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Ex-officer’s account of being ordered to close rape file challenged in N.S. hearing | CBC News

A retired Halifax police officer denied on Monday that he had ordered a former subordinate to stop investigating an alleged sexual assault, but he admitted that police made errors in the case.

Don Stienburg, who retired earlier this year, was the staff sergeant in charge of special investigations when Carrie Low reported being driven to a house in the Halifax area and raped by at least two men overnight on May 18, 2018.

Low filed a complaint a year later with the police review board, alleging officers mishandled the investigation.

During his testimony Monday before the review board panel, Stienburg rejected an accusation made last week by Jerell Smith, a former RCMP member of the joint Halifax police-RCMP sex assault unit.

Smith had testified that Stienburg didn’t believe Low’s story and that four days after the alleged rape, told him to close the case.

Retired officer says he didn’t order investigation to be shut down

Stienburg said he didn’t recall such a conversation with Smith and added, “I believe Carrie Low.”

He replied, “absolutely not,” when asked by Ted Murphy, the lawyer for the Halifax Regional Municipality, if he had ordered the investigation closed.

Stienburg said that for that file to have been closed, a more direct supervisor of Smith would have had to make that decision.

Low’s 2019 complaint targets the Halifax police and Const. Bojan Novakovic — the first officer to interview her after she went to a hospital in Dartmouth for a sexual assault examination.

Novakovic was docked eight hours pay for his handling of her case, and Low is appealing that decision to the review board.

She is also seeking broader recommendations to improve the police department’s handling of sexual assault cases.

Smith stands by previous testimony

Earlier on Monday, Murphy cross-examined Smith, putting to him that Stienburg hadn’t ordered him to stop investigating.

“I’m going to suggest to you, as you’ve told us on many occasions, that your memory is not what it was,” said the city’s lawyer.

However, Smith replied that it was clear to him that the sergeant had made the comments.

A woman stands outside a courtroom.
Carrie Low speaks to the media outside of Nova Scotia Supreme Court in this file photo. (Robert Short/CBC)

Smith hasn’t returned to policing since an internal RCMP investigation faulted him for misconduct for failing to collect the clothing that Low had worn the night of her alleged rape, and for making errors on forms, which delayed laboratory tests to detect whether Low’s blood was positive for date-rape drugs.

The investigation concluded that Smith should receive training to avoid similar errors, but he never returned to work with the RCMP.

Under cross-examination, Smith repeated his view that Stienburg didn’t believe Low’s story.

He linked his opinion to an incident two nights after the alleged rape, when an intoxicated friend of Low’s — who had been out with her that night — adopted Low’s story.

The friend allegedly told police that it was her who was abducted and raped. But that friend, however, later recanted and apologized for muddying the waters of the investigation.

But Stienburg testified on Monday that that “weird” incident didn’t affect his perception of Low and didn’t affect the
investigation.

“We believed her from the word go,” he said, answering questions from Low’s lawyer, Jason Cooke.

“Carrie Low reported [the rape and abduction]. It was taken seriously,” Stienburg said.

Admitting mistakes

Stienburg, however, told the board that there were mistakes made in the case, such as the 10-day delay in collecting Low’s clothing and the delay in testing Low’s blood.

But those two elements weren’t crucial to the case, he said.

The inquiry has heard that Novakovic placed Low’s clothing in a plastic bag and told her to bring it to her residence, where it would be picked up.

But the review board has heard evidence that leaving clothing at room temperature — and accessible to tampering — for more than one week was not proper procedure, and that doing so could affect its use in a criminal trial.

Novakovic only picked up the clothing on May 29, 2018, after Low complained to a supervisor.

In her complaint, Low said the toxicology report on her blood and urine, needed to indicate if she had been given a date-rape drug, had not been processed more than year after she provided the samples.

“There were mistakes made and the people who made the mistakes [owned] up to them and corrected them as best they could,” Stienburg said.

He noted that in 2020, charges were laid against Alexander Thomas after the DNA from the clothing identified him.

However, Thomas died before a trial could proceed, in what police said was a homicide unrelated to the Low case.

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