and stubbornly refused to give up the fight to learn exactly what happened to their son.
"It's that strange thought that in some ways, fact can be stranger than fiction," Leake said. "That's the dominant response people have to this story - it almost seems like a crazy movie or something. But it's true.
"It should have been, and could have been, very easy to solve the case of what happened to Duncan. With some very basic police work, they could have gotten to the bottom of it. The mystery was created by this refusal of the authorities in Austria to investigate it. What the police could have quickly discovered, it's entirely left to Lynda and Bob to discover. One afternoon of police work in Austria turns into, literally, two decades of frustration for the parents. For me, it was stunning to contemplate that.
"People think, 'they should have just given up.' At a certain point, one just has to resign oneself to the fact that you'll never really know, and this will be a mystery until your dying day. It's been frustrating for the MacPhersons, but I think it's to their credit that they kept slugging away at it until they finally got a clear picture of what happened.
"But a bit of old-fashioned detective work would have solved this in '89."
Leake says he had to suspend his own disbelief when he first immersed himself in the case. It seemed too improbable, but he soon realized that it was, in fact, not improbable at all.
"I haven't seen any evidence of malice (the day MacPherson died)," Leake says. "I just think they really screwed up, were negligent in terms of safety procedures, a dreadful accident came about as a result of it, and their instinct was to conceal it.
"People screw up, but once Duncan is dead, you have 20 years of a family putting their time, their effort, all their spirit, their energy, their savings, into trying to get to the bottom of this. To me, the concealment is the real crime in this story.
"It's that old Walter Scott quote: What a tangled web we weave when we endeavour to deceive. At each step in the story, you get the feeling that these people think they're just going to have to tell a couple of lies and the MacPhersons will go away. What the people who are committing these acts of deception didn't understand was that the MacPhersons aren't going to give up, so you're going to be obliged to tell more lies.
"That's the moral theme of the story, is the conflict between our value of the truth, and the way, in order to avoid trouble, we tell lies. That tension goes throughout the entire story."
The MacPhersons used up much of their life savings travelling back and forth from Saskatoon to Austria while trying, almost singlehandedly, to unravel the mystery behind their son's death and disappearance.
Leake says that 25 per cent of proceeds from books ordered off his website, www.coldalongtime.com, will go to Duncan's parents.
And, in the final accounting, both he and the MacPhersons feel it was a fight well worth waging.
"It was a very, very difficult project," says Leake, an American-born writer who lived in Austria for more than 10 years. "I was sucked into the mystery of it, but I didn't want to write anything I didn't feel 100 per cent confident was true. So much about it was ambiguous, initially. I thought it was just a horrible situation to be in, and will we ever manage to figure this out?
"Until I hired the ski-accident investigator, I really felt like we may never cut through the ambiguity of this. That was the big breakthrough, where I began to feel like now we were getting somewhere. I could feel comfortable in writing this and publishing this, because we were getting a clear sense of what happened.
"But for a long time, I was like a private investigator, slugging away at this, and lord knows if we'll ever really know. It was tough not knowing if we'd ever bring the project to fruition. I'm a freelancer, not making any money, but I really got sucked into it. But you make your own bed, this is the project I chose, and I kept moving forward with it."
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