In the fall of 2000, fresh out of high school, Melissa Merritt started working at My Favourite Doll, a massive retailer in Mississauga festooned floor-to-ceiling with Barbies encased in plastic capsules. Melissa was pleasant and smiley, even a little naïve. Not long after she started her job, she fell in love with Caleb Harrison, a handsome young man who worked in the warehouse.
Caleb had a kind, mischievous smile, thick dark hair and an almost shy, guileless quality to his eyes. He was smart and sweet, a hard worker with a soft spot for pretty girls like Melissa. Once they got together, they were inseparable. Caleb would drive Melissa to and from work, and their co-workers would catch the couple making out in his car before and after their shifts. They took their lunches together, and Melissa would cook dinner for him every night. At 27, he was still boyish and playful, and he would tease her by farting in the lunchroom and holding her close while she squirmed.
That winter, there was a death in the Harrison family, and Melissa wanted to go to the funeral with Caleb, to support him and meet his relatives. It would mean that she’d need to take a day off work, and she was worried that her manager at My Favourite Doll would balk. So instead of asking for permission, she banked on forgiveness and left a message on her manager’s voicemail, telling her she would have to miss a day for the funeral. When the couple returned, Melissa was fired. She burst into tears, surrounded by Barbies. Caleb was furious and quit in solidarity.
Within a couple of years, they were married and had two children, a boy and a girl. Caleb was a devoted dad and even tattooed his kids’ names on his right shoulder. But his marriage to Melissa was a rocky one that soon dissolved into acrimony and violence. During an argument in 2005, Caleb hit her, and after spending three nights in jail was released on his own recognizance. The couple split, and he moved back home with his parents.
In July 2005, Caleb was invited to a keg party in Milton. He wasn’t going to drink—one of the conditions of his release was that he couldn’t consume alcohol. He had borrowed his mother’s Mercedes, and he told the three friends he was with that he’d be their designated driver. But Caleb liked to drink. He was working construction then, and after his shift he’d often unwind at the bar before going home to his parents’ house. He could usually handle his beer. Hard liquor, though, changed him. As the crickets sang into an empty suburban summer night, he allowed himself one drink. Then another. Then another. By the time he was ready to leave, he’d consumed nearly three times the legal limit. Caleb poured himself into his mother’s Mercedes. His friends realized he was too drunk to drive. They refused to get into the car and began walking home.
Caleb was alone, driving down Derry Road. Heading home in the other direction were four young men in a cab driven by Michael Rayment, a Milton taxi driver. As their headlights set upon each other, Caleb crossed the centre line and drifted into Rayment’s lane, colliding head-on with the taxi at 100 kilometres per hour. Rayment was killed. Tom Falinski, in the back seat, broke an arm and a leg, and fractured his spine from his L2 to his L4 vertebrae. Tim Corbett flew forward from the rear passenger seat face-first into the turnbuckle between the front and back doors, shearing his scalp cleanly off his skull from his eyebrow to his ear.
Both cars burst into flames. The other two passengers climbed out of the flaming taxi and into a ditch. As they stared back, their friends looked dead to them, slumped in the back seat with the fire closing in. Neighbours along Derry Road raced out at the sound of the accident, and pulled Corbett and Falinski from the taxi. And Caleb’s friends, who were just up the street and witnessed the crash, ran down Derry and pulled him from the very car they’d had the good sense to avoid.
Caleb’s leg was broken and he suffered a few bumps and bruises, but those injuries were minor compared to the ones he’d inflicted on others. He’d killed a man and brutally wounded two more. As the flames climbed above the wreckage, he couldn’t have known that by taking that first drink, he’d set into motion the events that would destroy his life, scattering his family like embers in the updraft.
Caleb Harrison was arrested, and charged with impaired driving causing death and bodily harm. He made bail, the strict conditions of which included house arrest at the family home on Pitch Pine Crescent in Mississauga, where his parents, Bridget and Bill Harrison, had lived for over 30 years. It was an airy six-bedroom modernist home with cathedral ceilings and high windows.
His mother, Bridget, was born in London, Ontario, in 1946. Stylish, adventurous and passionate, as a young woman she had been an accomplished actress, appearing on the London TV show Act Fast, as well as in plays at the Stratford Festival. It was backstage there in the early 1960s that she met her future husband, Bill, a Stratford native who worked in the costume department. Bill was athletic and handsome, with a magnetic smile and a taste for car racing and jazz. When they married in 1969, they moved to Mississauga. Bridget worked as a teacher, then as a principal, eventually serving on the Peel school board, and was beloved by her students and colleagues. Bill was an executive for Sobeys, and volunteered as a Big Brother and a Little League baseball coach. He had a green thumb and was the family gardener. The couple couldn’t have kids naturally, so they adopted Caleb in 1973, when he was six months old. Bill always called his son his best friend.
After Caleb’s accident, justice proceeded slowly, as it typically does in Ontario. His defence lawyer was unavailable to represent him at trial for a number of months, and then the judge presiding over the case fell ill. The trial was put off for another year, and then Caleb’s lawyer was again unavailable. When the preliminary hearing finally commenced, the Crown realized it hadn’t sent out summonses to a number of witnesses, and the case was postponed yet again. After a three-year delay, Caleb’s lawyer argued that his client’s Charter right to a speedy trial had been violated and that his case should be dropped. A judge dismissed the motion.
Melissa Merritt was outraged by Caleb’s car crash, taking it as proof that he was an unsuitable father. She became fiercely protective of her two kids. As both sides awaited the decision in the drunk-driving case, another judge had ruled that Caleb and Melissa would share custody of the children. Meanwhile, they had both fallen in love with people they’d met online. Caleb was dating Corinda McEwen, who had two children of her own. The Harrison family embraced her as one of them, and she became especially close with Bridget. She considered Caleb an excellent father—attentive, tender and always interested in talking things through with his kids.
Melissa, meanwhile, had started a relationship with Christopher Fattore, who worked as an occasional security guard. A Green Bay Packers fan, he was built like a linebacker himself. He was doting and protective, deeply loving toward Melissa and her children, and filled with loathing for Caleb Harrison. From his left elbow to his wrist, he had a tattoo that read, “Only the strong survive.” Melissa and Caleb never formally divorced, but she and Chris still held a ceremony of their own, Melissa in a white gown and Chris in a kilt and jacket. They plunged a knife together into a cake adorned with his-and-hers crowns, their hands entwined on the hilt. Chris later inked a wedding band around his ring finger, punctuating his arm like a period. Several months after the ceremony, Melissa and Chris welcomed their first child, a girl.
In the spirit of the icy Darwinian slogan on his forearm, Chris had taken it upon himself to create a Facebook page rallying for the stiffest possible sentence for Caleb. “This is Caleb Harrison,” Chris wrote, “the dick that killed someone drinking and driving. He’s, unfortunately, also my wife’s ex-husband.” He posted a doctored photo of Caleb with devil horns and menacing teeth, and a speech bubble coming out of his mouth that read: “Give me a beer and the keys to mommy’s Mercedes.” He saw Caleb Harrison as a dangerous, drunken rich kid who was imperilling the lives of the children Chris was now helping to raise. He was soliciting 100,000 signatures and asked people to forward the page to everyone they knew. “This man has gotten away with too much already in his life,” Chris wrote. “It can’t keep happening.”
As the impaired-driving trial dragged on, the acrimony between the two families crept to a crescendo. Melissa filed a number of complaints with both the Children’s Aid Society and the police about Caleb’s supposed ill-treatment of their children. Few of those allegations could be substantiated. A judge presiding over their custody dispute suggested that Melissa and Caleb communicate only in writing, to keep things civil, and so she became a prodigious letter writer. Bill and Bridget were actively involved in raising the kids, which irked Melissa. She accused the Harrisons of neglecting her daughter, which she called disgusting. She complained that she had to accommodate not just Caleb’s work schedule, but his parents’ as well, even though the children were supposed to be his responsibility. And she said when Caleb couldn’t care for his children, he’d dump them into the laps of other caregivers—their grandparents—which served only to estrange them from their own mother.
The battle started to get sinister when Melissa accused Bridget of writing Caleb’s letters for him and told her to butt out of their business. She accused the Harrisons of slapping her son and took it upon herself to withhold the children from the family, convinced she was doing her motherly duty by keeping them safe from a dangerous man and his enablers. But a judge intervened and upheld the shared custody ruling, adding a clause stating that the police should be notified if the Harrisons were denied access again.
During Caleb’s trial, Melissa and Chris would sit at the back of the courtroom and whisper to each other. On at least one occasion, they made faces at the Harrisons. As court adjourned, Melissa and Chris were scrummed in the hall by reporters and happily dished to the press. In the parking lot, the couple pulled their car in front of the Harrisons, sticking their tongues out. Caleb refused to engage with their histrionics, but Bridget was troubled by it all.
On March 9, 2009, Caleb was convicted of one count of impaired driving causing death and three counts of impaired driving causing bodily harm. The judge sentenced him to 18 months at Maplehurst. But if Melissa and Chris were hoping their custody battle was over now that Caleb was incarcerated, they were about to be sorely disabused. Bill and Bridget filed a motion to transfer Caleb’s custody rights to them while he was in prison. Less than two weeks after the sentencing, a judge granted the motion, writing that where Caleb’s name had been, Bill and Bridget Harrison’s would now appear.
Almost a month later, on April 16, Bridget came home late, around 9 p.m., from a school board meeting. The house was silent and dark, and Bill didn’t answer as she called his name. Minutes later, she found her husband. He was in the main-floor bathroom, with the lights off, dead. Bridget called 911. “He’s not breathing,” she said to the dispatcher. “He’s not breathing. Oh my god.” He appeared to have removed his wedding ring and crucifix necklace, taken out his Swiss Army knife, and brought blood pressure and pain medication with him into the bathroom. One of the officers at the scene, a rookie in his second year, wrote in his notebook: “Sudden death, doesn’t appear to be any foul play.”
It so happened that in the days leading up to Bill Harrison’s death, his grandchildren, unbeknownst to him or anyone else in the Harrison family, had told their teachers that they were going on a trip. On the very same day that Bill died, in contravention of a custody order, Chris and Melissa packed up their home, dyed their kids’ hair, unplugged from the grid and disappeared.
The birth of modern forensic pathology in Canada coincided with the death of Bill Harrison. Most of the developed world started training forensic pathologists in the 1960s and ’70s. It took Canada 40 more years to train our first. The only reason Ontario eventually modernized the discipline of forensic pathology was because of the catastrophic failings of one man who purported to practise it: Charles Smith. Tall and trim, bespectacled with prematurely graying hair that gave him an aura of authority, Smith was a pediatric pathologist at SickKids hospital in Toronto from 1981 to 2005. He had no training or accreditation as a forensic pathologist, but by the 1990s he had come to be regarded as an expert in the field.
What’s the difference between a pathologist and a forensic pathologist? The former studies the living, and the latter studies the dead. Forensic pathology has its own body of knowledge, professional training, medical journals, conferences, and more. And yet, in 1992, Smith was named director of the Ontario Pediatric Forensic Pathology Unit, not because of his qualifications—he had none—but because he was the only one willing to take the job.
Smith had declared himself the leading mind in his discipline, and his authority went unchallenged for a quarter-century. He lectured extensively—to police, to coroners, to Crown prosecutors—about a science he didn’t understand. But his methods revealed his near-total ignorance of forensic pathology. He almost never visited the scene of the death he was investigating, the elementary first step. He would rarely collect germane medical information of the person whose autopsy he was performing, and the data he did bother to gather was disorganized. And he took great interest in the deceased’s so-called “social history”—the details of their personal lives that rarely had any scientific bearing.
Though Smith was little more than an avid amateur at forensic pathology, his findings or testimony at trial often sealed the fate of a criminal defendant. In one horrifying case, Smith determined a man named William Mullins-Johnson had sexually assaulted and strangled his niece while babysitting her. He was convicted and served 12 years in prison before his wrongful conviction was overturned. In 2007, the Office of the Chief Coroner conducted a review of the homicides and criminally suspicious deaths that Smith had overseen, and found that in 20 of the 45 cases, his testimony or report was suspect. A dozen of those cases resulted in a criminal conviction. Smith’s career ended in abject disgrace.
A public inquiry was commissioned in 2007 to survey the state of pediatric forensic pathology in Ontario, headed by Justice Stephen Goudge. His findings came to be known as the Goudge Inquiry. One of its key recommendations was the creation of the Ontario Forensic Pathology Service, an oversight body for forensic pathologists. The plan was set into motion mere months before Bill Harrison’s body was discovered locked in a darkened bathroom. He received “a non-forensic autopsy,” conducted by what’s called a “community-based pathologist,” with no specialty certification in advanced post-mortems. And even though Bill had a fractured sternum, and bruises on his head, face and neck, the pathologist nonetheless decided that he had died of a cardiac arrhythmia—that the heart of a hale, athletic 64-year-old man had suddenly stopped for no reason. He was cremated, and Bridget interred her beloved husband five days after he died, on April 22. With his body no longer available as evidence, Bill Harrison returned to dust.
The flowers didn’t bloom anymore at the Harrison house after Bill, the family gardener, died. For Bridget, the promise of spring still seemed a long way off. In the back of her mind, she couldn’t put to rest the sense that the police and the coroner were wrong about Bill’s death, and that Melissa’s disappearance the same day Bill died was more than just a coincidence. Caleb was still serving out his sentence, but Bridget’s grandchildren were missing. The day after her husband’s funeral, she went to court, and a judge granted her temporary sole custody of them, wherever they may be. A month went by, and the police still had no trace of them. Another month came and went. On June 15, only three months into his 18-month sentence, Caleb was paroled and returned home.
Meanwhile, Melissa and Chris had made a life for themselves and their three kids in the tiny village of Londonderry, Nova Scotia, a once-bustling steel town whose population crashed to little over 200 after the mills closed a hundred years ago. There, Melissa gave birth to her fourth child—her second with Chris. He’d assumed a new identity, and it was only when he accidentally delivered a rent cheque in his own name that police found them. Melissa was arrested on November 27, 2009, and charged with parental abduction. As a condition of her bail, she was barred from having any contact with Caleb or their two children. Not only did she lose the children she’d fought so hard to keep, but she’d also have to stand trial.
On the couple’s computer, someone had been doing some alarming googling:
“What if a grandparent has legal custody and they die?”
“Legal custody and they die”
“If a grandparent has custody of the children and they die, which of the parents get the kids?”
“Bridget Harrison, Mississauga”
They had even googled how long it took someone to die from being choked. On April 10, 2010, Caleb and Bridget spotted Melissa and Chris outside their house, a violation of her bail conditions. Again, she was arrested, and again she was released on bail. A few days later, on the anniversary of Bill’s death, friends and family gathered in the house on Pitch Pine Crescent to grieve and celebrate his life.
Bridget was set to testify at Melissa Merritt’s parental-abduction trial on April 22. She had written a victim impact statement on the hellish year that had started with a hellish day—the death of her husband and the abduction of her grandchildren at virtually the same moment. “Some people believe in coincidences,” she wrote. “Some do not.”
The day before the trial date, Bridget dropped off her grandchildren at school and Caleb at work. When her grandson returned home later that afternoon, he found her lifeless body at the bottom of the stairs, her skin waxy and discoloured, feet from where she’d found her husband just a year before. Her grandson raced across the street to a neighbour’s and called 911. A paramedic named Patrick Morin responded, and found Bridget’s body at the foot of the stairs with her head resting on the bottom step, abrasions visible on her chin and ear. She was fully dressed, wearing a pair of Crocs, with her glasses and purse scattered before her. It looked like she’d been heading out the door.
Bridget had a broken neck, several broken ribs and evidence of neck compression, which suggested she was asphyxiated. Police interviewed Caleb, and he asked them to look closely at Melissa and Chris. But the forensic pathologist who performed her autopsy was still completing the training that the Goudge Inquiry had recently recommended. Bridget Harrison’s death was ruled suspicious—as opposed to natural—but not a homicide.
Caleb was nearly broken by his mother’s death, and he slipped into a depression. He separated from Corinda and started to drink again. But his love for his children buoyed him. Five days after his mother was found at the bottom of the stairs, he was awarded temporary sole custody. Melissa would be allowed to see them only during supervised visits.
Melissa and Chris and their own growing family left Mississauga for Perth County, near London, Ontario, where they rented a farm, and Chris got a job at a poultry plant. They lived in a little brick house with a wooden screen door painted blue. They had two dogs, a guinea pig and a rabbit. They raised goats and pigs, which delighted Melissa, and from the milk they made cheese and lotions. They were obsessed with the idea of being self-sufficient, of producing everything they needed themselves. Melissa had a knack for crafts. She made taffy and candles at home, and crocheted bookmarks, bow ties and what she called apple cozies, which would protect apples from getting bruised. She sold them on her Etsy store, called The Good Ol’ Days.
She started a blog, writing one day about a cold that swept through the house: “Two adults and five kids all laying around the house suffering from cold symptoms. We did nothing but whine and complain to each other comparing who felt worse. I still say it was me because sick or not mommy still needs to take care of everyone.” Their days weren’t entirely carefree. Every so often, they would search for news online about Bill and Bridget Harrison, and one of them used the computer to google: “how to tell if your phone is tapped.”
Despite whatever suspicions Caleb may have had, he volunteered to give Melissa unsupervised access to their children. The kids would stay with Chris and Melissa and their half-siblings in Perth for a week, then come back to the house in Mississauga for a week. The couple were doting and playful parents, taking the kids to water parks, Niagara Falls and restaurants. Melissa would do crafts with them all, and Chris even put together a “Harlem Shake” video of the blended clan.
Early in the morning of March 1, 2012, when Melissa was five months pregnant with her sixth child, she and Chris awoke to rattling at their bedroom door and smoke pouring in underneath it. They grabbed the children from their beds and escaped out their bedroom window. The fire had started in the living room, and consumed their beloved little bungalow and all its contents, killing their dogs, the guinea pig and the rabbit. They moved into a hotel and started a GoFundMe page, which raised only about 10 per cent of the $50,000 they had hoped to recover.
Making matters worse, the tenuous détente between Melissa and Caleb began to collapse. She and Chris had found a new place to live, back in Mississauga. But Caleb had decided that he no longer wanted Melissa to have unsupervised access to their children. August 22, 2013, was to be the family’s last night alone together. Video footage from that day shows Melissa and Chris going to Walmart to buy a pair of men’s sneakers.
Caleb, meanwhile, was trying to be a good father. He was back with Corinda, and he had a steady job at CMC Electronics. He still couldn’t drive, but he’d arranged for a neighbour to take the kids, now 10 and 12, to and from school. He brought them to the park most days and even volunteered as their baseball coach, just as his own dad had done for him. He was doing the best he could, confiding to a friend that he was depressed, but not suicidal.
On August 22, Caleb took the kids to their baseball game, then dropped them off with Melissa. Corinda was supposed to go to the game that night and then stay over, but she was behind on an online course she was taking and didn’t trust the spotty Internet at Caleb’s house. He called her that night around 11. He sounded drunk and said he was going to put on a movie. They fought over the phone, about money and the house. When they hung up, Caleb turned off his phone, as he did every night. He was a light sleeper.
In the middle of the night, Christopher Fattore, wearing latex gloves and the shoes he’d bought the day before, arrived at Caleb’s house. He got inside using a key he’d stolen from Melissa’s eldest son. He crept past the bathroom where Bill Harrison had been found, then up the stairs where Bridget had lain, and arrived at Caleb’s bedroom. It was filthy—Caleb didn’t want his cleaning lady to tidy up the bedroom, and a layer of dust and dog hair carpeted the floor. Standing over Caleb as he slept, the colossal man delivered a thunderous punch to his victim’s chest. Caleb shot up, and the two started to struggle. Caleb, drunk and tiny next to Chris, stood no chance. Chris threw him like a rag doll into the shelves beside his bed. In his final moments, Caleb begged for his life, offering his attacker money. But Chris didn’t say a word. Caleb clawed at him, to no effect. Chris clamped his hands around Caleb’s neck—just above where he’d tattooed his children’s names—and squeezed.
The cleaning lady had been at the house for hours when Caleb’s colleague came by at around lunchtime, concerned that he had missed work without so much as a phone call. He figured that Caleb was still sleeping and knocked on the bedroom door. “I’m scared, I’m scared,” the housekeeper said. They let themselves in to find Caleb’s body in his bed. The co-worker kept repeating Caleb’s name, putting his fingers to his friend’s neck. It was as cold as clay. The cleaner asked over and over if he was okay. When the paramedics arrived, one of them was Patrick Morin, who thought: “I’ve been here before.” He was the same paramedic who had responded to the scene when Bridget Harrison died.
Unlike Bill’s and Bridget’s deaths, Caleb’s was very quickly determined to be a homicide, by asphyxiation. And that was in no small part because, finally, a fully trained and certified forensic pathologist had performed the post-mortem on a member of the Harrison family. Suddenly, the three deaths of the three Harrisons, an entire nuclear family, required a wholesale re-evaluation. This was no longer an investigation of a single homicide, but two, and then three.
The police began surveilling Melissa and Chris almost immediately. The DNA found under Caleb’s fingernails matched Christopher Fattore, and undercover officers tailed him as he ran errands, drinking from a cup of Tim Hortons coffee. When he discarded it, an officer surreptitiously retrieved it. Another cop, posing as a waste collector, rode the back of a garbage truck as it ran its route past the Fattore home in Mississauga. One of the trash bags contained the shoes that Chris had bought at Walmart, whose soles were covered in dog hair, and latex gloves that had Caleb’s DNA on the outside and Chris’s on the inside. At the house on Pitch Pine Crescent, investigators found the tempestuous correspondence between Melissa and the Harrisons.
Melissa tried to go to Caleb’s wake, but was turned away by his family and friends. As the authorities built their case, she and her family planned to start over one last time. Now that Caleb was dead, the Harrison line of custody extinguished, Melissa had their children exclusively, and her family was complete. They moved back to Nova Scotia, near the sea.
In November, as the winter finally threatened, the family went to a nearby beach famous for the sea glass that washes up, the cutting edges dulled by wave after wave after wave, made good by the awesome indifference of the ocean. This one looked like a spade from a playing card. That one looked like a heart. They collected all the broken pieces, put them in a Mason jar, and made what had been ruined beautiful again.
A few months later, in January 2014, Detective Phil King from Peel Region flew to Nova Scotia and, with officers from the local RCMP dispatch, drove to the Fattore house on Isner Diversion Road. He had warrants to arrest both Melissa and Chris for Bridget and Caleb’s murders while the police continued to investigate Bill’s death. Chris walked out onto the porch as they arrived. He was arrested without a struggle, but he was so huge that they had to handcuff him using leg irons. Melissa too was arrested, and they were brought to the local station and put into separate interrogation rooms.
In hers, Melissa doubled over and wept. Chris’s interrogation room was no bigger than a bathroom, eight feet by six, windowless, lit fluorescently from above, with concrete walls and a green floor, just big enough to fit him and his interrogator, Phil King, sitting knee-to-knee. After 13 full hours of interrogation, with a catch in his voice, Chris finally told the detective: “I didn’t like Caleb Harrison.” Trying one last time to save his wife, he said: “I’m telling you right now that Melissa Merritt did not know anything until after it was done.”
“What did you do?” King asks.
Video of the interrogation shows Chris staring down at his huge hands folded in front of him. He inhales, then sighs for what feels like forever, and doesn’t look up. Finally, to his interlocked fingers, he says: “I killed Bridget Harrison and Caleb Harrison.”
In January 2018, a jury foreman stood in a Brampton courtroom and read the verdicts in the Harrison murders. Christopher Fattore and Melissa Merritt were found guilty of the murder of Caleb Harrison. Chris was also found guilty of murdering Bridget Harrison. The jury could not come to a verdict on the first-degree murder charge Melissa faced in the death of Bridget Harrison, and so the court declared a mistrial. And in the death of Bill Harrison, Chris, who alone faced a second-degree murder charge, was found not guilty due to insufficient evidence. The children were sent to live with the Merritt family, and both Melissa and Chris received life sentences, with no chance of parole for 25 years; they say they’re planning to appeal. The Peel police are conducting an internal review of the case, to determine whether or not mistakes were made in the three investigations. But that doesn’t satisfy the surviving members of the Harrison family, who are calling for a public inquiry.
In court, Chris and Melissa would stare at each other and give tender, even ironic smiles. They were clearly still very much in love. One day, the jury heard a recording taken just after their arrests, when they were being flown back to Ontario. Police put them in a room together that unbeknownst to them was bugged.
“What did you tell them?” Melissa asked.
“I’m taking the rap for it to get you a lesser—to give you accessory after the fact,” Chris said. “I told them I told you after.”
“Why did you do that?”
“Because I want you to get our children,” he said.
This story originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.