Murder in Muskoka: How a mysterious crate in a cottage crawl space cracked Samantha Collins’s murder

Murder in Muskoka: How a mysterious crate in a cottage crawl space cracked Samantha Collins’s murder

For three years, Ian Borbely told everyone that his girlfriend, Samantha Collins, had abandoned him and their young son. Then a cottager found a mysterious crate hidden beneath his floorboards

(Image: Eamon MacMahon)

Samantha Collins

Samantha Collins met Ian Borbely at a mutual friend’s party in 2003. They came from different worlds. She was 25 and striking, with long black hair and fair skin. She’d been raised by a single mom in Mississauga and never knew her father. She got pregnant in high school, dropped out and gave up custody of her baby. After that, she started selling drugs and working as a stripper at a club near Pearson to earn a living. ­Borbely was three years ­older, a body­builder from Bracebridge, the son of ­doting ­middle-class parents. His friends describe him as a gentle ­teddy bear—the nicest guy in the room. He’d moved to ­Toronto to work as a personal trainer, taking a fence-building gig on the side. He was attracted to Collins, and after that first hookup he invited her to move into his place.

The early months were a blur of booze and coke and all-night parties. They spent so much money on drugs, they usually didn’t have enough to make rent. Borbely was eventually charged with possession of stolen property from a construction firm next door to the fencing company. Terrified of how hard the judge would come down, and late on rent, he skipped his court appearance and left town in the middle of the night. He and Collins packed everything they could fit into his car and headed to his parents’ house. The police issued a warrant for his arrest, but nothing came of it.

Ian Borbely

Bracebridge is in the heart of Muskoka. In the summer, the area is a pleasure playground, the Malibu of the north, ­attracting the likes of Goldie Hawn, Martin Short, Justin Bieber and Tom Hanks, along with hockey stars, media moguls and ­captains of industry. Cottages start at roughly a million and skyrocket from there. The rest of the year, Muskoka’s small towns and its permanent residents are notably less flush—the median annual income in Bracebridge is $30,000. Many of the town’s 15,000 residents know each other by name. Identify yourself as a Hammond or Miller or Boyer and you’ll be asked if you’re Brad’s cousin or one of Norm’s kids or any relation to ­Patrick, whose family helped settle this place when its trees were still ­being felled, the logs floated downriver to be used in ship­building. Everyone knew that Ian Borbely was back in town and that he’d brought his new Toronto girlfriend with him.

George and Cindy Borbely were happy to have their son home, but they didn’t like Collins. George, an OPP administrator, was too polite to speak up, but Cindy, who worked for the Ministry of Government Services, immediately saw Collins as a bad influence and told her son as much. Ian ignored her. Shortly after they moved in with his parents, Samantha got pregnant. Their son was born in May 2004.

They eventually found a small apartment in Bracebridge and moved out. He took construction jobs, but they struggled to pay rent and look after their son. They also fought ­often—loudly and violently. When their son was four months old, ­Collins was arrested for punching Borbely, who had threatened to report her to Children’s Aid. Another time, she threw a plate of spaghetti at his head. Their landlord was so disturbed by the fighting that he paid them $900 to vacate their apartment.

They moved to another apartment on the outskirts of ­Bracebridge. Soon they were evicted for not paying rent and moved into an apartment in a bungalow near the Muskoka River. ­Borbely started working for a contractor named Jeremy Crease, mostly doing cottage renovations. Collins found work as a waitress at a family restaurant called the Purple Pig and sought counselling for her addiction. But she was fed up with Boberly and started having affairs with other men—some of whom Borbely suspected and confronted. Collins would take off for days at a time, come home and crash, then ­disappear again.

She formed a vague plan to break up with Borbely and take their son with her. On March 19, 2007, she told her doctor she was going to leave town. Two days later, she asked her addiction counsellor to write a letter that testified to her progress in the program, which she may have intended to use to apply for sole custody of her son.

Collins and Borbely were months behind on their rent—some $3,000 in arrears. If this landlord evicted them, they’d have to move back in with his parents. On March 22, they were scheduled to appear at 9:30 a.m. at a rent tribunal. Borbely got up early to take their son to daycare, while Collins stayed home and got dressed. She made a series of phone calls, including one to their son’s daycare centre, telling the staff not to let George or Cindy pick him up later that day. She’d decided she was ready to leave Bracebridge.

But Borbely returned home before Collins could leave. He found her on the phone with Jeremy Crease. Borbely had told her that Crease would give him a loan to help them with rent and maybe even save them from eviction. Borbely grabbed the phone and told Crease he’d just made something up to get ­Collins off his back.

After he hung up, they got into another raging fight. ­According to the theory later advanced by Crown prosecutors, Borbely attacked Collins, bashing her head four times with a blunt ­object until her skull shattered. Collins tried to protect her head with her right hand, but Borbely pounded her with such force that her fingers broke too. So wham—hand goes up—wham, wham, wham.

Collins went limp and slumped to the ground.

What does a man do after he kills his girlfriend? The police believe Ian Borbely skipped his rent tribunal and spent the next several hours cleaning up the blood. There would have been a lot—it would have taken much of the day to clean it up. When he finished, he picked his son up from daycare.

Early the next morning, after dropping his son off at daycare, Borbely met Crease in Bracebridge. Crease handed over his pay in cash, then Borbely went to Home Depot and bought four 20-litre plastic buckets and four matching lids. He drove 30 minutes to Gryffin Lodge Road, just south of Huntsville, with Collins’s body in the trunk of his car. He and Crease had been working on renovations for Robert Colley, the owner of an isolated cottage near Mary Lake. Borbely knew Colley was on the Mayan Riviera with his partner, Renée, and figured the place would be deserted. He took Collins out of the car and laid her face-down on the ground, then used a reciprocating saw to cut up her body. First, he sawed down through her spinal column, splitting her torso in half lengthwise then crosswise. Next he cut off parts of her body—her feet, her arms, her head—­until he had 12 pieces of Samantha Collins. He stacked the pieces in the buckets, put the buckets back in his car and drove home like it was just another Friday afternoon.

Borbely came up with a scheme to temporarily hide the buckets until he could find somewhere more permanent. During his final week at his apartment, before he was legally forced to move, he bought some cocaine and invited his friend Mark Hill over. Hill was older, in his mid-40s, with a lengthy criminal record. Borbely knew Hill had a storage unit in Gravenhurst, and while they snorted lines, he asked if he could use it, ostensibly for the purpose of storing his furniture while he and his son moved back in with his parents. That week, Borbely took possession of the 15-by-10-foot unit and moved the buckets in with some of his belongings.

SCENES OF A CRIME: After Ian Borbely killed Samantha Collins, he moved her body around cottage country
Bracebridge bungalow The Bracebridge bungalow where Borbely killed Collins (Image: Eamon MacMahon)
Cottage The empty cottage where Borbely dismembered the body (Image: Eamon MacMahon)
Storage facility The storage facility where Borbely stored the dismembered corpse (Image: Eamon MacMahon)
Borbely Wood Lake cottage The cottage Borbely helped renovate on Wood Lake
Crawl space The crawl space where he hid the crate containing the body

At this point, he’d told friends and family that Samantha had left him—just up and took off one day, leaving nothing but a note saying, “Fuck you, I’m outta here.” Sometimes he’d say she went out west, other times that she’d gone back to stripping. He told his parents that Collins had moved back to ­Toronto (Cindy made a note of it in her day planner). He told some people that Collins had cleaned out her bank account before leaving, that she’d gone to Oshawa, Hamilton, Windsor. To a worker at the daycare centre, he simply said that Collins had left and wouldn’t be coming back. Borbely seemed to believe that telling lies would create such a ­tangled web that no one could make sense of it. He didn’t see the ­downside: that only someone who knew what had happened to ­Samantha ­Collins, and didn’t want others to know, would invent so many stories about her absence.

Ian explained to Cindy Borbely how, the day he told his son that Samantha had left them both, his son sat down and put his hand on his father’s knee. “Don’t worry, Dad, we don’t need her,” was his response.

That fall, Borbely and Crease began renovating a cottage on Wood Lake, some 30 kilometres east of Bracebridge, that belonged to Peter Vadas, a Toronto immunologist who works at St. Michael’s Hospital. It was a big job that would take the next year and a half to complete. Over that period, Borbely ­siphoned away scraps of lumber and plywood—things no one would miss. Secretly, he built a six-square-foot wooden crate. His plan: to put the buckets in the crate and eventually bury or conceal it somewhere permanent.

The more time passed, the more erratic and sloppy Borbely became. He sold Collins’s clothes to settle a drug debt. He used her phone until Rogers cancelled her account. He used her debit card to buy a $443 barbecue, a $284 lawn mower and a $174 dinner at a local roadhouse. He used Collins’s card to buy a licence plate renewal sticker. The way he was going, it was only a matter of time before he got caught.

No one reported Samantha Collins as missing. She was estranged from most of her family and hadn’t spoken to her sister, Nicole, in months. But as years passed with no word from Samantha, Nicole started to worry. She began a Facebook hunt, adding people with her sister’s name and sending a message to Borbely in April 2009. He gave her his number but kept putting their conversation off. When they finally spoke, Borbely told her that Samantha had gone south, cleaning out her bank account, and wasn’t coming home.

Collins sketch OPP Constable Peter Juneau opened the crate, discovered Collins’s body, and sketched what he saw in his notebook

Then, over the Victoria Day weekend in 2010, Peter Vadas noticed a wooden crate in the crawl space beneath his ­cottage on Wood Lake. The box was concealed behind a single sheet of plywood. Vadas figured it hadn’t been there long: there was no dust on it, no cobwebs and no signs of water damage from spring runoff. The week before, ­Borbely had contacted Vadas asking if he wanted him to open the ­cottage for the season, and Vadas had hired ­Borbely for the job. If Vadas connected the crate with Boberly, it didn’t set off any alarms, and that June Vadas hired Borbely to insulate the crawl space. It wasn’t until the following month that Vadas remembered the crate and asked his groundskeeper, Norman Lints, if he knew anything about it. He didn’t. On July 5, 2010, almost three and a half years after Collins’s disappearance, Lints pried the crate open with a crowbar and got a whiff of the air inside. It smelled like rotting meat.

Lints called Vadas, and Vadas called 911. The responding ­officer, Peter Juneau, a 28-year veteran of the OPP, lifted one of the buckets out of the crate and opened the lid. What he found inside that bucket, later identified as Bucket A, was the partial torso and left arm of Samantha ­Collins. “I looked up at the sky,” he later testified. “There were a lot of stars. I think I said, ‘Oh shit’…. Then I asked God for help.” Juneau called his staff sergeant, the coroner and the forensic identification team.

The cops had Samantha Collins’s fingerprints on file, as well as a list of her tattoos, because of her earlier assault charge and were able to identify the remains. The investigation, split between the local OPP and the Criminal Investigation Branch, the provincial police division assigned to ­homicide, lasted 10 months. Boberly quickly became the main suspect, even though the cops could find no physical evidence that linked him to the crime—possibly because the landlord had scrubbed the apartment where Borbely killed ­Collins to get it ready for new tenants. In the three years between the murder and the discovery of Collins’s remains, most evidence had ­disappeared.

The coroner was unable to determine time or even year of death. Some of Collins’s internal organs had been ­removed—the ­intestines contain bacteria that ­decompose the body at a ­measurable rate. The coroner surmised that, because there were no insects found in the buckets, she’d been dismembered during cold weather. This left the coroner with no reliable temporal ­indicators other than the fact that her brain, and perhaps the rest of her body, had undergone at least one freeze and thaw cycle.

The police believed Collins’s murder must have happened around March 22, 2007—a date her cell phone activity dropped from an average of 23 calls a day to a total of 10 calls in one week (all made by Borbely, it would turn out). In the course of their investigation, the police tapped Borbely’s phone and those of his parents, and assigned a surveillance team to monitor his activities. By that point, Borbely was living in a townhouse in Orillia with a new girlfriend, a hairdresser who had kids of her own. One detective approached the girlfriend and, in a ploy to prompt Borbely to incriminate himself on the wiretaps, told her that Borbely was the main suspect in his former girlfriend’s murder. It worked: over the phone, Borbely discussed with his parents that they all ­needed to be careful what they said and told his mother that Collins was “a piece of shit flushed down the toilet.”

On May 2, at 8:22 a.m., the OPP pulled ­Borbely over on the highway and ­arrested him.

Eighteen months later, Borbely was tried for second-­degree murder and indignity to human ­remains in the Bracebridge courthouse before Justice Bruce Glass. The reaction from the town was muted ­horror. “It’s just so far outside what you’d expect goes on here,” Graydon Smith, the mayor of Bracebridge, told me on a recent afternoon. “People are aware that it can happen, but that doesn’t mean that when it does happen it’s any less of a shock.” Borbely’s friends couldn’t believe he’d killed Collins—they ­figured if anything was going to happen between ­Borbely and Collins, the perpetrator would have been Collins, and Borbely the victim. Collins was irascible, incendiary, a drug ­addict they believed had abandoned Borbely and their son the way her father had abandoned her. She taunted Borbely. She belittled him. She had sex behind his back and walloped him in the face.

The trial was a circus. There were mistakes the police had made that angered Glass: when Borbely was arrested, for ­example, they informed him of only one of his charges, second-degree murder, and not the additional charge of indignity to ­human remains, thereby violating his charter rights. There were significant holes in the Crown’s theory, like where ­Borbely stored the crate in the time between the storage unit and Vadas’s cottage. Borbely’s lawyer, Michael Anne MacDonald, was taken off the case by Glass when the defence team presented Jeremy Crease, who had access to the same construction sites, as an alternative suspect. MacDonald had represented Crease in 2004—which created a conflict of interest.

MacDonald was replaced as the lead on the defence team by a Toronto lawyer named Paul Cooper, who argued that all the evidence linking Borbely to the murder was circumstantial. Collins led a dangerous lifestyle and could have easily been killed by a stranger or by one of her lovers. Cooper also pointed out that it was highly unlikely Borbely would choose a client’s cottage as a place to store a body and suggested that he had been framed. Borbely never testified and declined his opportunity to speak before sentencing.

After deliberating for three days, the jury handed the judge a scrap of paper. It read, “We have reached a verdict on both indictments.” On the first charge: guilty. On the second charge: guilty. The sentence was life in prison. Borbely will be 53 by the time he’s eligible for parole. His son, whose whereabouts are a closely guarded secret, will be 24.

Borbely is serving his sentence at Millhaven, the maximum-security prison where Paul Bernardo is held. He continues to maintain his innocence and is appealing the conviction. He has hired the appeal lawyer David Humphrey to represent him. The grounds of the appeal have to do with the trial judge’s ­evidentiary rulings—the things Justice Glass let the jury hear and the things he didn’t.

One of the main points is a sealed manila envelope that was in Borbely’s vehicle at the time of his arrest. He had addressed it “Attn.—Michael Anne MacDonald—Lawyer.” The police confiscated the envelope. Justice Glass opened the envelope, read its contents and decided to admit it into evidence. Even though the Crown eventually decided not use the envelope’s contents in ­trial, Borbely’s appeal lawyers will argue Justice Glass’s ­decision violated solicitor-client privilege.

The envelope contained a small notepad. Its 23 pages document Borbely’s version of the events—when he met ­Collins, how they’d gotten together, why they ended up moving to ­Muskoka. In an even script, Borbely admits that he and ­Collins had been fighting on the day of her disappearance, and that ­Collins had punished him by forbidding George and Cindy from picking their son up at daycare. At the end, he suggests that Collins was murdered by drug dealers with connections to the mafia—drug dealers who, the reader must then conclude, decided to spare Borbely’s life out of sheer ­benevolence only to systematically plant evidence that could be linked to him.

On a recent Sunday morning, I rented a boat at Caribou Lodge, a former hunting camp turned family resort on Wood Lake, and took it out into the blue-grey waters. I steered north around a point of land and brought the shaky, puttering boat along the western shore, thick with pine and hemlock, until I found Vadas’s cottage.

The cottage had changed since Ian Borbely had been there last. It was bigger, more modern. There were screened-in porches on either side of the gleaming glass front. As I brought the bow of the boat up to the dock, I expected someone—Vadas or Lints—to come out, hands on hips, and demand to know what I was doing. It was the middle of June. Like every other spring in Muskoka, this one had seen its usual influx of tourists, who’d started arriving on the Victoria Day weekend. The streets of Bracebridge and Huntsville and Gravenhurst were all crowded, and the lakes were only slightly less so. The cottages flanking Vadas’s were inhabited, even the one immediately to the right, where a family on the dock smiled and waved at me. But straight ahead, at the cottage where a body was found, there was no one.

It was an overcast day. I waited until the sun came out, ­shining briefly on the cottage, before returning south to ­Caribou Lodge. It wasn’t far, maybe 10 minutes to the dock, but on the way I passed cottage after cottage, all built into the side of a steep embankment. Making anything level on an ­incline like that meant there would be regions beneath those ­cottages, crawl spaces that were dark and damp—the perfect spot to ­conceal a horrible secret.