The family of an eight-year-old girl who was kidnapped and sexually assaulted in west Edmonton this winter is “devastated by the court’s decision” after the man charged in the case was released on bail.
“This wound has barely begun to heal,” a family statement issued on Thursday reads in part. “To… reassure her that she is safe when we as parents fear for her safety, has opened that wound wide open again.
“The community… has been extremely supportive, and they share in our outrage, disbelief and fear.”
Global News is not revealing the family’s name in order to protect the victim’s identity.
While the Edmonton Police Service regularly issues warnings about sex offenders who are released back into the community, on Wednesday night it took the unusual step of issuing a warning about someone whose case has yet to go to trial and also highlighting the specific neighbourhood he will be living in — McQueen — which is the same neighbourhood where the kidnapping took place.
“In the interest of public safety, the Edmonton Police Service is issuing a warning regarding 37-year-old Wade Stene, who is charged with kidnapping and sexual assault of a child,” police said in a news release Wednesday night.
“The EPS believes Stene poses a significant risk of harm to the community, particularly against individuals under the age of 16. As such, the EPS believes there is a duty to warn the public.”
Police say that on March 10, a young girl was walking home in the area of 144 Street and 110 Avenue when she was approached by someone in a vehicle whom she did not know. They said the girl was pulled into the vehicle and sexually assaulted before being dropped off nearby. Stene has since been charged.
Stene’s release comes with conditions, including that he must wear a tracking bracelet on his ankle, stay at home 24 hours a day, have any travel for medical or legal appointments approved by his bail supervisor and that he not have any contact with anyone under the age of 18.
He is also not allowed to buy, possess or consume any alcohol or non-prescribed controlled substances.
On Thursday, Chief Dale McFee said police are “not calling into question the bail process” by issuing the warning, and defended the decision to do so.
“We look at this from the perspective that we have an obligation to public safety in relation to should people be notified,” he said. “So the decision was made by the justice of the peace, and we’re not questioning that.
“What we’re saying is, we opposed it, as did the Crown — the release. It was a sexual assault on a stranger and the individual was put back into the area.”
Mark Jordan is the defence lawyer representing Stene and questions whether police really needed to or even had the right to issue the public warning.
“They discuss that they believe there’s a significant risk posed to the community by releasing Mr. Stene, but he had a fair bail review that occurred in the Court of Queen’s Bench, and a Court of Queen’s Bench Justice determined that there was not a substantial risk to releasing Mr. Stene,” he told Global News. “So their post really seemed to have undermined the role of the courts.
He added that since Stene has no criminal record and no history of breaching court orders, he believes police had no need to issue the warning and that he is considering filing a Police Act complaint.
“Mr. Stene is not an offender. He’s an accused person. He’s presumed innocent,” Jordan said.
Tom Engel, the chair of the policing committee of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association, said he was shocked police would issue the news release after a judge decided Stene should be released on bail.
Engel said the police warning may have “contaminated the jury pool” for Stene’s case and makes him vulnerable to vigilantes.
“When I looked at the Facebook posting and I saw the comments, predictably, and police would have to know… that they would be promoting vigilante action just by that media release,” he said. “Sure enough there are death threats, requests for people to murder this individual and so on, it’s just disgraceful.
“I have to wonder, is the Edmonton Police Service monitoring the comments on their Facebook account? Because they’re legally obliged to do so and to take things off which are offensive like that. And if they are monitoring, they saw it, they must think it’s fine to have that sort of thing on their Facebook account.”
Late Thursday afternoon, the EPS tweeted that “due to the extreme comments made on our original tweet, we have had to remove a duty to warn regarding Wade Steen (SIC).” Police have kept the news release with the warning about Stene on their website, however.
Engel said people posting threats against Stene on social media are committing criminal offences and need to be investigated.
“He’s presumed to be innocent… This has the effect of undermining the administration of justice.”
One member of the McQueen community has started an online petition asking for Stene to be relocated elsewhere. Another area resident told Global News that a protest will take place outside Stene’s home this weekend to demand he leave the area.
Nathan DeVries, who has lived in the neighbourhood for five years, started the petition.
“It really kind of shook our trust and confidence in letting our kids just be out in the world and the police did a fantastic job with the initial investigation.”
DeVries said even though Stene is on house arrest, he has concerns.
“It feels like we’re on house arrest somewhat now too, because it’s completely undermined my sense of confidence in letting my kids play in the backyard or playing on the street on their bikes,” he said.
“I had to explain to my kids again this morning that we need to be aware, we need to be vigilant, that if they’re outside, they need to be with mom or dad.”
DeVries said he wonders if the judge did not think about the psychological effect Stene’s release into the same community where the crimes occurred may have on people living in McQueen.
Melanie DePalma lives in McQueen.
“Honestly, I feel in shock,” the mother of two said. “When this person got arrested and put in jail, we thought he would never be back here.
“It’s a failure of our justice system and our community wants to know how this could have possibly happened.”
Details about the judge’s reason to grant bail to Stene have not been released.
“This is before the courts, that’s why our decision was made,” McFee said. “But it’s not to contravene in the process.
“It would be the same thing if someone got out through the judicial system on parole, we may basically do a notification. That was the reasoning in the decision that we made.”
DePalma said “it was a nightmare when this first happened” in reference to the young girl being kidnapped and assaulted.
“It feels like that same trauma that everybody felt in the first place, it feels like it’s back again… How are we supposed to feel safe?
“It feels like our security and protection has been completely taken away.”
On June 22, the ministry of Alberta Justice and Solicitor General provided the following statement on the matter:
“In this matter, at both the bail hearing and bail review, the Crown advanced all evidence available and did everything they could to ensure the accused was not released back into the community. The decision to release the accused, and under what conditions, was made solely and independently by a Court of Queen’s Bench justice. While Albertans do not always agree with independently made judicial decisions, we have to abide by them. This case remains before the courts, and the Crown is continuing to review all options.”