Toronto, Ontario is not known for its crime rate, rather impressive for one of Canada’s major, well-known cities, with plenty of tourists, and a plenitude of race and religious mix. Perhaps that’s why when certain murder cases are sensationalized across the city they aren’t easily forgotten. One such case is that of the May 28, 1982 rape and murder of Jenny Isford, a gorgeous, blonde, 19-year-old cheerleader for the Toronto Argos football team (I know, hard to believe anyone would cheer for them…but I disgress….) The case has been discussed, blogged, examined and debated for decades. It took years to find her killer and although someone is locked up for it now, he denies his role in her slaying. Don’t they all? Well, as with many murders, there are a number of “possible suspects” (love that term – either you’re a suspect or you aren’t). The details of the case are as such:
Jenny Isford lived in North York, a northern section of Toronto. On the night of May 28, 1982, Jenny and a male passenger boarded a Sheppard Avenue – Bayview bus from the Sheppard station. The male passenger moved to the back of the bus and appeared to fall asleep. Jenny sat near the driver who admitted that he “chatted up” the beautiful blonde as he drove her to the top of her street, about 100 yards from her home. Jenny exited the bus. The passenger at the rear of the bus appeared to jolt awake and suddenly run from the bus, as if he had missed his own stop. A shame he didn’t miss Jenny’s. The driver drove on and Jenny Isford began her last walk home. The following morning her body was found on the front lawn of a neighbour who lived five houses away from the Isford home, on Blithfield Ave. Police believed the killer followed Jenny on her home route that night from the Yonge subway line to the Sheppard Avenue bus, and then raped and strangled her.
One blogger’s theory is this: The killer pretended to be asleep on the bus. Why would he do that? Because he had [deliberately] gone past his stop and in his own mind needed a reason for having done so.[This would make sense if he was ever questioned by police]. If his stop had been past Jenny’s, he would not have needed to fake going to sleep. He would have simply exited the bus. Nor would he have needed to fake sleep if he lived nowhere along a route he never travelled. Numerous “nuts” probably came forward to police with information about Jenny and her murder. I suspect the aforementioned blogger may have been one of them. He insists that at 17, he met Jenny Isford on a subway train, “the most romantic way two people could ever meet.” This guy doesn’t get out enough. “A week later…my angel was battered, beaten, strangled and raped … and I stopped living that day.” Most definitely Jenny Isford was surrounded by oddballs and ultimately, a truly dangerous predator.
Another blogger posted: My brother always had a problem with the drivers story, because he was a driver for TTC too at the time. “I don’t think the man following Jenny just got up and calmly walked off the bus, I think he ran off. If it was my route that would have sent up a red flag. I would have made sure there was nothing funny going on. At Blithfield Ave. and Bayview, the bus would have been Jenny’s first point of assistance, so she would have first tried to flag the bus down. But that driver kept going, leaving her no alternative but to run.” Whether or not the passenger ran off the bus doesn’t implicate the driver (who was a suspect), or his professionalism. Merely, this perspective highlights what the second TTC driver learned in hindsight. I personally doubt the blogger’s brother would have stayed to investigate the male’s departure from the bus. Lots of passengers jump, run and make considerable noise when exiting a bus. So what? Hindsight is always a finger-pointer.
Despite a police investigation lasting weeks, no one was arrested for the grisly murder and Jenny Isford’s case was deemed unsolved. Less than a month later, the body of Welsh nanny Christine Prince, 25, was found floating in the West Rouge River near the Metropolitan Toronto Zoo. On July 12, bride-to-be Claudia Gebert, 21, was found molested and stabbed to death in her home. The press made much of the three women’s murders, almost suggesting that they might have been related – they weren’t. Christine and Jenny’s murders are usually linked together in blogs and articles. The nature and volume of the stories reveal much about the ingrained sexism of that time in reporting violence against women: the papers blamed the victims by implying that had they behaved differently, for instance, not using public transit alone, or not been out late at night, they would not have been murdered. The authorities quoted in stories about the attacks reinforced this view. Sophia Voumvakis, a researcher at the University of Toronto made glib unproven comments about women and rape that added fuel to this fire; stupid and biased comments from what should be an intelligent woman.
“Fear Stalks Women on the TTC: Female Riders Terrified at Night Following Brutal Murders of Cheerleader and Nanny” screamed one headline about the murder. Even more disturbing were the biases revealed during a discussion of the papers’ roles after the murders. An editor of the Toronto Sun at the time, D. Shears, while claiming she believed Isford was an innocent victim, in the next breath stated: ‘1sford was looking for trouble. These were innocent people, but at the same time, if you had your blouse half off and were walking down the street at two in the morning [that would prove the victim was to blame].” In 1982, a study revealed that more than 75 percent of police and justice officials interviewed about the incidents, implied the victims were responsible because of their dress or behavior. It didn’t help that Jenny had been out at a bar called Trampps the night of her murder. However, Jenny Isford wasn’t walking down Blithe Avenue with her blouse half off when she was attacked, so the point is… (besides moot)?
Debbie Parent, a volunteer with the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre for the past five years, also charges that the newspapers distorted the situation. “‘Women are raped and assaulted all the time, but only when a woman is raped and murdered do the media jump on it,” she notes. Other comments printed in the papers about the dead girl included, “Wasn’t Isford wearing a gold lame pantsuit?” Jim Wilkes, a Star reporter who covered many of the murders, shared this interpretation: “Would you as a woman walk down a dark alley in the early morning wearing a bikini? I certainly wouldn’t invite robbery by walking through a dark alley with $50 bills hanging out of my pockets.” Other negative comments in the media told women that the world was set up in a way that makes them targets. I’m quite certain Jenny wasn’t walking down Blithe Avenue in a bikini, either. Do these people listen to themselves when they speak?
1997, 15 years later, William Brett Henson, was found guilty of Jenny Isford’s murder. In 1998, Max Haines, a former Toronto Sun crime columnist and author of Canadian true crime stories, wrote a column in the Lethbridge Herald, detailing how DNA convicted Henson of Jenny’s grisly murder. In 1982, the known sex offender Henson was questioned about Jenny’s murder, but it was impossible to place him at her location at the time of the murder. He was cleared of her murder until 1997,
when Jenny’s case was re-opened. The use of DNA evidence had made considerable strides. It was discovered that immediately after Jenny’s murder, Henson committed several more sexual attacks on women, although Jenny was his sole murder victim. Henson’s saliva, collected at the time of police investigation, was an exact match to secretions left at the scene, and Henson was arrested at his home, where, after 15 years, he still lived with his mother (loser). He was convicted and sentenced to 25 years in prison without the possibility of parole. I hope that gives some closure to Jenny’s parents who suffered through both the loss of their beautiful daughter, and the sexist, false implications by the Toronto press about Jenny’s character at the time of her murder. It would seem to me that the Toronto press deserves a criminal charge every bit as much as Henson. At the very least it owes the Isfords a resounding apology.
Jenny was interested in pursuing a career in the Arts. The Earl Haig Secondary School (Art School) in North York Ontario, offers The Becca Haberman Memorial Music Scholarship, which in turn, offers the Jenny Isford Memorial Award for students who study the Arts and are intent upon seeking a career in the Arts.