Nova Scotia

How did a Halifax police investigation into a woman's rape go so wrong?

Carrie Low did everything right when she reported to police that she'd been sexually assaulted. What followed was confusion, inaction and months of delays.

WARNING: This story describes a sexual assault and contains graphic details

In May 2018, Carrie Low reported to Halifax police that she'd been raped. Lawyers representing her say police systematically mishandled her case. (Photo illustration by Dave Irish/CBC)

Carrie Low gives the impression of a reference librarian, peering above glasses as she carefully runs her finger along a printed list, the top page in a thick stack of documents.

The 42-year-old Halifax-area woman is reading through the exhaustive notes she's kept of a criminal investigation — every call, meeting with officers and email exchange is logged, next to a timestamp and date.

It's the record of what her legal team now considers a deeply flawed 18-month police investigation into her rape.

On Monday, lawyers representing Low from the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia will argue in court that Halifax Regional Police systematically mishandled her case over a year and a half.

"She did all the right things," says Emma Halpern, executive director of the local chapter of Elizabeth Fry, which advocates for women who are incarcerated and for victims of violence.

"There is significant information that she's been able to provide. And yet nothing has moved forward. It leaves us questioning why and really struggling to understand how this has gone so wrong."

They list a series of failures. Low's file was bounced between a half-dozen officers. There was so much confusion that at least three times she was told to direct her questions to a different investigator.

Police never visited the scene of the crime, even though she provided clear details of the location. The case was hampered by lengthy toxicology paperwork delays and poor communication.

Elizabeth Fry has applied for a judicial review. It wants a Nova Scotia Supreme Court judge to order the Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner to investigate Low's complaint against police, something it has refused to do because she filed it outside the six-month statute of limitations.

Halifax Regional Police refused this week to comment on the case, saying in an email they are unable do so because it is an open investigation.

Emma Halpern is executive director of the Elizabeth Fry Society of Mainland Nova Scotia. (Dave Laughlin/CBC)

In May 2018, Low was enjoying an unremarkable night out, over a couple drinks with a few friends, at a neighbourhood bar in Dartmouth, N.S. The events she says that followed — a drink spiked with drugs, a kidnapping and then a violent hours-long rape by two men — would make the day-to-day experience of living a torment.

Low's last moment of absolute clarity is inside the bar. She suspects she walked out at some point, possibly to vape. Her friends did not witness what happened next.

"My next memory is a flash of being back down in the backseat of a car and someone on top of me," she recalls.

Then, the next flash: "I'm squished up against a door and the car is full of people and I'm trying to get out of the car. 

"I kept hearing the clicking of the door lock and they wouldn't ... I was asking to get out and they wouldn't let me out."

'I remember crying'

The sequences of the hours appear in nightmarish flashes. She was trapped.

"My next memory, I'm lying face down on a mattress and someone from behind is having sex with me. And I remember crying and asking to stop, that it hurt."

She blacked out again. "And then my next memory is I'm on my back and it's a different person."

Low surmises she then lost consciousness again. When she woke, some of her clothing was missing.

"The next thing I know is I wake up in an old, dingy camper. I don't know where I am."

She fled, wearing only one shoe. She asked a stranger outside to call her a taxi, and he did. By now it was morning. She was a 30-minute drive from Dartmouth.

The Elizabeth Fry Society says Halifax Regional Police systematically mishandled Low's case. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

In shock, she returned home and did the only thing she could think to do: she kept her schedule, and went to the soccer game of her high school-aged daughter, the youngest of her three children and the only one still remaining at home.

Immediately after the game, a friend drove Low to the emergency department of the Dartmouth General Hospital, where a sexual assault nurse examiner conducted an exam and collected a rape kit.

Low recalls clearly an option on the consent form to select whether or not to immediately involve police. She was certain. She'd been raped once before in her early 20s.

"I have had things happen in the past. I didn't talk about it. I didn't have police involved. I didn't tell anyone and I lived with that — I'm still living with that."

There happened to be an officer on duty at the hospital that morning, and Low agreed to speak with him. But when he began questioning her about the events of the previous night, the nurse who'd received her pulled the curtain back.

"You shouldn't be doing that," Low recalls the nurse telling the police officer. "You don't question her here, that happens at the station."

When the officer became defensive, Low says the nurse shot back: "I've done 500 rape kits. This isn't how it's done."

A friend took Low to the Dartmouth General Hospital. (Paul Poirier/CBC)

The officer stopped questioning Low and gave her an evidence bag to gather and seal her clothing in. He promised that someone would come to her home to collect it that evening. But no one ever showed up.

Low called the next day — 7:53 p.m., according to the notes she kept of each interaction with police. It was Victoria Day weekend, and the officer on the line informed her that no one would be able to collect the evidence, or even contact her, until at least Tuesday.

It would be 10 days before officers came to collect her clothing. An investigator would later apologize for the delay.

But this was only the beginning of Low's troubles.

As she waited to hear back from police, she used Google Maps and the address where she was picked up by a Bob's Taxi driver to put together the exact location of where she'd been raped.

She recognized the driveway, there was no question. She told police the night after the attack that items of hers were still there. But no one went.

"Multiple times through the months, with interviews and emails, phone calls, I would ask, 'You know, I don't understand why you didn't go to the location. I had missing underwear, a missing shoe,'" she says.

She says an investigator responded: "We can't go beating down doors," she says. This later turned into, "Well, we didn't need to go. We believe you."

'Dramatic failures'

Halpern, the Elizabeth Fry executive director, says no civilian should be expected to lead their own investigation.

"Despite the fact that she did all those things, there were still these dramatic failures, that every single turn she was hitting up against a wall. She was not receiving information."

After watching her case get punted through at least six officers, and doggedly pursuing updates, Low had to provide a full video statement of the night in question, not once, but three times.

The officer who was originally assigned to her file had left the Halifax sexual assault investigative team, an integrated unit of Halifax Regional Police and Halifax District RCMP.

Later, investigators told Low they had interviewed two persons of interest in the case, and they wanted her to repeat her statement, in its entirety, a second and third time.

Halifax Regional Police say they will not comment on Low's case because it remains an open investigation. (Robert Short/CBC)

Eight months into the investigation, Low would learn her toxicology, which might show traces of drugs in her system, had never been processed. The only explanation she was given was that the paperwork had been filed incorrectly and gotten lost in the shuffle. It was finally re-sent, although the results revealed little.

"It just, quite honestly, felt wrong," Halpern says. "Why was it taking so long for these reports to be processed and this analysis to be done? What was the delay? Why was the clothing never picked up?"

Eventually, when Low tried to file a complaint with the Nova Scotia Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner, it was rejected. She was informed it had come too late, past the six-month limit dictated by the Nova Scotia Police Act.

By this point, Low had stopped sleeping almost entirely. Sudden, loud noises would trigger a sense of overwhelming terror. She was too frightened to ride the bus or be in public. She eventually had to leave her job as an administrator for a trucking business, one she'd performed for 20 years, even as she raised three children.

"I watched her," Halpern says. "I met with her after she hadn't slept for days because of recurring nightmares. Telling me that she was losing her hair. Watching her lose weight … having her come in, unable to talk some days, because the trauma was so pronounced in her physical being."

2 persons of interest

Low estimates in the months that followed the attack she lost 30 pounds. All of this was taking place as she continued to fight for answers in her case.

"There she was, also trying to navigate this impossible maze of a system," Halpern says, "and trying to figure out how to get this crime solved herself. Which is beyond the scope of what should ever be expected of anyone, let alone someone who has just been through such a tremendously difficult trauma."

At one point, two "persons of interest," according to files obtained by CBC, were brought in for questioning at the sexual assault team's offices in the Burnside industrial park. Another person of interest in the case, Low was informed, remained at large.

But to date, no arrests have been made. And as far as Low is aware, police never did attend the scene of the crime.

Where things stand now

Low is now a year and a half into the investigation. The latest officer assigned to her file is kind. He keeps in touch. He advises her to "take care" of herself.

Despite this, she's received no updates on her file since May. No arrests have been made. Her attackers remain at large.

Still, Low is focused on the potential results of the court case involving the police complaints commissioner. She is determined to ensure no one has to go through what she's endured. She wants them to know they're not alone and to try not to give up.

"It's still a struggle and it will be for some time, but I know that I will recover someday," she says. "I know that, and this may be a piece of what's going to help me recover is making change."