When Lesley Parrott thinks back to her daughter’s childhood, her face lights up, and her brilliant blue eyes sparkle.
“She was a spunky, beautiful, determined, happy child who was so loved by her mum, loved by her dad, loved by her friends,” she said.
Alison Parrott, of Toronto, was 11 years old when she went missing in summer 1986.
“Until that fateful day, she’d had the best life a kid could have,” said her mother.
The petite, blond-haired girl was an avid runner. She convinced her friends to run, too.
“She had some real natural leadership abilities… she became good at running because she trained hard, so she also had the determination and the self-discipline to keep at it and to go through all the regimen you have to do to train,” Lesley added.
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As a result of her training, Alison had great results. She qualified for a track meet in New Jersey.
So when the phone rang at the Parrott family home one summer day and the caller asked Alison to meet near Varsity Stadium for a photo shoot for a sports magazine, the invitation seemed valid.
“They wanted to have a photograph taken with the team that were going to New Jersey, and she called me at work and asked my permission,” Lesley recalled.
The mother and daughter discussed how Alison would get there.
Alison was used to taking public transit, as her French elementary school was downtown, so she planned to take the subway.
It was just four stops to Varsity Stadium on Bloor Street.
That was the last time Lesley ever heard from her daughter.
When Alison had not returned home later that day or checked in, Lesley felt uneasy.
“This is not right. This has never happened before. She had a phone call. You know, you just intuitively felt that something serious was up,” Lesley said.
Toronto police were contacted.
What followed was a massive search across the city for the missing girl.
“They came from everywhere. I even meet people today who were there with their parents when it happened,” Lesley’s longtime friend, Pamela McNamara, recalled of the search for Alison.
“It was like it wasn’t real… it was like that for the first night, but always with a hope that she’d got upset and ran off and gone to a girlfriend’s house,” she said.
Two days later, the worst possible outcome was realized.
It’s a moment in time Lesley prefers not to dwell upon.
The police arrived back at the Parrotts’ home to inform the family that Alison’s body had been discovered.
“I’ve tried not to spent a lot of time there. I call it the black hole because one can never actually know exactly how all this went down, and so the imagination can be a wicked thing,” she said.
Alison’s body was found in a west-end Toronto park by passersby.
She had been sexually assaulted and murdered.
“It was always important to me that the person be found. It was not going to bring Alison back but it was critically important so there wouldn’t be any more Alisons,” Lesley said.
As the family prepared to bury their daughter, police began ramping up their efforts to find the killer.
“I was called at home by one of the lead homicide investigators… and asked if I would join a task force,” recalled Toronto police Insp. Steve Irwin.
It was believed the case would be resolved quickly.
Irwin, now a seasoned member of the Toronto Police Service, had just four years experience at the time. He was the most junior member on the task force.
A hotline was set up, and Irwin spent days answering calls from the public and following up on countless tips.
“We didn’t have a lot of surveillance cameras, we didn’t have DNA,” recalled Irwin, noting that investigations were much simpler during the late 1980s.
“There was a belief that we should be able to solve this much quicker, and obviously, we were not able to. It became more and more challenging,” he added.
“We looked in the neighbourhood, we looked, obviously, in the area of Varsity Stadium, we looked at people associated to her school… we looked at the running club she was part of,” recalled Irwin, adding: “There were many, many different angles that we were looking at in this particular case.”
Investigators learned the killer had called a number of families with the last name Parrott who were listed in the phone book in the Greater Toronto Area. For weeks prior to her abduction, he had been making calls and asking for Alison.
“The case continued, ultimately, for about 10 years before it was solved,” he said.
As Irwin advanced in his career, finding Alison’s killer remained top of mind.
Years passed, and Irwin was focused on the high-profile case of the unknown Scarborough rapist.
“Eventually, DNA was what identified Paul Bernardo in the Scarborough rape case… and with the success in that, now I went digging for a couple of unsolved murders that were sexually motivated,” he recalled.
The murder of Alison Parrott was one of them.
There had been a DNA sample because semen was found on Alison’s body.
“It was on the 10th anniversary of Alison going missing that the DNA came back and identified Francis Carl Roy as the murderer,” he said.
Roy had come to the attention of Toronto police in the days following Alison’s killing, but he had an alibi.
He was a convicted sex offender with a history of luring young women away from public spaces with plausible stories.
After his arrest, he maintained he had encountered the young girl’s body in the park while out for a run when he had stopped to urinate. He said he had masturbated earlier in the day and when he saw the corpse, he violated it with his finger. Roy was aware DNA placed him at the crime scene.
“We get a call at 7:30 in the morning,” Lesley remembered, thinking back to a day that brought a sense of relief.
“The police wanted to come around right away… and they tell us that there is an arrest happening at that time. I think it was Steve (Irwin) that came and got us, took us to the news conference,” she said.
The relief was short-lived. The family would then prepare for the trial.
“The wheels of justice grind slowly,” Lesley said.
It would be another three years after Roy’s arrest before the trial began.
“In many ways, it tore me apart … it was excruciating, but we certainly felt we had to be there to bear witness and to support other people, to support the people who were testifying in the trial,” she said.
Lesley did not deliver a victim impact statement.
“To have lost your daughter to rape and murder when she’s 11 years old, I don’t think there’s any words that I could have said that would have helped people understand more,” she explained.
Despite DNA evidence, the jury in the case deliberated for days.
It was decided by the trial judge that Roy’s prior rape convictions would not be revealed to jurors.
The fact that he had been on parole at the time of Alison’s murder was also not revealed to the jury.
“The jury was out for six days deliberating. I’m sure that piece of evidence would have made a difference. Much as we did get a conviction, it was so touch-and-go,” Lesley recalled.
She insisted at the time that juries deserved to know the full picture.
“I think it’s not truthful. I think we should allow juries to do their job as representatives of common sense,” she said.
Roy was found guilty of first-degree murder.
For Lesley, who had lost her daughter, the verdict was not cause for celebration.
“I was tremendously pleased that justice had been done. I was not elated like everyone else because I still am left with the hugest hole in my heart, so there was no joy, just relief it was over,” she explained.
Since losing Alison, Lesley had battled depression. With the trial now complete, physical and emotional exhaustion set in.
For 13 years, she had fought for justice for her daughter.
During that time, Lesley had even launched a “street-proofing” campaign to teach children across Canada how to deal with strangers and situations outside the home.
The public service announcement, called Stay Alert, Stay Safe, lasted for years.
“My colleagues in the advertising industry, particularly those working closest to me, wanted to do something. They wanted to use the skills to help prevent future crimes like this,” she said, adding: “We were able to educate kids right across the country.”
For decades, Lesley has lived with grief and used her own experience to help others.
She continues to offer support through her longtime role at the Bereaved Families of Ontario.
“She could work out the right thing to say to have someone’s life get better,” said McNamara, Lesley’s friend.
Soon, 25 years will have passed since Roy was sentenced to life in prison. He will be eligible for parole. It is a fact that weighs on Lesley.
“Much as I don’t believe in capital punishment and much as I believe that I can’t hold on to a sense of revenge … that does not mean I believe this person should ever be out in free society,” she said, adding: “I think the risk is too high.”
Lesley acknowledged that the family is aware there could be numerous parole applications to come and referred to it as “a bit of a dread that is going to become part of our lives in fairly short order.”
In speaking about the murderer, she reflected on forgiveness.
“Being brought up in a Christian home, my father was a minister, so one of my core values is that we have to be able to forgive people in order to move on, in order to help people heal, and so to me, it’s just part of how one has to try to live their life,” she explained.
She noted that this is a very personal process, but for her, “having been able to forgive, certainly on one level, has meant that the criminal has no hold over my life in the same way.”
“I think about Alison. I think about missing Alison and I think about what she suffered, I don’t think about him,” she added.
It’s been more than 30 years since Alison’s death.
The Parrotts now live full time at the farm two hours northwest of Toronto where Alison and her little brother spent many joyous holidays growing up.
There are pictures of the siblings throughout the home and a tiny rocking chair in the centre of it all.
It was a gift for Alison on her first birthday.
Outside, there are trees marking her life and death: a weeping cherry tree planted on what would have been Alison’s 21st birthday and a copper birch tree planted on the first anniversary of her death.
At the farm, Alison is frozen in time – forever 11 years old, a lover of life, a friend, a big sister, a runner, a girl who just loved to laugh. She was the leader of the pack.