Monday, August 31, 2009

On Thin Ice - A Duncan MacPherson Uodate by Florian Skrabal From Austria

On Thin Ice

Death on a glacier.

Florian Skrabal reveals a Tyrolean police scandal

The Canadian Duncan MacPherson went snowboarding on a Tyrolean glacier and never came back. 14 years later his body melts out of the ice in the middle of a piste. An accident, the authorities claim. His parents think to able to prove a cover-up.

It is around 3am as the ringing get Lynda MacPherson out of her sleep. Her Tyrolean friend Martin Bär is on the phone. He is the one delivering the news which she and her husband Robert have been waiting for 14 years - and which they have feared for exactly that time. Until now there has at least been hope in their minds maybe their son Duncan is not dead. Maybe he had really taken the job offer by the US intelligence service, the Central Intelligence Agency, which he had told his mother back then about, just as an aside.

"They have found Duncan,” remembers Lynda MacPherson Bär's words.

In some way it was as well a relief, says the 66 year-old today. Finally they would be able to grieve for their son, who had suddenly vanished in August of 1989, just 23 year old, during his vacation in Austria. As soon as possible the MacPhersons want to see their son, want to convince themselves that it is really his body who had melted out of the ice of the Stubai glacier just on the day before the late night call.

From the Canadian town Saskatoon, which lies in the province of Saskatchewan, almost half way between Canada's East and West coasts, the parents get on the way to Tyrol. Seven times had the MacPherson been here before, had they spent almost every holiday here, around 250 days, after their son had disappeared. More than 100.000 Euros, their retirement funds, had they put into plane tickets, hotels, and Tyrolean lift rides, only to find their first born child.

Four days after the phone call of Martin Bär, a former employee the parents had met at Innsbruck’s Austrotel during their first search, the MacPhersons again arrive in Innsbruck. Their first way leads them to the Tyrolean Provincial Police Headquarter at the Innrain Street 34. There Criminal Investigator Willi Krappinger, who handles the case, awaits them.

He refers the couple to the institute of forensic medicine in Innsbruck, which is just 10 minutes by foot. There he is: Duncan rests on the dissection table, a blanket covers his body up the chest. The corpse is well preserved, like mummified due to the time in the ice. "I recognized him right away,” says Lynda MacPherson. On August 4th, 1989 she had last spoken with him. Five days later he was last seen snowboarding on the Stubai glacier. On August 21, 1989 the parents report their son missing to the Canadian police. Now, 14 years later it is official: the search is over, Duncan is dead.

Its official ending finds this case in the final report of Willi Krappinger and the decision of the public prosecutor to rest this case. For the authorities it is an unfortunate alpine accident, one like many others. However, as it will soon turn out for the retired school teacher and the pensioned pilot, the confirmation of Duncan's death is about to start a new search: the search for the truth. It will determine theirs life until this day.

Not until months after their son had been cremated in Innsbruck because the MacPhersons had not had enough money to transport his corpse home to Canada, it will become clear to them that the Tyrolean police had not done their job properly; that one flaw in the investigation had come after the other: starting at the apparent sloppiness at the recovery of the body, the faulty examination of death and the missing autopsy.

For six years the MacPhersons have been trying to advise the Austrian authorities of the inconsistencies in the death of their son Duncan; they write hundreds of Emails and letters. "Yet, it was like running against a wall” says Lynda MacPherson. It takes her and her husband three years before they have all the evidence to support their strong reproaches together; they press them in three binders and send them to the minister of justice Karin Gastinger. From the ministry they get a negative notification: Nothing wrong in this case.

Lynda MacPherson, thereafter, addresses the European Court for Human Rights. "If someone dies an unnatural, violent death, the death has to be examined. It is a human right,” she says. In April of 2009 their address is denied with the justification that "no violation of the rights and freedoms of the European Charter for Human Rights and its protocols.” Their hopes rest on Peter Pilz now. 2008 they get in touch with the Member of Parliament of the Greens via the Austrian attorney Nicole Schabus, who practices law in Vancouver.

Pilz looks at the case and reaches the conclusion that "this tragic case is a prime example how police works should not work: sloppiness without limits, noncompliance with mandatory procedures, possible suspects as prime witnesses-and then all the reports are manipulated in a way that makes the authorities look good.”

Already before parliaments summer break, which starts on July 13th this year, Pilz will issue a parliamentary inquiry addressing minister of justice Claudia Bandion-Ortner and minister of interior Maria Fekter. It shall not only address possible flaws of the authorities in the case MacPherson but also look at how secure Austria’s glacier slopes are in reality.

On August 2nd 1989 the ice hockey-pro Duncan MacPherson leaves his hometown Saskatoon for Europe. From 1986 to 1989 he had been a defender for the Springfield Indian, a so-called farm team, which played in the second highest North-American AHL. For the new season he had accepted an offer as player and coach for the Scottish team Dundee Tigers, which is roughly located 150 kilometers northeast of the capitol Glasgow.

"He wanted to relax a bit before his start in Scotland,” says Duncan's mother. Via London he flies to Frankfurt, where he takes the train to Nürnberg. Duncan visits his friend George Pesut, also a Canadian hockey player who was playing in Germany at the time. As always when traveling, Duncan calls home after his arrival. "I am fine. The trip was exhausting. I will go to bed soon,” remembers his mother about the last conversation with her son. Because George Pesut has to leave for a training camp, he borrows his red Opel Corsa to Duncan.

"Before he left, he had told me that he wants to drive to Italy. On the way, he wanted to meet some more friends. He didn't mention Tyrol to me,” says George Pesut. On August 7th Duncan meets up with Roger Kortko, another friend from the Canadian professional hockey community. They meet in the southern-bavarian town of Füssen. They play tennis, go out for dinner. "Because he could not speak any German, he did the chicken-dance,” remembers Kortko about Duncan performing a dancing act for the waitress, so he could get some chicken. The next morning the two friends say goodbye, Duncan drives on to Innsbruck where he stays a youth hostel in the city centre.

On August 9th 1989 he must have left his last place of accommodation at around half past eight in the morning. Soon thereafter he leaves the red Corsa at the parking lot of the Stubaier glacier lifts; from Innsbruck a drive of around 40 minutes. At around half past ten he meets Walter Hinterhölzl in the ski instructor’s office up on the glacier. He probably is the last human the Canadian talked to. "He wanted to take snowboarding lessons,” says Hinterhölzl.

Duncan is already well equipped: He has rented gloves, ski boots, spats for the feet and a snowboard. But because Hinterhölzl thinks that Duncan had paid too much for the board, they walk back to the Sport Shop 3000, at that time the only rental shop on the mountain. The snowboard instructor tries bargaining for a cheaper fee. No success. Then Hinterhölzl -who will be the head coach of Austrian's ladies snowboarding national team from 2001 to 2006 ­gives Duncan two lessons.

"He was really talented. Around noon we went for lunch, then I said goodbye. Duncan wanted to practice some more in the afternoon,” says Hinterhölzl. Later he will say to the police: "My girlfriend Daniela Widi last saw him at 14:30 on the hill” Then Duncan is gone. Without a trace. No one on the glacier notices anything. Not the piste personnel who goes on check rides with their snow-grooming machines. Not the snowboarding instructor who had another lesson agreed with Duncan upon the next day. And also not the employees of the Sport Shop 3000 who should be missing a snowboard.

Five days have past since the MacPhersons saw the corpse of their son at the Institute of Forensic Medicine. Now they want to visit the site where Duncan had melted out of the ice. The parents get on the gondola. It is the first time in 14 years that they were not charged anything for the ride up. In the stern most corner of the Stubaital where one can see mountains in all directions, it goes up above bare rocks and scruffed off slopes, up to around 3.000 Meter. Up into a industrial area beneath the summit crosses: Around 700 hectare is the ski resort big, almost 110 Kilometers of slope can at best be skied upon.

Two piste workers, who were also been present when the corpse had been recovered, take the MacPhersons on a snow-grooming machine up the last meters from mountain station. Right to where - one and a half weeks earlier – all together four employees of the lift operator had knocked the corpse with picks out of the ice. Just 25 meters from the drag lift away, which back in the days when the ice of the glaciers were mighty, also in the hottest summer pulled winter sport fans up the hill. For 14 years skiers had run over Duncan’s corpse - which laid right in the middle on the regular piste, the so called Schaufelschuss.

So, the MacPhersons stand next to Duncan's freezing grave. Several times they had walked past this spot in the past years. "We wanted to have the moment for us,” says Robert MacPherson. That suddenly changes as the father sees something on the ice: splinters of bones, which had been overlooked at the recovery - and a piece of the snowboard.

It is not just any part laying there in front of the father's feet. It is the part with the serial number which had obviously also been overlooked. For the first time since the discovery of their son, anger joins the sadness - and a feeling of discomfort. Would the police once again do their job so amateurish, like at that time when it was the MacPhersons and not the police who after seven weeks had found the red Opel Corsa at the parking lot? Would the authorities investigate with the same diligence, like back then when it was the MacPhersons and not the Tyrolean criminal investigation force? Would the officials again ignore, contradictions, like the ­with the finding of the snowboard - proved lie of the rental shop owner?

"We have never rented a snowboard out to Duncan MacPherson,”says Josef "Seppi" Repetschnigg, manager of the rental shop back then and today. Duncan’s snowboard instructor, on the other hand, sticks to his version: "He had rented the board there. “ Who is not telling the truth and who probably could have rung the alarm, is at no point in the investigation of the Tyrolean authorities? Not even, when Duncan MacPherson is found -with spats on his feet: Rental 3000.

Months after Duncan's corpse had been found the MacPhersons' fear should prove to be true. They find out that for the authorities the case was solved after just one day. That, although the corpse had melted out of the ice on the middle of a regular piste; although one hand had sharply been cut off and one leg was crushed; although the skiing boots and his socks were not on the feet anymore and although the since 1989-disputed snowboard turns up.

On July 21 2003 the Canadian vice-Consul notes after a telephone call with inspector Willi Krappinger: "The death is being treated as an accident. Because third party fault can be ruled out, Austrian authorities do not automatically require an autopsy. Because the case is regarded as "solved," no post mortem examination is done on Duncan's corpse. He is brought to the Institute of Forensic Medicine solely to be identified. "There was no order for an autopsy. For the physician examining the body all seemed clear,” says forensic doctor Walter Rabl. Back then Duncan MacPherson's body ends on his autopsy table.

Still today Rabl, who became President of Austria's Society of Forensic Medicine in 2004, feels guilty "for other people involved. In principle, in a case like this, where a person is missing for so long; where the person disappeared under unknown circumstances, it would have been the job of the public prosecutor to investigate this thoroughly,” says Rabl today. From his point of view, it was wrong to waive the autopsy.

On the day of the recovery, Duncan's corpse was examined by Kurt Somavilla, medical practioner in Fulpmes, a small ski village in the Stubaital. In the death certificate he notes that an autopsy was performed. "That is wrong. That was never done,” says Rabl. In addition, Somavilla, who is also the chairman of the Austrian Alps Association, Section Stubai, really seems to have managed to determine the cause of death on the same day.

"Polytrauma after fall into a crevasse,” which means death after several deadly injuries. "This is not like you imagine a typical Polytrauma with injuries to the head, the spine, the hips. That was not the case here,” says Rabl. "Just by visual examination it was impossible to say anything about the cause of death. To say Polytrauma is like to say a weak heart."

When the forensic doctor had Duncan transferred into the Institute, even he had to wait for one more day before he could identify the corpse. After all the corpse had been frozen, had been in the ice for 14 years. Somavilla simply could have not been able to determine the cause of death. The physician doesn't want to comment on the allegation. Expect: "Leave me alone with this. We have many glacier corpses here. The parents can't accept the death of their son. They are trying to develop some murder case out of it.” That the parents have already accepted the loss of their son and that they just want to find out what happened to their son, is not of importance to him.

For 14 years the missing of Duncan MacPhersons had been an unsolved criminal case for the Tyrolean authorities. A situation that leaves room for speculation. Had Duncan simply moved on? Had he just eloped with a beautiful and rich girl, like the Tyrolean Gendarms suggested to the parents shortly after their son had gone missing. "They told us: Here in Tyrol nothing can happen to him. For something bad to happen, he must have gone to Italy,” remembers Lynda the officials. "Certainly we had also thought about the possibility of Duncan being murdered,” she says. "But today we know it was an accident. And the only crime involved is the way the investigation had been carried out. There was negligence and the lives of skiers were put at risk," says Lynda MacPherson.

In regards to the actual cause of accident one can only speculate, and so it could possibly be that Duncan Alvin MacPherson, as beginner, he could crashed or have fallen out of the Eisjoch II lift, at around the lift column 7, at the local crevasses", writes Willi Krappinger in his final report in September 2003. To the allegations that he not seriously investigated the case, he doesn't want to comment. A request is only answered in written form bythe deputy commander of the Tyrolean police, Christop Hundertpfund, “Mountain accidents, predominantly falls into crevasses or ice break through in glacier areas, happen regularly.

Being on a glacier, outside of the secured skiing area, without safety equipment brings along the high danger of falling into a crevasse. Accidents like are almost always the result of reckless behavior of the people concerned."

Krappinger continues in his report: "Because skiing down along the lift tracks was not possible and walking up seemed to exhausting, he probably took the short cut across the fenced off area of the crevasses toward the piste and thereby fell into one crevasse.” As Lynda MacPherson, after trying several times, holds the complete and final police report in her hands, she can't believe it.

There are the small but obvious contradictions that strike her first. To exhausting should the way have been up for her son, the 23 year old fully trained ice hockey player? When just 18 years old Duncan had been drafted by the four times NHL winner, the New York Islanders. Because he didn't make it into the first squad, he played for their farm team, the Springfield Indians. Since he had been 13 years old the 185cm tall and 90 kilograms heavy Canadian practiced every day for his career. Given all that, it should have been "too exhausting" for him to walk a few meters up to go around a deadly obstacle?

For the parents Krappinger's report is like a slap in their faces, "an insult to their intelligence" and foremost "a vital link" in what they call "the cover up of the real circumstances.” A perception that goes along with the picture drawn by the Austrian media. It is the Austrian Press Agency (APA), which reports on the day after the recovery that Duncan MacPherson’s corpse was found "120 Meters east of the tow lift,” "in the free skiing area.” This is simply: wrong.

The APA report, which is normally taken unchecked by most daily papers, was "not researched at the site. The source must definitely have been a serious one, like the police or the rescue personnel,” says the APA journalist who wrote the report and who doesn't want to read his name in the paper today. Would one only know this report, one could think that somebody didn't stick to the warning signs and the barriers and carelessly risked his life.

"In addition it seems noteworthy that one year before, almost at the same spot, a Japanese lost his life because he fell out of the mentioned lift, took the short cut across the fenced-off area with the crevasses toward the piste", can further be read in Krappinger's report. Apart from the Japanese being a British with Chinese roots, nobody - not to the MacPhersons, not to the members of the Canadian search and rescue team, which in 1989 came over to help in the search for Duncan - nobody ever mentioned this other accident. In fact, on August 4th 1988 Chin Chiu had fallen into a crevasse almost in the same area where Duncan would fall in one year later. Although the student of the British Loughborough University is saved out of the crevasse just a few hours later because his friend alarmed the rescue personnel when Chiu had not shown up as agreed upon.

Although he had been found Chiu died five days later because of his injuries. Exactly one year before Duncan would disappear, he died from hypothermia.

Another accident, another dead person, and nobody had in all these years said a word about it? What was going on, thought the parents. Is it possible that the slope was in reality not as save as the police tried to suggest based on the statements of the lift personnel? "They questioned the lift personnel and no one else. They are the only source saying that everything was properly fenced-off and that lift like piste were safe,” says Robert MacPherson. "The operator of the glacier lifts was allowed by the police to recovery the corpse without an officer present during the recovery. Secondly, to develop the accident theory. And thirdly to include all relevant facts so that it was an accident without third-party fault. So that it was Duncan who was at fault."

Confronted with these allegations, the press secretary for Innsbruck’s public prosecutor, Wlifried Siegele writes: "Explicitly, I point out that an experienced Alpine Gendarm was at the site for the recovery. It was his report that the Public Prosecutor relied upon.” Another point, which - as the report of the mentioned Alpine Gendarm Stefan Jungmann shows -is not so correct. Jungmann is only there for a few minutes, he shoots photos and then has to leave -as shown in his report -for another mission.

The Gendarm gives the lift personnel the "order to dissect the corpse. Further they were asked to put the corpse and all equipment into the shroud, to take them to the landing area close to the restaurant and get it ready for transport.” Then Jungmann gets back on his helicopter and flies off on his next mission. The investigation, says the speaker for the public prosecutor, has been discontinued because the results of the Tyrolean police command had "without doubt produced evidence, that Duncan MacPherson fell into a crevasse while snowboarding and that there were no signs for third party fault."

The MacPhersons are convinced to prove the opposite: From their point of view the area where the crevasses were, was not like laid out in Krappinger's report "widely secured with a fence". The assumption of the parents is supported by the statement of Helmut Tanzer, chief of piste back in the day. On August 8th so Tanzer who is already retired, markings were set in place and the crevasse were checked. After that the slope was "100 percent" secured.

But a fence, as indicated by Krappinger's report, was according to Tanzer not in place until five days later: "The next record about works in the piste area is written down in the protocol on August 13th. On that day the crevasses at around lift post 7 were filled with snow and in addition a fence was installed."

In 2006 the MacPhersons coincidentally get their hands on photos of another Canadian tourist. Judy Wigmore from British-Columbia goes skiing with her four kids on the Schaufelschuss piste on the same day when Duncan had vanished. Wigmore sees the 2006 documentation by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). The investigative format "The Fifth Estate" reports in a 50 minutes long piece about Duncan MacPhersons case, the "Iceman" as they call it.

Judy Wigmore gets in touch with the MacPhersons via the journalist from CBC and sends them the pictures. On the photos no fence can be seen. Wigmore, who also kept a diary, can't remember "to have seen any warning signs, barriers or fences. Would I have seen any danger up there, I definitely would have not allowed my kids to ski on their own,” she says today.

Even the MacPhersons became witnesses when a hiker almost falls into a crevasse on the assumed secure walking trail which leads up the top the 3.333 meter high Schaufelspitz right next to the piste; as suddenly ice and snow back down underneath the hiker's feet. Her companion manages to grab her. What the MacPhersons witness next will stick to their heads until today. It is an odd sequence which they make photos of: A snow grooming machine approaches the spot where the ice had just broken through underneath the hiker's feet. "The driver-without checking if someone was inside the crevasse, just started to fill the hole with snow and then groomed the spot,” says Lynda MacPherson. And here it is again. That queasy feeling that comes up in the parents with the think on: What if Duncan had fallen into a crevasse, had survived the fall and then had been buried underneath the snow by a grooming machine?

"The sharp-edged injuries to his left hand and his left leg can not be the result of glacier movement as the operator always claims. Also that his skiing boots were not on his feet doesn't fit into the picture", says Robert MacPherson. "Duncan had maybe fallen into the crevasse, had survived and then had tried to climb out of it. As he was up on the edge of the crevasse, with one hand and one leg, a snow grooming machine runs over him and buries him in the ice."

For the employees of the "Kingdom of Snow” as the ski resort on the Stubai glacier is sold his guests, it is impossible that the accident could have ever occurred like that. So Heinrich Klier, the founder, today’s chairman of the board and co-owner of the Wintersport Tyrol AG insists on the statement that "since our existence in the seventies we have had 20 to 30 million guests and only this one deadly accident near to the controlled skiing area.” The 83 year old is one of the pioneers of glacier tourism owning almost all lifts, hotels and bed in the valley.

"The poor guy,” says Klier and continues to explain his accident theory. "Obviously, he fell when he was taking the tow lift up; he gets of his snowboard, climbs over the barrier, walks in the fog on foot and rumbles somewhere down the crevasse. All evil spirits must have played together for something like this to happen.” For months Klier and his two company CEO's, son Reinhard Klier and Franz Wegscheider, are in touch with the MacPhersons; still in 2003 Klier offers the MacPhersons to put up a photograph of Duncan as a memorial. In 2006, as the tone between the MacPhersons and the lift operator harshens and as the parents think to sue the operator, the photo is still not in its place. The operator has passed all on to their insurance.

"You can count on the fact that left and right from the lift there were barricades,” says Klier while talking to today's piste chief,Walter Müller, on the phone. As Müller had called Klier back just a few minutes earlier, the boss was joking: "For a moment I thought you had also fallen into a crevasse.” While Müller is prompting his boss on the phone, Klier starts drawing a sketch of the slope and the lift. According to this the tow lift ran in the middle of a known area of crevasses in 1989. "Also on the piste all crevasses were filled with snow and groomed,” says Klier and draws several crevasses on the slope. "There were police interrogations in which it was concluded that the piste was completely barricaded. Also on the police photos the barriers are visible. That was an important point in the investigation,” says Klier. That these photos exist can neither Klier nor the police prove -although asked for them several times.

"If there are photos of the barrier, he should show them to us,” says Lynda MacPherson. For the parents the search for the truth is long from being over.

We were often asked, Why are you doing this?” says the 66-year old. “When you are convince of being right and such a system gets up in front of you, you simply can’t give up or you lose.”

Lynda MacPherson sits in her dining-room in her house in Saskatoon. She lights up another cigarette. On the wall behind her is a wooden shelf with framed photographs of Duncan and his one and a half year younger brother Derrick. In between there rests a brown cube. It has a metal plate with a silhouette of a country scene on it: the urn of her son Duncan MacPherson.

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