Holly Jones: How 10-year-old’s murder a decade ago brought a Toronto community together (2022)

Maria Jones is staring at her daughter’s face.

She is standing in front of a larger-than-life mural, a painted likeness of a studio portrait taken shortly before 10-year-old Holly Jones vanished from her west-end neighbourhood and never came home.

On a sunny April day, Maria, a petite, 52-year-old woman with a chiseled physique and straw blond hair, is visiting the leafy green Perth Ave. Parkette, just around the corner from her house, for the first time in nearly a decade.

She bends to rescue a small teddy bear that has fallen face-first in the dirt.

This motion of adjusting memorials left for her daughter is second nature now.


Map: The Holly Jones investigation

Video: Holly Jones remembered 10 years later

From the moment Holly went missing on May 12, 2003, mourners began to leave a mountain of flowers, teddy bears and stone angels outside her front door in her Junction neighbourhood in Toronto’s west end. Maria would sit cross-legged almost every day surrounded by the mementos — tidying them, pressing some delicately to her lips.

“I really felt like I was doing it for Holly, as if she could see what I was doing,” Maria says now.

This Sunday will mark 10 years since Holly was raped and murdered by 35-year-old software developer Michael Briere, her dismembered body dumped in Lake Ontario. Maria agreed to tell the Star what has happened to her family since that fateful day. She wants to keep Holly’s memory alive.

Maria has carefully navigated the side streets to get here, her muscular arms gripping the steering wheel, to avoid the stretch of road where Holly was grabbed off the sidewalk — a spot she hasn’t dared pass in a decade.

The community has come, year after year, to tend to the small garden of purple, yellow and white flowers below the mural, painted by a local graffiti artist. They come here to remember Holly with candles and whispered memories.

When Maria turns the bear over to sit gently on a rock, she can read the message embroidered on its small blue hoodie: “You are Special.”

She stares at it for a long time.

Maria and George Stonehouse brought their daughter home from the hospital in a flowery dress after she was born Sept. 14, 1992. She became the youngest of four; her older siblings — Shauna, Natasha and James — eagerly awaited her arrival. Holly became their brown-eyed doll — their Holly Dolly — a bundle of singing, dancing, rock-star energy.

The little girl was always at her mother’s side. When Maria gardened in the backyard, Holly asked to join. Maria gave her a little patch of earth to call her own. The space of crimson budding trees is now lovingly decorated with hanging crystals and mirrors that make lights dance in the sun, and countless stone angels.

On a recent spring day, one cherub lies sprawled in the soil, the leafy green stems of yet-blossoming forget-me-nots sprouting through a chubby-armed embrace.

Ten years on, those people touched by Holly in life and death — her family, a police detective, a Crown attorney, her childhood best friend and strangers — are still learning how to grieve.

This is how Holly brought them together.

A part of Holly’s garden grows in a backyard west of the city.

The miniature lilac bush has survived two moves and is just now starting to bloom its purple blossoms.

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My stepmom, Deborah Vittie, first told me about its significance several years ago — that it was a gift from Holly’s mother. It was the first of many conversations about her connection to the case.

As a now-retired 31-year veteran of the Toronto police force, Deb spent four years assigned to the sex crimes unit. I knew she had seen countless horrific cases, but Holly’s picture was the only one she kept on her desk.

She first met Maria, wrapped in a blanket, by the fire pit in Holly’s garden. Deb remembers her rocking — almost catatonic — holding the knitted hat that was Holly’s favourite.

She was a detective constable then, sent from the command post at Roncesvalles Ave. and Dundas St. West to Holly’s house and assigned as the family liaison for the month-long investigation to catch her killer.

For the first 10 days, Deb spent almost every waking hour at the family’s home, away from her own 5-year-old son and teenage daughter.

She was there to help with the investigation and speak to the media, but she also made tea and kept the TV off. As a stranger in their midst, Deb was regaled with countless stories by family and friends packed into the house.

“I heard so much about her little life through everyone that I really felt like I knew her,” she says now. “I just jumped in and was a human being who had cop ears.”

Deb says the case spurred a colossal team effort between several divisions, victim services, and scores of officers who worked tirelessly to catch Holly’s killer and bring comfort to her family.

She was at the house the day after Holly’s disappearance, when it was confirmed a body found in two bags, one on Ward’s Island and one near the CNE grounds, was Holly’s.

“I raced over there and I was met with a houseful of very anxious people who had come to know me by my first name,” Deb says. In those moments, she kept her composure as everyone else crumbled around her.

“I think what kept me going was (that) their loss, this tragedy that impacted the whole city, was more important,” she says. “If I felt tired or stressed, I just thought: handle it. Because this family has lost a little girl. Grandparents have lost a grandchild. Friends have lost a best friend. I’ll get through this.”

Tucked inside the leather case that holds her police badge is a laminated card with the words Holly’s parents said to their daughter every night before bed: I love you to each and every star, to the moon, around the sun, and back again.

We’ve driven to the break wall across from the CNE — the towering, spinning wind turbine a point of reference for where half of Holly’s remains were found floating in the water.

A week after Holly’s murder, Deb had driven here in a daze on her way home after another late night, agonizing over the still unsolved case. She sat for a moment and thought of Holly. She had no idea why she ended up there.

Deb and Maria share a unique bond that follows grief. Ten years have brought them together for a recent visit in the dining room at the home on Sterling Rd., where Holly’s parents still live. Deb always visits on May 12. Though the family says they are comforted by her presence, she can’t help feeling she is a constant reminder of the horror.

“I can’t change the fact that their little girl was taken,” she says. “That’s a very helpless feeling.”

It is pouring rain when Maria pulls a purple cardigan snug over Holly’s bare shoulders in the front hallway.

It’s the first time — after much pleading — that she is letting her daughter walk the route she normally takes to school alone. Holly insists on taking her new friend, Claudia, home after an afternoon of dress-up, karaoke and chess.

She is 10, but Maria sees the independence blossoming in her shy, little girl. Since moving to Sterling Rd. more than year earlier, Holly has been quick to frighten, so it’s a welcome change.

She is starting to grow brave.

Maria remembers what Holly looked like when she was scared.

She still sees her daughter’s terrified face in her dreams. For a while, she would have the same nightmare that she was searching for Holly. One merciful night, the dream morphed and Maria finally found her, but Holly was round-cheeked and 4 years old again.

“I just remember holding her and being so happy that I found her,” Maria says. “I remember for some reason having complete comfort, that this never happened, none of this happened.”

Her voice becomes a whisper.

“Then I realized, the nightmare that I thought I was having was reality.”

It was a gorgeous June day when Paul Culver visited Holly’s garden.

The former chief Crown attorney for Toronto had just finished writing an agonizing 61 pages of facts with fellow attorney Hank Goody on what happened to Holly — much of it based on Briere’s three-hour confession extracted by police that had yet to be made public. In a couple of days, all would be revealed in open court.

(Video) TV news crew murdered on-air

But first, he had to read it to Holly’s mother.

The sun was shining as Maria, Deb, homicide lead Ken Taylor, Culver and Goody congregated on the patio, finger foods and drinks available for the guests.

“It was probably one of the more surreal experiences of my career,” the 30-year veteran says. “We were sitting around in the backyard . . . on this beautiful sunny day and it was like we were going to have a June afternoon party. But the real purpose of what we were doing there was pretty horrific.”

Maria hadn’t known yet how Briere led Holly down the alley behind his apartment, how just briefly she had tried to scream, how he had later stuffed her lifeless body inside his fridge.

What no one had yet known is that, before the search for Holly had even begun she was already gone — dead in the span of less than an hour.

The two attorneys read through the document, stopping four or five times when those revelations became too much for Maria to handle. She would retreat inside to be comforted by family and friends before returning to hear the gruesome details.

“The shock of the whole experience lasted for days,” Culver recalls. As a father with teenage daughters at home, he says the case was a “parent’s worst nightmare.”

Culver retired four years ago and has kept few files from his many years in court. But he kept Holly’s case book with her photo that the Crown filed as an exhibit.

“I haven’t a whole lot of stuff from my working life, because it’s not that pleasant, but that was a very significant case for both me and for the city,” he says.

As our conversation ends, he has a simple request:

“If you happen to see Maria again, tell her I think about her a lot.”

In those first couple of years after Holly’s murder, when the case was over, the camera trucks gone and the numbness subsided, the family was left with raw emotions.

While Maria needed constant company and support, George and the children needed to be alone to mourn.

Lost in a haze of grief, Maria says she wasn’t able to be the wife and mother her family needed. None was strong enough to lean on each other.

“I went into some kind of coma, but I was talking,” she says. “You’re not thinking about anything.”

Under the weight of it all, George and Maria eventually split.

“It tore all of us apart,” Maria says. “We all went in our own directions, even the kids.”

The three remaining children were all pulled out of school for a year.

Maria pushed friends away, lashed out at them for playing the wrong song, saying the wrong thing. She would cover her mouth if someone made her smile or laugh. It didn’t feel right. It was never right with Holly gone. Those two years were their darkest, she says now — “It was hell.”

Eventually, almost four years after Holly’s death, the family reunited. They realized they couldn’t go on without Holly unless they could be together.

“I think Holly is a big part of keeping the strength within our family,” Maria says.

But the visions always hit unexpectedly. The family cannot bear the sound of helicopters overhead. A mild, rainy day still makes them ill. It’s still too difficult for George to discuss with strangers.

For Maria, there is a dark hallway in her mind she feels she must walk. There are things she must see again and again. That is a journey she takes on her own.

“The lows will never get easier,” Maria says. “You just don’t get over the fact that your daughter was raped and murdered.”

Holly was Melissa DeSousa’s first real friend.

They met on the first day of kindergarten at St. Vincent de Paul Separate School where Holly would teach her how to jump rope. They would squeal through the girls’ bathroom stalls, locking all the doors from the inside before getting caught.

The pair had that kind of slumber-party-whispers-in-the-dark-type friendship exclusively shared by little girls.

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On cold winter days, the girls would skip home together, Holly bending to scoop up fluffy snow in her mittened hands and then devour it like a snow cone — the glistening crystals clinging to her face.

When Melissa’s family moved to Brampton in the third grade, the girls kept in touch by phone, Holly singing over the line to Melissa her new favourite songs by Britney Spears.

“I remember we promised each other that when we were older and finished school, we would get our own place and we would live together,” Melissa, 20, writes in a long email to me.

The day Holly went missing, Melissa’s father phoned home to deliver the news. Melissa burst into tears.

The following day, the whole city knew a body had been found. That’s when the letter came.

After stopping to pick up the mail, Melissa’s family sat in the car, the 10-year-old girl holding the envelope, unable to open it. She passed the letter to her mother, who read it aloud.

“She wrote about how she missed me, and that she was looking forward to seeing me soon,” Melissa says. On one of the pages, Holly had stuck glow-in-the-dark stars, so at night Melissa could look at the letter and think of her.

“This was the first and only letter she had ever mailed to me.”

At a young age, Melissa struggled to understand why Holly was gone, withdrawing from new friends and opportunities.

She turns 21 in September and works two jobs to go back to school for film and television.

She knows Holly should be there with her, looking for an apartment together, chasing their little girl dreams in the big city.

“We wanted to be famous together.”

Ten years on , Holly’s family is embracing the neighbourhood that stole their daughter, their sibling.

Her sisters are settling in to a home up the street and in January her brother purchased the house across from his parents’ Sterling Rd. address.

Maria and George are doing renovations that have ripped the drywall from the stairs leading to their daughter’s old bedroom, leaving exposed brick. What’s left of Holly’s things remain unsorted in a cupboard — school books, letters, a housecoat.

When the repairs are complete, Maria plans to create a wall of family photos. But she knows she can only have so many pictures of Holly before she turned 10. She will never have pictures of her graduation, of her wedding, to hang beside the others.

This is the kind of grief that is persistent. Maria opens the hallway door in her mind again.

“I will never be able to have 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 and so on with Holly as I will with all the kids,” she says, her voice breaking as her arms motion up the wall. Every number is a dagger. “It just takes one split second to know all of that.”

Maria could have retreated when Holly left — but instead she reached deeper into the community.

She continues to teach fitness classes at local centres. Her students remember how in the early days she would cry in the washroom before gathering up her characteristic energy and starting the routine.

While working out her pain through motion and dance, she likely never noticed her students, who had come to love and respect her, were concealing tears of their own, masked as they mingled with beads of sweat.

At Holly’s old schools, there are awards in her honour for the student who best embodies her zest for life. Her photo hangs in both hallways alongside classmates she should have graduated with.

Her teachers still drive past a painted mural in Sorauren Park — yet another monument to Holly — stopping every day to look at her face and the letters she used to be so proud of printing: H-O-L-L-Y.

Maria used to tell her kids never to use the word “hate” to describe how they felt about anyone. But after being consumed by hate she never imagined, she is still floored by the beauty it inspired.

“I cannot believe how much goodness that brought out,” she says. Endless streams of cards, gifts and messages of love showed up for years, some from the other side of the world. To this day, small reminders that someone is thinking of Holly will show up on their front steps. “They do that from their heart.”

“I think the reason I want to share Holly so much is ’cause the love just feels larger,” Maria says. “It eases the pain knowing that we’ve shared it with everyone.”

In the last decade, there have been small victories as Maria learns to fight the horrible visions, to control her sudden grief. It took her years just to walk up the snack aisle at the grocery story again. This year, she went to see Holly’s mural.

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She is starting to grow brave.

On a warm , clear August evening in 2011, Holly’s garden, after playing host to so much sadness, was finally able hold a party again.

Maria filled the backyard with twinkling lights, drinks, food, friends and family. It was meant to be a surprise party for George’s 50th birthday, but it was really an elaborate ruse for what Maria had actually been planning for the past year.

Decades earlier, George had proposed to Maria on a trip to Paris. And though she readily accepted, the couple skipped out on the wedding, funneling their money instead into their kids and house.

But after all those years without Holly, they still had each other to hold onto — and that was worth celebrating.

When George came home, he saw the decorations and the white pants Maria had laid out on the bed for him.

She ushered their three kids — now adults — together to tell them of her plans just minutes before the big moment. Elated, they rushed to help Maria make the final preparations, giving George his “birthday” gift — a matching white jacket and pink shirt. They begged him to try it on.

Someone led the unwitting groom under the wrought-iron archway, one of many donations to Holly’s garden over the years. And then Maria arrived in the sliding doorway as the music began, wearing a pink, silky gown and a tiny white veil just dipping below her brow line.

George’s jaw dropped as she approached, past Holly’s garden and the brick path he had laid for his little girl after she went away. Past dozens of stone angels, their eyes turned upwards, cherub cheeks beaming.

The minister appeared and with dozens of flabbergasted friends packed in around them, asked if anyone would oppose their union.

The backyard erupted in unison — “Go! It’s OK! It’s OK!” everyone shouted in furious encouragement.

George and Maria held on to each other under the archway and said “I do.” They promised to have and to hold, for better or for worse, in joy and in sorrow.

“I think we brought a lot of comfort to a lot of hearts that day,” Maria says now. “Because it was more than a wedding. Because all our friends knew what we went through — with Holly, splitting up, going our own ways, the anger, the troubles — that it was like an ending, you know?

“A good ending to a really big story.”

Accounts of scenes and memories of Holly were drawn from more than a dozen interviews with family, friends and community members, as well as court documents.



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What happened to Holly Jones Toronto? ›

The Detective. Toronto girl Holly Jones was murdered by a stranger in 2003. The detective on the case said finding her killer was a needle-in-a-haystack investigation until two sharp-eyed officers made a breakthrough discovery.

What did Michael Briere do to Holly Jones? ›

Holly Maria Jones (September 14, 1992 – May 12, 2003) was a 10-year-old child abduction and murder victim from Toronto, Ontario, Canada. On May 12, 2003, while walking a friend home, she was kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and strangled by Michael Briere.

Where is the Holly Jones mural? ›

For Holly's family, it was devastating. For Tompkins, some measure of healing came through art. Specifically, the creation of a mural in his sister's memory in Charles G. Williams Park on Wabash Avenue at Sorauren Avenue.

Who is Holly in the movie prisoners? ›

Prisoners (2013) - Melissa Leo as Holly Jones - IMDb.

Where is Paul Bernardo now? ›

Millhaven Institution

Why did they kidnap kids in Prisoners? ›

Keller arrives at Holly's and she holds him at gunpoint. She reveals that she and her husband abducted children of Christian families as a "war on God" to avenge their son's death and make similar families feel the same crisis of faith. Alex (Barry Milland) was their first abduction and Taylor their second.

What did Holly inject Anna with? ›

He goes after Holly in the other room, where she finds her injecting some poison in Anna. He points a gun at her and asks her to raise her hands.

Are the girls found in Prisoners? ›

After the police let Alex go, Keller kidnaps Alex. Because Alex is missing, Holly doesn't leave the girls in the hole to die but brings them into the house to keep her company. That choice allows the girls to eventually survive the ordeal.

What happened to Cecilia Zhang? ›

According to Chen, Cecilia's death was the result of Chen's poorly planned kidnapping and not deliberate. The highly decomposed remains of Cecilia Zhang were subsequently found in a wooded area of Mississauga by the Credit River at Eglinton Avenue on Saturday, March 27, 2004.

Where is Paul Bernardo now? ›

Millhaven Institution


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