Canada·CBC Investigates

Charged 30+ years after 'woodland rapist' attacks, who is the B.C. man arrested in Ontario?

A B.C. man recently charged in a series of sexual assaults on children in Ontario in the 1990s had connections to the regions where the attacker struck, according to documents viewed by CBC News. A retired lead investigator says Richard Neil was not on a list of would-be suspects at the time.

Public records provide insight into Richard Neil, 64, charged with three attacks on minors in 1990s

Richard Neil, in a dark puffer jacket, is seen making a brief court appearance in Brampton, Ont. via Zoom on March 27.
Richard Neil, in a dark puffer jacket, made a brief court appearance in Brampton, Ont., via Zoom on March 27. He is facing 20 charges in connection with three separate attacks on two boys and one girl between 1992 and 1995. (Pam Davies/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

A B.C. man recently charged in a series of sexual assaults on children in Ontario in the 1990s had connections to the regions where the attacker struck, according to documents viewed by CBC News.

A former lead investigator says Richard Neil was not among the more than 1,000 potential suspects in what became known as the notorious "woodland rapist" case. Now, newly obtained public records provide insight into the accused's background for the first time.

Neil was arrested on March 3, police from Ontario's Peel, Halton and Waterloo regions announced earlier this month. He made a brief appearance in Brampton court Wednesday morning over Zoom from a holding cell, wearing a dark puffer jacket. Neil is scheduled to return for a bail hearing next Tuesday.

A source with knowledge of the investigation told CBC News the accused was living in B.C. recently, but was arrested when he returned to Toronto. CBC has agreed to conceal the source's identity as they weren't authorized to speak publicly on the case.

Neil is facing 20 charges — including kidnapping and sexual assault with a weapon — in connection with three separate attacks on two boys and one girl between 1992 and 1995.

His lawyer, Leo Adler, told CBC News on Wednesday his client was "shocked" to learn of the allegations. "He is not guilty," Adler said, "and certainly the presumption of innocence applies."

A man wearing a dark jacket and a yellow tie.
Lawyer Leo Adler represents Richard Neil, accused of a series of sexual assaults in the 1990s. Adler said his client is not guilty and was 'shocked' to learn of the allegations. (Thomas Daigle/CBC)

Investigators did not disclose what led them to Neil, or in what city he'd been living. In a brief public statement, police only described him as a 64-year-old B.C. man. 

A charge sheet filed in Brampton court, however, lists Neil's address as a condo in Toronto's North York area. Property records show Neil purchased the home in 2011. Adler referred to his client as "a Toronto man."

When a reporter went to the North York address earlier this month, packages addressed to Neil had been delivered to the front door.

One neighbour said Neil lived part of the year on Vancouver Island. 

WATCH | Suspect, now 64, faces 20 charges, including kidnapping: 

Accused 'woodland rapist' appears in court 30 years after attacks

2 months ago
Duration 2:04
WARNING: This story contains disturbing details | A man charged with the notorious 'woodland rapist' attacks has appeared in court. Richard Neil maintains his innocence, and while the police haven't disclosed how they found him, a CBC News investigation shows he has links to the southern Ontario region where the attacks occurred.

Neil also had a close family connection to the Kitchener-Waterloo area in Ontario in the early 1990s, at the time of the first attack.

On Aug. 21, 1992, an eight-year-old boy was reportedly lured into a wooded area in Kitchener's Idlewood Park, tied to a tree and raped.

It's not clear where Neil was living at the time. But public records show his late mother was then employed at the nearby University of Waterloo. 

The two other attacks were both carried out in the Greater Toronto Area. In September 1994 in Brampton and again in August 1995 in Oakville, media reports said a child had been sexually assaulted in a wooded area. Investigators said at the time DNA evidence linked all three incidents to the same man.

Court records show Neil is alleged to have used a knife in the Kitchener assault and an "imitation firearm" in Oakville.

A publication ban covers the identities of the victims and any evidence presented at this stage.   

'It was horrendous,' says retired investigator 

The series of assaults set off a sprawling investigation dubbed "Project Woodland," involving Peel, Halton and Waterloo officers. In 1995, police released a composite sketch and estimated the perpetrator was at the time in his mid- to late 20s. 

Graham Barnes, a now-retired Halton police detective who led the multi-region task force in 1995, said he was relieved to hear an arrest had been made.

"It was horrendous," he said.

The woodland rapist caused victims "tremendous mental anguish." 

Police investigating the "woodland rapist" case released this composite sketch of a suspect in 1995.
Police investigating the "woodland rapist" case released this composite sketch of a suspect in 1995. (CBC)

Beyond crime scene DNA and the composite sketch, Barnes said investigators also had the perpetrator's fingerprints.

"I was reasonably confident that an arrest would be made," he said. "I was somewhat frustrated by the fact that we couldn't discover who it was, at that time."

In recent years, police have been solving a growing number of cold cases with genetic genealogy, which combines traditional forensics with the use of DNA samples sent by users of ancestry websites. 

In some instances, a relative's DNA could help lead investigators to a suspect who's never had to submit their own blood or fingerprints to a police database.

Toronto police said genetic genealogy helped them identify the man who raped and killed nine-year-old Christine Jessop, as well as the convicted murderer of Susan Tice and Erin Gilmour. Both cases were solved about four decades after the attacks.

Barnes said in 1995, an officer spent weeks solely focused on finding a DNA match for the woodland rapist at Ontario's Centre of Forensic Sciences in Toronto, unsuccessfully. 

Police re-examined the case in 2009, but again failed to identify the predator.

If genetic genealogy were involved in this arrest, Barnes said he suspects police would have sought a recent DNA sample from Neil, either by executing a warrant or by surreptitiously obtaining a discarded item, like a coffee cup.

Investigators have not ruled out connecting more historical assaults to this case.

"When an arrest like this is made … other victims do come forward in some cases," Peel Regional Police Const. Taryn Young said. "It's fair to say we could link this to other cases."
 


If you have a news tip related to this story, contact CBC News senior reporter Thomas Daigle by email: thomas.daigle@cbc.ca.