The Last Days of Stefanie Rengel
It started as a joke. Melissa Todorovic and David Bagshaw fantasized about how they wanted to hurt and humiliate David’s ex-girlfriend. They talked about it for months and months, until the fantasy became a plan, and Melissa gave David an ultimatum: no more sex until Stefanie was dead. How two high school students became killers
The day before she died, Stefanie Rengel sang Avril Lavigne’s “Slipped Away” on a karaoke machine her parents rented for New Year’s Eve. The 14-year-old was a born performer; she had recently started in the drama program at Rosedale Heights School of the Arts. She had clear, smooth skin, a high brow and expressive brown eyes. And she loved to play with her appearance: one day she would turn up at school in a tutu and sneakers, the next day in a pair of heart-patterned boxers over tights—all clothes she picked up at second-hand shops in Kensington Market. She dyed her hair red, blonde, brown, blue, black, wore eyeliner and brightly coloured beaded bracelets.
Just before midnight, Stefanie counted down to the new year with her family, and everyone embraced. “We made a point of being together,” remembers her mother, Patricia Hung. “Because soon enough the older kids would be off with their friends on New Year’s Eve.”
The next day was cold and snowy. Early in the afternoon, Stefanie went to a friend’s house nearby but returned home before dinner. She was standing in the kitchen, munching Doritos, watching her brother Ian eat a grilled cheese sandwich, when her cellphone rang at 6:08 p.m. Stefanie thought the voice at the other end of the line belonged to her ex-boyfriend Steve Lopez, with whom she had broken up two months earlier. The caller had blocked his identity. “Is that you?” she asked. He sounded upset, shouting “Meet me. Meet me.” She dashed out the door, pulling on her boots but no coat, and telling Ian she’d be right back.
The caller wasn’t Lopez. It was David Bagshaw, a five-foot-11, 240-pound football player four days shy of his 18th birthday. He was hiding in the bushes on the median that divides the street.
Stefanie never stood a chance. David was carrying an eight-inch kitchen knife and stabbed her repeatedly, tearing through the black sweater her mother had given her for Christmas. One stab punctured her left breast, entered her chest cavity and hit the inside of her back. Another perforated her right lung and sliced open her liver. A third penetrated her ribs and stomach, causing her stomach contents to drain into her peritoneal cavity. A fourth slashed her left upper arm. David stabbed her six times in total, then ran away. Stefanie spilled blood as she staggered across the street, back toward her home, and collapsed on the sidewalk in a snowbank.
She was still alive when Gavin Shoebottom, a 34-year-old accountant, drove past moments later. He jumped out of his car and held Stefanie as she moaned in pain. “Hold your stomach,” he told her as he dialled 911. The 911 dispatcher instructed Shoebottom to apply pressure to the wound, and he used a bedsheet from his car. “It hurts,” Stefanie said. Shoebottom asked if she knew who stabbed her. Even though she was in incredible pain, and her organs were beginning to shut down, she mumbled the name of her attacker: “Bags…. Went that way,” she said, and pointed up the street.
Shoebottom became frantic while he waited for the ambulance. He tried to comfort her, but she began to lose consciousness. “Come on, sweetie, you’re OK,” he said. The paramedics finally arrived and whisked Stefanie to Toronto East General, where she was pronounced dead—the city’s first homicide victim of 2008.
Stefanie’s was a close-knit family. She lived in a two-storey house in Parkview Hills, a tranquil neighbourhood in East York, with her mother, Patricia; her stepfather, James Hung; and her three brothers, 12-year-old Ian, four-year-old Eric and two-year-old Patrick. Patricia had grown up in Parkview Hills and returned to live there with James, a laconic, amiable man whom she began dating in 2000. Her first husband, Adolfo Rengel, is a Venezuelan immigrant and court officer for the Toronto Police Service. Patricia and James are both cops. Patricia specializes in gang exiting and cyber-bullying, and James is a sergeant with the emergency task force.
Patricia’s two older sisters live in Parkview Hills, too. Stefanie and Ian biked and skateboarded from house to house with their five cousins. Their home was a hangout for their friends, the first-floor den often crammed with girls stretched out on the floor for sleepovers.
Patricia had divorced Adolfo when their daughter was six. Since then, Stefanie and Ian had lived primarily with their mother, who was strict but fair: Stefanie could see boyfriends only in her own home; a nose ring was OK, but not at church, where Stefanie helped teach Sunday school; and she was permitted to be on Facebook, as long as her mother knew the password. Patricia did random spot checks and installed a keystroke monitoring program on the family’s computer.
When Stefanie visited her father and stepmother, Maureen, at their home in Whitby, the rules were even more strict. Adolfo also monitored her computer use and didn’t allow a webcam. The kids had to be home before dark, and Adolfo regularly reminded Stefanie, whom he affectionately nicknamed Reina (queen), to be careful about whom she trusted and where she went.
For all her brashness, Stefanie had a soft, trusting core. She had begun attending a youth group at a Baptist church and loved Christian rock bands and Latin music. She wrote poems and took hundreds of photographs with her digital camera. She picked up elastic bands from the street to protect birds from choking on them.
The first news stories about Stefanie’s death commented on how tragic it was that the daughter of police officers could be murdered in front of her house. But as the story grew more lurid, the coverage intensified. It turned out that Stefanie was the victim of two killers: David Bagshaw and Melissa Todorovic, the 15-year-old girl who convinced him to commit the murder. They’d planned it in thousands of text messages and e-mails. What started as a joke—a fantasy conceived amid their toxic exchanges—became real. The murder gripped the imagination not because it was proof, like other murders, of a rise in gang violence or some other social trend, but because it was so repulsively concocted by a pair of disturbed, self-obsessed teens who seemed utterly oblivious to the gravity of their intentions.
Stefanie had dated David Bagshaw for a couple of weeks two years before she died, when he was 15 and she was just 12. They would meet in the park near her house, or have lunch together at a pizza joint. She was flattered by the attention of a broad-shouldered high school football player. But after David left a message at her home number expressing his desire for a more intense relationship that included oral sex, Patricia told Stefanie to stay away from him. Stefanie was angry her mother didn’t trust her to resist the older teen’s advances. Eventually, though, she agreed to move on.
Bagshaw and Melissa Todorovic went to East York Collegiate and started seeing each other in March 2007. Melissa lived in Scarborough with her parents, Zoran and Rachel Todorovic, and her younger brother, Nicholas. Her father, a mechanic and Serbian immigrant, often took her to hockey games and on fishing trips, and Melissa was close to her mother, who works as a nurse at a cookie factory. The family took vacations in Mexico and in the Caribbean and made regular summer trips to their cottage.
A straight-A student, Melissa worked hard for her marks. Her Grade 8 report cards describe her as “considerate, helpful and independent” in class, with “excellent study habits.”
If Stefanie had the confidence to pull off a whimsical look, Melissa was a conformist. She wore glasses and braces and was filled with anxiety about her appearance—in particular, her weight. She disliked her breasts (too small), her hands (too chubby) and her toes (too long) and wanted plastic surgery to fix her nose (too bumpy). Every morning, she would spend a half-hour in the bathroom, carefully straightening her wavy hair. On rainy days, she’d take a straightening iron to school. She suffered from occasional bouts of bulimia and was convinced she needed a boyfriend to validate herself.
David was Melissa’s fourth boyfriend. With each relationship she became more dysfunctional, once cutting herself over a breakup. She monitored the e-mail of the boyfriend she had before David and, when they parted, threatened to hurt his new girlfriend. Melissa called her a slut and a skank and denigrated her former boyfriend’s sexual behaviour, smell, clothing and physical appearance, including his pubic hair. She threatened to send David to give them both a beating.
David was not an ideal boyfriend. He was unfaithful to Melissa, and on occasion hit her. His parents, Ronald and Cindy Bagshaw, were separated. He was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of three, and he had behavioural problems and aggressive outbursts in school. By junior high, he was frequently absent from class and suspended numerous times for swearing and fighting. At 14, he was charged with assaulting his mother, though the charge was withdrawn when he agreed to attend anger management classes. After this incident, he moved back and forth between his parents’ homes, and at 15, he lived in a group home for three months.
Almost from the start, his relationship with Melissa was stormy, marked by jealousy and possessiveness. David’s father found Melissa controlling and didn’t allow her in his home. He didn’t like that she left contemptuous notes for David’s mother, saying she wasn’t a good parent. He was also disturbed that Melissa had installed a spyware program on David’s computer so she could monitor his use. Although Melissa had never met Stefanie, she knew that Stefanie had once gone out with David. After David remarked he thought Stefanie was pretty, Melissa began to obsessively examine her pictures on Facebook. Stefanie told Melissa’s cousin that David was bad news, and that he’d been flirting with her and other girls behind Melissa’s back. When this information got back to Melissa, she was furious.
Melissa’s parents urged her to call off the relationship, but she didn’t listen. “Who’s going to look at somebody with braces and glasses when there’s so many pretty girls in high school?” she asked her mother.
Melissa came up with a solution to David’s infidelity: kill Stefanie. The idea, once formed, became the central dynamic that drove their relationship. On May 22, 2007, she accused him of talking with Stefanie. “I’m going to fucking stab her if I want to. Then I’ll just kill her,” she told David in an on-line chat session. The next day, he offered to bring her a knife, and she said she already had one: “I even brought it to school today LOL.” Melissa mused about persuading her brother to rape Stefanie. She and David discussed kidnapping Stefanie and taking her to a place where Melissa could kill her. David suggested waiting until the end of the school term, when he could have a getaway car. “Fine, no sex until then,” she snapped back.
Over the summer, their flippant conversation about how to kill Stefanie continued. Melissa told David of a dream she’d had in which she was so jealous of Stefanie that she “took a knife and cut off her boobs,” then made a slit down her whole body and threw her off a balcony. As the deliberations became more and more elaborate, an actual plan began to take shape. Melissa told David that he was the one who must kill Stefanie. “I don’t want to kill her, LOL,” she wrote to him. “Like I don’t care if someone kills her, but I don’t want to. LOL.”
In the fall of 2007, Stefanie began Grade 9 at Rosedale Heights, taking the bus every morning to Woodbine station and the subway to Castle Frank. At lunch, she would walk to a nearby supermarket and buy a ham sandwich, or snack from the samples of olives and Oreo cookies. She made new friends at the school, happily oblivious to the fact that another teenager saw her as a bitter rival for a boy she had forgotten.
On the night of October 20, after much haranguing from Melissa, David walked to Stefanie’s home and phoned her from the driveway, ostensibly to lure her out of the house. But when she came outside he couldn’t go through with it. “Melissa wants me to stab you,” he told her to her face. Then he threw down his cellphone and walked away, saying, “When she calls, tell her I tried so she’ll stop pestering me to kill you.”
The incident frightened the normally unflappable Stefanie, and she immediately went to her mother. Patricia called Melissa and warned her to stay away from her daughter. But Melissa wasn’t easily intimidated. “Stefanie has to stop spreading rumours about me,” she spat back.
Patricia, surprised at Melissa’s attitude, attempted to explain that Stefanie only wanted to make sure she knew her boyfriend was being unfaithful. “I explained that Stefanie had had a boyfriend until recently,” Patricia says, “and he cheated on her and she was trying to help Melissa. But she was insolent and indignant.” Patricia threatened to get a restraining order against her and ended the call.
The Hungs returned David’s cellphone to his mother and asked her to keep her son away from Stefanie. David’s mother agreed this was a good idea. Patricia, though initially concerned, wrote the incident off as teenage melodrama and decided not to involve police.
But the murder plot didn’t end there. The following day, Melissa and David were back at it on MSN Messenger. “What about Stef?” he wrote.
“Bang, bang,” responded Melissa.
“I need a bang bang first. I wanna bang you,” he replied.
“I want her dead, David. LOL,” she wrote back. “We’ve been through this. Even if it takes you a week.”
On December 15, Melissa was again nagging David about his failure to keep his promise and told him to get a gun. “I need a mask and gloves,” he said, so that Stefanie’s parents wouldn’t recognize him. “Cut fucking leotards,” was Melissa’s curt reply.
Two days later, she taunted David, threatening to dump him and go out with someone else: “Ur getting blocked until u kill her.”
On New Year’s Eve, at about 6:30 p.m., while Stefanie and her extended family were gathered inside, drinking sparkling cider and singing karaoke songs, David approached their house. He lurked in the yard next door, talking into his cellphone, and was seen by a neighbour. He and Melissa called and texted one another 65 times that night. He dialed Stefanie’s cellphone several times, but she never emerged, and it’s unclear if they spoke.
On January 1, Melissa shut David out. He texted her three times: “where r u,” “ur cheating,” “why won’t you answer me.” At 3 p.m., Melissa called him back, and they spoke for 15 minutes. She reminded him of her plans to “go on top” with another boy. After dozens more calls and texts, at 5:51 p.m., David called Melissa and said he was on his way to Stefanie’s house with a knife. They spoke a few more times, Melissa calling David at 6 p.m. and 6:04, before he made the fateful call to Stefanie at 6:08. This time it worked: she came running out of her house. At that moment, Melissa called David. “I see her,” he said, and ended the call.
Melissa waited 15 minutes, then called Stefanie’s phone and was satisfied when she didn’t get an answer.
After he stabbed Stefanie, David fled to a friend’s house nearby, threw away the knife and buried his blood-stained jacket in the snow in the backyard. He then phoned Melissa to tell her he’d done it. She told David to take a taxi to her house so he could collect his reward. On his way, he sent a text to Melissa: “I love u hunny. I can’t wait to see u.” When he arrived, Melissa had him re-enact the killing. Then, after they had sex, she called her mother to pick her up a latte.
Later that night, one of Melissa’s friends sent her a message on Facebook to tell her that she’d heard that Stefanie had been killed. She asked if Melissa was worried she’d be a suspect. “Who knows I wanted her dead?” Melissa replied. “Cuz I only told u and David so unless u told someone, only you should. But I never did anything and neither did David. We fucked tonight, LOL.”
On the day of Stefanie’s murder, Patricia and James were visiting James’s mother. Patricia’s cellphone rang on her way home. “Mummy,” said Ian, his voice trembling, “there’s been a stabbing in our neighbourhood. In our neighbourhood.”
Patricia called her daughter from the car, but Stefanie’s phone went to voice mail. Patricia became exasperated. She had reminded Stefanie more than once that if she wanted to have a cellphone she had to answer it.
The Hungs arrived home to find yellow police tape strung up, the street blocked, and an officer at the end of their driveway. “We need to know what’s going on because I can’t find my daughter,” Patricia told him. “Is the guy under arrest?”
No, the officer replied. He asked for a description of Stefanie.
“She is 14 years old with dark hair,” said Patricia.
“The victim was older, in her 20s,” he said.
Patricia got a sick feeling in her stomach. Stefanie could easily be mistaken for 20.
The officer explained that the victim was taken to Toronto East General. He didn’t say she was dead. But when he offered to drive Patricia and her husband to the hospital, they knew, in the way that cops do, to prepare for the worst. At the hospital, they identified Stefanie’s body and were taken to a private room to stay with her.
By 7:15 p.m., detective sergeant Steve Ryan was en route to the murder scene with his partner, detective Doug Sansom. Later that night, following interviews with Stefanie’s parents, her brother Ian and several of David’s friends, they quickly grasped the bizarre history of Stefanie, David and Melissa. At 2 a.m., Ryan knocked on Melissa’s door to take her to 54 Division for questioning about David. Her mother accompanied her.
While Melissa was being interviewed, a plainclothes officer arrived at David’s mother’s house in East York and arrested him. Search warrants were executed at Melissa’s and David’s houses, their computers, as well as Stefanie’s, seized and turned over to forensics for investigation.
Melissa’s cool manner and indifferent responses flummoxed the homicide detectives. When Melissa admitted to Ryan that she had asked David to kill Stefanie, the police stopped the interview and arrested her.
The police re-interviewed Melissa later that morning on a charge of first-degree murder. With her mother at her side, Melissa declined her right to speak to a lawyer. She admitted that killing Stefanie was more her idea than David’s. She said she was angry at Stefanie, even obsessed with her, because she believed she had spread rumours that she was giving oral sex to boys. This was the only time during the interview that Melissa broke down and cried. “I said, ‘I want her dead,’ and I told him I might break up with him because things weren’t so good anyways,” she told police.
She expressed no remorse for the crime. “It was chilling,” Ryan said, adding that he had never seen a 15-year-old exhibit less emotion. “Her mother was just as surprised as we were. I could see it in her face. She was shocked.”
During her three-week trial in the University Avenue courthouse last spring, Melissa Todorovic sat ramrod straight in the accused’s box, a black elastic holding back her straight hair, an entirely blank look on her face, a grey cardigan mirroring her flat demeanour.
Marshall Sack, a seasoned lawyer with a signature silver ponytail and an ornate manner of speech, argued that his client didn’t mean it when she repeatedly told David to kill Stefanie, and that she wasn’t as responsible as David because she wasn’t present at the crime scene. Crown prosecutor Robin Flumerfelt’s case relied on an account of Melissa and David’s relationship, outlined in the two police interviews with Melissa and in the voluminous stream of e-mails, MSN chats and cellphone records—30,000 pages of instant messaging transcripts were entered into evidence. As Flumerfelt described the crime, it became clear that, although the circumstances of Stefanie’s murder were extraordinary and the murderers deeply troubled, there was something about the medium where they hatched their plan that let them remain emotionally disconnected from the reality of it.
The nine men and three women on the jury deliberated for 20 hours over three days before finding Melissa guilty of first-degree murder. Before her sentencing, Melissa was interviewed by two psychiatrists. Phil Klassen, a forensic psychiatrist and deputy clinical director at the Centre for Addition and Mental Health, diagnosed Melissa as exhibiting some symptoms of borderline personality disorder. He compared her to Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction.
On the final day of her sentencing hearing, Melissa read a prepared statement to the court. She looked straight ahead, avoiding the eyes of Patricia, Adolfo, Ian and Stefanie’s other family members, who attended the entire trial. “Every day I wish that I could go back in time and change everything I said and have Stefanie be alive with her family again,” she said. “I want you to know
I take full responsibility for my part.”
Justice Ian Nordheimer wasn’t swayed. He said it wasn’t an “unequivocal acceptance of responsibility for the crucial role that she played in the death of Stefanie Rengel,” and he ruled in favour of Flumerfelt’s application to have Melissa sentenced as an adult, concluding that her problems have not yet been properly diagnosed, much less treated, and that she is a potential threat to society and will need lifelong monitoring. A youth sentence would have meant a maximum of six years in custody, four in the community and then no supervision, and no criminal record. Her adult sentence was life in prison, with no chance of parole for seven years, and her criminal record will follow her for the rest of her life. “The puppet master is not less blameworthy than the puppet,” Nordheimer ruled. “Indeed, I would suggest that the master is more culpable since he or she puts the wheels in motion and then stands back under a façade of disassociation while the scheme that they have created unfolds.”
After Melissa’s conviction, David pleaded guilty. Unlike Melissa, he cried frequently throughout his court proceedings, often hunched in his seat, with his head cradled in both hands. Looking directly at Stefanie’s family, he apologized in court, saying he could not forgive himself for the “disgusting” crime of killing “an innocent girl who deserved to live.” His lawyer, Heather McArthur, said he is “more concerned about the pain and the suffering he caused than he is about what’s going to happen to him.”
Nordheimer accepted his remorse and empathy as sincere, and his role as the “more reluctant of the two partners in this evil endeavour.” However, on September 28, he sentenced David Bagshaw as an adult, giving him life in prison with no chance of parole for 10 years. “Melissa may have given the orders, but it was David who carried them out,” Nordheimer said. He could have left the relationship or alerted authorities to the murder plot. Two psychiatrists who testified at his hearing could not say that he would not reoffend.
Grief is a long road for the Rengels and Hungs. Patricia often feels like she is still living in the past. She hasn’t yet returned to work and is considering taking up a new role, counselling other victims of crime. “The hardest time to lose a kid is at age 14,” she says, fingering an elegant silver locket around her neck. It contains some of Stefanie’s ashes. “You’re holding the reins back and they’re always pushing, and you have to say ‘no’ a lot. You go from being the adored parent to them wanting to hang out more with their friends.”
She is virtually paralyzed by anxiety, unable to sleep, go out alone at night, or even watch television, her mind filled with images of harm being done to her children. “I want inner peace, which is believed to come from forgiveness, but I am unable to forgive someone who has shown no remorse,” she said in court, referring to Melissa. Of David Bagshaw, she recalls the warmth and friendship Stefanie showed him when they were going out. “She immediately forgave his temper and violent outbursts and wished us to do the same,” she says, which made his violation of her trust all the more painful.
Adolfo Rengel has framed a Christmas card Stefanie made him the week before her death. “I never thought I would lose a child like this,” he says. “She was smart. She named the killer. She was smart till the day she died.”
Upstairs in the Hungs’ home, Stefanie’s bedroom remains untouched. Crammed with body sprays from the dollar store, birthday cards, photos of her with friends, teddy bears, and ribbons from childhood sporting events, it is just as she left it the final afternoon of her life. Taped to the wall is a piece of bristol board covered in silly teenage salutations from her friends.
The door to Stefanie’s room is always closed, with a sign taped to it asking the nanny not to clean it. Every now and again, Patricia sneaks in, hoping to take solace in some small reminder of her daughter: the long, dark hairs in Stefanie’s hairbrush, the marks on the door where she had charted her growth, the smell of cheap perfume.
“It’s the last thing I can hold on to,” she says. “I don’t go in very often because I want to savour it.”